Can the arts solve community issues in the region? The SEA*5 think so.

Can the creative society in Southeast Asia support each other in finding solutions to problems in our communities, powered by compassion and empathy? That’s one of the questions at the heart of the existence of Project SEA*5

The group comprises five creative practitioners working across different local community contexts: community architect-urbanist Joanne Mun advocates for creative upcycling in Kuala Lumpur; artist and art therapist Zun Ei Phyu from Yangon believes in the role of art to realign the mind and body during difficult times; Jakarta-based film distributor Gayatri Nadya utilises film to engage the community in Indonesia; creative producer Heng Samnang from Phnom Penh is interested in encouraging kindness to the earth; and artist-activist Raz Salvarita from Lambunao, Philippines, facilitates creative recovery programmes in rural communities to encourage joy in the direst of situations. 

The SEA*5 team (from left): Raz Salvarita, Heng Samnang, Zun Ei Phyu, Gayatri Nadya and Joanne Mun


The five first met in Phnom Penh in November 2019 through the SEAΔ Program by Mekong Cultural Hub and British Council. In September 2020, they decided to continue their creative efforts in the form of Project SEA*5. Since then, they’ve met online every Sunday to chat and brainstorm ideas on projects that can help address various local challenges in the community, through implementing creative viable solutions. 

Projects they’ve initiated include Zun’s 1000 Cranes praying project in Yangon, which involved an installation of paper cranes as well as online meditation and art therapy, to encourage Myanmar people to “reimagine freedom by responding with art and mindfulness” and see that “they are not alone”. Joanne conducted creative upcycling workshops in Kuala Lumpur, even creating a music video to spread the message of sustainability, while Nadya organised film screenings in different parts of Indonesia such as in a forest in Majalengka, West Java, as a means of building resilience, healing and even maintaining sanity. 

Project SEA*5 aims to create a network of Creative Responders in Southeast Asia, consisting of individuals (not just from the creative industry) that “have the heart to want to help their communities during a crisis”. They will be sharing more about their initiatives on Saturday, July 17 as part of the online event Revealing Contexts Part II: The Cultural Worker in Times of Social Change, organised by Mekong Cultural Hub.  

ArtsEquator speaks to all five members of Project SEA*5 about their initiative, and what it takes to achieve social change in Southeast Asia. 

[The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed]

1) Your aim is to build a network of Creative Responders across the Southeast Asian region and the Global South. Why do we need this? 

Samnang: In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are battling with a great deal of social problems, especially socio-economic difficulties. We are in a different place from before and we need to act differently – physically and mentally – and we face major challenges. We need to respond to the immediate COVID-19 situation and also to prepare for a world post-pandemic. We need to build new creative tools, platforms for new opportunities and get better prepared for the “new normal” after a pandemic. This could be a space for us to play, keep our connections, exercise our brain, and realise new ways of thinking and doing. 

2) Looking at your social media posts, words like “survival”, “sustainability”, “sanity” exist alongside the word “creativity”. How important is the “creative” part of the “Creative Responders”? Why?

Joanne: Creative thinking has proven to allow us to solve problems more openly and broaden our perspectives when in difficult situations. However, the creative society of the future needs to be built as an inclusive form, capable of seeing creativity not only as a domain of a select few (those in the creative occupations), but as a quality that individuals and communities inherently have in raw form. And this needs to be nurtured, supported, and channeled into a positive force for change. The creative society will be more prepared than others to confront the challenges ahead because it will be building resilience within its respective communities. Creativity also provides us the ability to seek for customised solutions to local challenges and go beyond “one size fits all”.

3) What is your ideal scenario in terms of how this network of Creative Responders will work? 

Raz: We hope that as Project SEA*5 continues to grow and flourish, it will organically attract like-minded individuals and organisations to extend support to help strengthen the structure of the network and also help carve the direction where it can fully serve its purpose and mission. We envision it to be a steering instrument to help facilitate social actions, driven by the passion and enthusiasm of those who desire to contribute towards change in a creative way. 

Nadya: Ideally these would be collaborators from any art and cultural practices in the region, who have opportunities to create local and regional engagement as individual practitioners, who can also respond to the global context as a whole team.

4) What have been some “wins” for your group? 

