“Placemaking” Penang’s Public Art

While street art invigorates George Town, someone needs to ensure that it is tasteful, at the very least.

In recent years, Penang has become famous for its creative street art. The eclectic murals, sculptures and art installations definitely upgrade Penang’s cityscape. The state government has been supportive of this. But when concerns about rampant unauthorised murals appearing within the George Town World Heritage Site (GTWHS) were raised, something had to be done. After all, this new phenomenon may affect the city’s heritage status.

In July 2014 the state government set up a special arts committee, the Public Arts Review Panel (PARP), to support the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) in managing and regulating the creation of public art at GTWHS. From then on, those who wish to create public artwork within the site are required to apply for approval with a two-step process, as shown in Figure 1. Each step takes 14 working days to process.

The necessary forms can be downloaded from the George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) and MBPP websites and applicants are requested to provide details and a sample of the proposed artwork, including the artist’s profile. For mural paintings, evidence and supporting documents are required to prove that the applicant has been granted consent by the proprietor of the building/land involved.

Chaired by GTWHI’s general manager, PARP consists of members with art-related backgrounds. Key considerations in both stages lie in the artistic and aesthetic value, the creativity, and the quality of work and whether the artwork helps to strengthen and enhance the three important Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs) of GTWHS (i.e. multi-cultural trading; multicultural heritage and tradition; and unique architecture, culture and townscape).

To facilitate the overall application, particularly for murals, the Heritage Department at MBPP has tabulated specific guidelines that are expected to be ready for public reference in early 2018. Besides the terms and conditions for painting murals at GTWHS, the guidelines further provide details of monitoring and enforcement actions by MBPP, including procedures for removing the marks of vandalism, graffiti and murals without permit.

Julia Volchkova and her manager, Tan Chor Whye.

The authorities are empowered to immediately remove any mural found carrying inappropriate messages. For other unauthorised murals, a notice will be served to the building owners. If the mural is deemed unsuitable, the building owner will be asked to remove it. For murals that can be reconsidered, the building owner will be asked to submit an application for a permit. Besides the subject of the artwork, the authorities also consider the size, view and location of the mural to avoid negative consequences, for example to traffic flow.

Stakeholders’ Responses

GTWHI’s Chuah Ai Kheng, who currently oversees applications for PARP’s endorsement, says, “It is very challenging to monitor public art; however, we try our best to collaborate with the council in this regulation.”

Working together as members of PARP, Haryany Mohamad, the director of the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery; and Alfred Yeoh, the curator of a2 Gallery, find that getting the artists’ and building owners’ cooperation is the primary challenge. Yeoh believes that it is vital to notify and ensure that each tenant/owner within GTWHS understands the regulations. “Taking action after the murals are painted might be too late,” he says.

“Public art is a growing trend and an important part of our evolving culture,” says Haryany. “It adds meaning to our cities, inspiring imagination and creating a sense of civic vitality.” Haryany urges the public to contribute to safeguarding GTWHS and its OUVs, and hopes to see artists express their perceptions of Penang’s multiracial heritage through public art. “The government has not stopped artists expressing their creativity, but merely decided to set a limit on the burgeoning artwork that covers George Town’s walls to ensure they do not affect the city’s heritage status.”

Julia Volchkova, a Russian street artist who has painted several murals within GTWHS and at Balik Pulau, shares her experience when she applied to paint her first mural in George Town (The Indian Boatman) in 2014: “At that time, I submitted my proposed artwork through the building owner. My first proposal of a colourful, modern model was rejected. When I submitted my second proposal of a poor-looking Indian man, I was advised against it. Finally, they approved my proposal of The Indian Boatman.

“Overall, it took three months to get the approval. I don’t quite agree with only permitting art that shows positivity. We should understand that art is something that can touch people.” Volchkova thinks that the regulation is good to control the rampant illegal paintings that may cause a city to be viewed negatively: “As a street artist, I am painting for the public. I have responsibility over my works.”

Art or vandalism?

The wall, the art, the visitors and the drivers on a public street in George Town.

Volchkova’s manager, Tan Chor Whye, agrees with the regulations: “George Town is not big. There are not many walls that are suitable for mural painting due to the condition of the buildings. Regulations help to control the quality and types of murals deemed suitable to represent GTWHS.” He proposes to have a well-planned allocation of walls at different sites within George Town for mural painting. “Penang became famous internationally very much because of its murals. We should treasure it and develop it in a better way.

Bibichun, a local artist, is concerned that the regulations may eventually limit the local art movement. “It is up to the public; everybody should have independent thought. Although the regulating committees have a certain level of art knowledge, it is still about personal taste or choice. I respect that, but it is unfair to other art movements.” He also worries that the control of “sensitive” artwork will discourage critical thinking and dialogue.

Tan Shih Thoe, whose company owns the Hin Bus Depot Art Center and a few shophouses within George Town, suggests that instead of the two-step processes, a simpler approach by having a registry of murals with GTWHI may work better. “You will need to register the mural you wish to paint. Of course, you need to show the property owner’s consent and ensure that the mural is not offensive.

He adds, “It is so important, especially for George Town, to have public artwork. People become excited seeing an old heritage town transformed into an exciting place with new, creative ideas which are relevant to current times. We have to accept that George Town is the leading city of murals and public art in South-East Asia – or at least in Malaysia. We should embrace this advantage.”

When art is applied in city making, it entails management and control. Yet, art is always subjective. It is not easy to evaluate art in a systematic or legitimate way – how does one determine the artistic or aesthetic value, or the quality of an art creation? Should the people’s voices be heard and considered too?

The key lies in effective collaboration: stakeholder engagement is critical in order to ensure that all the parties involved, including the target applicants as well as the regulating bodies, are clearly aware of their shared mission.

Nicole Chang is a PhD candidate at the Department of Development Planning and Management, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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