It looks as if Malaysia will soon be entering a phase where the economy will be opening up.
The local arts industry is expected to pick up too, with the government recently launching Art In The City (AITC) 2021 initiative, to re-invigorate Malaysia’s creative scene throughout the last quarter of 2021.
This is great news for many arts and culture practitioners, yet, it also means another shift, which is only one of many that have taken place since 202o.
Changing gears too frequently and in between short intervals has not been easy. What are some of the ways for artists to cope during the pandemic?
Few artists were lucky enough to “pivot”, as was expected of many businesses and industries during the lockdown season, yet many more of us were forced to take up jobs in different industries.
For some, these measures were only temporary but for others, sadly, the change is permanent, signaling a close of their artistic endeavours.
Are there ways we can spur each other on and opportunities to keep championing the arts?
Actor, Charles Roberts shares his thoughts after speaking with fellow practitioners in the performing arts, namely actress, Sharifah Amani, filmmaker, Gogularajan Rajendran and dancer, Priyangka Satsitananda.
Imagine being told that what you do for a living does not qualify as a “real job”.
As an artist, hearing this type of comment is all too common. Sometimes it feels like, choosing to be an artist requires getting used to being disrespected in this way.
Yet, despite all the odds, many of us persevere, even as the struggle to “make it” in the arts in Malaysia seems like an impossible dream.
Call it blind passion or madness but as an artist, art is a way of being, not just a means to a living.
Actress Sharifah Amani says the role of the artists goes beyond amusing people for the sake of it.
“I believe as artists, our responsibility is not just to provide entertainment.
“We immortalise stories so the future generation could learn something from it,” she said.
Actor and dancer, Priyangka Satsitananda says many fail to understand that the main reason many artists continue cultivating their craft is due to the act of it being a fulfillment in itself.
”Talking about money can be a very touchy subject for an artist because we do not really do it for the money or even the fame.
“Although the pay may be better (in regular jobs) than what I make in the arts, I found it was not fulfilling to my soul,” said Priyangka.
In the years prior to March 2020, filmmaker, Gogularaajan Rajendran (Gogu), used to capture footage and inspiration from the outdoors.
He found his workflow disrupted when the movement control order (MCO) was announced.
He wondered, how to tell stories of people without observing them go about their daily lives?
Just like many of us, Gogu found himself feeling uninspired and unable to create.
After many months of watching friends in non-arts fields getting back to work and regaining some form of “normality”, many in the arts sector were facing false starts and dashed hopes.
The on-again, off-again announcements from authorities meant gigs and projects could not be delivered according to plans.
Gogu decided to create some productivity around the work lull by gaining new skills through workshops online.
Now that the restrictions appear to relax again, Gogu is hopeful for potentially going out with his video camera again, however, he does not intend to forgo the habit of continuous learning that he had picked up.
“I am making it a point to learn something new every day.
“I set goals (for myself, such as) to watch at least one short film per day, read at least one short story per day, and write for my script one hour per day.
“These goals, when I accomplish them, give me assurance and satisfaction. I feel purposeful, and I could look past the gloom forced on us.
“I think the key is to identify big goals and also the small steps towards it that we can make to kickstart it,” said Gogu.
As each day passed, hope and money in our bank accounts wore thin. This is when the anxiety kicks in.
For many arts and culture players, our main source of income is commonly derived from projects and events.
The cancellation of these hit us hard, especially because artists’ contracts hardly include income protection terms or benefits such as medical insurance.
Although most of us could apply our talents in other industries such as administration and writing, some of us found ourselves staring at possibilities of being unable to return to the arts.
The stark reality of the pandemic hit Sharifah Amani when some of the film crew members she had worked with told of being chased out of their houses as they struggled to provide for their families.
“Years of mismanagement and no proper channel to protect art practitioners lead to most of my abang crews jobless.
“I did not even have money to help them and that made me helpless so I did the next best thing, reaching out”, she said.
“If no one was going to talk to us, we were going to talk to each other. If no one is going to help us, we’re going to help each other out”, Sharifah said.
Sharifah was also involved in fundraising initiatives like “Terbaik Dari Langit: Reunion” Screenplay Read, to assist those in the entertainment industry.
Priyangka Satsitananda had to resort to selling off her car and taking up an administrative job to tide things over.
Yet, the main concerns plaguing her mind were the pressures that only artists are forced to deal with.
“We are involved in the arts because we love it but to be left with no money to even feed ourselves takes a toll not only on our livelihood but also our mental health.
“Being an artist, we are constantly questioning our self-worth and to be told by the masses that our line of work is not essential was a huge blow to our mental wellbeing.
“Staring at the wall while questioning every life decision we ever made became a norm, worse is when the suicidal thoughts start to creep in.
“If I am not allowed to do what I love and if I don’t matter what is the point of living?”
Delegasi Anak Seni, comprising some of Malaysia’s well-known artists, including Sharifah Amani, tried to help with the #apakhabaranakseni movement.
The intention is to uplift the art community by encouraging them to create and share their art on their social media platforms as an outlet to vent out their frustrations.
Being in that dark spot can be scary but the beautiful thing about the arts is the community that uplifts each other.
Sharifah Amani turned her strong fanbase on Twitter to advocate for artists in calling for a better ecosystem and more laws to protect arts and culture practitioners.
The arts industry being deemed “non-essential” is not fair, as it creates the notion that the business of making arts is not important and can be sidelined.
“First step is to make noise, then the next step is to find the solution. As artists, we need to speak up to make our voice heard because we matter too,” she said.
As we now approach the endemic phase and artists are gradually able to get back to work, we can only look back at the lessons this year and a half has taught us.
The biggest lesson most of us have learned is that we have the ability to endure even the toughest of times.
The path of an artist is an unconventional one, but banding together as a community can help to amplify our voices. This way, we can start holding discourse around this subject and allow the public to better understand how artists help to shape the community.
It will take time for the industry to recover, but despite the major setback that the pandemic has wrought, perhaps we can look more hopefully towards a better future, together.
Cover images by dusan jovic and hafizh armynazrie on Unsplash.
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