Hornbill Unleashed

March 28, 2016

Bilqis Hijjas, behind the yellow balloon – dance, activism, family

Filed under: Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 8:01 AM

 Dance activist Bilqis Hijjas, first came to media attention when she was charged with dropping yellow balloons “with intent to insult” on an event that was attended by Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor.

The yellow balloons had been printed with words like ‘Justice’, ‘Media Freedom’ and ‘Democracy’, and were dropped a day after the mammoth 34-hour Bersih 4 rally, calling for clean governance and Najib’s resignation amid corruption investigations.

Charged with Section 14 of the Minor Offences Act 1955 with a maximum fine of RM100, Bilqis decided to fight against the charge in the court, as she said it was a matter of principle.

“I am not a criminal. Whatever I have done, it was not a crime.

“We fight it (the charge) on principle because these activities are not a crime. Must fight, otherwise how?” she told Malaysiakini in an interview, the articulate 37-year-old switching easily between her flawless American-accented English to the Manglish patois seamlessly.

While she grew up in Malaysia and is half-Australian on her mother’s side, Bilqis had gone to Harvard University in the US for four years, after which she moved to Australia where she worked and did her post-graduate degree before returning to Malaysia.

The interview with Malaysiakini was held at Rimbun Dahan, a 14-acre plot owned by her parents that has been transformed into a private enclave that supports contemporary and traditional arts as well as nature conservation.

Her father, famed architect Hijjas Kasturi who is responsible for many major landmarks in Kuala Lumpur, and her mother, Angela Hijjas who now runs Rimbun Dahan, also live on the 14-acre land in a house built by Bilqis’ father.

Describing most of her family as “heavily politicised”, she said she is not politically active at all compared to her sister, Mulaika, though she has attended various Bersih rallies previously.

After the dropping of the balloons, Bilqis has been described as the yellow balloon woman in the media, as well as a dancer, something which she quickly debunks in the interview.

Though she got into dance when she was 11, she is not a professional dancer or a dance teacher now, she clarified, saying that instead, she does “various complicated things revolving around contemporary dance”.

Among the things she does is running a non-profit organisation called MyDance Alliance, which is a support organisation mainly servicing professional dance practitioners, to help with capacity building, networking and advocacy.

She also runs the dance residency programme at Rimbun Dahan and has launched an online platform for performing arts criticism where they commission original reviews and also compile reviews from other sources.

She is also a part-time lecturer in dance criticism in Universiti Malaya.

Malaysiakini spoke to her recently about her parents, Rimbun Dahan, her work related to dance and the yellow balloons.

This is her story, in her own words:

MY MASTERS WAS IN APPLIED ANTHROPOLOGY… These sort of applied anthropological skills I feel like I use very regularly in the work that I do, which is to represent the dance community.

The dance community has its own particular culture and it’s fairly misunderstood by people outside the community so it requires someone to advocate on their behalf.

Most dancers, though definitely not all dancers, are less verbally articulate, being more physically articulate, and they have a different kind of intelligence. So in terms of having someone advocate for them to a more wordy crowd is basically one of the jobs I have, which is similar to anthropology.

I ALWAYS EXPECTED TO MOVE BACK TO MALAYSIA, so it was just a matter of time and finding the right opportunity.

THE US WAS VERY EXCITING but in many ways because I was in Harvard, and Harvard is quite unlike the majority of America, it’s very difficult to get a sense of what the rest of America is like. It is very much an ivory tower, with its own culture, so it was often quite challenging and difficult.

But the opportunity to be around some of the finest teachers in the world and also to be with other students who are incredibly intelligent and obviously have enormous amounts of potential and are going to go on to be the best in their fields is an incredible opportunity.

AUSTRALIA WAS VERY INTERESTING because my mother’s family is from there so it was the first opportunity I had to live there and experience what it was like, and also to get closer to my Australian family. I found Australia to be very comfortable and they certainly have a very high standard of living.

I THINK AUSTRALIA HAS ACQUIRED THAT VERY HIGH STANDARD OF LIVING AT THE COST of being less flexible and possible less exciting. Life in Melbourne is quite structured and predictable and all the slots and opportunities have already been filled. All the things that needs to be done have already been done, largely.

So if you want to come in sort of fresh off the boat and say I want to do certain things, like no, there are procedures and you have to climb the ladder in the approved manner.

IT’S DIFFERENT IN MALAYSIA, where particularly if you are from a privileged family you don’t always have to think about just earning your rice bowl, you can come in and say ‘oh I want to do this’, and everyone will be like ‘sure, you do that’.

