Courtesy of Syarifah Nadhirah

Caring for the Carers: How Malaysian artists working with communities hold space

I had forgotten how loaded the words “how are you,” or “apa khabar,” can be. I’ve always had issues with the greetingI used to think that it was a statement/question that stops someone cold the moment they are asked, as how can you even summarise how you are doing if you start reflecting on your state of being, at any given moment? As I got older, and moved deeper into the career, community, and professional hustle, I had to learn to soften my understanding of “how are you”. I learned to accept it as a greeting, tossed around to lighten up an encounter and not to weigh it further. Especially when “networking” and “meeting” become more of a routine than they are intentional or personal.

But over the past year with the pandemic, with increasing uncertainties engulfing the lives of many people, it’s become clear that “how are you” has become more loaded as a question. And it was this very question that was introduced, intentionally and with care, by Malaysian dancer and artist Lee Ren Xin, and art practitioner Rupa Subramaniam, at Mekong Cultural Hub’s (MCH) Kuala Lumpur local gathering of seven women whose artistic advocacy practices are rooted on the ground with their communities. The local gatheringwhich Ren Xin and Rupa endearingly refer to as “Meeting Ground”took place on Zoom on 17 July as part of the mini-Meeting Point organised by Mekong Cultural Hub (MCH). 

Ren Xin had invited me to join her local gathering in March. She told me about how she was encountering more women in “artistic advocacy,” doing works like helping build access to education for urban poor children, empowering Orang Asli through arts, and exercising environmental empowerment with marginalised communities through permaculture and arts. These art/culture practitioners work on the ground with people, care for them, and continuously provide support for their community, and Ren Xin wondered if they themselves are supported. She said she’d like to “hold space” for these women – a phrase she kept repeating to me over the next few months after that. It was a phrase I thought I understood enough to process, but apparently not enough to appreciate the meaning of, until I met the whole group a few months later.  

An image of the work of social enterprise GoodKids, which empowers youths using art and counselling. Image from the GoodKids website.

We were first acquainted with each other in May, as one of the eight local gatherings in six countries organised as part of Meeting Point by MCH. Among the many things we touched on in the in-depth introduction session was a lingering sense of worry that was common among all of us – worries of not being able to serve our communities enough, whether we’re being good enough middle parties that connect stakeholders with the needs of the people on the ground, and whether we are doing enough justice for everyone.

I began to process what Ren Xin meant. Art and culture practitioners whose work is deeply rooted in caring and building their community must “hold space” for others – spending time building relationships, because building presence and meaning is crucial to their work. They need to feel the tremors on the ground and assess them in order to work, as tangible and intangible connections are crucial as you work towards creating bonds with people’s hearts. 

But while they spend so much energy “holding space,” validating and understanding people, the irony is that they probably don’t get that for themselves enough. And so ”how are you?”, to them, is not just a casual question, because it is THE question that they ask people they work with day after day, and the thoughtfulness of the answers they receive isn’t just a matter of manners – it is vital information that helps them with their work in this ecosystem. 

A threatened forest in Selangor, part of the project Sights & Sounds by artist Syarifah Nadhirah. Image taken from the artist’s website.

And that was how the local gathering on July 17th started. Rupa’s simple “how are you” to each of us opened the group up to in-depth reflections on generational trauma, how to process rage and turn it into courage, caring for the self while caring for others, and understanding boundaries. I began noticing that a lot of us seek refuge in our art and cultural work, and in caring for the community. We treat our work as an opportunity for us to heal from unhealthy boundaries, demands, and expectations from people in our own lives, whose weight of importance has been predefined for us culturally and traditionally.

For most of us, our current work is a result of a spiritual journey that we took for us to understand ourselves beyond our predefined roles – socially or culturally. For example, my work as a video journalist started after I grew up with many Iraqi refugees in Selangor, where many of them were women, and preferred to speak to women in the neighbourhoods. But there were few camera women and women journalists who were empowered to engage with these communities in the newsrooms. As I pursued my studies and began my practice in the United States around 10 years after 9/11, I felt unrepresented and misidentified, pushing me further to ground my space and take ownership in the newsrooms I belonged in.    

Rupa validated the group, acknowledging that there is a struggle to distinguish the social fabric of the people around us (especially our family), vs. seeing their existence as just individuals, as people. I then began to think about how much thought we put into caring and building our community in our work, and I wondered, how might this actually be remnants of our socially nurtured understanding of our obligations, especially as women? I thought about how much unlearning and relearning community carers and artists who identify as women actually have to do as they try to draw boundaries and find themselves again. 

Work then becomes the space to process and distinguish which parts of ourselves belong to us, and which parts are shared with the world. Work is how these carers hold space for themselves. But where does that space start for others and end for them? 

A screenshot from “Sekolah Bandar,”a documentary-in-progress about retiring teachers and urban poor children navigating online learning during the pandemic by Rahmah Pauzi. Image courtesy of Rahmah Pauzi.

I reflected on the work that these carers and artists do. I reflected on my work as a documentary maker, where I work closely with my local communities in telling their stories – about being refugees and migrants, about being 17-year-old schoolchildren with no access to education, and about being urban, and poor. Our interactions with people and the community we work with continuously reveal people’s contexts and vulnerabilities, and that’s why we work hard at handling it with care. But I think somehow we also fully understand why we give ourselves away as much as we do – because we all have been on the other end of that equation, and we know well what it is like not to be nourished, so much so that it is ingrained in our bodies. 

“In order for change to happen, change has to happen in the body, not cognitively…” said Ren Xin, drawing on what she learned from the book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem. 

Many of us are still learning to draw boundaries and heal, but first, acknowledging this process in our work is a crucial step for many art and community practitioners. Thoughtful and impactful work on the ground goes beyond drafting results-driven strategies. What Rupa, Ren Xin, and the rest of the group managed to remind me during this process is that artists who also wear a carer’s hat are also the bearers of these results, and supportespecially in art and advocacy workis a two-way street. And that process can start with a complex, but intentional and thoughtful “how are you?”

Meeting Ground, organised by Lee Ren Xin and Rupa Subramaniam, was organised as part of a programme of mini-Meeting Point 2021 on 17 July 2021, presented by Mekong Cultural Hub (MCH).

This article is sponsored by Mekong Cultural Hub.

About the author(s)

Rahmah Pauzi is a digital content specialist, freelance video journalist, and documentary arts/film practitioner based in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. She's currently heading the digital content division at a local publishing house, IMAN Publication and previously was the video lead at BFM Radio, where she was also a frequent guest of a weekly arts and culture show, A Bit of Culture, hosted by Kam Raslan. She holds an MA in News & Documentary from New York University, and has done works for outlets such as PBS, Al Jazeera, Channel News Asia, and International Business Times. Most of her works revolve around the theme of home, self-exile, crossroads, and memory. Some of her works include VR documentary Return to Chernobyl, (2016 OJA Nominee), 24 (Szczecin European Film Festival), Welcome to Malaysia, King George Didn’t Know What’s Gonna Happen (Alternative Film Festival 2017), One Day When I Grow Up (One World Media & ASIADOC 2021), and documentary performance A Notional History (TPAM Yokohama, 2019) by Five Arts Centre.

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