New venues for the arts, please!

Nading Rhapsody performed in JB for the first time
at the 11th JBAF
Last year, I missed the Johor Baru Arts Festival (JBAF) because I was travelling and returned only to catch the tail end of the annual arts fest.  I was travelling again this year but came home just on time as the month-long 11th JB Arts Festival kicked off.  Even though I was abroad, I was in touch with local news and read with much delight about the opening of the JB Performing Arts Centre (JBPAC) in Danga City Mall.

JBPAC, on level 4M of Danga City Mall is divided into two sections – the White Box, a gallery for exhibitions and art activities and the Black Box for performances.  Since August the Black Box saw a crowd gathered every Saturday night to discover more budding local talents in the Singer-Song Writers’ Open Microphone sessions.  This year the JBAF Festival Village is located at Dataran Bandaraya while the Main Stage remains at Bukit Timbalan with other performance venues in JB including the JBPAC and Puteri Harbour. 

The Xiong Quartet also made their debut at the 11th JBAF
I must commend Danga City Mall for welcoming JBPAC into its premises and look forward to seeing other buildings and malls offering their space for arts and culture facilities.  

This is the first step in the right direction because visual and performing arts not only require space for shows, studios and exhibitions but also need proper parking facilities for visitors and audiences.  It is a win-win situation because the mall may also enjoy an economic boost as more people throng the mall to go to shows and the gallery.

Last week I was at several JBAF shows and when I met Founder, Advisor and Curator of the JBAF, Yap Siong Cheng, he asked if I went to see any shows in London.  I certainly did and told him how I thoroughly enjoyed the musical comedy, Top Hat, in its nationwide tour at a theatre built within a mall in Milton Keynes.  Just like Yap, who has a keen appreciation for the performing arts in London’s West End, I never missed an opportunity to watch live shows in every visit to the UK. 

[A section of the band] AkashA, performed at the
11th JBAF, in the sweltering heat because the fans
had broken down!
I know that the visual and performing arts scene in JB cannot be compared to that of London and other international cities but as a developing city that aims to attract people and investors to live, work and visit, there is a need to make provision for the development of arts and culture in JB.  The JBAF is into its 11th year and it is sad to see that the value of arts and culture is not properly acknowledged by the city, particularly with the lack of arts infrastructure for live performances.  While some of the acts in the festival calendar may be amateurs, most of the invited performers are music recording artistes who have professional careers in the international scene and their acts should be staged in venues with proper facilities.

And by facilities I mean venues that are well equipped to ensure that the performances are not hindered by poor acoustics or sub-standard equipment that does not function properly during the show and where there are no dressing rooms and proper toilets for the comfort and convenience of both artistes and audience.  The two main venues for the 11th JBAF shows are still in tents and while there is a time and place for outdoor shows, these venues are simply unsuitable for class acts.  The fest organizers are doing their best, but a great deal more can be done to provide suitable venues for traditional and contemporary art forms, that are conducive for the artistes’ performance and the audience’s enjoyment. 

The JBAF is an excellent platform to introduce Nading Rhapsody’s unique fusion of avant-garde Borneo ethnic music in JB and I particularly liked their composition, Umbas, an Iban song with lyrics that called for a stop to discrimination, destruction and racism.  The Xiong Quartet also made their debut in JBAF with a mix of jazz improvisations of chill-out Brazilian music like samba and Bossa nova and the appreciative audience was thrilled that the show was extended because it was earlier interrupted by a break to stop an irritating droning sound from the PA system.  Popular fusion music band AkashA, sweated it out with the audience during their show because all the overhead fans had broken down and worse still, all shows were cancelled one evening because of flashfloods and traffic congestion in the city after a heavy downpour!

Dangerous steps to the stage in the JOTIC
auditorium that was temporarily repaired
over and over again!
Arts and culture form part of the urban value system and reflects the quality of life for the community and if JB aims to project herself competitively in the international arena, then we should have a high standard of arts and culture infrastructure.  

I am privileged to attend many shows in the city and when I meet the stars and cast backstage for behind-the-scenes moments, I also see the deplorable state of facilities that are poorly maintained, some even with fused lights and no nearby toilets.  With larger casts, they are forced to make quick costume changes between scenes, in the stair-well and other convenient corners, but the audience is none the wiser because these artistes are professionals and in spite of the inconveniences, the show simply went on.

The stage and auditorium facilities in the city are in fact multi-purpose halls that are either inaccessible due to high costs or unsuitable as they are without lighting and sound amenities.  The time is ripe to create more venue choices in JB with well-equipped black box spaces and sprung floors where professional artistes can stage their performances.  As we encourage all forms of cultural expressions, there is certainly a need to develop sustainable and quality art infrastructure and make provision for the development of arts and culture here.

A sink backstage of the JOTIC auditorium in a shocking
state of disrepair!
There is nothing like the pleasure of watching live performances and I’m proud that JB has no lack of talented and creative people who are already making an impact in international art circles.  They have taken their art to the highest level and are ready to contribute to the local art scene but are let down by the absence of proper art infrastructure here.  

As part of a strategy to draw new investments, residents and visitors, JB must strengthen its cultural offerings not only with art festivals but to map out our cultural assets like art galleries, heritage districts, conservation areas and creative talents, and then integrate arts and culture into all aspects of urban development. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 22 Sept 2014

Feedback from Jason Kee via Facebook:

Hi Ms Peggy, I was so happy when I saw your article, “New venues for the arts, please.”  That was exactly my sentiments too as a Johorean, JB to be precise. I’m so glad you highlighted this situation and hopefully somebody will do something. To elaborate, my final year thesis was in fact a proposal to this situation. My thesis title was, “Johor Performing Arts Centre: A Centre for the Development of Arts.” I’m an architecture student, just graduated from UTM Skudai.  Cheers to JB!


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