Joe Sidek, director of the George Town Festival, George Town, Penang, Malaysia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Georgetown Festival Director Joe Sidek on Art, Education, Humanity and Identity

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Joe Sidek, Georgetown Festival Director, says the Georgetown Festival is “no longer about the festival, it’s about what the festival can do” – from educate and inspire to placing ideas about land and humanity, creativity and identity centre-stage.

Joe Sidek, Georgetown Festival Director, is busy signing cheques when we arrive at the colonial-style Sarkies café at the waterfront Eastern and Oriental Hotel to meet him. Outside the antique windows, the turquoise bay is sparkling diamonds. It’s an absolutely gorgeous day on the Malaysian island of Penang but Joe Sidek is oblivious, his head down and hands scrawling signature after signature.

Fund-raising and allocating resources is a big part of what a festival director does. Without money Joe Sidek and other arts managers like him can’t put on events and bring performers and artists from around the world to a place like Penang. But this year, the seventh year of the month-long annual Georgetown Festival, things are different.

Georgetown Festival Joe Sidek on Art, Education, Humanity and Identity

Much of the money that Joe Sidek has raised is being converted into thousands of free tickets for Malaysian students and the children and youth of Penang. Educating, inspiring and stimulating young minds and imaginations has become the number one priority for a director whose festival and its artistic initiatives, such as its street art projects, put Georgetown on the map for millennial travellers.

“It’s no longer about the festival, it’s about what the festival can do,” Joe Sidek tells Terence and I just seconds after we meet when I comment on the number of cheques he is signing. “I’m just trying to stay out of jail!” he jokes.

Sidek reveals that he has been going to meetings with CEOs of major Malaysian companies and telling them: “Forget about you. If you don’t have an interest in culture now, it’s too late. Let’s give festival tickets to kids instead.”

Before we’ve even started the interview, Sidek apologises for rambling: “If I end up talking too much, you’ve got to stop me, because I just go on and on about things I love, because I love my job,” he explains. “I absolutely love my job. I finally found my switch. I tell everyone: ‘Just find your switch’.”

Joe Sidek had been running the family textile and chemical businesses since his father’s death – until recently, when he finally found someone to replace him. And he found “his switch”.

“Because I want to give my all to the festival,” he elaborates. “Which is what I’m doing now. The first few years was just get on with it, do a series of events, and try to make it work. There wasn’t a real… well… I have to say, it was only 2014, when I realised I love it, and there’s a lot more to it than just curating a series of events, and I realised what is the meaning of it all.”

“Then last year it hit me that there is a strong meaning, and how important it all is, and the word ‘humanity’ kept cropping up, so now I really love this job, I don’t want to lose this job, and I feel like there is just so much more to do.”

We order coffee and move to a quieter corner of the café so we can talk about the festival and humanity and many, many other things.

An Interview with Joe Sidek, Georgetown Festival Director

Q. So why did the word ‘humanity’ keep popping up?

A. Last year we had a project called 100% Penang by the Berlin-based theatre troupe Rimini Protokoll where one hundred people that reflect the (demographic*) statistics of the city go on stage, and they’re asked questions, and they themselves asked questions, and they reflect upon their views and opinions. And these people are like a religious man, an old Chinese woman, a raging queen, small child… exact representation of the exact statistics of Penang in race, religion, age, and so on, and they went on stage. (*Ed: In this interactive ‘performance’ 100 local citizens came together to form a human pie chart, sharing their stories of what makes Penang special.)

Today there is still an active social group of these people mixing. If you know the political situation in Malaysia today where we’re all questioning, angry, fighting, etc… well, here is a group of people who just kept going after that show and they call themselves 101% and they’re coming tonight to the festival. They changed my life. I’ve been to some of their events where they go bowling or go out to lunch or dinner and you think: “Wow, the power of people – of just being nice to eachother – and this came from the festival.”

So this made me think that the festival is a vehicle for change. It’s no longer about the festival, but what the festival can do.

Q. What exactly do you think the festival can do?

A. Some examples. I’m like a little boy who discovers little books and pictures that I want to share. I was in Australia two years ago and I saw a group called Black Arm Band. They sang indigenous music and it moved me. I knew nothing about it. I just felt that it was something about the land – my guess – and it was just so powerful.

