Art space expands in Penang


In many ways, a reliable measure of the growing “coolness” of Penang is the Art Scene. The joy of creativity seems to have caught the imagination, not only of artists, but of gallerists and even the state authorities.

The squat Art Decor facade that only seven years ago hid grease, grime and smoke, with behemoth stage buses trundling in and out, has undergone an unexpected makeover. Not much has changed, though – it is only presumably much cleaner with all the heavy machinery contraptions removed.

Known as the Hin Bus Depot along busy Brick Kiln Road (now Jalan Gurdwara), the depot’s days were numbered when RapidPenang entered the market in a big way at the end of 2007, with the foundering of at least four more bus companies.

It was given a new lease on life in January as an alternative art space by a Murobond paint entrepreneur who saw its potential as an arts hub. The space is to “encourage community development, and the use of public space for heritage, culture and arts.”

The first show there, street-art sensation Ernest Zacharevic’s solo, Art Is Rubbish/ Rubbish Is Art, hit it off like a house on fire. From January 17 to February 14, it attracted art lovers, the curious and, what is perhaps most important, ordinary folks with probably their first baptism of viewing art in an art space.

Lithuanian native Zacharevic, who is as Penang as char koay teow, has transformed the streets of Penang’s Unesco heritage precincts into pilgrimage sites for hordes of tourists with his simple yet meaningful wall murals.

Following the resounding success of Zacharevic’s debut solo was the group exhibition Think About It from March to April, showcasing works of the “Taiwan Twins” Renny Cheng and Tan Kai Sheuan, Low Chee Peng, Bibichun (Khor Zew Wey), Kangblabla (alias Julias Raja Manickam), Penang-based British artist Thomas Powell (who stayed on after his artist residency at the now-defunct Malihom four years ago) and filmmaker Gabriel Marques.

Works by Renny Cheng and Tan Kai Sheuan.

Graffiti at the back of the Hin Bus Depot art space.

A work by British artist Thomas Powell.

Low Chee Peng's rakish straited rod male sculptures, like sentinels at the Hin Bus Depot art space.

The works were slanted towards contemporary art, based or rooted on socio-political-environmental issues and current concerns, and without slavish adherence to medium or style.

Hin Bus Depot lies in the heart of town, just opposite the Continental Hotel and a short walk from the Gama shopping centre. With a small single-storey indoor space display, it boasts a large tract of open space which holds potential for a devil’s workshop rather than just a derelict “wasteland”.

The Art Deco’s unusual facade also draws attention to a plethora of such architectural stylistic totems dotting the island: Rock World (former Sun Cinema), The Garage, Hong Kong Bank Building (Lebuh Pantai), Tamilrasa mini market, Asia Heritage Hotel, Odeon Cinema, Penang Police Headquarters, Little Sisters of the Poor, the Kuantan Road Market and Datuk Keramat Market, just to mention a few.

The alternative art space seems an aberrant in a place which does not yet have a credible pool of art collectors for the “red-dots” so vital to sustaining it. Yet, more and more art spaces, including commercial galleries, are opening – a serendipity of inspired private initiatives doing, creating and contributing towards making an exciting place a liveable global city.

The streets have become a blank canvas after approval from the authorities. Apart from Zacharevic’s murals, there are also the 101 Lost Kittens murals and sculptures by Tang Yeok Khang, Louise “The Bra Shark bra-rtist” Low and Thailand’s Nattatong Muangkliang; and Simon Tan’s reconstructed Ah Kong and Ah Ma (Grandpa and Grandma) at the Chew Jetty front. Then, there are also the numerous “wired” background capsules of street names by the ScuptureAtWork company.

The front of the Run Amok Gallery, off Jalan Hutton.

Most of the Think About It artists were Rescube artists who were exposed in lawyer-collector Lee Khai’s dilapidated colonial building at The Space @ 212 Beach Street, dubbed “The Warehouse”. Lee Khai allowed cutting-edge exhibitions to “break in” into his house (actually 212-216 Beach Street), which was once the abode of China’s Qing Dynasty Vice- Consul in Penang before it was left to fall into disrepair.

E.H Chee was the first, with his Rehab, My Foot! exhibition in September 2001, depicting the deterioration of the Chinese community. The Rescube artists included Zacharevic, Renny Cheng, Kai Sheuan, Louise Low Seok Loo, Chee Peng and Ee Yan Chuah, who is now the Hin Bus Depot manager. London-based photographer Ian Teh had his solo, Traces: Dark Clouds, while others such as T.C. Liew (Liew Ting Chuang), Anabelle Ng, Yeok Khang, Ch’ng Kiah Kiean and Bibichun had group exhibitions.

