Power of street art
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.”