Arts for All

Blog by Veronica Shunmugam - Malaysian, award-winning arts writer and former editor of Malaysia's leading arts and culture news website, and classical soprano.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Helming change.

Yup, no more lazing about when it comes to blogging. I can no longer fall back on the excuse of being a print journalist for I am now editor of Malaysia's leading arts and culture news website, and all that it stands for - a free space for the kind of critical arts documentation and dialogue that we need so much of in Malaysia.

The first two weeks have been fun since my new colleagues are people I've known from before I joined. It was a return - in more ways than one - to full-time arts writing and the immersion into the arts world here.

In the time that I was away, a good friend sent me an application form for some arts writing fellowship - the very existence of which I have never allowed myself to consider, what with my scrapes and ensuing distrust of (local) arts academia. But apply, I did, knowing that the application in itself would be an exercise in self- and external assessment. My application did not make the final cut but there was the surprise of some encouraging jottings handwritten by one of the main judges in the reply letter.

My father and husband said that I ought not to be so surprised at such a note. But, truth be told, I know that arts writing has a long way to go before it meets the standards practised in societies where personal liberties are a top priority. The self-reflection that went into that application opened up windows I had never really taken a good look through in all my rushing about to get the messages of as many artists as I could to as many readers as I could.

About two months later, the arts world lost Redza Piyadasa , a reference point (to quote from sketch artist speak) in regional visual arts. At the time, I thought that I would have nothing left to write after wringing myself silly for a multitude of angles on such a broad range of art events and personalities. But then, I received a request for a tribute to Piyadasa from the semi-academic arts journal FOCAS (published by The Substation, Singapore). Three days later, after I had pored through pages of writings on and interviews with Piyadasa, and after discussions with FOCAS' editors, I found a voice I had never allowed to emerge in all my eight years of arts writing.

Attending a day-long seminar held at R A Fine Arts in tribute to the seminal artist gave me a new aim in an activity I once saw as a way of helping my family get through the debilitating effects of 1997 Asian financial crisis and, at best, contributing whatever little I could to the arts from the sidelines.

Arts writing is a powerful tool of both the arts and the media. Like how the late Krishen and Piyadasa strove to show, arts criticism can put things in perspective for arts people and steer the course of arts history.

Of course, such writing can only grow in tandem with critical thought and a freer press.

With these recent experiences and revisited thoughts, I submit myself again to the discipline of arts writing, the rigour demanded of it by those like Krishen and Piyadasa, and the possibilities of cyberspace.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A pause for, not of, tradition.

OK. Like, this is the longest period yet I've been away frm my blog. Reason: My seven-ceremony, week-long, multi-cultural wedding that took place in December 2006!

What a lot of fun but what a lot of work too. With both my husband and me being ever fascinated with history and Asian family ties, a wedding that paid homage to our cultural traditions and religious practices was important.

At one point, though, I did wonder whether we should have taken on all the stress and expenses that come with a multi-cultural wedding. Very few of our close friends, most of whom married someone of the same race and/or religion, realised that it meant more than one wedding ceremony and dining events - we had three wedding ceremonies and five dining events - and that meant we needed a LOT of RELIABLE help. Not the usual line of "If you need any help, call me" but instead, the "OK, I'll be there" and "Hi! I'm here. What can I do to help?".

In a way, it was symptomatic of how traditional family and friendship ties have eroded in our fast-paced, urbane world. Yeah, there were a lot of disadvantages in our parents' and grandparents' younger days but when it came to weddings, kinsmen and friends would join in the preparation with all its frustrations and merriment. To experience how that has changed in just one generation was an education for me, my hubby and our parents as well as a few reliable friends who were, at the time, also looking at the prospect of getting hitched.

In the end, however, the excitement and smiles of our guests - who came all the way from the north and south of the peninsula, east Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, UK, USA and Canada - made it all worthwhile!

And the photos of our Chinese and Punjabi dinner guests watching for the first time an Odissi dance - performed by dance teachers and led by Geetha Sankaran-Lam of the Temple of Fine Arts Kuala Lumpur, my Chinese friends looking so pretty in their first Punjabi suits at our gurdwara (Sikh temple) wedding as well as my hubby's family members listening in awe to my soprano friends during our Catholic wedding - a first for several of them - indeed paint a thousand words about how weddings are just one of those things that are meant to bring people together.