When I came back and I asked a lot of Malaysians how many indigenous groups do we have and nobody could answer me. We have 18 groups in Peninsular Malaysia and more than 40 in East Malaysia and yet most people know nothing about these people. And we’re fighting about land, and fighting about who was here first and who was here second, and about development and modernity, and we’re so disrespectful or the land and nature.

I felt “Oh my god, let’s try to learn from these indigenous people!” Then I really wanted to connect the dots, between Australia and New Zealand and Indonesia and Malaysia, so tonight’s performance of Svara Bhumi is my starting dot. It’s teaching me. And if it’s teaching me then I hope it starts to teach a few other people.

Another example. We’re building a paddy field in the middle of the city for a performance of Moved By Padi. That’s for young kids, to show them what a paddy field is. Modern kids – from Malaysia, from all around the world – don’t know where rice comes from. They see the thing on a plate but they don’t know where it comes from. When we were young we played in the rice fields, but not anymore. So I hope it triggers Malaysian minds.

Q. So the festival is more for Malaysians than for visitors to Penang?

A. For me, the festival is primarily for Malaysian people. It’s really great that tourists come and that it’s supported by people from all over the world, but I really want my people to be inspired, to see that there is a whole wide world out there, next to the Kardashians and Justin Bieber and K-Pop. Because there is a Malaysian phenomenon, an obsession with all that, and it’s scary.

So what I want to do is give them a choice and if they don’t like it then it’s their choice. If they don’t like it, then you can’t blame them, as they don’t have experience with any of this. Why would they pay for it? So we made 80% of our shows are free and the lowest price ticket is 25R or two cups of coffee. Maybe they’ll see a show and say “Oh, I want to be an artist, or a set designer, or a writer”. I want to give young people a choice. The mission: young people.

Q. You talk about humanity – are you also thinking globally, about everything that has been going on recently?

A. Yes! It’s scary. Look at why I’m bringing someone like Rithy Panh, from your part of the world, from Cambodia. Firstly, it’s a bit selfish, because I want to meet Rithy Panh. I want to meet the man and I want to see what moves this man to give so much back to his country, through the Bophana Centre, the archives, his art, telling his stories, and him doing what he’s doing for Cambodia. It’s marvellous. He could have packed up and gone to Hollywood or France and have a cushy life. But, no, he sits there and builds this archive.

Then there’s Larry Harvey, of Burning Man, this mad-cap festival. I want to know what moves this man to still produce a festival, 30 years down the road. What comes to mind for me is freedom – freedom for people to perform exactly what they want to perform without the normal convention of being boxed by commercial, aesthetic or cultural boundaries. Normally for a festival, there are all these boundaries. Burning Man – you do what you want. Also for the viewers – there’s the freedom to go and watch things that are not governed by set rules and regulations. That’s what I take from it.

(Ed: Rithy Panh and Larry Harvey appeared together in the first of a series of talks called Stories, Humanity and What About the Arts? that kickstarted Joe Sidek’s new ‘Arts for Humanity‘ Project.)

Q. So it’s about creative freedom and censorship too?

A. I’m bringing Harvey here to share his journey, I hope to inspire people to not be afraid, that it’s all abut passion, and what he does, maybe consciously or subconsciously, is to help people believe in freedom, in the most subtle way, that people can do what they want, without this commercial baggage that they have to be good because they have to sell. With Georgetown Festival I have to meet certain criteria, whereas at Burning Man there are no borders.

What is interesting is that I recently met someone, a Thai guy, who said his life changed from Burning Man. What I also love is how they transform a desert into a city and then clean it all up. I want to bring these men here so I can sit and listen. But there are so many angles to this event that people overlook.

Another thing I want to do is bring Tropfest back. We held Tropfest twice and both were won by Cambodians, actually. I want to bring the event back. I’m meeting John Polson soon and I want to revive it here. The Cambodians created these incredible films without any film school. They are great storytellers. And it’s all about storytelling.

