Nov 15, 2013

A Village of Artists

The sun beat down mercilessly as I crossed the road. I wanted to ask the Malay girl about the mystery art installations in Kuala Selangor.

I tak tau lah, I bukan orang sini, I sewa saje. Boleh pergi tanya orang cina kat belakang sana, mungkin mereka tau.

Thanking her, I cautiously drove into the small housing area. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and the streets were empty. Indeed, it seemed to be a Chinese community. 
But who would be out in this weather? 

Suddenly, I spotted a man in his thirties, locking the gate of his one-storey home, with someone I presumed was his wife waiting in an idling black Myvi. I weighed my chances.

Should be safe to approach.
a lone motorcyclist going up the cyclists' bridge over Sungai Buloh, or Bamboo River.
“Hi sir, I just want to ask about those iron art things outside by the road. Do you know anything about them?”

“Oh, those are the artworks by our local arts association. They’re just nearby—Hey!”

Yes. Finally, someone who knew something. He waved to someone behind me and I turned around.

“He’s a member of our arts association. He can help you out.”

In what seems to be perfect timing, a slightly plump man in a bright yellow shirt rode up on his motorbike, sweating heavily.

“Hey, this girl here is looking for information on the art things. Why not you bring her to the association?”

With a earnest smile, the new guy eagerly said, “Ah yes, I’m a member of the arts association. You can drive right, follow my bike ok?”
With no time to lose, I trailed his bike for about 500 meters to another quiet shop lot. A huge pink paper fish hung outside a closed shop. Seemed legit. There was no need to bolt after all. 

After parking, he led me to a coffee shop where a bunch of uncles were having their lunch.

It was all very surreal, with a chorus of “Yes yes we’re the local arts association, how can we help you”, etc, I can't believe that I would actually get to meet the guys behind the whole movement!

tiny fungi flourishing on the installation.
A quiet, bespectacled man stood up, and my guide introduced him as the chairperson of the association.

They had just finished lunch, and he readily agreed to an interview. He led the short walk back to the shop with the pink paper fish and unlocked the grilles.

“This is our studio.”

This was unbelievable!
Light streamed in the studio (or workshop depending on what you want to call it), stacked red plastic chairs, huge canvas paintings stand propped up against walls, crusty dabs of paint on the easel, wire sculptures casually sit next to the telephone. Someone has swept the place recently. 

I walked around, admiring his works and newspaper clippings.
You painted this? I ask.

“Those are my works. Those abstract ones are more popular. People don’t like big weird eyes staring at them in their homes.”

How about that paper fish?

“Some of the villagers made it for the mid-autumn lantern festival.”
That, is the story of how I met these guys who dared to dream something big for their little village. 

Sad to say, I’m terribly ignorant and said many a stupid comment. “You’re an artist? You actually live here?”

HAHAHA. so embarrassing. 
constructivist steel sculpture by Thai artist Natthapon Muangkliang
His name is Ng Bee. He reminds me of a friend’s dad. Although his hair is graying, he seems really young and energetic; my guess is that he’s in his late forties. He wore a crumpled formal grey shirt, oddly paired with baggy black and orange basketball shorts. During the interview, my pen ran out of ink. 

Then his committee members dropped by, all happy to share stories about their arts festival.

It was in 2008 that Ng proposed the idea of an artists’ workshop in the local primary school. Although the villagers didn’t entirely understand whatever that art thing is, they went ahead, and 34 artists came at his invitation. 

From China, Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, there were nine countries in all.
cracked leather seats on a plastic tugboat-like installation
It was difficult. Apart from the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, no one had ever attempted something like this before. 

An international artists' workshop in a Malaysian village? Unheard of. 

Other than a tiny mention in Nanyang Daily, they had zero publicity. More importantly, for Ng, the villagers became enthusiastic. 

It was something new to them.
butterfly hunting in the sun-drenched art park
As the artists worked on their paintings or sculptures, villagers were encouraged to ask questions and even help out. For example, a Thai artist designed the sculptures while the village men pitched in to weld it together.

How about the village youths? 

“On the first day, those young kids who volunteered to help out; they were all focused on their phones, what you call the 'Lowered Head Syndrome'. They left before the event ended. They wanted to go home two hours earlier.”

He smiled. “The next day onwards, they didn’t want to leave at all. When they started to learn about art, they loved it. ‘Give us more time! Give us more time!’ they would say.”



"Art changes people"


“Art changes people.” Ng was adamant. “I wanted to bring art into my village.”

The vice chairperson is Mr. Lo, an extremely soft spoken man with thinning hair. 

“I knew nothing about art. I’m a businessman, you see. When Ng (we knew each other since childhood, it’s a small town) asked me to help him, I tried my best.”



"What is installation art?"


