LAST_UPDATEThu, 19 Jul 2018 11pm

What Will It Take To Turn Arts And Crafts Into A Vital Part Of M'sia's Cultural Economy

Arts and crafts, or any one of the professions often grouped under the 'creative industry' has often been like the neglected orphan of our nation's drive to industrialization and becoming a developed economy.

One of the issues with arts and crafts among Malaysians is that they cannot see a way forward for it to flourish but hopefully this will change with the founding of the Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana).

“We have seen arts and culture as a component with potential which we have not developed to its optimum level.

“Therefore, I declare cultural economy as Malaysia’s new asset,” Najib said at the official launch of Cendana in September.

An initial allocation of RM20 million has been allocated for the agency to spearhead arts and cultural development in Malaysia.

The prime minister highlighted that the arts-culture sector was the last transformation component towards making Malaysia a developed nation.

“We want Malaysia to be seen as a nation that is rich in heritage, but heritage alone is not enough. We need to develop it…then only will our nation have a new source of inspiration,” he said.

How often have you heard the well-meaning advice offered to aspiring students that arts and crafts is a hobby and not a career?

This perception has been ingrained in many of us from our own schooling days. Malaysian Digest approached various stakeholders to assess the state of our local arts and crafts and how we can counter this negative perception of the arts-culture sector to be embraced as an important component of the nation's economy.

Students Who Chose Art Are Considered Not Ambitious Nor Smart Enough

Even a deep passion for arts was not enough to convince people that it was something worth pursuing for Akmal Kamal, 25, who took Fine Arts in UiTM, as she said that she was pushed by others to look at professional courses instead when they found out about her choice.

This was due to their worry about her future as they saw that arts and crafts scene was not thriving in Malaysia.

“I was also accused of not being ambitious or smart enough simply because I decided to pursue a degree in fine arts,” she shared.

Despite the critics, Akmal persevered with what she loved as she felt that her paintings were the avenue to tell her stories and loved how it can evoke emotions in people who can appreciate it.

Reflecting on the presence of arts and crafts among Malaysians, particularly among children, Akmal was very enthusiastic about exposing children to it early on in their lives.

“Yes! Arts and crafts is part of creativity and it can help develop their imagination. This will then contribute to their creative thinking skills!” she exclaimed.

However, she is not optimistic enough that the arts and crafts scene in the country will thrive in the future as she does not see the government putting a lot of importance in preserving it.

“This is obvious by the fact that the government is championing so much on development, but forego the arts which is part of our heritage.

“The only form of art I have seen championed by the government or government-linked companies is the ones that you can see at the MRT stations,” she lamented.

While not pursuing arts in university, Hana, 24, had switched to the Arts Stream in Form 5 after having had enough of numbers and revealed that she was basically looked down upon because of the assumption that ‘art students are stupid’.

“But I found it funny how the kids in my batch who consistently got 90% and above for add maths and took arts as an additional subject were called ‘talented’ and ‘killing time’ were free of this stereotype,” she shared.

She related how Malaysians in general emphasise too much on things that are black and white like mathematics and science, and because of that they developed the assumption that people involved in arts are not smart enough or have and inferior IQ.

“For me it’s not a question of which stream is superior to the other, it’s just a matter of preference and no one’s intellect should be judged based on the stream that the school has shoved them into,” she argued while adding that each individual have their own strengths and weaknesses, and some are just more creative than the others.

She also feels that it is such a shame that Malaysians have this negative attitude towards arts and crafts, and that parents feel that it is a waste of time and would not contribute to their children’s future by exposing them to it.

“Speaking from experience, arts and crafts has helped me develop my creativity/imagination and made me feel less alone while I was growing up. It was also a platform to channel my creativity, emotions and hyperactivity.

“I still engage in some form or art/crafts as a way to release stress or to get my creativity flowing whenever I’m stuck on whatever I was doing,” she shared.

Batik Painter Once Sold A Painting For RM17,000

This negative stereotype doesn’t stop in school as artists and craftsmen who have been in the trade for a number of years have also received harsh comments from others.

Lazim IsmailLazim IsmailHaving been involved in one of Malaysia’s heritage crafts for over 30 years, batik painter Lazim Ismail shared how many people have told him that he would not go far by venturing into the arts and crafts industry, and was even laughed at by white collar workers.

However, with all the experience that he has acquired, he sees it differently.

“I thoroughly believe that Malaysian batik can go far because foreigners not just from neighbouring countries but from around the world are buying them.

“I have even sold a batik painting for RM17,000 once,” he proudly shared.

Lazim has been operating his business from the Craft Village at the Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex since 1997, the city’s iconic art centre that offers local and international visitors a collection of traditional as well as modern contemporary handicrafts products from across the country.

Kuala Lumpur Craft ComplexKuala Lumpur Craft ComplexApart from collecting various crafts under one roof, the craft centre has an integrated mission to market and educate the public through creative arts as it is built with three core concepts namely education, marketing and enculturation (culture).

Through his years setting up shop at the craft centre, Lazim opined that the demand from locals and abroad are balanced while adding that tourists that come to the Craft Complex like to buy his craft because they wanted to find something that is different and made totally by Malaysians.

Apart from having his batik sold locally and internationally, Lazim can also be seen as a small ambassador to attract tourists to the country as he has been featured in foreign TV and many have come to the Craft Complex just to find him and his craft.

“I’ve also done exhibitions in New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore,” he said.

However, he shared that he is unsure about the future of his batik painting here in Malaysia but he has received offers from tourists who came to his shop to bring his trade to their country such as Australia.

