The pandemic has severely impacted Malaysia’s creative industry. Can we revive its artistic soul? Izlyn writes.
‘Apa Khabar Anak Seni?’ is a campaign growing rather quickly amongst the Malaysian creative industry, especially on Instagram with its hashtag #apakhabaranakseni, being used over a thousand times since it first began just a while ago on 12th July 2021. So, why is this initiative receiving such widespread attention?
On November 11th 2020, CENDANA (Cultural Economy Development Agency) reported that 93% of the art industry players and backstage crew were affected by COVID-19 and from that percentage, 70% are close to losing or have already lost their main source of income. The Tourism Industry saw a decrease of over 36.8% in tourist arrivals while tourist expenditure decreased over 41.5% in just the first quarter of 2020. As tourism contributes a large proportion to the income of many creatives throughout the country, some were forced to postpone productions while others, who’re not so lucky, were forced to shut down entirely due to countless lockdown attempts.
As with most developing countries, the creative industry always seems to come second in terms of priorities. While the government investment arm set up in 2012, MyCreative Ventures is a helpful initiative to provide necessary financial support for art players in the country where many important art infrastructures remain neglected. Consequently, many art groups are still unable to access these investment funds so they resort to non-profit operations or precarious freelancing. It’s evident that such intermediaries, although well intended, aren’t doing enough to help.
While the contemporary creative industry does contribute some part to economic growth, this sole focus on commodification disregards the historically intimate role of art in Malaysia for social unity, sites of criticality and discourse, community engagement, and even resistance against abusive powers. Local activist and graphic designer Fahmi Reza, or better known as Kuasa Siswa on social media, recently went viral for his provocative political graphics which received extensive support from the masses. His arrest catalysed the unified discontent of fellow Malaysians towards the current political climate which sparked national attention, proving that the local art industry’s potency goes beyond the limits of the economy.
Before we answer that question, we must first look into the diverse branches within the art industry to see how each is uniquely disadvantaged. The main distinctions include fine art, television and film, music, and performing arts. In an interview by Options, The Edge writer, Mae Chan, The Kuala Lumpur Performing Art (KLPAC) Head of Marketing and Communications, Ang Yue May, said the established art centre had lost more than half a million in April 2020 alone after all the shows were either cancelled or postponed. In fact, KLPAC isn’t the only establishment facing such severe financial straits. Other performing arts establishments such as Istana Budaya, ASK Dance Company, and Sutra Foundation are a few of the many others facing dire constraints.
As for the fine arts sector, a few art galleries are thankfully able to move operations remotely through virtual exhibitions. This includes Artemis Art, G13 Gallery, and Segaris Art Centre. Despite the vast reach of the Internet, the ‘new normal’ has paradoxically further localised other less fortunate artists. This could be attributed to the absence of a more unique experiential involvement in physical exhibitions or the lack of access to various demographics. Some artists find it hard to transition into an online market because their target, middle-aged clientele find it bothersome to navigate the controls of a virtual exhibition.
Cinema closures, production postponements, and pushed release dates aren’t just frustrating for the movie buffs, but also for the Malaysian film industry. Chinese New Year (CNY) has always been a period of success for the Malaysian box office. However, in early 2020, as big titles from China such as Vanguard, Jiang Zi Ya: Legend of Deification, Detective Chinatown 3, and The Rescue were abruptly taken off the CNY calendar. Tung Yow Kong, the general manager of GSC movies, says they had lost at least 50% of their revenue. Bulan Dan Pria Terhebat, an action flick starring Maya Karin played in the cinemas for only five days before multiplexes stopped operating which caused an indefinite loss. A film’s success being fully dependent on the circumstances surrounding its release has reduced many production companies’ confidence.
Following the survey on Malaysian artists at the end of 2020, an allocation of RM15 million by the government has allowed for a number of much-needed initiatives through MyCreative Ventures’ subsidiaries, CENDANA, and RIUH. Some of the funding programmes under CENDANA include their Arts Venue Recovery programme, Visual Arts Showcase Funding programme, and ADIGURU CENDANA. RIUH, on the other hand, is a platform curating a variety of pop-up stores, creative workshops, live performances, and many other fun events as a space to share, sell, and flaunt Malaysian creativity. Of course, the pandemic and continuous lockdowns have made these activities unfeasible. Nevertheless, PRISMA (the Malaysia Creative Industries Stimulus Package) has allowed RIUH to set forth online recovery initiatives that are just as fun including the RIUH Show which is a digital series to showcase local talents from the music and performing arts sector, and RIUH talks which consists of virtual workshops for aspiring and up-and-coming creative entrepreneurs.
Despite the gloomy circumstances, the pandemic has somehow centralised art as a means to cope with the precarity and tragedy of such desolate times. This spotlight allowed a motley of local artists to overcome some financial obstacles through deadpan humour and creative renditions of the unique Malaysian experiences with a touch of noir. Shari Elis Jaffri also known under the alias Tragikomedi combines the tragic and comic not just through relatable speech bubbles but also through the contrast between their style and sometimes heavier subject matter, which always seems to lighten the mood. CultKids combines contemporary material with the nostalgic art style of pre-modern Malaysia. These artists, among numerous others, remind us of our interconnectedness and how there is still hope amidst a bleak future.
Paying for shows, purchasing artwork, and donating would definitely be ideal, however, we must acknowledge that not everyone has the means to do so, especially during these times. One of the easiest and most effective ways is to simply spread the word, either in person or virtually, to show your local art practitioners’ digital offerings to a wider audience and potentially to people who have the spending power to buy their goods. If you come across useful information, potential job opportunities, funds or grants, share it with your favourite artists who might really need them! Though, if none of these options is available at hand, offering emotional support and spreading little acts of kindness like leaving a nice comment on their posts goes a long way.
Although the term ‘new normal’ commonly connotes a sense of impermanence, just as with other industries, it urges a radical re-imagining and this transition may change how we envision art entirely. The art scene will see a growing online presence, including art forms that aren’t conventionally made for a virtual experience such as theatre. More artists will be forced to learn new skills and discover creative methods to commercially monetise their work if they wish to survive. However, as the pandemic has shown us, we are very capable of adapting to rapid changes and despite the dystopian reality we seem to paint over this technology-intensive reality, there is room to remain hopeful.
The embedded perception that art is meant for the consumption of the elites is unacceptable. One of the only sustainable connections we, as Malaysians from all backgrounds, have left with our country’s past is art. It’s a source of identity, a shout when we can’t speak, and a whisper when the world is too loud. It’s simply outrageous for this fragile industry to fall victim to negligence under ‘non-essential’ sectors. Though the pandemic proves more distinctly how the art industry in Malaysia suffers, it has been declining drastically way before the pandemic began. This is a wake-up call. If we do not help our fellow Malaysian artists, who will? #KitaJagaKita
Wan Izlyn Sofea is currently pursuing Cambridge A-Levels at Taylor's College. She is also a member of Taylor’s College Student Council and a debater from Taylor’s Debate Club.
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