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Asia travel

Malaysia’s George Town Festival staying small but growing up fast

Event has put Penang on the radar of international artists, fostered the island’s cultural growth and, in the space of seven years, produced a legacy of public art where previously there was none

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 April, 2016, 6:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 April, 2016, 6:16am

The executive director of the George Town Festival in Penang, Joe Sidek, is brutally honest about the difference between his event and the much bigger ones in Asian regional centres.

“We can’t compare with Hong Kong or Singapore on money and structure,” he says. “But what we have are stories.”

Many of the stories from the Malaysian island are like that of Sidek himself. A former textile industrialist, Sidek found his true calling outside the family business. Excited by his hometown being declared an Unesco heritage site (in 2008) and about its budding cultural scene, he founded the George Town Festival in 2010.

The 2016 edition, which runs from July 29 to August 28, will be headlined by international acts, but 58 per cent of the acts will be from Penang. The festival is developing its own voice and distinct identity.

I have never thought about themes ... The five words I always use to guide me in [what I look for] are quirky, sexy, intriguing, relevant and inspiring
Joe Sidek

It’s still relatively small-scale, but resonates like no other event in Malaysia – partly because Sidek is downright evangelical in promoting the George Town arts scene. The festival has made a star of Penang in the process. As a result, more artists are finding their way there.

“My first five-year plan was just to brand the festival and build local content,” Sidek says. “The focus has always been about the community and spaces [or the lack thereof]. I was rather rushed into starting the festival, as I was given six weeks and very little funding in 2010, but it has become my calling of sorts.

“I have never thought about themes – never been clever enough. I always see [programming] like me being a little boy and every year wanting to share new toys, visuals and experiences that I am very fortunate to experience. The five words I always use to guide me in [what I look for] are quirky, sexy, intriguing, relevant and inspiring.”

The best example of the burgeoning festival’s legacy is the Ernest Zacharevic wall drawings across George Town. Commissioned for the 2012 festival, the Lithuanian-born, Penang-based artist’s sketches and vignettes on shop rows and alley walls have become landmarks.

Night and day, tourists line up for selfies in front of them. Not a bad first step for a town that previously had no public art or graffiti whatsoever.

But to build its audience and make itself relevant to George Town, the festival needs world-class shows with brand appeal. Sidek has attracted his share of international acts for this year’s event.

Among them is Akram Khan’s dance piece Kaash, an all-star collaboration with a set built by artist Anish Kapoor and music composed by Nitin Sawhney. The movements are a daring amalgam of contemporary dance and the classical Indian kathak dance form. Also performing is Canadian acrobatic circus-dance troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, who will stage the Asian premiere of Triptyque.

Another Southeast Asia premiere, Smashed by Britain’s Gandini Jugglers – who performed at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2015 – incorporates a lot of apples and is darker than you might expect a juggling show to be. Also from Britain is physical theatre ensemble Gecko, who will perform Missing, a multilingual, multimedia meditation on female identity.

The Indonesian and Taiwanese performers of Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre will show Chinese puppetry art in a new light, outside its normal temple confines. There will be an exhibition by Penang urban sketch artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean and installations including Korean artist Lee Lee-nam’s Good Morning Digital, juxtaposing traditional water-ink paintings with digital video overlays.

A+SEAN will be a showcase of Australian and Southeast Asian nations’ music, design and products.

Perhaps the most highly anticipated presentation is that of Dutch “mad scientist” Theo Jansen, who will bring to George Town three of his massive Strandbeest creations. Videos of his kinetic sculptures have been watched by millions on YouTube. The structures are made of a plastic tube skeleton, move with the wind and are magnificent monsters of artistic engineering and a fantastical imagination.

“Every young kid who wants to understand why science is sexy should come watch this,” Sidek says of his programming coup.

With only one proper theatre available in Penang, what the George Town Festival does best is use the city as an artistic canvas. From walls to cafes to public libraries, Sidek is not afraid to occupy his own town. This year is no exception.

A play commissioned by Singaporean actors Lim Yu Beng and Tan Kheng Hua will be staged in Penang’s top luxury colonial hotel. Pearl Of The Eastern & Oriental is set in the eponymous hotel, which opened in 1885. This is the equivalent of the Hong Kong Arts Festival putting on a show inside The Peninsula hotel.

Equally audacious is the multidisciplinary project Moved By Padi. Led by Malaysian curator Aida Redza, the music, dance and art installation will be a contemporary reinvention of ancient rituals and celebrations associated with the rice harvest. The really cool part is that they will cultivate a paddy field in the middle of George Town.

As busy as he is, Sidek has no regrets about abandoning his comfortable top-floor corporate office for George Town Festival’s messy street-front headquarters.

“I have never been happier,” he says. “As stressed and difficult as the journey is, I am really excited about the road ahead.”

A complete festival schedule will be announced later in May. For more information, go to