ASIA: Artists Join Forces to Make a Difference in Mekong

  • by Chris Mony - Newsmekong* (phnom penh)
  • Saturday, November 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

'I felt very excited,' she said of the opportunity 'to meet (other) young artists from the region' as one of the Cambodian artists who took part in the Mekong Arts and Media Festival 2009, which was on Nov. 23-27.

The festival was co-organised by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) under the PETA-Mekong Partnership Program, which was launched in 2004 to showcase alternative forms of creative expression as tools for advocacy and development work within the region. Other organisers were Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), Save the Children in Britain and the Center for Community Health Research and Development.

Themed around ‘Breaking Barriers, Converging Arts’, the gathering brought together some 200 representatives from the performing arts, mass media and development work from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Laos and Burma. Aside from various performances from the participating countries, the range of activities during the five-day event also included workshops, fora, exhibits and film showings, all of which provided a much-needed platform to share knowledge and experiences in a region of diverse cultures, history and peoples.

Mekong is a sub-region within South-east Asia of breathtaking landscapes and vast natural resources yet faced with widespread poverty, as evidenced by increasing income disparities. Other major issues confronting it are marginalisation of ethnic minorities and environmental degradation. It is considered one of the areas most vulnerable to climate change across the globe.

At the festival artists from the Philippines, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia also graced the event to share their thoughts and experiences during the series of exchanges among the participants on the challenges and opportunities for advocacy and development work in Mekong.

'Art is important in advocacy work because it can reach many audiences, many people,' said festival co-director Lea Espallardo in an interview with IPS. In her opening remarks, she described the festival as 'a convergence of people, cultures and visions for a better society.'

Part of the festival’s advocacy is to call attention to issues confronting the Mekong children, who are faced, among others, with the constant risk of injury or death from the explosive remnants of war in Mekong’s conflict- ravaged areas. In Cambodia, for instance, between four and six million landmines were laid during the country's three decades of civil war.

Nouv Srey Leab, who has been involved in the perfoming arts for almost a decade, said as an artist she has tried to convey the message that landmines could maim and kill, urging parents and children to be careful lest they end up becoming victims themselves.

She expressed belief that young artists like her have the power to influence other youth by conveying through creative means messages that can have a positive impact on their lives. She has not looked back since she decided to train under Cambodia’s leading art school, PPS (whose name means ‘the brightness of art’), at the age of 15, when she was forced to quit school because her mother could no longer afford to support her education.

One of the highlights of the festival was a children and youth bloc, where the range of activities ran alongside the main festival events. The bloc gave the young festival participants a venue for creative expressions as they tackled some of the complex issues confronting them, including various forms of exploitation such as trafficking.

'I think children artists are the most active and dynamic group partners. It would be good if you were doing something for children, if they saw their peers talking about their own lives or what they want and what they dream about,' said Espallardo.

Khoun Det, one of the founders of PPS, admitted that his non-profit institution is still far behind similar organisations in other countries, because of Cambodia’s decades-old civil war whose remnants still litter the country’s landscape in the form of unexploded ordnance and unburied landmines. But what he has learned traveling to other countries he has tried to meld into Cambodia’s traditional art 'to help nurture the children here.'

What he through PPS has been able to achieve became evident during the festival.

Participants said they were impressed by what they saw of Cambodia’s performing arts, thanks in part to PPS’s efforts to offer training free of charge to children and youth like Nouv Srey Leab while pursuing its advocacy of using the arts for community development work.

'I wish I could show the youth in my country how young artists are performing here,' said Ma Ma Naing, a participant from Burma. 'I think we need to change the performing arts in Myanmar. We cannot simply stick to the old traditional style.'

Mika Arashiki, a member of a dance group in Japan, was just as impressed by the performances of the Mekong artists as they showcased their talents. 'It is very interesting for me,' she said of their performances.

To many, the festival was one major regional gathering of artists collectively committed to using their respective crafts and pursuing their creative endeavors to make an impact on their societies.

Burmese artist Moe Satt, who founded ‘Beyond Pressure’, an art group in a country ruled by a military junta, expressed hope for more collaborative efforts in the future such as what the Mekong festival afforded participants like him, who must constantly grapple with a repressive environment that he longs to be liberated from. This, he said, is the 'main theme of all my artworks.'

(*This story was written for the ‘Imaging Our Mekong’ programme coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.)

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?