Soul searching: finding space, restoring hope for arts and culture in Malaysia


A diverse group of theatre practitioners are set to participate in a virtual conservation about Malaysian arts and culture titled 'What's Next?", moderated by Jo Kukathas, on June 27. Photo: Mellissa Mustaffa

The pandemic continues to dramatically affect our lives, and just like everybody else, the Malaysian theatre and performing arts communities are struggling to make sense of things, keep focused and learn how to overcome these uncertain times.

Jo Kukathas, Instant Cafe Theatre’s (ICT) co-founder, is presenting a virtual hangout with six performing arts practitioners this Sunday, promising a reflective and thoughtful catch-up session.

Aptly called What’s Next?, the online event will stream for free on ICT’s Facebook page on June 27 at 3pm.

The session will feature actor/director Ghafir Akbar, playwright/director Ridhwan Saidi, Parastoo Theatre’s co-founder Saleh Sepas and his wife Masooma Sepas, arts educator Usen Leong and playwright Ridzwan Othman.

“The pandemic has forced reflection and introspection in our individual lives. But we are not alone. In speaking with these diverse artists, we hope to find ways to collectively process, navigate, laugh and find joy and meaning through these disorienting times, ” says Kukathas.

“Just because the arts sector has taken a beating during this pandemic, this does not mean artists have not been creating... So let’s listen to what artists might be doing, let’s see what might be next and let’s keep our spirits up.

“And let's keep the flame of our relationship with the public alive. #kitajagakita is important in the arts too, ” she continues.

Last October, Kukathas presented a virtual talk entitled Art, Culture, Grief And Loss In A Time Of Crisis, hosted by the Australian National University (ANU). The lecture was originally presented at the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific’s conference "Malaysia Update 2020: Alternative Visions for Malaysia".

A 40-minute video of veteran theatre maker’s talk (with English, Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese subtitles), can now be streamed on ICT’s YouTube channel (watch here). This will serve as a preamble to the live virtual session this Sunday.

Kukathas mentions that the six artists were selected as “we wanted to hear different voices, different languages. We wanted to hear from people from different backgrounds with different experiences.”

She says although they come from different backgrounds - Bahasa Malaysia theatre, English theatre and even Farsi theatre - what everyone has in common is that they are all in their own ways making Malaysian theatre.

“We want to hear new stories, different opinions and counter-narratives to the one single dominating and othering narrative that is being constantly fed to us, ” says Kukathas.

Kukathas herself has been busy in this lockdown period with her 10-week online playwriting and play reading course called Play With Jo Kukathas. Running for three hours per class, the course started in mid-May.

“There’s a great diversity of stories people want to tell. A lot of brave stories. I’m hopeful that this period of enforced lockdown will lead to a flowering of brave, new work in 2022. Now is the time for planting seeds, for nurturing and allowing new work to quietly develop and grow, ” shares Kukathas.

Though the pandemic and the lockdowns have hampered the growth of Malaysian theatre, Kukathas is hopeful.

“I hope to see work that reflects the borderless world we are inhabiting and hope we can go past the current exhausting, exclusionary, frog under the coconut shell, nationalist narrative.

“If Covid has taught us anything it has taught us how interconnected the world really is, ” she concludes.

More info here.

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