Nov 15, 2013

An Interview With: Ng Bee, Artist

the radical founder of the Sasaran Arts Festival tells us about paris in the seventies,  his big plans for the small fishing village he grew up in, and why malaysia is a desert.

Tell us about yourself. 
You can call me Ng, "Huang" in Chinese. Ng Bee. I grew up here in Sasaran. I'm already 60 years old this year. I'm an artist.

When you were growing up, were there any art programmes around? 
Well, that was back in the sixties. There wasn't much development, so not much artsy stuff. I had absolutely zero sense towards arts, or anything art-related. 

How did your journey begin then?
I was a student of Pin Hwa High School in Klang, you see. Pin Hwa is famous for producing many artists. I think it was because we had a really good art teacher. I chose the arts stream, and although I wasn't the brightest student around, I liked to draw. Also, I was unsure of what to do in life and with my bad grades, I couldn't get into any universities. 

So when my friend suggested, "Why don’t we go to this art university in Singapore?"

That's what we did.

I spent three years at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, you can look it up. I liked it there. With art, you can reflect the happenings in society. I met many, many artists, in particular, a professor from Paris. In the seventies, Paris was the It place, the mecca for artists. Everyone must 'pay homage' in their lifetime. 

So you went to Paris right after Singapore?
Oh. Not immediately. After graduation, I came back to Sasaran. Spent two years here, preparing for Paris, stuff like that. 

What happened in Paris? 
I went to Paris for five years. I enrolled in the national art academy (the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts), generally dabbling in art. Paris is the center of the whole art movement! 

The National Art Academy? How did you manage to afford the admission fees and tuition? 
Oh, basically it's free. You pay around three hundred bucks for admission, and that's all I paid for five years. How else do you think Paris managed to attract so many artists all over the world? Artists came from Japan, Korea, everywhere. 

The atmosphere was formed unintentionally, and all of these individuals contributed their different styles to the era. There's a Chinese saying called Bai Hua Qi Fang, which means "hundreds of flower varieties blooming together, at the same time". 

It was refreshing. 

How did it affect you personally?
I got to see different styles. I had been trained in the Malaysian way of creating art. It was how I grew up and saw things. But then you meet this artist from Africa or from Saudi Arabia, and they have their own very distinct and strong techniques and cultures!  
After you graduated from Paris, where else did you go? 
I came back to Malaysia. To Sasaran. My roots are here. 

Were your parents supportive? 
My father passed away early on, so my mother was the one who raised us. She didn't support me, but she didn't forbid me either. She never raised a fuss about it, unlike kids now. You know what? I think children nowadays had less freedom, with parents forcing them to go into science or marketing where the money is, rather than what they like. 

Oh? I thought it was the other way round, society being more open-minded and all. 
No lah! Kids today are so controlled, everything is money this, money that. My mother's viewpoint is, "you do what you like, but just be clear that I won't be financially supporting you."

We all knew that and I worked the way out on my own. She never stopped me. 
Do you have any siblings? Are they artists too? 
I have two brothers. They work in the fishing industry. They're okay with what I do. You must know that back in those days, there were no resources to help artists. I had no concept of how to survive, make a living, things like that. I just had a pure and simple dream, and look! It's been forty years. 

Today, the way parents are preventing their children from pursuing what they want, it's not a good thing. 

Malaysia is a desert. Empty of culture. Of humanities. 

We need to help the younger artists today.

The girl you see over there in the newspaper clipping who created the shark, she’s a student of the Malaysian Institute of Arts. Her domestic abuse project is now on display at the Petronas gallery in KLCC. She came to us, she needed a studio. No one wants to be an artist anymore, it is too difficult. 

What did you do back in Sasaran? 
The villagers didn't understand what I do. I wanted to continue doing arts, but I didn't want to be an art teacher. So I opened an advertising firm in Klang.

Imagine the situation. There was no advertising 'field' yet, if I had continued the business, my income would have been in the millions today! 

But it wasn't like that. I wanted something small, not for the money, but just enough to survive, so I could continue drawing. 
How did the festival come about? 
Well, I continued to engage in arts quietly. During a Southeast Asian art workshop at the National Art Gallery in 2005, I met artists from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh and Singapore. We got to talking, and that's how it began. 

I wanted to have an international artists' workshop right here in Sasaran, but the villagers were skeptical. There was a lot of negative feedback. 

Everyone thinks art is a 'City Thing'

Everyone thinks art is a 'City Thing'. But that's wrong! Art is different. It's not politics. It isn't some lofty concept. You can't escape from art in your daily life. For example, you chose that shirt you're wearing today because it's a nice shirt. You chose it over the other clothes. You painted your house in this colour because you think it's a nice colour. Art is everywhere. 

So in 2008, we managed to do it. Nine countries; 35 artists from China, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore and more. The public could interact with the artists. The villagers couldn't even speak English but with sign language, everyone enjoyed themselves! 

We did a bigger one in 2011. 

What happens to the art created in the festival?
The artists each donated a piece of art or sculpture to us so we could raise funds, and we tried to preserve some of the installation art. The one you saw by the roadside, that spot used to be a row of shop houses that got burned down. We applied to use the space to exhibit our installation art. Technically, the land belongs to the government, but the council has been very kind. 

Once art is installed, it takes on a life of its own. Some have even gone there to take wedding photos!

Art belongs to everyone.  

Visit the Sasaran Art Park at Jalan Sasaran, Pekan Sasaran, Jeram, Kuala Selangor. 

-This post is an entry for the Canon Photo Storytelling Challenge-