Fusing modern skills with traditional crafts


(Standing, middle) Urban Xchange curators Grusaite and Chuah, flanked by their PR team. (Seated left to right) Artists Annabelle Ng, Ammar Khalifa, Jaimie Oon Muxian and Low Chee Peng.

The second edition of art festival Urban Xchange gave six contemporary artists, mostly Malaysian, the chance to challenge Penangites’ biggest pet peeve: mixing the state’s heritage with modernity.

At the end of 2014, the first edition of the international art festival brought the spray cans of an array of international mural artists to colour some of George Town’s heritage core walls. Unfortunately, most of the modern and unconventional designs were not considered “in line” with Penang’s atmosphere.

Such criticism spurs a main question: In today’s fast-developing Penang, what is heritage?

Can we still think of “heritage” in a gentrified modern city? It’s certainly hard to give a satisfactory answer.

The young people of Urban Xchange might not have the final solution to this complex problem, but they have tried to respond by finding “heritage” in traditional crafts, and tried to get it up to the speed of the frantic times in which we all live. That was how the Artisan Project kicked off last September as a way to “rebrand traditional Penang arts”. Urban Xchange’s Lithuanian curator, Gabija Grusaite, explained during a press conference that “the idea behind this project is to foster a continuation of Malaysian ancient trades in a more contemporary form. We want to encourage artists to innovate forward by first learning the basics of Penang’s heritage crafts directly from their master artisans.”

Ammar explains the originality of the Arabic/ Chinese-fusion calligraphy.

This shophouse, realised by a traditional Chinese effigy maker, contains goggles through which modern Penang comes to life, thanks to collective Ownly Penang.

The project saw five young Malaysians and one Penang-based international artist – interior designer and jewellery maker Jaimie Oon Muxian, sculptor Low Chee Peng, graphic designer Falah Naim, experimental fine artist Annabelle Ng, visual collective Ownly Penang and Sudanese graphic illustrator Ammar Khalifa – team with masters of paper effigy making, rattan weaving, signboard carving, kolam making, anchor making and batik painting. The fruits of this rojak artsy time machine have been exhibited at the Hin Bus Depot Art Centre at Jalan Gurdwara from last October 31, and to good response from the locals. George Town’s walls were left completely untouched this year.

Oon studied with a rattan maker to create a set of modern-looking lounge chairs weaved in traditional style. “It’s wonderful that someone thought of blending the old with the new. I have an interest in handicrafts and the souvenir business, and have noted how most are made in and imported from Thailand. Young Penangites are not attracted by this profession anymore.”

When asked the million-dollar question, Oon candidly clarified that to her, “heritage means people creating and selling old-looking, traditional stuff.” By combining old and new, she hopes to encourage cultural growth. “I am not against moving forward, but I’m more interested in improving what’s already available and moving forward from what we have,” she concludes.

Sudanese artist Ammar is the only non- Penangite involved in the project, but he certainly feels like one. He met Grusaite while studying in KL. Penang’s growing hipster scene and wide offer of arts projects completed the call. “I never loved any place as much as Penang,” he confesses. “It feels more like home than my real home.”

Ammar collaborated with a Chinese carver to incorporate Arabic script into Chinese calligraphy, blending two completely different traditions using Penang’s peculiar wood carving techniques. “Since I started, I have learned quite a lot about Chinese calligraphy, its materials and history,” says Ammar. “The final product will be wood carving with gold leaf, using Arabic words that will look as close as possible to Chinese characters.”

Ammar explains that unlike English, Arabic is not written with letters that combine in syllables to form words disposed on straight lines. Similarly to Chinese, the Arabic script instead uses characters that represent words, and it can be written without being arranged in lines. “I will write in Arabic, but my words will resemble Chinese characters from afar.

Low poses next to the creation he learned from the last master anchor maker of Penang island.

It’ll be something like Arabic sentences put into the square spaces of Chinese calligraphy,” says Ammar. In mixing old and new, he believes his is “a cultural exchange, rather than a clash of history against the present.”

This shophouse, realised by a traditional Chinese effigy maker, contains goggles through which modern Penang comes to life, thanks to collective Ownly Penang.

Ammar also has pretty globally informed views about the meaning of heritage. “Gentrification can be a bad thing,” he says, “but it also brings money and business. George Town’s case is not unique in the world. Think of Brooklyn in New York, or the East Side of London… in Penang, local authorities are already doing a lot to limit gentrification. But you cannot stop the future. What you should do is to make sure that people are educated enough to understand what’s happening around them and accept it.”

Ng hails from Bukit Mertajam and believes that Urban Xchange’s parallel projects involving Butterworth’s Raja Uda will help introduce new lifeblood to the mainland. About her project on batik, Ng, who also works full time in her family’s textile and printing business, explains that she wants “to make it more appealing by transforming the traditional design into something more fashionable. I will use the same materials, wax, tools and colours, but the design will be more modern and different.”

Low, a self-taught sculptor, was the last of the participating artists to the Artisans Project’s opening. He collaborated with an old traditional anchor maker to create a fully handmade, but sleeker, modernlooking anchor. “I think that it’s very important that old traditional trades get support from the state government, either by way of funds or availability of dedicated spaces,” says Low. He comments that to him, the process of learning from a real sifu was mind-opening.

Oon entertaining a visitor, with her sleek-looking rattan lounge chairs on the right.

While the Artisans Project may have sparked interest among members of a cultural niche to re-think issues of conservation and cultural identity, on the other hand, it is hard to see whether or not other youths will chime in on the discussion.

But one thing is for certain: the arts are the starting point to retain the soul in Penang’s modern heart.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His Asian metal punk memoir, Banana Punk Rawk Trails, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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