How the arts in Malaysia plays a role in climate change awareness


  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 11 Oct 2023

A view of the 'Haze: Coming Soon' activist art exhibition at REXKL in May this year, which drew over 6,000 visitors, including policymakers. Photo: Annice Lyn  

You've seen it in the news: stories about the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on various parts of the world – out-of-control wildfires and unexpected floods wreaking havoc on affected communities, wildlife species and habitats pushed to the brink of extinction.

Increasingly, you’re feeling the effects of it yourself – from the recent poor air quality due to haze to the scorching El Nino heatwave in May and June.

According to experts, such extreme weather events are only going to worsen over time.

In recent days, air quality has hit unhealthy levels in several parts of Malaysia, due to forest fires in Indonesia.

Feeling the heat to call for urgent action, Malaysian artists have been increasingly using their creative works to sound the alarm, and this year has seen several festival initiatives, exhibitions and theatre shows using art to address themes surrounding climate change, nature and sustainability.

In the local arts scene, there is a lot more work to be done to draw attention to such urgent issues, and many in the arts community are finding new ways to engage the public and respond to the climate crisis.

Clearing the air

It might have been a case of a climate change exhibition that was held too early. I

In May this year, Greenpeace Malaysia, Studio Birthplace and Splash & Burn jointly organised the Haze: Coming Soon activist art exhibition to urge the government to enact the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act to hold polluters accountable.

The exhibition, which attracted more than 6,000 visitors to the REXKL arts venue over 10 days, included works from artists such as Ernest Zacharevic, Cloakwork, Pangrok Sulap, Kai Yi Wong, Fahmi Reza, Bibichun, Trexus and Trina Teoh.

Visitors experienced ‘artivism’ up-close and learnt more about the critical issue of haze pollution - a topic often clouded in confusion at the ‘Haze: Coming Soon’ exhibition in KL in May this year. Photo: Annice Lyn Visitors experienced ‘artivism’ up-close and learnt more about the critical issue of haze pollution - a topic often clouded in confusion at the ‘Haze: Coming Soon’ exhibition in KL in May this year. Photo: Annice Lyn

“It’s easy to shrug off the idea of climate change when it’s not tangible. It’s clearly present and affecting the world around us at an alarming rate, but people still find it hard to believe or even reject it altogether,” says Alea Rahim, Studio Birthplace creative campaign producer.

If the Haze: Coming Soon exhibition opened this month, especially as the haze continues to shroud the country (with more areas recording unhealthy Air Pollutant Index (API) readings), more people might start to pay attention to how art reflects everyday reality.

The haze is not an abstract concept, but there are challenges to get climate change messages across through the arts.

“Bringing this topic to life, whether it’s through film or art, personalises the message and makes it real. And once that shift in perspective takes place, that’s when important conversations start to happen, resulting in – what we hope can be – action,” says Alea.

A visitor looks at an artwork by Ernest Zacharevic at the 'Haze: Coming Soon' exhibition at REXKL in May this year. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon A visitor looks at an artwork by Ernest Zacharevic at the 'Haze: Coming Soon' exhibition at REXKL in May this year. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

At the exhibition at REXKL, visitors could walk through an immersive, misty “Haze Corridor”, displaying the severity and effects of haze from 1991 until 2019, a stark reminder of living through recurring haze episodes for over three decades. Multiple artworks – including large murals, striking posters, paintings and poetry – were displayed in the main exhibition space. Attendees also had the chance to interact with polls and browse informational displays explaining the story of haze and inviting them to take real action to join the movement.

Months after the Haze: Coming Soon exhibition, the masses can still catch elements of the showcase online.

Premiering at the exhibition was the online Haze-zilla, a satirical short film by Studio Birthplace.

“We aren’t here to preach. We are here to share art and communicate our concerns for the pain our world is going through via paintings, film and images,” says Abhilash Chandra, the short film’s director.

Haze-zilla is a satirical take that highlights the destructive impact of corporate greed on the environment. The film brings to attention to the urgent need for legal measures to ensure that Malaysian companies will not contribute to haze locally and abroad.

'As Malaysians, our voices are often drowned out by the rich and powerful. So, why not poke fun at them, while highlighting a very important message: that this environmental crisis will continue to recur if we do not take action now,' says Abhilash, the director of the short film 'Haze-zilla'. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon 'As Malaysians, our voices are often drowned out by the rich and powerful. So, why not poke fun at them, while highlighting a very important message: that this environmental crisis will continue to recur if we do not take action now,' says Abhilash, the director of the short film 'Haze-zilla'. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

“The most important aspect of the exhibition and campaign was how different facets of society were coming together to share this experience and communicate what it meant to them and this awareness allowed a moment in time which could perhaps shape further discussions for change,” he adds.