“They have invited me to go there if I can no longer do business here. It had got me thinking but we’ll see how things are,” he said.

Before ending the interview, Lazim said that it is not impossible to for our country’s craft to be looked at by the world as “we are already in the eyes of the world, it just needs to be put forth more by the government to get it out there.”

Exposing People To The Arts Is Important To Protect Culture And Civilisation

Sometimes it takes someone from outside our own community to see and recognize the value of our arts and crafts heritage.

Lazim’s conviction that Malaysia’s arts and crafts can thrive outside of the country was supported by Efat Amiri, who dropped by Lazim’s shop with her friend who wanted to do batik painting.

A professional in textile design and currently doing her PhD here in Malaysia studying the symbolic motif of batik, Efat has been doing Malaysian batik for the past six years and loves every minute of it and about it.

Efat AmiriEfat Amiri“Batik in Iran is different from Malaysia as we only use wooden stamps to do batik. Here, it involves more painting and canting so it was very attractive to me to try the native Malaysian batik.

“I’m now practicing and getting new experience in Malaysian batik and I love it. When I go back to Iran and start doing batik, I think I would follow Malaysia’s style of doing batik and mixing it with Iran’s style. I think it would be very nice,” said Efat, who also has more than 20 years in doing Iranian batik.

As a student studying batik, she knows that batik is not originally from Malaysia but was brought here from Indonesia.

“But Malaysia is more active than other countries so when you go to other countries and talk about batik, they will directly will tell you that batik is from Malaysia because they sell Malaysian batik more than batik from other countries,” she explained.

As a professional in the arts and crafts industry, she is also saddened how people in their own native countries do not appreciate the arts and crafts that they have, and said that the biggest problem is the lack of exposing the children to it at a very young age.

“It is normal in every country for people to not know about their arts or their importance or they are just indifferent about it; it is common even in my country.

“And it is especially common among the new generation who are more inclined to follow the Western culture and it is not good. I personally do not like it,” she said.

Finding many Malaysian arts and crafts that involve wood, bamboo and beads very nice, Efat said that teaching the basics about arts and crafts in school would help the younger generation appreciation it more.

“Maybe we can change the design. For example, the new generation might not like the traditional designs so we can mix in modern elements to it to help the young to appreciate art more.

“If they can start to understand art on their own, they can follow its history and continue to learn as they grow up.

“As a teacher and artist, it is our duty to teach the people from the basic as it is our culture and civilisation. We must protect our civilisation,” she concluded.

Cendana Established To Reinvigorate The Arts And Culture Community

Cendana, set up by the government through MyCreative Ventures, is guided by the vision of developing the country’s cultural economy into a fast-growing and inspiring sector, the Prime Minister's office announced in a media statement during the launch.

Its aim is to boost the ‘cultural economy’ as its chief executive officer Izan Satrina Mohd Sallehuddin said that the heart of creativity and innovation - arts and culture - has not been optimised despite the push by government to develop the creative industries.

Izan Satrina Mohd Sallehuddin. Pic: Satrina Mohd Sallehuddin. Pic:“Arts and culture is where your ideas come from, your edge, your rawness, your stories. It is the heartbeat of the ecosystems in the cultural economy,” she said as reported by The Star.

The agency, which is a ground up effort and fully supported by the government, aims to build a vibrant, sustainable and ambitious cultural economy for Malaysia by stimulating demand for arts and culture, and empowering the arts community through aid and funding, refining policies and making it attractive for corporations to invest in the arts.

When we contacted Izan, she explained that they will achieve this via three approaches which are:

1. Demand, which is about energising the arts and stimulating the demands for the arts. We will do that via engaging and promoting the arts to a wider public and also engaging the trade;

2. Supply, which is about empowering our arts and culture community. This is about their quality of work and increasing their opportunities for success by way of introducing them to different networks, marketing platforms, attachment opportunities, funding opportunities so that they would be able to produce great work; and

3. Reorganising policy and structure, which will help the artist grow by making the current policies more relevant for them.

At the moment, Izan said that the reception by the arts and culture community is very good because of the idea that it comes from the private sector.

“And since it comes from the community, it amplifies the openness of the government in supporting ground up efforts,” Izan said.

She added that there has not been funding for the arts in the past few years and there would not necessarily be an arts funding mechanism, which is why they want to provide opportunities for those who might not have have those opportunities before.

“We will be releasing and announcing our baseline study that was done a while back. It will share with the community, government and private stakeholders of where we are today as a industry and where we can be,” she said.

Cendana’s focus in the first two years will be on performing arts, visual arts and independent music, in small, medium (500 person capacity) and public spaces.

Apart from connecting indie musicians with production houses, Cendana also plans to work with Matrade to sell Malaysian arts as well as attract festival directors, art curators and art collectors, to “import” Malaysian works.

They will also be rolling out their first funding program next month that focuses on helping our artist incubate their work and experiment so that the quality of work they put in production is of better quality.

As Cendana is in for the long haul for the arts and culture community, we asked Izan about the agency’s short term goals, and she said that they aim to be in places and be relevant.

“Hence why the arts and culture community and the private sector is involved in making the decision on how we do things and how we do things is relevant for the community,” she said.

As she has high hopes for the arts and culture community, she hopes that with Cendana, people will be more intrigued or curious about the arts and thus, fuelling the economic engine.

“If we get the demand and supply right, we will see more people coming in or intrigued or curious about the arts and that curiosity and the engagement between the demand and supply is what will create a buzz and vibrancy for our city.

“That is how the economic engine will then respond and that’s how we are orchestrating the economic side of culture,” she concluded.