Tides of Change

24 February 2017

Pulau Ketam’s annual art festival has transformed the island.  

Arriving on Pulau Ketam by boat, the first thing you see – apart from the whizzing electric bicycles, haphazard colourful wooden houses on stilts, and fishing vessels – is a spread of surreal whitewashed pillars bearing Chinese calligraphy. The pillars rise gracefully out of the mud where tiny crabs scuttle about. It’s a pretty unusual sight for a fishing village, but then again, this is not your usual fishing village.

Some 13 nautical miles from Port Klang, a two hours’ expedition from Kuala Lumpur, Pulau Ketam is a 134-year-old fishing village built upon mangrove swamps. Walking through this island is like walking through a living gallery. Once an aging village known for its problem with garbage and cheap seafood, the island has transformed itself with an intriguing integration of art, nature and culture, thanks to the Pulau Ketam International Art Festival, which first launched four years ago.

Bicycles – the main mode of transport on Pulau Ketam.

Now, interesting sculptures and installations dot the island, paintings adorn the walls of the villagers’ homes. Batik wood-cut installations by villagers are strung up all along the main jetty, while formerly drab walkways have been spruced up – a marked change from previous visits some years ago.

How did a sleepy fishing village come to host an art festival for 123 artists from 19 countries?

“First, you have to know the objective of the arts festival,” says Tan Keng Leong, the chief curator and organiser of the Pulau Ketam International Art Festival.

Two months after the latest festival held in December 2016, we meet Tan and Pulau Ketam artist Yuan Kai Jian on the island, over an excellent lunch of fried beehoon with generous portions of crab.

Tan against a backdrop of nine pieces by nine artists from Yogyakarta.

“There are three types of art festivals,” says Tan. “First, the commercial ones, where corporations hire event management companies to run festivals for them. Their objective is money, simple. Second, you get the politically-driven festivals, where political parties fund art festivals to capitalise upon the creativity and tangible results from art festivals. Ticking boxes on report cards before election day rolls around, so to speak.”

“Lastly, there’s the community art festival, brought about by the power of the locals. People come together and create something entirely new and unexpected. That’s what we’re doing here.”

A graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, 40-year-old Tan is the driving force of the festival. Sporting a graying ponytail, easy smile and tanned skin, Tan’s gruff appearance could pass for that of a fisherman.

Growing up in Kuala Selangor, Tan was part of the team with Sasaran Arts Festival, headed by fellow artist Ng Bee. After the success of Sasaran, where the whole village community was involved, Tan was invited to Pulau Ketam in 2014 to modify and replicate the arts festival. In 2016, the festival grew to be the largest of its kind in Malaysia, both geographically as well as in the number of artists and countries involved.

After lunch, wheeling a black bicycle, Tan brings us on a tour of the island, meandering through alleys, nimbly avoiding speeding electric bicycles on the narrow cement walkways, and fixing the wear and tear of sculptures –  all the while keeping up a running commentary on the artworks from the festival and holding forth on the state of Malaysian art.

At Pulau Ketam, art can be found in the most unexpected places. Here, Tan fixes up a sculpture by Japan-based Vietnamese artist Dam Lai Dang.

Lasting for more than two weeks, the festival grouped artists by country in makeshift studios housed in various temples around the island, where villagers and visitors could walk in and observe the artists at work, or pitch in to help out. The locals were heavily involved, volunteering their to help out where they can, including offering homestays for the artists, contributing art materials, sponsoring meals, and even bringing the artists around on island tours. Wan Yu, a 14-year-old secondary school student who volunteered during the festival, notes how her experience helping Vietnamese artists paint wooden masks has made her more interested in art. “Now, I try my best in art class,” she says.

Little signboards pointing visitors to the direction of different studios during the festival.

For Tan, the simplest measure of success for him is the very fact that the villagers have opened up to the concept of art. “When you see housewives and fishermen sacrificing their time to come together and help out, that’s a successful festival. We didn’t keep track of the number of visitors. For me, the change in the island and the locals is enough.”

Every night, a different studio would throw a party for the other artists.

“I could connect to the artists, the staff and the people,” comments Japanese artist Takuji Hariu on his best memories from the festival. “We connected through art. We shared about art and culture, we drank beer together, ate together, we danced together. It’s beautiful.”

There were different studios for printmaking, ceramics, sculpting and drawing; batik workshops and an upcycling art camp for kids, photography exhibitions, and even a concert on a fishing boat. There were artists from Germany, Argentina, Serbia, US, France, Japan, Poland, Italy, Denmark, Canada, China, Turkey;  not to mention the Southeast Asian countries, well represented by artists from Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos.

“I wanted to focus on Southeast Asia,” says Tan. “As a region, there are many talents that need to be highlighted.”

Is every Southeast Asian country represented in the festival, then?

With a brief grimace, Tan replies, “Not every country though. Singapore, for instance. Their works just can’t survive on the street. It only belongs in galleries.”

A pop-art themed poster for the Pulau Ketam International Art Festival 2016 adorns the entrance of the island’s volunteer firefighter department headquarters – a notable landmark on Pulau Ketam.

As if on cue, we round a corner, where nine mixed media pieces are displayed against a turquoise blue wall of a retirement home. A few feet away, pensioners relax on recliners, a few of them playing mahjong. A couple of kids cycle past. We stand there, admiring the artwork. We’ve arrived at a quieter part of the village, far away from the hustle and bustle of the main jetty. It’s an oddly fitting scene.

“See what I mean? We were looking for artists whose works add value. Art is interconnected. It works beyond mere painting or watercolours. You must have a strong foundation in tradition, knowledge, culture, literature, science; then you can go far. Nowadays, too many artists can only create works that are about themselves.”

Escaping the brilliant afternoon sun, we take refuge in a kopitiam, sipping on iced kumquat and 100 Plus. “What we want to do is to bring art to the masses. I want the villagers to know their value. Many artists have told me that this place is extraordinarily suitable for them to create art.”

Pulau Ketam, about three square kilometres in size, currently has a population of about 8,000 residents. The origins of this fishing village lie in the Hokkien and Teochew fishermen who first came here for the eponymous crabs; but more and more escaped to the tidal swamp during the Japanese Occupation.

It’s this group of curiously resilient people who built a life for themselves on a place without any soil, with no freshwater and electricity supply from the mainland. Strolling through the island, one just has to admire the traditional houses painted in a riot of colours, complete with beautiful lattices and intricate family name plaques, a signature of Chinese fishing villages.

Visitors strolling along the main jetty where batik paintings by the villagers are installed.

According to Canadian artist John Schevers, “I have travelled a lot, but Pulau Ketam is still one of those magical, untouched places. The peace and tranquillity of this town floating above the tidal changes is incredible to experience. It’s an amazing place for any artist.”

We arrive at the end of the village, where a mangrove rehabilitation programme is underway to combat the issue of rubbish-choked waters. We sit down at a homestay, taking in the idyllic sunset and the rhythmic rush of the waves as the tide rolls in. Now, all there’s left to do is to wait for a boat taxi to bring us to the main jetty, where we’ll catch the final ferry out of the island.

Artists are requested to donate any two pieces created during the festival; here are some of the pieces scheduled for an exhibition in the city.

But there’s one last place Tan wants to show us. What we first mistook as a sea-facing shrine is actually a well-maintained Ling Chuo (“net-knitting house” in Teochew). First built in 1907, the Ling Chuo acted as a refuge of sorts for early settlers until they saved up to strike out and build houses of their own.

Today, it’s used as temporary storage for the festival artworks before they are moved out for an upcoming exhibition in the city. As people migrate, so does art.

By Joyce Koh

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