Promise of a Renaissance


More has been happening in the art world in Penang in recent years than anyone could have expected. Whether this new energy can be put to effective use is the big question.

Yes, much has been happening, and is still happening since July 7, 2008, when Penang was christened a Unesco Heritage City. Feel-good vibes not felt since the Chong Eu era are becoming evident.

New art spaces are appearing... in hotels, art residencies, and etc., fuelled by the George Town Festival (with a reworks finale), the PSMAG II, the 1Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism festival and trendy contemporary lifestyle retail outlets; as well as creative young talents and returnees with specialised expertise.

But what does all this amount to?
Will it make Penang a more liveable, more loveable metropolis? A green and eco-friendly city? A playground for the rich and famous moving up the value chain to become a Riviera of the Orient? A “cat” (cultural and arts transformation) hub (apart from the other “cat” – “competence, accountability and transparency”)?

Well, not for a while yet. But things are looking up.

Prices of pre-war buildings, of which Penang has the highest intact concentration in South-East Asia, have shot up by more than two times, especially along Armenian Street, and Postcode 10200 has now become the lifestyle and entertainment address.

Several of these buildings, including those on China Street, Beach Street, Malay Street and the waterfront area, are being creatively transformed. Covent Garden style makeovers will also transform the privately owned moribund properties around the Khoo Kongsi.

The biggest zap is without doubt the George Town Festival conducted under the baton of Joe Sidek. Its second year offered an unwieldy 80 programmes, including the “River Meets Light” performance a far cry above the insipid Penang-YTL Festival held earlier. It should be heavily promoted and milked for overseas exposure.

More of such festivals should be encouraged. Festivals of literature, films, dance, music (there’s one on jazz planned for December 1–4 this year), food (after all, Penang is a hawker food paradise)... all these will help create the right buzz.

More museums of various eclectic tastes and specialities like that of Peranakan Mansion (Church Street) and the Penang Story People’s Museum as mooted by academician Dr Chan Lean Heng will also make Penang a must-visit stop on every tourist’s check-list. All these will have a spill-over effect on economic life in general.

Take for instance, artist Koay Soo Kau’s Galeri Seni Mutiara which has taken a second outlet at Whiteaways Arcade on Beach Street.

Studio@Straits, on top of Bon Ton at Armenian Street, debuted with a rousing “Cat & Dogs” exhibition just next to the space of glass sculptor Fuan Wong (Wong Keng Fuan)/jeweller Jonathan Yun/Studio Howard. Fuan, of course, is a Made-In-Penang brand and there should be more like him.

Also, Rebecca Ducke Wilkinson, who is Malaysian by the way, relocated in 1999 from the East Coast to Penang, where in 2009 she set up a studio cum gallery and a homestay on China Street, incidentally near the part US-based artist Khoo Sui-Hoe’s Alpha Utara Gallery, which has embraced sideline events in drama, films and music on the intervention of botanist- architect Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat.

At a dilapidated building at 212 Beach Street, a most unusual installation art of dressed-up paintings by E. H. Chee called “Rehab, My Foot!” was staged in September, complete with torrents of rainwater falling from the leaking roof as if on cue. The temporary space is to be renovated into the home of its owner, lawyer cum art connoisseur Lee Khai, who also owns the adjoining corner unit. 

On Lebuh Acheh is Rozana’s Batik, and on Malay Street, Peter Liew’s Atelier, while performer-painter- potter Chee Sek im is also converting a similar building down the road into a cultural space.

Others include Shaparel Art Studio, Galeri Kampung Nelayan, Alyssa Gallery (formerly I Do Gallery), while a2 runs a hectic programme at Bangkok Lane.

A new space called 3Quarters-Studio at Phuah Hin Leong Road opened with an exciting photography exhibition called “A Place Called Home”, with artist T.C. Liew as curator. The works are by artists from the Gen-X and Millennials, the so-called XY Generation (born between 1975 and 1991), those so essential for continuity, renewal and change. These were ne, non-cliché works by young minds and eyes: Chew Win Chen @ Okuilala, dance instructor Joie Koo, scriptwriter Doris Lee, Yeoh Suet Khee @ Fayeusokoi , Lee Chee Hoe, Kelvin Yeap, jazz musician Jonathian Yee, Dayana Al-Sahab, Lim Eng Ping @ Jet Lim and Sher Lim.

On the same Phuah Hin Leong Road is Island Gallery.

With Penang not too long ago looking ominously like an old folk’s home of arts, the emergence of outstanding young talents artists such as Chan Kok Hooi, Goh Lee Kwang, Ng Kim Heoh, T.C. Liew, Tang Yeok Khang and Tan Kai Sheuan based on the island is another ho-liao sign.

In August, the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery (PSMAG) hosted an interactive exhibition of young artists called “Kedai Runcit No.12”, fresh from its showing at the much touted Singapore Art Stage.

