Fifteen Years of Johor Arts Fests

Johor-born internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Ajith Baskaran Dass and Suvarna Fine Arts dancers impressed the audience in the 15JohorAF with a classic Bharatanatyam performance entitled, Much Ado About Dance

The 15th Johor Arts Festival kicked off a three-week programme on 1st September 2018 with Poetic Vibes, a poetry-reading-workshop-book launch event and Kulit On The Go, an interesting and thought-provoking monologue in a contemporary theatre show.

The annual arts festival, organised by the Johor Society for the Performing Arts (JSPA), is not only one of the longest running festivals in the nation but also one of the most highly anticipated arts and cultural events in the state.

The finale of musical drama, Bumi Berlantai Permata, staged at the 2010 Johor Arts Festival that featured local musical artistes and actors as well as the pugilistic skills of wushu artistes, at a make-shift stage on Bukit Timbalan

It all started in 1998 when a bunch of creative minds got together to do something to stir up some excitement in Johor Bahru.

In 2000, they registered as JSPA, a non-commercial organisation with a mission to encourage, develop, support, advance, create awareness and instill an appreciation for the arts in Johor through cool and relevant projects across a wide spectrum of artistic disciplines and genres.
In addition to the annual Johor Arts Fest, JSPA also organises festivals for Jazz, Film, Indigenous, Classical Music, Piano, Writers & Readers and other stand-alone events.

From my collection of photos and stories on the past festivals, I seem to have traveled a fair bit of the journey with JSPA founder, Yap Siong Cheng, and his wife and Festival Director, Suzie Yap, over the years.

The inaugural Johor Baru Jazz Festival in 2015 featured a cast of internationally renowned artistes including international jazz legend and world-class saxophonist, Sadao Watanabe

I remember the festival village in Plaza Kotaraya for the 6th Johor Arts Fest in 2009 and I watched shows in the open carpark, next to the Puteri Pacific Hotel.

In 2010, the 7th festival found a new home in the grounds of Bukit Timbalan where shows were performed on a temporary stage with the stunning backdrop of the majestic Sultan Ibrahim Building.

The festival village was created in a few portable but air-conditioned rooms and the temporary stage set up in its compound, was thankfully, canopied.

For the first time in history, members of the public were welcomed onto the hallowed heights of Bukit Timbalan and as it was once a restricted area, it took some time before people learnt that it was no longer out-of-bounds!

So the next three festivals, 8th (2011), 9th (2012) and 10th (2013), were held on the hill.
Suzie has done well in leading, motivating, training and inspiring their team to forge ahead in organising festival after festival, in spite of daunting circumstances.

When I asked Yap for his thoughts about their 15 years of arts fests, he replied sagely with, “Passion sits incongruously with the realities of life.”

Indigenous art presented through dance performances in the 2013 Johor Arts Festival that also welcomed the public to enjoy shows on Bukit Timbalan with the stunning backdrop of the majestic Sultan Ibrahim Building

He confessed that in the first few years, they were anxious to push ticket sales and he used to call his friends to get them to buy tickets and come for shows. The response was good but after a while Yap noticed that if he didn’t call, they didn’t have the inclination to get tickets. It dawned on him that they were just buying tickets to support him as a friend and did not believe in the cause that JSPA was championing. He feels that people must genuinely want to come for the performing arts and make conscious effort and decisions. So he stopped calling them.

Looking back, I saw how Yap and Suzie worked hard to knock down walls and build bridges to link up with the various communities to get them to participate in the festivals.
A classic example of the fruit of their labour is the musical drama, Bumi Berlantai Permata, staged at the 2010 Johor Arts Festival that featured local musical artistes and actors with a Malay-English script, teamed with the pugilistic skills of wushu artistes.

Both Yap and Suzie, untrained and unlearned in the arts, often faced doubts on their credibility or the right to do arts but their commitment to arts saw them through the years.

Their daughter, Chloe, was actively involved since 2013 and after her graduation in 2016, she grew into her role as the Festival Administrator – Liaison, tasked with an unenviable job of liaising with government departments, sponsors, partners, vendors, suppliers and artistes.

She may have started as a coolie but Chloe has a vital role in the team, doing a great deal of tedious work behind the scenes before a festival happens.

Besides coordinating stage-builders, sound, lighting, instrument suppliers, hotels, venues, transport agencies, caterers (the list goes on!), Chloe also does copywriting to compile programmes, for their website and social media platforms.

Blessed with a crisp, clear voice, Chloe is also the de facto emcee at the fests!

The 11th arts fest held at Dataran Bandaraya Johor Bahru in 2014 was still within a temporary shelter but the next festivals moved into various venues – all of them buildings with halls that were modified for presentations, shows and exhibitions.

As Iskandar Malaysia developed with new destinations, the 12th arts fest was centered in the Mall of Medini in 2015.

Meanwhile the hip and happening places in the rejuvenated heritage quarter begged to be rediscovered, so the 13th arts fest in 2016 highlighted interesting venues like cool cafés and even back lanes!

The festival programme gradually developed with music, dance, theatre, film, comedy, culture/heritage, visual arts and also fashion.

Perspective: The Runway, a fashion show for wearable art, made its debut in 2016 at the ballroom of DoubleTree by Hilton JB and continued its series in 2017 and 2018.

“We have grown with the city and likewise, we are constantly innovating and pushing boundaries,” said Suzie.

Yap succinctly summed it up: “It takes a non-artist and true appreciator of the arts to organise a good arts fest and that is why we do what we do.”

Yap and Suzie are now synonymous with the Johor Arts Festival and for their passion and commitment to creating a vibrant art scene; they were honoured for Arts and Culture, as Category and Individual winners at the 2014 Iskandar Malaysia Social Hero Awards.

While the festivals may have evolved since its inception, JSPA continues to seek partnerships with likeminded individuals and organisations to bring the arts fests to greater heights and showcase Johor as a destination with its own cultural identity in this region.