The film, which you can watch on YouTube, has reached over 182,000 views since its release in May.

At a discussion during the Haze: Coming Soon exhibition, a panel also addressed the importance of keeping conversations about air pollution alive throughout the year, even when skies overhead are clear.

“There are more efforts by companies to stop the conversation surrounding haze, than them actually contributing to the fight for clean air,” says Zacharevic, who raised the point on how quickly the topic of haze is dropped from the media agenda.

Songs of seagrass

Award-winning contemporary gamelan group Rhythm in Bronze took audiences on a journey to learn about Malaysia’s endangered seagrass meadows in Seruan Setu – The Secret Gardens Of The Sea.

The show’s run at KLPac in August melded the artistry of music, dance and film together with informative snippets given by actual scientists live on stage to provide the audience an overview of the topic.

‘The story of Seruan Setu is not just about seagrass, it is also about the well-being and food security of coastal communities in Malaysia who depend directly on seagrass for their daily sustenance,’ says Ooi (in white). Photo: Michelle Yip ‘The story of Seruan Setu is not just about seagrass, it is also about the well-being and food security of coastal communities in Malaysia who depend directly on seagrass for their daily sustenance,’ says Ooi (in white). Photo: Michelle Yip

Another interesting aspect about the show was that the team behind Seruan Setu hosted a public roundtable after the show’s run, comprising panel discussions that shed light on the challenges facing the fragile seagrass ecosystem and highlighted the potential in combining performing arts and marine conservation.

Jillian Ooi, Rhythm in Bronze artistic/music director, who is also a marine ecologist and senior lecturer at Universiti Malaya, says that combining science and the performing arts is potentially one effective way of making people sit up and listen.

“By fusing music, theatre and science, we hope to educate audiences about the complex role seagrasses play in supporting the health of the planet, and to inspire them to become involved in efforts to protect and conserve these precious ecosystems,” she shares.

When asked for her opinion on the level of awareness among Malaysians on climate change and environmental issues, Ooi replies that she has observed its gradual increase over the years.

In August, Rhythm In Bronze’s Seruan Setu show at KLPac connected environmental issues with gamelan theatre compositions and stories of seagrass conservation. Photo: Michelle Yip In August, Rhythm In Bronze’s Seruan Setu show at KLPac connected environmental issues with gamelan theatre compositions and stories of seagrass conservation. Photo: Michelle Yip

“However, this is only the tip of the iceberg and there is still a considerable amount of work ahead. The real challenge is to make these far-reaching, global concerns intimate and relevant on a local, personal level.

“This is where our mission comes in. The story of Seruan Setu is not just about seagrass, it is also about the well-being and food security of coastal communities in Malaysia who depend directly on seagrass for their daily sustenance,” says Ooi.

Returning to our rivers

The community-driven Klang River Festival (KRF), which held its second edition last month, was founded with the aim to bring people closer to the Klang River.

“Historically, rivers were a major form of transportation, used to connect communities to one another. But the way Kuala Lumpur has been developed over the years, residents who live and work around the river now tend to turn their backs to it.

“The perception held by many Malaysians is that urban rivers are dirty and stinky – an eyesore. But rehabilitation efforts are improving our rivers,” says Joseph Foo, creative director of KRF and president of arts venue KongsiKL.

The month-long Klang River Festival in Kuala Lumpur last month featured community programmes and educational walks which focused on art and grassroots activism. Photo: Alex Pan The month-long Klang River Festival in Kuala Lumpur last month featured community programmes and educational walks which focused on art and grassroots activism. Photo: Alex Pan

So how can locals reconnect with our rivers? Foo says that the easiest way to change people’s perceptions of our rivers is by engaging them through the arts.

“We believe that most people are already aware of the river’s significance and its current condition. Art tends to be an effective way to inform and inspire them, and the festival is a platform that activates this process, engaging people and government stakeholders with the river, turning head knowledge to action, encouraging stewardship where everyone learns to do their bit,” says Foo.

“Through the festival, we’re looking to foster a sense of belonging and community by working with artists, activists and other actors to create performances, exhibitions and activities so that the river can once again become a point where people can come together.”