The PSMAG celebrated its 46th anniversary last year (on April 14) with fanfare, with the opening of its cluster of new exhibition spaces on Jalan Macalister, at what was formerly the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.

On Lebuhraya Babington, is Art Works Art Space (Awas), of the husband-and-wife artist team of Canadian-born Drew Harris and Sharifah Mazari. An infusion of quality foreign talents is de rigueur in the new globalisation game, and Drew Harris is as big a “catch” as one can hope for. There are many others who have se led in Penang (PEM, May 2010), the other most outstanding being the eccentric Hitori Nakayama.

A new gallery, the WAF Art Gallery, heralded its opening with an exhibition by the Penang-born Adelaide-based Pheh It Hao, called “Boundary”. The gallery, with links to a Shanghai gallery, is set up at the posh Straits Quay marina arcade in Tanjung Tokong by Brian Keh and Ashley Loo. 

Penang has no world-class performing arts centre, with the Dewan Sri Pinang having outlived its usefulness, while others such as the Wawasan Open University’s centre and the Actors’ Studio Greenhall are relatively modest.

Even G Hotel on Persiaran Gurney has also jumped on the bandwagon by devoting its corridor restaurant space to art, starting with an exhibition by Kim Heoh in October.

For alternative spaces and exhibitions with a difference and sometimes cutting-edge ones at that, there’s the Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) under Hasnul J. Saidon, which keeps up an exciting array of multimedia/ multidisciplinary and rojak programmes, apart from its fine collection of Malaysian art, of course.

Non-governmental organisations such as Arts-Ed have a major role to play in creating awareness of social issues and communities. In 2009, Kuala Lumpur’s Lost Generation Art Space and Anak-Anak Kota Penang presented a most stunning “Bangun: Penang Clan Jetties Art Project”, and in 2008, the Petaling Jaya based Pusat Komas came out with its award-winning (European Grudtvis Award) docu-video on the clan jetty community.

The celebrity aura is just as effective. In August, Asian award-winning actress-singer Angelica Lee Sin-jie was roped in as a Penang tourism envoy. Penang itself has its own celebrities like the London-based world shoe couturier Datuk Jimmy Choo Yang Keat, New York-based fashion designer Yeohlee Teng , director-actor-singer-songwriter Tan Kheng Seong better known as Ah Niu, actress-singer Hannah Tan, pianist Dennis Lee, and of course, the legendary Tan Sri P. Ramlee.

Programmes such as artist residencies and art camps are also essential. The RBS-Malihom artist-in-residence (AIR) programme has hosted local and foreign artists at its Balik Pulau forest sanctuary since 2007 (see PEM, June 2011), and since 2010, the Selangor-based Rimban Dahan has also set up its Penang AIR at its boutique downtown, Hotel Penaga.

But private initiatives alone won’t make a chirpy summer. Penang sorely lacks the hardware of purpose- built museums, performing arts spaces and such.

The RM300mil sPICE (Penang Island Convention and Exhibition Centre) is expected to be completed in three years, but Penang has no world-class performing arts centre, with the Dewan Sri Pinang having outlived its usefulness, while others such as the Wawasan Open University’s centre and the Actors’ Studio Greenhall are relatively modest.

The PSMAG could scarcely manage on its paltry annual budget which has to cover maintenance, staff salaries and even acquisitions, while the presentation in the Penang Museum is hopelessly caught in a time warp.

While arts and culture is often thought to be a subsidy duty, it is not necessarily so. In a talk by Prof Dr Allan Whitfield on “The Creative Industries and the New Economy” at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur on June 26, 2009, he revealed that the creative industries, besides being recession-proof, are actually great money-spinners in Europe. In Britain, it contributed £21bil to the economy annually.

The creative industries include media, advertising, films, fashion, music, visual and performing arts, computer animation and games, film and TV digital production, digital advertising and marketing.

Let’s take the Singapore Model, if only for its abundant similarities historically as a Straits darling and cultural matrix. More than three decades ago, Singapore invested more than US$1bil to become a “Global City of the Arts” (by 2015). The “Big Durian” Esplanade alone cost S$600 million. In January 2011, Art Basel impresario Lorenzo Rudolf was brought in to organise Art Stage Singapore, to complement Singapore Art Fair, Singapore Biennale, and etc.

Hong Kong, in turn, has earmarked some HK$21.6bil for the West Kowloon Cultural Precincts project, which will have a museum and 15 performing arts centres spanning over three hectares. In India, two museums of art will be built in Patna, Bihar and in Kolkota, costing US$80mil and US$82mil respectively. The Kolkota modern art museum is scheduled to open in 2014 and the Bihar museum in 2015.

So, Penang badly needs to re-invent itself with visionary programmes in order to become a Millennium City.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

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