Joanne: Since we started SEA*5 in late-2020, the global situation has changed so rapidly. Our original plan was to meet in Battambang, Cambodia and conduct a three-day arts and cultural festival, working alongside local communities and NGOs, but we had to swiftly move our whole project online. This was a lesson for us on how to respond to situations creatively and reimagine our project in a way that allows us to still benefit our communities. We created a hybrid mode with “Onland” and “Online” activities – where we start with onland activities working with our communities in each city, and then bring these to an online forum which most likely will reach a wider regional audience.

If we have the heart, courage and determination to go beyond, we will be able to find solutions, as every crisis generates opportunities.

  • 1000 Cranes Praying Myanmar, a project initiated by Zun Ei Phyu in Yangon, Myanmar.

5) What challenges have you had to face?

Raz: When implementing our respective onland community projects, we faced challenges like the local lockdowns which prevented some of the activities from happening and schedules had to be moved. These did cause a strain in our energy levels, yet we were keen to not give up, and just trusted that things would flow and that we are here to support each other. Long-term challenges would be the sustainability of the project – partly because of its ‘voluntary’ nature for the moment. Our commitments may shift when other challenges may arise but we are going where the joy of hearts direct us as a group and that’s fine.

6) You follow the action points of 5Rs: Resilience, Readiness, Respond, Recover and Reimagine. Southeast Asia itself is vast – how do these 5Rs relate to your specific countries and to the region? How do you ensure your goals are aspirational, yet realistic?

All: Through our different ways of actions, SEA*5 shares the collective values on how to act, react and respond within the community through art and creative process, as a start and as the journey continues, there will be more creative viable solutions to each challenge our local communities are facing.

This current effort is only the beginning of a long conversation, and the aim is to be able to transform this project into a chain of ripple effects, building upon the diverse backgrounds of each creative practitioner, and addressing more global challenges, where it can be replicated based on the framework of Creative Responders, and that the movement will continue in other parts of the world. 

We wish to expand the Creative Responders’ network in the Global South and will continue to support future projects in the other SEA countries. We hope to see the project grow to possibly Project SEA*50 or even Project SEA*100. 

7) What is the most urgent work to be done in your respective contexts, and what is the main challenge to that? 

Joanne: I personally advocate for environmental issues and the impact human activities have on the environment. I’m sad to say that humans put ourselves above everything else including the planet that we live on.

Raz: My endeavours in the rural communities require an urgency to stir the imagination amongst local folks, to awaken their innate creative skills and talents that’s been in slumber for long – specifically espousing artistic expressions as a platform for collaboration, activating constructive community discussions on issues and concerns, and encouraging a shift towards good practices. 

Samnang: We need to take immediate responses to deal with the environmental crisis. I believe that education is key to unlocking ourselves to see a better world, to think and find solutions to fix and repair the issues we created for our mother earth. Small actions can have a big impact.

Zun: Building a resilient and peaceful future amidst the parallel crises of COVID-19 and  the country crises in Myanmar are my biggest concerns. Even though my project focuses on creativity and mindfulness, I have to be careful with every step of my project to ensure the security and safety of the participants too.

Nadya: Equality amongst creators and practitioners, including freedom of speech and education. The work of creative practitioners is already based on collective initiative and independence. It needs to spread widely and be accessible for the creator and the client.

8) What are your individual objectives and hopes for SEA*5? 

Joanne: Project SEA*5 is a call for individuals to take up arms towards conscious service which demonstrates the power of the people. I hope to inspire others to do the same.

Raz: To be a seedbed for emerging pockets of local- and community-led social and environmental actions amongst creative leaders and to help contribute in the process of achieving a ‘daily growth’ in raising consciousness towards sustainability education.

Zun: To be able to design a creative toolkit that can apply in the respective fields of any creative responder and community leader among our Southeast Asia countries. 

Nadya: Platform of collaboration and collective initiative where we can develop and also respond to each other’s work, whether in the country or in the region. It is also a safe space to experiment and learn from the network.

Samnang: It is a place where we can create future networks from different regions and cross-cultures to have a discussion on specific topics, find solutions, exercise our brain, and produce fruitful outcomes to build a bright future together. 

Project SEA*5 will share about their work and about Creative Responders at Revealing Contexts Part II: The Cultural Worker in Times of Social Change, happening online on Saturday, 17 July 2021. There will also be a music performance by Cambodian musician Sokim Keat. 

Read our article, The Cultural Worker in a Time of Social Change here.

This article is sponsored by Mekong Cultural Hub.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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