Power of street art

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ARTS -

WHEN you see thou­sands of refugees, in­clud­ing chil­dren, flee­ing the tur­moil in­side Myan­mar across the bor­der into Thai­land, what can you do?

If you are a per­form­ing arts pro­po­nent like Jerry Snell, you may want to help them by teach­ing them cir­cus ac­ro­bat­ics and hip-hop street danc­ing.

Snell was in­spired by the suc­cess of the world fa­mous Cirque du Soleil’s outreach pro­gramme called Cirque du Monde (Cir­cus of the World), which teaches cir­cus tech­niques to vul­ner­a­ble, other­wise re­jected, young peo­ple to help them get their self-con­fi­dence back and to re­con­nect with so­ci­ety.

Snell was also heart­ened by how eight young Cam­bo­di­ans, af­ter a child­hood spent in refugee camps on the Thai bor­der, re­turned to their coun­try and cre­ated Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak, a cir­cus and arts school to help vul­ner­a­ble youth, such as street and traf­ficked chil­dren and or­phans, rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety. “In 12 years this or­gan­i­sa­tion has ex­panded to over 800 stu­dents,” says Snell.

The Cana­dian is cur­rently in Kuala Lumpur to par­tic­i­pate in the arts fes­ti­val he co-or­gan­ised, Col­li­sion Arts Asia, which is tak­ing place to­day and over the week­end at Pub­lika, So­laris Du­ta­mas, Kuala Lumpur.

“An­other im­pres­sive ex­am­ple is in Ethiopia where af­ter the bru­tal war, a young Cana­dian founded a small cir­cus school in 1991 to help the chil­dren there. One of the chil­dren, Aweke Emiru, is now the di­rec­tor of Cir­cus Ethiopia in Ad­dis Ababa.”

There is also a fu­sion “new cir­cus” Dev­dan Show in Bali with an outreach pro­gramme run by the Red Nose Foun­da­tion in Jakarta that helps street chil­dren in the slums.

Snell – who has lived in Asia for 10 years and is cur­rently based part-time at Sangkhlaburi near the Thai-Myan­mar bor­der – says that tens of thou­sands of refugees have crossed over into Thai­land to es­cape the decades-long and on­go­ing tur­moil in­side Myan­mar.

Most of the refugees are from the Mon and Karen tribes, and in the past they have been tar­geted by the bru­tal cam­paigns of the Burmese mil­i­tary in one of the long­est civil wars in his­tory, which has in­cluded at­tacks on vil­lages, de­struc­tion of food stores, forced labour, rapes and com­pul­sory re­lo­ca­tion, says Snell.

“And when the kids come across the bor­der, they can’t speak Thai and are tar­gets for hu­man traf­fick­ing by modern-day slave labour traders.”

In 2008, Snell helped to found Cir­cus Ac­tion In­ter­na­tional, a net­work unit­ing groups in Cam­bo­dia, Thai­land, Viet­nam, Laos and In­dia us­ing per­form­ing and cir­cus arts as a tool to help mi­grant, street and other vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren, while seek­ing teach­ers, equip­ment and re­sources from Aus­tralia, Canada, the United States and other Western coun­tries as well as from Asia.

Snell is work­ing with two homes in Sangkhlaburi, the Chil­dren of the For­est and Baan Un­rak (House of Love), which each care for about 130 chil­dren.

Last May, with sup­port from the Swiss Em­bassy in Bangkok, they man­aged to set up a tent that now serves as an arts cen­tre for vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren there.

“We do not have fund­ing as yet,” he says. “But through my pro­fes­sional shows and fes­ti­vals like the up­com­ing Col­li­sion Arts Fes­ti­val in KL, we help to raise some funds and also get per­form­ers in­ter­ested to vol­un­teer for our outreach projects.”

Snell says they could ex­pand but are re­stricted due to lack of funds to pay teach­ers; cur­rently, they rely on vol­un­teer teach­ers.

Cir­cus Ac­tion works with the Ital­ian non­profit group Arteca (As­so­ci­a­tion for co­op­er­a­tion and de­vel­op­ment in ed­u­ca­tion – www. arte­caitalia.eu) and teach­ers at Sangkhlaburi in­clude Fed­erico Vanni (judo), Fabio Mancini (sculp­ture/the­atre), Alessan­dro Scullari (video) and Snell (ro­bot and mime).

The goals of Cir­cus Ac­tion In­ter­na­tional are to give street chil­dren or at-risk youth a health­ier al­ter­na­tive by of­fer­ing hip-hop, ac­ro­bat­ics, cir­cus and art classes, rather than just loaf­ing about.

“We have not yet started in Malaysia, but just re­cently Yayasan Chow Kit (a lo­cal NGO that works with streets kids in Kuala Lumpur) asked us to do some arts and hip-hop classes for their youth in KL,” says Snell.

What about per­cep­tions that stuff like street danc­ing and per­haps cir­cus per­for­mance is viewed by con­ser­va­tive Asian so­ci­ety as ju­ve­nile delin­quent ac­tiv­i­ties?

“Con­ser­va­tive Asian or Chi­nese so­ci­eties some­times fear evo­lu­tion and pre­fer to re­main in a cul­tural strait­jacket where in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion is frowned upon,” ac­knowl­edges Snell, who has worked in Tai­wan and China.

“Some pre­fer cen­sor­ship rather than free­dom and many iso­lated con­ser­va­tive per­sons are so out of touch with to­day’s youth rather than tak­ing the steps to en­cour­age peo­ple who are try­ing to make changes for the bet­ter.”

Snell is a firm believer in the power of art to help peo­ple.

“Dur­ing the Sichuan earthquake of 2009 in China, we and other artists from Clowns With­out Bor­ders went in to do shows. Of course, peo­ple needed food, medicine and shel­ter, but they also needed to laugh to help them get through their or­deal.”

Cir­cus Ac­tion In­ter­na­tional’s project at Sangkhlaburi has been in place for only three years, “but some of our chil­dren are al­ready be­com­ing teach­ers and one is an ex­cel­lent dancer who is try­ing to get a schol­ar­ship at a per­form­ing arts school in Bangkok,” says Snell proudly.

“As our chil­dren are state­less it is dif­fi­cult for them to travel, but through YouTube and other so­cial me­dia they are be­gin­ning to get some ex­po­sure, and per­haps one day we will have more suc­cess sto­ries. The fact that they have sur­vived the wars and tur­moil in Burma is a suc­cess story in it­self!”

Be­sides, what is to­day’s gritty, cut­ting-edge, street art, may well be­come high art one day. There is no finer ex­am­ple of this than the story of the renowned Cirque du Soleil that be­gan in Canada and now has shows all over the world, in­clud­ing per­ma­nent ones in Las Ve­gas in Amer­ica.

“I was a fel­low street per­former with the founders and di­rec­tors of Cirque du Soleil and the National Cir­cus School of Canada. I wit­nessed their evo­lu­tion from tal­ented street stilt, mime or clown per­form­ers to be­come one of the big­gest en­ter­tain­ment pro­duc­ers in the world,” Snell re­calls. “And let’s not for­get the evo­lu­tion of street dance into the modern per­for­mance world of Michael Jack­son and MTV. Think about the fact that street dance is now of­fered in pres­ti­gious dance schools around the world. Street art is evolv­ing at a great pace.”

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