Here's to more multi-cultural weddings in Malaysia and all the forging-of-community-ties that these bring. I swear it is a lot more fun that Pendidikan Moral (Moral Studies) and whatnot!

Monday, September 18, 2006

At last ...

... time to post an entry after nearly four months!

I now sit at a different keyboard, computer, desk, a whole different office at The Edge where I moved to on Sept 1 after a collective period of eight years at The Star.

I didn't have a break in between - my last day at The Star was on Merdeka Day, Aug 31 - as I liked the idea of jumping in straight away. For an arts writer, even a two week break can be disruptive. Either you return feeling numbed at the sight of presskits and invites piled on your desk, or a quarter of your "holiday" would've been spent taking noting down and plan coverage for events as the calls come in regardless.

At Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge, I'm still writing for the visual and performing arts, although there will be an emphasis on the latter akin to my time at Sunday Plus (the predecessor of StarMag, the previous publication I wrote for). So far, so good. Churned out three stories in my first week and a cover in my second week, during which I also covered Coach's 65th anniversary celebrations in Tokyo, Japan.

Most of my mini arts library has found it's nook on, in and under my new desk. A whole sack of accumulated presskits and reference info got thrown out in the moving process - good! One or two stacks are still in my study room at home.

I've also put up most of my office desk mementoes - a "geram" photo of my dog Bambino as a pink-tummied puppy on the home couch, a postcard dated Oct 15, 1995, from my old school friend Mulaika showing Monet's Sea Coast at Trouville (1881) from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, a mini aboriginal canvas dot painting Minymaku Tjukurpa (Women's Story) by Widjawara - also from Mulaika, "bird of love" and pheasant clay sculptures and a wooden giraffe sculpture from my Cape Townian foster parents Armien Fayker and Aunty Zee, a bead bracelet from a Ndelembele craftswoman in South Africa, a mini bronze baby grand from my fellow soprano and neighbour Lisan, a mini replica of the Liberty Bell (of Philadelphia, the original commemorated the Charter of Privileges issued by US statesman William Penn in 1701), a "bottoms-up" paper clip holder and magnet from my godfather Unc Mervyn, Greek comboloy worry beads from my former colleague the famous film critic Allan Koay, a castle-inscribed coaster from Carcassone La Porte d'Aude from my former colleage and forever buddy (Star's Education desk chief reporter, no less!) Simrit Kaur!

It's certainly beginning to look like home here on my new desk! Hopefully, it won't be another four months to my next posting :)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Now is the month of Maying ...

... thus goes the opening of an English folk song I learnt for my first university choir performance, a full ten years ago now.

Everything (including my impactful uni years) starts happening in May. Or so it seems from where I sit, sifting through the tons of media kits and invites for art events that besiege my desk more than ever come each May.

It's like everyone wants to have an exhibition or performance in May and June! August and September seem to be the other two months when, more than ever, there is simply not enough newspaper space for the arts.

For one, there's the Singapore Arts Festival from end May onwards, and the upcoming Penang-YTL Arts Festival (sorry, guys, the link I got couldn't be opened and I haven't got anything in the mail yet ... hmm, Malaysia Boleh?).

This week is when I get cracking on a publicity feature for the Singapore Arts Festival; the folks down south are going more interactive than before, which I think is a superb way of reaching out to more people.

At the risk of sounding like an ad man for their (ooo ... jealous!) National Arts Council, I'd say it would be a good idea to check out their website and join in one of the real time chats with artists taking part.

At home, there's the second session of the Instant Cafe Theatre Playwriting Workshop that I'll be attending this weekend. The playwright-director-actor Nam Ron is "presiding" over this session. Can't wait.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Artsy fartsy lawyers

My previous week concerned two artsy-fartsy "lawyers".

The first was the wanton, wantan mee-slurping Selena Tan of the Singapore stand-up comedy Wanton Me! that is going to be performed at The Actors Studio Bangsar next Tue onwards.

And the second mad hatter was my younger sister Priscilla who promptly took off in a hot air ballon with a few friends after completing their final paper of their final year at the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Btw, Selena is also from NUS ... makes one wonder ...


Friday, April 28, 2006

Time for oneself, time for others.

