Seeking inspiration in Balik Pulau

loading An oil painting of a fishing village by Simon Tan.

Art does not spring from the artist alone, but also from his chosen surroundings. This is as true for the professional as it is for the amateur. Consciously or not, many artists have found their way to Balik Pulau, to settle and to create.

Idyllic Balik Pulau, the last natural sanctuary on Penang Island, is evolving into a resort for artists.

Several artists have started moving there to be far, far away from the madding crowd, to have their own studio-gallery in a place with “kampung/kebun” ambience and because whatever they buy to move into has been more affordable. One of them even plans to set up an international artists’ camp there.

There is also the RBS-Malihom artist’s residency which was started in 2007. The last intake there, according to its website, was in December 2011, with the Bali-based Japanese Rie Mandala and Hong Kong’s Canada-trained Angela Su. (It had hosted 18 artists and several other non-resident artists by then.)

Hasnul J. Saidon in his last solo, Veil of an Artist, at the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery in 2010.

Artist cum ex-gallerist cum homestay expert Simon Tan Siew Kuan, 45, and ceramic artist and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) senior lecturer Shamsu Mohamed, 50, set up home cum studio in Balik Pulau in 2010 and 2008 respectively. Shaparel Salleh, 41, a Nature artist in the mould of Johan Marjonid, turned a semi-detached house into the Shaparel Art Studio five years ago.

Another USM staff-member, assistant curator Aizuan Azmi, who recently won one of the Penang Open awards, also has a house-studio there. Perak-born Hasnul J. Saidon, 47, the director of the USM gallery (MGTF-USM) in April 2005-December 2012 until he quit to concentrate on his PhD research thesis, is turning resident caretaker “pekebun” (gardener) – on behalf of his two brothers, in his mother’s estate.

Peter Liew taught at the Malaysian Institution of Art in Kuala Lumpur from 1981-1994, after graduating from his alma mater in 1979. The Perak-born artist of the Big Outdoor plans a complex for an international artist’s camp on his two-and-a-half acre site in Pondok Upeh, which will be based partly on a similar set-up he attended in Macedonia (Debrca-Belchista and exhibition in Skopje) several times before. The land the 57-year-old bought three years ago, which lies just a half kilometre away from the main road near Malihom, has just been cleared but heavy rain of late has upset his schedule. In the pipeline are four cluster chalets with eight-person capacity each, besides a main building with a hall, theatrette and office equipped with ancillary facilities.

Should he need more accommodation, he can perhaps fall back on the 10 chalets being built nearby which Simon Tan is helping a businessman friend erect, but because of the enormous funds needed and the logistics, Peter Liew will probably have to start small and this will not happen in the near future. Maybe early next year.

Now his neighbour Simon Tan’s art has greatly improved since he moved lock, stock and barrel from the rising bustle of town to the more placid Balik Pulau. His techniques have also become more sophisticated and matured from his active participation in numerous arts festivals/workshops/symposiums in Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea. He used to run an art gallery in a rented lot on Armenian Street but now keeps a homestay business in town, run by a partner.

Simon Tan, who is pursuing his MFA in the Europe Asia University, has won several awards, beginning with the Young Talent Artist (Penang) in 1991, followed by the Beautiful Malaysia Award (1996), Tanjung Heritage Award (Penang, 2007) and the New Expression Award of Asia Art in Henan, China (2008). As a one-time gallerist, he has had two solo exhibitions – the first at Penas Art Gallery in Penang in 1996, and the other at the Art D’Crane Gallery in Singapore in 2011.

Simon Tan's art gallery in Balik Pulau.

Malacca-born Shaparel, who graduated from USM in 1999, moved there because it is ideal for his kind of work dealing with Nature – avifauna and landscapes – hills, lots of vegetation and rivers, and he loves to go fishing and trekking into forested interiors. Shaparel won the Major Prize in the Penang Young Artists competition in 1999, and also the Second Prize in the Tasik Kenyir art competition in 2007. His most visible solo exhibition was called Beauty for Survival, held at the Galeri Seni Mutiara’s now defunct The Whiteways outlet last year.