A view of the 'Tanah Air' exhibition at the Klang River Festival in Kuala Lumpur last month. Photo: Alex PanA view of the 'Tanah Air' exhibition at the Klang River Festival in Kuala Lumpur last month. Photo: Alex Pan

Foo adds compared to other festivals he’s been involved with, at KRF, he saw more people enthusiastically coming forward to share their stories and memories of the river.

At the first KRF in 2022, the festival attracted over 20,000 visitors. This year’s audience was more than 24,000.

“The festival is free of charge for participants. That’s a big plus point for our public. The other attraction and also a notable change from last year is the increased level of attention given to climate and environmental issues. This has our even more focus on water and in particular rivers,” says Kennedy Michael of Alliance of River Three founder and KRF strategic partner.

“Not just from a physical perspective but also from water awareness, water security, and the reconnection that is slowly happening between the Klang River and her people.

“These and the opportunity to physically be present at the river are for me the major attractions. This is a positive thing. Once considered as really big drains, people are beginning to see the river again for what it is,” he adds.

Stewards of the planet

The commercial art gallery scene is also steadily finding its way when it comes to joining the climate change conversation.

KL-based artist-sculptor James Seet’s Issues series focuses on issues relevant to today’s society, from plastic pollution and global warming to deforestation and the illegal poaching of wildlife.

“I was born a nature lover before I was an artist, so naturally they complement each other,” says Seet on what inspired him to create the pieces, which resemble geodes on the outside, but when you peek inside, you’ll discover miniature representations of the issues covered.

In 'The Butterfly Effect', artist-sculptor Seet invites viewers to ponder ‘the interconnectedness of all things and recognise that every choice we make, every action we take, has the power to destroy our environment’. Photo: James SeetIn 'The Butterfly Effect', artist-sculptor Seet invites viewers to ponder ‘the interconnectedness of all things and recognise that every choice we make, every action we take, has the power to destroy our environment’. Photo: James Seet

In one of the latest additions to the series, The Butterfly Effect, he invites viewers to ponder “the interconnectedness of all things and recognise that every choice we make, every action we take, has the power to destroy our environment.”

“It is my hope that this piece serves as a catalyst for contemplation, inspiring each of us to make more mindful decisions and to embrace our role as stewards of our planet,” he adds.

Seet believes that art plays a crucial role in pushing for climate action.

“In Malaysia, while some groups of individuals are highly informed and actively engaged in environmental causes, there are still many who may not fully grasp the gravity of the situation or understand the immediate impact of their actions.

“Art can serve as a catalyst for change, amplifying the urgency of climate action. Providing accessible and engaging information using art can empower individuals to make informed decisions and take meaningful action,” he says.

Point of no return

So what will happen if we maintain the status quo? This is the premise of theatremaker Yusof Bakar’s Kedarah (Devour), a bilingual theatre show set in a dystopian, post-global warming future not too far from now.

“For me, climate change is a major event which is going to affect us sooner or later. I just want to do my part in creating awareness about climate change through theatre,” says Yusof.

“I don’t want future generations to suffer because we reach the point of no return. Even now we can already feel the heat. What more in the years to come?”

A bilingual theatre show 'Kedarah' (Devour), a story about post-global warming Earth, was shown in Penang in March this year. Directed and written by Yusof Bakar, the show - starring Husnul Hadi and Ivan Gabriel (right) - captures a dystopian world with mankind living in famine. Photo: Yusof BakarA bilingual theatre show 'Kedarah' (Devour), a story about post-global warming Earth, was shown in Penang in March this year. Directed and written by Yusof Bakar, the show - starring Husnul Hadi and Ivan Gabriel (right) - captures a dystopian world with mankind living in famine. Photo: Yusof Bakar

Kedarah was shown in Penang in March this year, and Yusof shares that it received a positive response.

“There was a good response from the audiences, but not many commented on the climate change aspect of the play. I don’t blame them, though, because climate change is rarely made the central theme of a story in a theatre show.

“Some of them were shocked at the possibilities we explored in the show, saying that they thought it was too extreme. Well, some things were extreme or not accepted 100 years ago, but now it is a normal thing. I predicted things that might happen in the future if we let climate change affect mankind,” he explains.

Yusof thinks that most Malaysians are quite aware of climate change and environmental issues.

“But many of us just don’t know what to do about it. Some may join in not using single-use plastic or plastic straws, but that’s it. The question is, is it enough?” he asks.

Not to rain on anybody’s parade, but that’s a question that perhaps all of us should be asking ourselves.

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Haze , climate change , art , theatre , festival , environment , issues

   

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