Here I am, back after a long leave. Of late, I have refused to attend to anything to do with work during my off days and leave. It hasn't been easy - many arts people here know that they can call me even at 1 am on a Sat night and I will get, at the very least, a listing out for them. So, I've had to re-train myself to say "Sorry, I am on leave. The best I can do is direct you to my editor or assistant editor."

Why the new measure? Because I've come to realise that everyone needs breaks now and then, even artists/arts people like me who are prone to obsessing about whatever it is that they are working on. And sometimes, an artist just needs to have time for herself, to unravel the ideas she's always had to put on the shelf.

I can say for sure that, in terms of having the time and energy to develop on your ideas, there's quite a huge price to pay if you're always running around trying to make sure there's a enough of a news platform for everyone else's ideas.

Being selfish was among some of the subject matters celebrated painter David Hockney covered during a lunch time art talk as part of the 2004/05 Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative in New York last December. The talk, that he gave together with his protege Matthias Weischer, was featured in last Sunday's StarMag and was the last of four articles I wrote on the initiative.

Wise words from an artist who has seen much of life. Comforting words when you feel those pangs of guilt because you've "ponteng" (played truant on) yet another chatter and cigarette smoke-filled exhibition opening!

And, yes, I did have my five seconds with the man - happened to take the lift down with him at Prentis Hall, Columbia Uni, NY, but suddenly felt very small and as though part of some surreal painting, and sunk further into my winter coat and happily pretended not to understand English. Oh yes, these sort of "stage fright" moments can still happen to journos, believe me!

Back home, we have our own arts icons. One such person is Faridah Merican, now (finally) a Datuk for all the time and energy she has given to paving the way for other artists and arts workers; hmmm .... very different, in this way, from Mr Hockney. Yesterday, she was honoured as one of five career moms/women entrepeneurs by Avon Cosmetics at the Westin Hotel Kuala Lumpur. And today, the photo of her with her award made front page in The Star - an achievement for arts stories, I can tell you!

Congratulations to the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Sharing gems of moments

Has anyone seen the recent BBC World TV ads of the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative ? Boy, this is one unbelievably generous arts programme! I was in New York in early Dec to cover the closing of the 2004/05 cycle and the launch of the ongoing third cycle, and I came back with a renewed sense of awe and urgency at what needs to and can be done for arts patronage.

Filmaker Mira Nair and protege Aditya Assarat gave me a 20-minute one-to-one interview that translated to a fantastic three-page spread (!) in StarMag in January this year.

In early March, StarMag published a two-page spread that came from my interview with the bubbly and gifted mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, and my few but treasured moments with her mentor Jessye Norman at the launch dinner at New York’s Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts.

And last Sunday, StarMag had my story on the dance workshop choreographer Saburo Teshigawara and dancer Junaid Jemal Sendi gave at Barnard College, Columbia University.

I hope I've managed to translate most of the experience of seeing, listening, meeting and speaking to these artists into stories for the paper and readers. Some part of me feels that I will never be able to share all of what I felt.

Throw in bumping into and chatting with playwright Ariel Dorfman (whose play Death and The Maiden was one of the first stage dramas I saw; it was staged by Dramalab with Jo Kukathas as the "maiden" Paulina Salas in a small auditorium in RHB (?) Jalan Tun Razak), watching the premiere of Tshepang by South African playwright Lara Foot Newton at Columbia University's Miller Theatre, being in a rusty lift with painter David Hockney and dining next to Mira Nair, and author Toni Morrison, and what can one do except be stuck in a starstruck state?

What I do know is that I've got enough inspiration to last me a few years without another overseas work trip!

As an arts writer in Malaysia, I don't travel as often as journos from the entertainment or fashion fields. More than anything else, it's part of the deal. If I travel to write about stuff outside, I inevitably miss out on or can't give my time to what's happening inside.

Arts isn't on the top of a newspaper's priority list, understandably so in a developing country. The Star, the paper I work for, does make a real effort though and has possibly the most number of pages and hacks to cover the arts.

Whatever limited page space is first given to artists, events and issues in Malaysia as a way of encouraging local arts. So, even if I got invited to cover an international arts event, my write-up of it would normally be published after considering page space allocated to Malaysian arts.

The Rolex thing, however, has been something I've truly enjoyed writing about. Feel really blessed to have been even a tiny part of it.