Although it’s regrettable that the Malihom artist’s residency programme in Balik Pulau (2007-December 2011) has stopped, a new artist-run space, Run Amok Gallery, has taken up the cudgel, recently sponsoring filmmaker Azharr Rudin for its first residency. The residency was marked by the screening of Punggok Rindukan Bulan, besides Dancing Kites, Meeting Amber and Rumah Tok.

The poster of the Punggok Rindukan Bulan at the Run Amok Gallery.

James Seet's three-in-one ceramic sculpture, Embryonic II.

Dedicated to fringe art works that can be multi and trans-disciplinary, Run Amok Gallery is a modest two-storey house at 151 Jalan Hutton. The space is to “produce art and cultural events with a focus on the format of visual art exhibition supported by collateral programmes. Run Amok collaborates with local/regional art and cultural practitioners to revision the histories by responding to the current socio-political conditions through a language that is relevant to contemporary locality and everyday experiences.”

Previously, it hosted workshops by Singaporean photographer and researcher-archivist Zhuang WuBin, and another workshop called “All’s Well, End Well” by Wu Ma and He En Ning. It also staged Liew Kwai Fei’s Kami Bukan Hantu: Ah Pull & Ah Door, his sixth solo since Fei at Rumah Air Panas, KL in 2003. There was also the Eating Wind group exhibition featuring, among others, Annabelle Ng, Bibichun, Chi Too, Darrel Chia, Daniel Chong and Hoo Fan Chon.

The ceramic duo, Li Leng Wong and James Seet, at the Daydream exhibition in China House.

For more upscale fine dining and entertainment, China House, which “fronts” both Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Victoria, is the place to be at. It has a bifurcated upstairs gallery with more display spaces on the ground floor. In April, it hosted the exciting ceramic duo James Seet and Li Leng Wong in the Daydream exhibition, besides the cominghome solo of Penang-born British artist Kate Hunt. China House is part of the Bon Ton Resort chain helmed by Narelle McMurtrie, who also runs the Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary (LASSie).

Seet was among 56 participants from 15 countries in the 5th SELSIUS-USM International Ceramic Festival organised by USM, Penang in April, after a five-year hiatus. It was held at the Muzium dan Galeri Tuanku Fauziah, which was also the venue of the first festival in 2005. In 2006 and 2007, it was held in Putrajaya and the National Art Gallery respectively, before it returned to the Penang State Art Gallery in 2009.

Other accomplished Malaysian exponents include Dr Shamsu Mohamad (USM senior lecturer, who was the point man), Mohd Omar Bidin, Salwa Ayob, Tan Vooi Yam and Cheah Yeow Seng. They joined potters from South Korea, Thailand, the US, Turkey, Australia, China, Indonesia, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Japan and Switzerland during the heady week of exhibitions, workshops, seminars and exchanges of ideas and techniques.

The Art Trio exhibition at Acheh Art Row.

The Penang State Art Museum’s Jalan Macalister “barracks” is another alternative space, although it cannot rival Singapore’s Gillman Barracks. It was formerly the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, the country’s first maternity hospital (1915-1955), before it became the offices of several NGOs until 1980.

Often considered a spooky place, the “hospital” was recreated in April when staff members play-acted as doctors and nurses in A Nite at the No. 57 Macalister, and an encore is planned for August. The place is ideal for fringe art activities apart from alternative exhibitions to complement the gallery’s low-ceiling and somewhat claustrophobic main space at the Dewan Sri Pinang on Lebuh Farquhar.

It is also where the Penang State Art Gallery’s main administration was relocated after it was leased to the Penang State Art Gallery in September 2010, and its proximity to amenities coupled with ample parking space gave it an edge over its Lebuh Farquhar half.

Another new space, the Acheh Art Row, the first of several proposed art galleries, opened on March 22 with the Art Trio exhibition of Eric Quah, Chan Thien Chie and Soon Lai Wai until April 22.

Such peripheral art spaces are essential in moving Penang up the value chain in the creative industry, despite its lack of worldclass arts infrastructures and amenities.

Contact Run Amok Gallery at +6010 461 7311 or access the website at www.

Contact China House at +604 263 7299 or email

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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