The Kakiseni Association was established in 2001 as the only online platform for artists to post information about productions and events, share news about auditions, reviews, and interviews, essentially functioning as an information hub for artists. In 2011, Kakiseni registered as a non-profit organization and expanded its scope of activities to include events and initiatives aimed at increasing audience size and appreciation for performing arts; developing the skills of Malaysian performing artists and the quality of their performances; and advocating for the arts to the Malaysian government and businesses.
Kakiseni works closely with contemporary artists and collaborates with practitioners of traditional performing arts, including practitioners of mak yong, a traditional Malay dance-drama that was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Since one of the challenges facing the arts in Malaysia is hot to encourage interaction between traditional and contemporary practices, Kakiseni has been exploring ways of getting more Malaysian artists and audiences to engage with traditional arts.
ASEAN Puppetry Conference
In May 2015, as a part of the Hari UNESCO Malaysia 2015 Festival, Kakiseni organized and hosted the ASEAN Puppetry Conference in Kuala Lumpur in collaboration with Artsolute of Singapore. Through the conference, international guests and traditional puppet theatre practitioners were able to exchange ideas on developing their crafts, better understanding puppetry, and introducing traditional puppet theatre to a new generation of practitioners and non-practitioners.
With more than sixty practitioners of traditional puppet theatre from all over Southeast Asia attending the event, the event was successful in increasing awareness and furthering conversations about safeguarding traditional heritage. In addition to presentations and discussions, many collaborations and exchanges occurred under the ASEAN Puppetry Arts Exchange Series, particularly between practitioners of Cambodian sbek thom and Malaysian wayang kulit, which are both forms of traditional shadow puppet theatre.
Kakiseni’s International Arts Festival
Kakiseni’s flagship project is the Kakiseni International Arts Festival. This five-day free-for-all arts festival in Kuala Lumpur features local and international talent. Held in the Bukit Bintang shopping district, the festival is an expression of arts, heritage, culture, and diversity of the imagination. The programs include performing arts showcases and curated workshops. At the main pavilion is the sizable Black Box theatrette with non-stop programming and high-impact performances to attract large audiences.
Safeguarding Malaysia’s Intangible Cultural Heritage
In 2015, Kakiseni invited several mak yong practitioners to perform and engage to promote the idea that traditional performing art forms are still living among us. Many visitors, including local Malaysians, had never seen or even heard of mak yong before the festival. Through the performances, the art form began to enter public discourse and consciousness.
Saving Urban Spaces and Reducing Stress on Infrastructure
The festival is meant to ease public access to the arts by bring the arts to them. Since shopping centers in Malaysia are popularly frequented for social activities, by repurposing shopping centers as performance venues, the public can more easily enjoy and appreciate the arts. Housing performance spaces and exhibition galleries at shopping centers helps reduce the carbon footprint created by having separate and distinct spaces dedicated to any one activity. Residents also do not need to travel from one place to another, which further reduces the burden on public transportation
Improving the Sustainability of Kuala Lumpur
The Kakiseni International Arts Festival emphasizes the need to make arts and culture foundational pillars of sustainability within communities. By improving access to the arts as well as to traditional culture and heritage like mak yong, the festival enriches the urban residents and makes Kuala Lumpur much more livable as compared to other urban centers with poor or no access for residents to participate in a cultural and artistic life. The festival is an effort to advocate for the need to improve access to the arts by showing public policymakers, private corporations, and the public how the arts can position Kuala Lumpur as a hub for cultural tourism.
#seniMAD, Bringing Arts Education to Underprivileged Children
The festival was also the launching platform for another Kakiseni initative, #seniMAD. The purpose of this initiative was to widen access to the arts for children in vulnerable communities. In 2015, the #seniMAD program provided access to the arts, including getting arts practitioners to volunteer their time to coach, subsidizing fees for music or art classes, or even donating used musical instruments and art supplies for 127 underprivileged children. Kakiseni believes that quality education must include outlets for children to express their creativity and to explore pathways to develop as artists.
BOH Cameronian Arts Awards
Since 2002, with the intent of promoting the role of traditional art forms and increasing the relevance of the arts to young audiences, Kakiseni has been running the prominent BOH Cameronian Arts Awards (BCAA) annually. The BCAA is the only arts awards program in Malaysia through which live performances of Malaysian music, dance, and theatre are judged. In the past, traditional performing arts productions, in particular mak yong, have been recipients of the awards. To further promote traditional arts and the fourteenth BCAA in 2017, Kakiseni launched the #gamechangers social media campaign. By highlighting Malaysian performers who have made an influence in their field both domestically and internationally, Kakiseni sought to inspire artists and performers to become game changers. In the previous year, the thirteenth BCAA paid tribute to wayang kulit, mak yong, and teater bangsawan, a type of Malay opera and theatre. All these performances were staged to raise awareness of the need to keep these practices alive.
Leading up to and after the awards, a contemporary performing arts companies expressed an interest in traditional arts and some began to incorporate traditional arts into their productions. Furthermore, a limited edition set of tea canisters were designed through collaboration between graphic designers and theatre experts, raising the visibility of different art forms to the public.
The Other Festival in Ipoh
To increase interest in preserving the heritage of Ipoh Old Town, Kakiseni collaborated with the Perak state government and the Perak Tourism Board in October 2015 to launch The Other Festival in the center of Ipoh Old Town. Under the theme “Mapping the City,” the inaugural festival focused on a series of walking trails throughout the city to experience historic sites and cultural events. These routes were designed by popular personalities who were either Ipoh natives or had a connection to the city.
As a follow-up in 2016, Kakiseni partnered with Doodle Malaysia to launch The Other Festival under the theme “Bongkar Old Town.” Visitors celebrated Ipoh’s history and culture by meeting up and enjoying food while touring in the city and participating in public doodling events as a way of drawing up a map of Ipoh.
Thousands of participants, many of which were visitors to Ipoh, participated in both festivals and could discover parts of the city that they had never visited before.
In 2017, Kakiseni released Shadows, the first in a series of children’s books called Hikayat as a platform to introduce traditional Malaysian arts to schoolchildren. The first book was inspired by the art and stories of wayang kulit and was developed with the help of wayang kulit practitioners. There are plans to eventually launch workshops structured to educate children about the history and significance of these art forms in Malaysia, to get them to create the props and materials used by these art forms, and to participate in the performance aspect as well.
It is a challenge finding a balance between cultural preservation and progress in the practice of traditional Malaysian art. But promoting awareness and engagement helps keep traditional practices relevant while encouraging contemporary artists to tap into the cultural heritage found in this country. If anyone is interested in exploring ways and means of bringing these two practices together, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Low Ngai Yuen (Director, Kakiseni Association)
Lynn Loo (Head of Arts Outreach, Kakiseni Association)