Shamsu, a Kelantan-born senior lecturer at USM, bought a double-storey unit in the booming housing estates there as “it was (then) the only place that was still affordable.” His Silo Studio ceramic centre offers short courses and workshops for students and enthusiasts, using two gas kilns with firing capacity of up to 1,250 degrees Centigrade, but it’s the incorporation of raw organic and recycled materials as exemplified by his Nur Series that proves most interesting. His nonpottery materials include sponges, newspapers, rice-husk, branches and sea-grass.

Shamsu graduated from UiTM, majoring in Ceramics Art in 1984. He gained his Master’s degree in Industrial Design from the London Institute in England, in 1997. He also had a stint in kiln and firing technology in Mino, Kamazaki, Japan in 1999. He has won, among others, silver medals for his research and invention of Bio-Cera (2007 and 2008) and gold and silver medals for his invention of Eco Oil Palm Ash Glaze (2005). He also won Third Prize in a ceramic competition in Sarawak in 1998.

Simon Tan's art gallery in Balik Pulau.

Hasnul, whose life-art is seeking a state of “quantum Oneness,” needs no introduction, being well known as an e-artist, administrator, adjudicator, activist-agitator, lecturer, curator, theoretician-excogitator, researcher… He also won the National Artist Award in 2009. America-trained, he did his Master’s degree in Electronic Arts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1993) and his BFA in Painting at the Southern Illinois University (1991). For him, it is all a great conjunction of serendipity of completing his thesis, being a full-time artist under the pretext of being a gardener, “literally and metaphorically”, and re-bonding with his family and with Nature, besides his other manifold duties. His BP garden habitat is also on-stream. The land has been cleared, ready for the electronic-art wizard cum ideas guru to turn into a natural lab for creative projects – probably not unlike what printmaker Juhari Muhammad had done with his Akal diUlu in Ulu Langat in Selangor. Hasnul has also spirited two old traditional Malay houses here from elsewhere, all ready to be reassembled onsite.

The place is named after his maternal grandmother – Tanah Tok Timah – and will be a back-to-nature experience for him and his family on what he profoundly terms a “creative hub of sustainable living, based on local (Nusantara) wisdom.” Hasnul has his work cut out for him. He says he’s working on a new series of works including one on “video-mapping”. He also sits on the board of trustees of the National Visual Arts Gallery and the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery (2006-2012), apart from working with Penang’s Yayasan Islam on “enlivening the dead Acheh Street”. Otherwise, this art-academic hobo can be seen sometimes stalking Acheh Street in the heritage enclave helping his batik-artist wife, Rozana, in her Rozana’s Refreshing and Fine Heart Gallery.

Balik Pulau is already touted for its ecotourism attractions of star-gazing, sunsetwatching, mangrove tours, camping and canoeing, and its abundant seafood from the brace of fishing villages – Teluk Kumbar, Kampung Pondok Upeh, Kampung Sungai Burung, Gertak Sanggul and Pulau Betong. Its main claim to fame is probably its high-grade durian orchards (nearly 2,000ha), its belachan (shrimp-paste) processing factories (Gertak Sanggul and Pulau Betong) and the hill-slope cultivation of cloves and nutmegs.

What a place it will be if more artists move in, and more art-related activities are held there.

1. Enau Dalam Belukar... (Earthenware), 2009 H: 40 cm x W: 25 cm, 30 pieces
2. My City (Bone China, 1,250 Celsius), 2008 H: 10 cm x D: 10, 12 pieces
3. Pakai Buang (Earthenware, 1,200 Celsius), 2010 H: 20 cm x W: 10 cm, 15 pieces
4. Putat Laut...Bunga-bunga Pulau (Earthenware), 2007 H: 12 cm x D: 20 cm
5. Melentur Buloh, Biar dari Rebungnya (Porcelain, 1,250 Celsius), 2004 H: 25 cm x D: 20 cm, 50 pieces
6. Transformasi (Earthenware), 2007 W: 100 cm x L: 100 cm x H: 6 cm

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

Related Articles

Jul 2011

Toya: Stretching batik to its limits

At 68, batik painter Toya is still pushing himself and his art. But he may end up being the last of his kind.

Jan 2014

Art goes far beyond simple imaging

This month, we shine the spotlight on the low profile C. K. Tan.

Aug 2017

Remembering Tan Choon Ghee in Ink and Watercolour

His large collection is now at the Penang State Art Gallery.