Interview with Annie Jael Kwan, Festival Producer and Curator of Visual Arts & Moving Image at SEA ArtsFest London
In its second consecutive year, SEA ArtsFest London opened its series of events on September 25th. The ArtsFest takes place at various prominent venues throughout London and it continues until November 2nd. The Artling speaks to one of the founders and organizers of the SEA ArtsFest, Annie Jael Kwan, to learn more about this promising initiative.
How did the SEA ArtsFest come about?
SEA ArtsFest started, as many good ideas do, around a delicious meal and a chat. The food was of course, Southeast Asian, and typically, spicy and plentiful. The conversation was, as I remember, quite inspiring. It was a table of academics, artists and producers – all coming together with very different perspectives and foci of interests, which perhaps were exactly the right ingredients.
What is your background and how did you end up as one of the originators and producers of SEA ArtsFest?
I grew up in Singapore. My interests were always in the creative field, first in literature and then I started studying and working in the theatre in my teens. I then went to London to study Drama and Theatre Arts, and research in cultural theory and moving image at Goldsmiths, before doing a law conversion degree. I’ve lived and worked in London for over a decade now, working across various fields in visuals, filmmaking, installations and exhibitions. A few things came together over the last few years – first, reaching a point in my life where there was an urge to reconnect with Asia, with a sense of cultural identity, and subconsciously seeking out projects and opportunities that would allow me to do so, and this led to meeting more likeminded people with shared interests. I see the festival as a great platform, to do projects that specifically seek to connect both regions, and hence encourage dialogue and artistic exchange between the two regions.
Photo credit: Jai Rafferty
The festival focus is exclusively on SEA. Why this regional choice within the broader Asia?
There are several reasons for this. In the UK, there’s been a lot of work done to increase representation for South Asian communities but even as the numbers of Southeast Asians living in the UK increase, this group is still quite underrepresented. The region is also undergoing a lot of change, with a flow of economic investment into developing countries in the region, and in the last few years, there’s also been a surge of activity in terms of political and social development. At the same time, and maybe, typically, there’s been a lot of interesting, innovative work emerging from artists, writers and practitioners in the region, all responding or calling into question these trends.
Does this regional art have specific characteristics that distinguish it as typically SEA?
This is such an interesting and yet challenging question. Different curators and programmers might say so but yet posit the reasoning entirely differently. There are references to shared Hindu/Chinese heritage strands, an all-encompassing Buddhist sensibility, etc. but to a certain extent, it is such a culturally diverse region, where each place has its own particular socio-economic, cultural, political and religious context. It’s daunting and also dangerous to draw too broad strokes which might negate these finer points.
Photo credit: David Sentosa
Within SEA art, is the ArtsFest drawn specifically to certain art practices? Was there something you tried to move away from while selecting / conceptualizing the ArtsFest?
I think one of the exciting things about our team, is that we each have quite different passions and different foci in our work, which allows for development of different strands of work in visual arts and moving image, literature and music, heritage and performance. We each lead on different aspects, though usually, we all end up quite interested and involved in each other’s programmes. I lead the visual arts and moving image programme. I wouldn’t say we “tried to move away” from anything in the selection – personally, my approach is more about being interested in what is happening on the ground level in the UK and in Southeast Asia, the dialogues relevant to the relationship between the regions.
Could art works shown away from the SEA region be misinterpreted as exotic?
Yes, one could say so, and even so, geographically within the region, depending on who is looking. One could argue that the viewer projects his own fantasies or anxieties on the object, and that can happen anywhere. There are also always situations where one can self-‘exoticise’ – by being aware how one is presented to the international eye and trying to cater to the demands of the global market. But the subjective eye/I is on the move as well, as artists and makers extend their practice abroad via residencies and collaborative projects, and there’s an increase in self-reflexivity in different directions.
Photo credit: Annie Jael Kwan
2014 is the second edition of the SEA ArtsFest. How was it received last year and what did you learn from last year’s experience?
SEA ArtsFest simply exploded last year from an initial idea of a weekend, into 6-week programme that spanned theatre and outdoor performance, film, literature, music, and visual art. We had terrific support from diaspora artist groups, researchers and local communities. What we did learn very quickly, was that we needed a bigger team – or try to do less, but as you can see, we didn’t succeed on that front this year.
What do you hope audiences in London may take away from this festival?
I hope they take away a sense of the diversity and rich potential of the region – and also an insight into some of the issues currently in discussion over there and also very much relevant here. Also, I hope people just have a really good time and enjoy the work, and of course, the food!
Annie Jael Kwan trained in theatre arts, film and cultural theory at Goldsmiths College and then obtained a postgraduate qualification in Law. She has worked as producer and curator on numerous arts projects, including with arts collective, The Light Surgeons from 2006 till the present. Works included producing immersive installation, Domestic Archaeology at the Geffrye Museum, funded by Arts Council England; Articulated London, a large-scale multidisciplinary exhibition at the four storey London Oxo Barge House, sponsored by Nokia Nseries; the Overture Film commissioned by the South Bank Centre and projected on the Royal Festival Hall during its re-opening weekend; the visuals for Vangelis: A New Hope; “TLS vs ELO”, a LED installation on the front façade of the Wembley Theatre; and touring The Light Surgeon’s live audio-visual performance, Super Everything, commissioned by the British Council Malaysia, to Singapore. Apart from being co-director and founder of Something Human, she is also Festival Producer for SEA ArtsFest, the UK’s only arts festival that champions Southeast Asian artists and works inspired by the region, and leading on curating its visual arts programme and SEA ArtsFilm, its screening programme of feature-length and short moving image works.
The SEA Arts Fest is a collaboration among:
Mark Hobart - Director of SEA Arts
Ni Made Pujawati - Artistic Director of SEA Arts
Hi Ching - Artistic Director of River Cultures and Director of SEA ArtsFest 2013/2014
Annie Jael Kwan - Festival Producer and Curator of Visual Arts and Moving Image
Cui Yin Mok - Producer-at-Large, leading in Marketing and Digital programming
Lin Mingyu - Associate Producer, Theatre and Performance
Thong Kay Wee - Videographer and Production
Jai Rafferty - Videographer, production and technical consultant
Dr Tan Shzr Ee - Consultant for Academic Panel