I CONTINUED TO DO DANCE EXTRA-CURRICULARLY AT HARVARD, but at that point I wasn’t expecting to build a career in it. I knew that I wasn’t going to be a professional dancer; it takes a very great self-confidence and enormous physical ability to be able to be a professional dancer and I knew I wasn’t going to do that.

AFTER COLLEGE I WASN’T QUITE SURE what I wanted to do and I thought, well, if I ever wanted to go to art school, now would probably be a good time so I went and did my graduate diploma in choreography in Australia.

I didn’t feel like art school was the right place for me because I don’t think I’m a choreographer, but it was instructive in terms of being immersed in the world of contemporary dance and then when I came back here, I did initially think I was going to be a choreographer and I was going to start my own dance company but you know, easier said than done.

IT’S TAKEN ME 10 YEARS TO MOLD THE NICHE in which I now do my various different jobs because of opportunities that have come up and different directions I have decided to move in.

RIMBUN DAHAN IS A CENTRE FOR MANY THINGS. It’s a private arts centre, a centre for indigenous Malaysian flora, we also have two heritage houses from Perak and Penang, which have been deconstructed, brought here, reconstructed and restored and they’re both over 100 years old.

MY PARENTS STARTED THE PROGRAM FOR VISUAL ARTS RESIDENCY (AT RIMBUN DAHAN) IN 1994 and since then it has grown a great deal and is now over 20 years old and we’ve had, in that time, hundreds of artists come to stay here for periods between two weeks and a year, working on their art, living here and being supported in various ways by my parents.

IT JUST SEEMED LIKE WE HAD ALL THIS LAND and what were we going to do with it? Yes, you can just sit on 14 acres of land and just allow it to be all fruit trees, but that demonstrates a significant lack of ambition and scope, and my father cannot be accused of lacking neither.

It was his idea to start the residency because he was very interested in visual arts and he believes art is something that should be supported. I think he subscribes to the Renaissance idea of art requiring rich patrons, and that art flourishes when you have patrons who supports artists.

I THINK HE THINKS OF HIMSELF AS A PATRON OF THE ARTS, and he as a person who now enjoys financial privilege – though it was not always so as he grew up in grinding poverty – he is now in a position where he can be a patron of the arts and therefore it is now his social responsibility.

MY MOTHER RUNS RIMBUN DAHAN AND ALSO THE GARDEN here, which is the largest indigenous South-East Asian garden in the world. She is very interested in plants and biodiversity and works with people from the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia and Singapore Botanical Gardens to cultivate plants and so on.

SHE IS TRYING TO SHIFT TO A DIFFERENT MODEL OF RESIDENCY where Rimbun Dahan can start to be more self-sustainable because for a very long time my parents put in quite a lot of cash to be able to support the artists.

Artists who are coming from first world countries are required to pay for their accommodation and studio space and then that money is used to subsidise artists from South-East Asian countries who of course don’t have the capacity to pay.

I’VE BEEN RUNNING DANCE PROGRAMMES HERE SINCE 2007 and it consists mainly of residencies for international choreographers to do new projects with Malaysian dancers.

I FELT AFTER HAVING GONE TO VARIOUS BERSIH RALLIES that it was important to have something visible, that could be distributed for free, that the crowd wanted and could take, and that was also very portable and cheap.

BALLOONS SEEMED TO BE A GREAT IDEA, so 6,000 balloons were printed (after discussing with friends) and most of them were handed out in Bersih.

They worked very well because there’s a great feeling of participation when you take a balloon and you blow it up yourself and the end product is something that, in a way, you’ve made. If you will, it’s our own collective hot air.

THEY HAVE A GREAT VISUAL IMPACT so I was extremely pleased with the results.

I AM FIGHTING THE CHARGE partly because it gives me a criminal record, something I do not want and do not deserve.

I AM NOT A CRIMINAL AND WHATEVER I HAVE DONE, IT WAS NOT A CRIME. We fight it on principle because these activities are not a crime and if you start to accept something like dropping balloons as a precedent for criminality then basically any other human activity can be criminalised and that represents a completely unacceptable expansion of the definition of criminality.

ACTUALLY I WAS QUITE SURPRISED BY HOW SUPPORTIVE MY FATHER HAS BEEN. He does not trumpet his political proclivities so I was pleased to be able to count on my parents support for what I did.


Geraldine Tong


 

Read more: https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/335432#ixzz444pU2LFG

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1 Comment »

  1. Seems like Najib do not want people to disagree with him.
    In that case he is only surrounded by Yes Men and Yes Women.

    Comment by Sandro — March 28, 2016 @ 6:07 PM | Reply


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