The George Town Festival 2014

Shireen Zainudin-Lowe takes you on a whirlwind tour of ‘the little festival that could.’

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Have A Seat, art installation in the ‘Come Close’ exhibition at the George Town Festival, 2014

Standing On Your 2 Feet On 2 Wheels, Ismail Hashim

Standing On Your 2 Feet On 2 Wheels, Ismail Hashim

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Installation Art at the George Town Festival, 2014

 

Picture this. You’re five years old with a bohemian heritage dating well before the term ever became fashionable. International heavyweights with a string of luminous “award-winning” honorifics fly in to be part of your month-long festival of arts, culture, and heritage. You make The New York Times international art section this year. You are, the George Town Festival in Penang, now in the mind’s eye of global art players as the city that turns into a beating heart of dance, visual imagery, and avant-garde installation for the entire month of August, annually. The energy is palpable as the historical city and its denizens live and breathe culture: art cafés and speakeasy pop-ups join in the international line-up, including Flemish-Moroccan Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose powerful choreography of Shaolin monks in Sutra resulted in my personal highlight last year. Cherkaoui returned this year to dance with Paris-based kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa in Play. He was exquisite, liquid, a dancer of rare beauty. Roysten Abel, founder of the Indian Shakespeare Company was back, too, with his production of The Kitchen – a parable of life’s journey, told through a spectacularly lit pyramid of drummers on the mizhavu, a Keralan copper drum. In the foreground, a husband and wife stirred giant vats of Indian payasam. The pudding was offered to the audience to partake in as they left. Transcendental. Visceral. Delicious.

They return to a festival still in pre-school in the grown-up world of the Edinburgh or Adelaide or Budapest festivals. To perform alongside tiny exhibitions in crumbling pre-war spaces and pop-up workshops of witty regional craftmanship and culinary delight. Then there are photographic discourses on endangered wildlife, farming, the third gender, motherhood, war – the breadth of humanity, really. Next up, provocative installations by young emerging artists that work arm-in-arm with mystical traditional dances from a bygone era and youthful street dancers always pushing the next-big-thing.

The George Town Festival – birthed in celebration of its anointment by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. For a whole month, everyone in George Town is an artiste. Whether you’re performing, producing, spectating, purchasing, browsing, scratching some creative itch as cognoscenti or apprentice, resident or visitor, there’s something for everyone and there’s nothing quite like it. Here’s the thing: the people are the festival. It’s a tiny community wearing its heralded heritage effortlessly. Layers of history peel away as you see, hear, taste, feel the tapestry of tales fabricated by the cross-cultural interlacing of an earlier time.

Tales such as the one recreated over on the stunning beachfront grounds of the colonial Soonstead Mansion. Where the audience attend as guests at a soirée and actors roar up the driveway in period cars. 2 Houses – a site-specific collaboration between theatrical forces in Singapore and Penang is a chronicle of World War II on the island as witnessed by a prominent local family. The audience is ushered into rooms and  through hallways, past terraces, and onto lawns as the plot unfolds. They are privy to the servants’ mischief and furtively observe a courting couple, as sea breezes and the scent of freshly cut grass all play their supporting roles to perfection. At intermission the mood is unbroken. Chairs are laid out picnic-style. Helpers come round with war-ration tin mugs. Hot tea is poured and steamed sweet potato offered on huge woven trays. It’s a delightfully dyslexic universe of life imitating art imitating life.

But nothing prepares you for what Penang-born writer-director Saw Teong Hin calls his “almost autobiographical” Hokkien production Hai Ki Xin Lor (You Mean The World To Me). You are greeted by flawless staging – a visually ingenious double-storey construction where the past and present is told in tandem. Spellbindingly set in Cannon Square, the courtyard of the historical Khoo Kongsi, and flanked by the clan’s majestic Leong San Tong Temple and the Opera Stage. As the neighbouring muezzin’s evening call to prayer fades away, the dark retelling of a family’s secrets commences. Personal demons are quite literally stripped naked and what reveals itself is extraordinary. It is gut-wrenching yet life-affirming and ultimately, astonishingly lovely. It simmers in the authenticity of reliving what played out a mere street away all those years ago. And now the neighbourhood itself is invited to watch. To judge? To understand, to embrace.

The festival has embraced just beautifully the late master-photographer, academic, and founder-member of Aliran (a Penang-based social reform movement) Ismail Hashim. Unpack Repack – a labour of love and fitting tribute to the man and his prolific body of work. Curated so elegantly, so movingly, and truly exhaustively by his friend and fellow artist Wong Hoy Cheong, this is a life preserved and observed. The viewer moves through five rooms depicting Ismail’s journey – his “hungry heart”. Looking outwards, turning inwards, recreating his darkroom and home space, his voice emerges in scrawls on paper and the multiple narratives of his photography. We are pulled into the world of a purposeful and philosophical mind. There is, of course, the brilliant ordinariness of his subjects. The faces and spaces, the growth of plants, the movement of clouds, the barber shop, the postboxes, the bicycles, the beds. In this poignant freezing of the unstoppable, one is struck by the ephemerality of man, the inevitability of decay but also the hope of renewal. A touchingly remarkable account of an undeniably human quest for “beauty and truth”.

One could go on for 31 days about the George Town Festival – five years old and totally at ease in her patina-ed walls. She will continue to attract, inspire, grow, and learn. She will boast her ornamentation, add chapters to her memoir, and always be irresistibly good fun. Mark it in your diary every year. This little festival that is.

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