The problem with Malaysia is that the last 20 years the whole system of education has been messed up. Kids cut, copy and paste everything. It’s really bad. I want to help change this. I bring in a lot of students to my office to try to help them think critically. I ask them: “Why did you paint this red?” Explain why this is red. Why red and not yellow? They can’t.

They’re just taught to copy and paste and they do. And the private schools are the worst. I have my secretary’s son who is in art school who is now working with me, my gardener’s son who scored well in biotechnology can’t get a job and is sweeping my garden. I’m not running the education system down, I’m just saying that it hasn’t worked.

As a person, I’m trying to help wherever I can. And I think if everyone works collectively together we can change things. So tonight we will have over 100 students because someone sponsored the show and for me it’s about the students seeing something and being inspired to think differently. Maybe next year they’ll spend 25R and they’ll see some more shows.

Q. How did you get involved in Georgetown Festival in the first place?

A. I was asked to start Georgetown Festival. What happened was we had our UNESCO celebrations in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and they called for proposals, and there were three proposals and just six weeks and very little money and nobody wanted to do it. So I was asked to do it and I’m glad I did it. It was scary – in six weeks, how do you do a festival with very little money? If I had fear I wouldn’t have done it. So I started thinking that being Buddhist and taking out ego, fear and anger out of my life really helped me a lot.

Q. But you’ve been responsible for more than just the festival. You’ve been responsible for helping develop the local arts scene, such as the street art scene for instance.

A. The street art was part of one of the festivals. It’s really had an impact. Ernest Zacharevic, the guy who did the most famous pieces of street art, came in 2011 and he showed me some designs and I thought they were really interesting and yet culturally appropriate and non-offensive. So we started looking at walls and commissioned six murals for 2012 and it became the biggest symbolic thing of the Georgetown Festival and everybody here started doing street art and copying.

So this year I’ve invited about eight artists to come up with reflections, installations, art pieces… this young artist from France, Matthieu Robert-Ortis, who I stumbled upon online and he does these wire sculptures. From the front it’s an elephant and the side it’s two giraffes. It’s simple but clever – it already has 80 million views! – so now we’ve commissioned more. Again, it’s about young people and saying to them: “Don’t copy Ernest, think of something else, something new.” I’ve got a whole series of interesting artists this year.

Q. When you invited Ernest were you aware of the global phenomenon that is now street art?

A. No, I wasn’t aware. How can I be aware? I’m not a clever festival director. I’m a human festival director. I just like what I feel. And if I like it then someone else will like it. Like with Svara Bhumi. I’m intrigued by it. I have five words – inspiring, sexy, intriguing, appropriate, and relevant – and these five words govern how I choose things for the festival.

I live in Malaysia, so I don’t want to offend anyone. But I want to communicate messages. I don’t believe in being militant, a lot of people are militant when championing something. Instead, I champion something in a very passive way. Hold someone’s hand when you walk them through green pastures. You don’t have to blindfold them.

Q. Has Georgetown Festival had an impact on the local art scene?

A. I like to think it has, that it’s given people the inspiration to think: “If Ernest can do it, then so can I. If I’ve seen a show staged by someone, I could have done that.” All I’m trying to do is inspire the local people to do something. I’m trying to say” “This is what people are doing around the world, why not try it, perhaps use a different medium, but do something…”

I’m inviting a Korean artist that does video work. His work sells for half a million US. I thought, wow, to bring him over for young Malaysians to realise that there are whole different mediums that you can play around with. You don’t have to do all murals.

Q. Is there a tradition of the arts in Georgetown?

A. There’s always been something here in Georgetown. In 1917 we had our first photography society. In the 1930s and 1940s we had big time artists who set up home in Penang. The earth energy here has always been good. I like to think that this is a renaissance.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was here, for instance, and he took six rolls of film. He took a train to Penang because his ship from here to Sri Lanka was stuck because of the weather and it couldn’t sail. He had six days here and in six days he took six rolls of film, a cricket match, a temple and so on… I saw this work in New York in an exhibition and there was this little dot that was Penang, and I thought “this is crazy! Cartier-Bresson was in Penang!” I’m getting goose pimples just thinking about it! The universe helps me. I thought Cartier-Bresson was here and took these six rolls of film! So it’s my dream to bring those images here.