Ng chipped in, “You know, at the beginning, he (Lo) bugged me for the WHOLE month. What is performing art? What is sculpture? What is installation art?”

Laughing, he added, “Now he knows as much as I do, maybe even more!”

In 2009, the Sasaran Arts Association was born. Well-known local writer Duo La bestowed them with a Chinese name: 傻傻然. 

Pronounced Sha-Sha-Ran,  (sha) means foolish, and  (ran) means nevertheless

“She said, ‘You people are really brave hor? Going ahead and doing things like this?’”

“We liked it. It sounded like us, doing things that seem brave and foolish. So Sha-sha-ran it is,” says Ng.
colorful crabs made from wooden pallets
The Association has plans to organize one major event every three years.

December 2011: a twelve-day Sasaran International Arts Festival, themed “We Art Together”. 

More than 50 artists from 17 countries came, including Italy, India, Denmark, Russia, Vietnam, Japan, Germany, China, Romania, United States, Thailand, Singapore, Mongolia and more. 

3D art murals, installations on the school grounds, pottery, sculpting, performing arts... 
Again, there was no publicity budget of any kind. However, Ya Zhou Zhou Kan, or Asia News, the Chinese equivalent of Newsweek somehow got wind of this.

Word was passed to Tay Tian Yan (郑丁贤), the highly popular Deputy Chief Editor of Sin Chew Daily.

When he penned a column on the Sasaran Arts Festival, it was a stroke of extreme good luck, their hard work paid off, and the rest is history.

Thousands came every day, from as far as Kedah, Penang, Pahang and Johor. Most visitors say they came because of Mr Tay’s column.

“NTV7 and TV2, the local television news network crew came by at the exact same day and time! They knew something newsworthy was going on here.”

The Sasaran International Arts Festival remained true to its mission to promote understanding of art to the public. 

Their manifesto also included cultural exchange between Malaysia and other countries, environment conservation, as well as to nurture a new generation of artists, ultimately transforming Sasaran into a permanent Art Village.
True enough, the festival wasn’t only about creating and exhibiting, but developing relationship between the artists and the local community. The studios were open to the public so people could crowd around and ask about what was being created.

There was huge support from the villagers.

In one story, they needed people who know how to operate sewing machines for the street fashion parade. 

Housewives sixty to eighty years old rallied, men carried sewing machines to the hall, and everyone worked together to complete the outfits.
Mr Lui the association secretary sports wraparound shades and very tanned skin, as a result of his contractor job. He shared another tale. When a young resident artist was collecting bras to create her project on domestic abuse, the village chief asked, and he received. An outpouring of 200 bras a day came from the village ladies.


"bian tai!"


“Everyone called him the perverse chief! bian tai! Ha ha ha!”



Fishermen, businessmen, machine shop owners, even the unemployed, all gave what they could.

The sponsorship list read like a giant grocery list:

Farmers donated 200 chickens for the meals.

Grocers gave hundreds of kilograms of vegetables.

Each committee member selflessly sponsored at least three thousand bucks to the event.


“We’re not in for the money, so every little contribution is important to us.”


Artists paid for their own air tickets, while room, board, meals, materials and even sightseeing were provided to the artists. 

In exchange, they donated at least one piece of art to the association to raise funds. 

Ng explains, “What every artist want is just a platform, you see.”
Are there any hotels around here? Where did those artists stay?

 “No, Sasaran doesn’t have a hotel. We’re a fishing village, so the fishermen usually have homes here while they go away to sea for the week. So we talked to them, and they happily lent out the houses for the artists to live in,” explains Lui. 



Ng continued, “You see, we couldn’t have done it without everyone’s support. It’s really rare to find these ‘uneducated’ villagers enthusiastically talking about art.”

Deep in thought, he slowly said, “To be successful, you need the combination of perfect timing, place, people, and favor from the gods.”



"I am lucky. I didn't do this alone."



*****



Ng Bee has hopes of converting the temporary site, currently an empty lot where shops had been destroyed by fire, into a permanent Sasaran Art Park featuring rotating art installations. 
installations of mirror-faced faux gods by Malaysian artist Tan Chew Kuan
How to get there!



here's a little video! watch 00:34 to see how the mirror structures move lazily in the wind :D




Visit the Sasaran Art Park at Jalan Sasaran, Pekan Sasaran, Jeram, Kuala Selangor. 
(www.sasaranart.gomalaysia.com.my)

4 comments:

  1. Amazing u found them Joyce! My dad's hometown is in Sungai Besar, further north and when I passed K Selangor, I always thinking of the person[s] behind the art sculpture. Now, the mystery solved! ;D

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  2. yea! haha thanks! I can't believe that i got to meet them too :D

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  3. you struck gold...seems like I should make a trip there someday...

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