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Volume 1 Issue 2
June 2012
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myBALIKpulau: Cultural Mapping using Photography as a Tool

Project designed by artist Liew Kung Yu
Photos courtesy of Arts-ED
Written by Janet Pillai, Chairperson of Arts-ED, janetpillai@gmail.com

myBALIKpulau, an experimental project in cultural mapping was initiated by ARTS-ED, a non-profit organisation in Penang specialising in Arts and Culture Education for young people. The project involves 15 children, aged 11-12 years from 5 different schools in Balik Pulau for a period of two months. What began as a non-formal after school and holiday activity in 2005 grew into a friendly monster; archiving and promoting the local cultural assets of Balik Pulau in public newsletters and tourists maps.

Balik Pulau is an agrarian district south of Penang Island, with historical town centre. The rural environment and its traditional economy are under threat by indiscriminate development and out-migration of young people. The project was aimed at helping young residents connect with and develop appreciation for their rapidly vanishing built and living heritage.

Balik Pulau town in the 1800's showing timber and atap longhouses of Chinese plantation workers. The town today, with its iconic round-about and rows of shophouses.

The Camera as a Pedagogical Tool

In this project entitled myBALIKpulau, Arts-ED engaged a visual artist Liew Kung Yu who recommended the use of photography as the sole medium! Through this project, the Arts-ED facilitators came to understand the strength of photography as a documentation medium and the power of the camera as a pedagogical tool. The lens served as a tool for the children to explore, observe and investigate while the images captured the cultural capital of the community.

The Process of Engagement

Creating a Safe Space through Networking and Team-building:

Arts-ED facilitators spent a few weeks in the district studying the locality and meeting government bodies, schools, residents and traders. A network was established to support the project. It included local historians, retired teachers, the district office which provided space and access to documents and the district computer centre which provided computer instruction and equipment.

As the children came from diverse schools and ethnic groups, team-building was conducted. Participants were then grouped and assigned specific roles such as coordinator, documenter, and interviewer etc. to provide an opportunity for them to excel in their area of their personal capacity and to promote collaborative learning.

Ice Breakers Name Tag

Skill Building:

Initial project activities also included training in artistic, technical and research skills, which were needed before embarking on the data collection. Training workshops, which included photography skills, photo editing, mind mapping and interview techniques also generated fun items such as name tags and postcards.

Photography Workshop Photo Editing Workshop

Data Collection:

The project utilised guided and independent activities to facilitate simple data gathering, research and documentation. Experiential activities included hunts, interviews, map reading, photo inventories and sketching. Activities were designed and coordinated by the Arts-ED facilitators but scheduled and conducted by the children themselves, working in pairs or groups, on foot or on bicycles. The opportunity for independent exploration opened up their world to the culture, history, geography and economics of their locality.

Data Collection - Learning Through Self-Discovery

The project was composed of 3 research segments; mySELF, myFAMILY and myTOWN to capture images of their personal, family and community space, objects, daily rituals and history.


Data Processing, Visualisation and Synthesis:

Participants were asked to synthesise the data collected, provide titles and accompanying text to the images and present their work in the form of a creative photo essay and photo assemblage. In this phase, children experienced the artistic process of selection, composition and editing.

Besides assembling relevant photographs, children incorporated sketches, flow charts, family tree diagrams and written narratives. Photo essays became a means for the children to make links between themselves, their family, their community and their locality.

Processing Data Drawn Map of Heritage Buildings

Creative Interpretation of Balik Pulau

Participants had used several creative ways to present their photographic work.

mySelf : Photographic sculpture in the shape of a 3-D lantern
myFamily : Photographic assemblage, essays, autobiographies and diagrams
myTown : Illustrated town maps printed on banners

A photography exhibition marked the ending of each segment of the project and a final public exhibition toured community spaces and schools. The exhibition served as an advocacy tool to raise the interest of the larger community towards their own heritage.

The images provided a holistic picture of community assets and resources visually mapped how the residents and their activities are connected over historical time and geographical space.

Photo Essay on myFamily

Exhibition in Community Space Exhibition in School

In terms of pedagogy, myBALIKpulau is an innovative arts project that allowed children to learn about heritage using an experiential rather than textbook approach making them more inclined to remember what they have learnt. It also enabled children to relate to history, geography and environmental studies as a part of their lives. Community-based non-formal education using engaged arts methodology provides children an opportunity to take control of what and how they learn and gives them a sense of ownership over the content.


Janet Pillai Janet Pillai is a senior lecturer at the School of Arts, University Science Malaysia, Penang. Besides formal lecturing in the department of Drama and Theatre, Janet leads Arts-ED, an organisation specialising in community-based arts and heritage education for young people. She is also a veteran director of theatre, who works in collaboration with performing artists and young people to produce multi-media productions in community settings. Janet has produced at least 25 major creative works at the commercial, educational and community level.

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