Cartier-Bresson photographed some of the major political changes in Asia, in India (Ed: Gandhi’s funeral), China (last days of the Chinese Civil War), Indonesia (independence from the Dutch), and Malaysia, the changing of the guards, and changing the way we live. It’s part of our history. He had his finger on the pulse of what was happening. Why I want to bring those pictures here is because I’d like to associate that period of time with how we have changed and what’s going on now.

I’m not saying it’s good or bad. But I think its good to be able to see these things through the eyes of one of the most world-famous documentary photographers. This is my dream at some point in my life. I’ve been to the Foundation and doing my homework. My god, I would love to bring it to Penang.

Q. So we’re really talking about education again…

A. I’m using Georgetown Festival to educate. It’s no longer just about the festival but what the festival can do to help inspire young people. And I’m focusing a lot on the young. We have more than a thousand seats for young people. I’m lucky people have donated money and I’m converting it into student tickets. I’m asking people to buy tickets for the young. I’m saying to CEOs that if you can’t appreciate culture, I can’t help you, but it’s important for your kids to experience this now, at a young age.

In 2012 I was running out of money. I was so stressed out. And Narelle, who owns China House, said start a collection box and people will give you money. We did… (Joe Sidek starts crying…) and after a show for orphan kids, one Indian boy… just an eight year old kid… he came up to me and started emptying his pockets… (Sidek is overcome by emotion, the tears flowing freely). It was of $1.50 and he gave me every cent. How beautiful is that? When CEOs don’t want to give you money because they don’t care and this eight year-old orphaned kid gives you everything he has. That’s the reason I’m doing the festival. (Joe Sidek wipes his eyes and smiles through his tears.)

I went to teach a class on the Peninsular (mainland Malaysia) and I took some of the Tropfest short films to show them and we discussed now this group of students come to the festival every year. Some day I hope one of these kids comes to me with a film, or that orphan boy… If you ask me why I run a festival, it’s for those children. For humanity.

I remember seeing something at the age of five years old… it was a theatre show that my father brought me to see and I thought “Wow!” It was patchy images but you still remember the experience itself.

Q. Back to Penang… how do you describe the arts scene now? Is it something that people should specifically travel to the island for? Would you describe it as emerging? Or is it flourishing?

A. I think a lot of people say Penang is so creative and there’s a buzzy thing about Penang. But I think it’s not enough. I think the earth energy is amazing but there’s still a long way to go. It’s not as buzzing as people say it is. Where’s our infrastructure? Where’s our arts education system? Where are the other pieces of the jigsaw that make a place a creative city?

Sure, there are artists here, and I ask all the young artists “Why do you want to come and live in Penang?” I remember reading a story that the Guardian published about London having lost its edge as it’s too expensive for young artists and the Telegraph had a response saying that wasn’t true. London still has an energy. It’s the same with Cambodia. Why is everybody gravitating there? It’s because the earth energy is good. And I think places like Barcelona, Paris, Bangkok, have that energy. I think Penang has that energy, but the arts scene is not quite there yet. For people who want to experience the arts, come to the Georgetown Festival and come and help us.

Q. What’s special about Penang?

A. The people and the place, really – people take ownership of place. There’s something about their personal pride. You cannot cut a tree without people getting angry. They’re very proud of their space – it’s a space-centric city. The earth energy, the manna, I’ve not found it anywhere else. You come home and the minute you step foot on the island you feel that you’re home. And you feel that you own it, you own everything. You don’t feel as if you don’t belong. Well, that’s how I feel. And I wasn’t born here. I’m Malaysian, but I’ve been on the island 50 years. The world is so small now, you choose where you want to live, and that’s who you are.

Georgetown Festival takes place from 29 July to 28 August 2016.

We visited Georgetown as guests of Georgetown Festival, Penang Global Tourism and The Edison Hotel.


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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

2 thoughts on “Georgetown Festival Director Joe Sidek on Art, Education, Humanity and Identity”

  1. Love you Joe Sidek
    what you are doing for Penang is great …..I hope you will be remembered by the generations to come ……what you have done

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