WHEN JOE SIDEK WAS FIRST APPOINTED to head last year’s inaugural Rainforest Fringe, the new festival initiative designed to promote Sarawak arts, culture and performance, there was some consternation around Kuching town. Despite the numerous accolades and plaudits for his (so far) more famous festival in Georgetown Penang, the whisper went out: “But he is not Sarawakian.” Of course, neither is Joe a native of Penang, though that hasn’t stopped him from transforming a low on budget, high on creativity event in 2010 into the celebrated month-long spectacle that it is today. But the question remained: could this not-so-average Joe really dig out this undiscovered land of harmonious inconsistencies and deep personal connections?
Rare in a world of critics and cynics, Joe defines himself entirely through his passions and they are many and varied. But his current passion is Sarawak. His discoveries crowd his tongue, jostling for expression – indigenous art and storytelling, textiles and tattoos, natural materials, cosmic travellers, rituals and omen birds, Brooke history - they pour out in an unedited stream. “I’ve found a new love,” he says, “which is a bit dangerous, since Georgetown is my baby. But this is beyond infatuation.” He admits to the first year of the festival being an introduction, both his own to Sarawak and Sarawak’s to the Fringe Festival. But this year, he says, he is getting to peel back the layers.
For him, this place is ‘still a mystery’. But it is this odyssey into the unknown that might be the source of his magic. He talks about the energy of the earth and an affinity to the land; he even recounts a childhood fascination with Tun Jugah and early experimentations
“I’ve found a new love,” he says, “which is a bit dangerous, since Georgetown is my baby. But this is beyond infatuation.”
in indigenous hairdressing on his unfortunate cousin. However, through most of his conversation, his own contribution and connection vanishes. He focuses almost exclusively on the people he is working with; how they have unselfishly shared their stories and their talents. The way he describes it, his visits to Sarawak are like ‘rummaging through an exotic gift shop,’ relegating himself to the role of tourist finding incredible souvenirs that seem so commonplace to local residents. He modestly limits his own impact: “I am a good cake maker,” he says. “All I do is assemble the ingredients and Sarawak has very strong ingredients.”
In year two, he is both consolidating and expanding. This time, the festival will take place in two locations, both the Old Courthouse in the heart of Kuching and also Borneo 744, the new entrepreneurs and arts district at the edge of town. Joe talks excitedly about bringing natural materials into this former industrial space, ‘inspiring people to use wood and bamboo to better value.’ In terms of content, ideas which germinated in year one are finally coming to fruition while some seem likely to span into next year and beyond. He talks about a new project, ‘Sarawak’, a stage show focusing on indigenous storytelling, with open wonder. For this, he is bringing back Sarawakian performers working overseas to pair with local artists and special guests from the Paiwan tribe from Taiwan. Yet he describes this year’s extravaganza as a ‘flash’, as if next year’s will certainly eclipse it.
For all this, it seems like Joe is in for the long haul. A year on, his name is being mentioned in an entirely different way.
“Did you know Joe Sidek is back in town?” Those tendrils of personal connection have reached out to encompass him, unsurprising given his innate ability to make everyone he talks to feel fascinating. But equally, this is what Sarawak does best. If you love us and can live with us, then you are one of us, not entirely unlike an unusual English family from Sarawak’s history whose first Ranee features in this year’s festival in her own exhibition. Is Joe Sidek a Sarawakian? He might well be by now!