The Art of Developing Balik Pulau

loading Julia Volchkova's silat masters

Tranquil and rustic, Penang’s major west coast town has become irresistible to artists and art enthusiasts.

Mural painted by local artist Lee Kok Liang.

The once sleepy farming village of Balik Pulau is abuzz. Its greenery, simple life, and harvests are now offering visitors endless art experiences.

About 10 years ago, Balik Pulau-born Koh Teng Huat, self-taught in palette-knife oil painting, noticed many local and foreign artists flocking to the area to do outdoor sketching – possibly spurred on by the mass media attention that followed a study about the history of an early Hakka settlement there.

Indeed, Balik Pulau was attracting a lot of artists already around 2007-2010 when Malihom, an eco-resort sanctuary located at Bukit Penara, collaborated with The Royal Bank of Scotland and Wawasan Open University to host an artists’ residency programme. Some of these artists, attracted by the “kampung/kebun” ambience, made Balik Pulau their home, art studio or art centre. These include Shaparel Salleh’s art studio (in 2008); Simon Tan’s art studio (in 2010); Shamsu Mohamed’s Sila studio ceramic centre (officially opened in 2013); and Hasnul J. Saidon’s garden home.1  2

Koh founded the Balik Pulau Art Society in 2011 – the same year that he set up his own art studio at Pulau Betong, which also doubles as a space for him to gather and interact with artists and art lovers. Starting out with 30 artists and non-artists, the society currently has 135 registered members; in July this year it held its seventh group exhibition at the Penang State Art Gallery.

Attractive installations abound in Balik Pulau's quaint villages.

Street Art Mania

In 2014, the street art craze hit Balik Pulau when Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic created two murals – the silversmith and a mural at Botanica Mansion in Air Putih – during the Urban Exchange International Street Art Festival. Later, in 2016, another street art movement took place in the town when Julia Volchkova, a Russian artist, was commissioned to paint four large-scale portrait murals (the old fisherman, the silat master, Hakka dancing girl and the rubber tapper) to portray Balik Pulau’s local identity.

Tan Chor Whye, the project coordinator-cum-Volchkova’s manager, explains: “The idea of creating more street art in Balik Pulau as a place-making initiative to enhance the townscape and promote Balik Pulau through art was in fact sparked and driven by Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik, a city councillor. Under his continuous support and sponsorship by a private company (Ideal Property Group), and importantly, with the shop owners’ permission, this project was accomplished. Before work started, I brought Volchkova to explore places in Balik Pulau, to meet, to talk and to observe the locals. With some understanding about the local living culture, she captured the relevant subjects on walls.”

Tan Chor Whye and Ernest Zacharevic’s mural of the silversmith.

Since then, more street art and public art installations have appeared. In 2016 Chor Whye personally sponsored and arranged for three local artists to paint a narrow alley and a shop pillar in town. At Kuala Sungai Pinang, another piece of wall painting by Simon Tan was spotted at a shop near the junction leading into the fishing village – a favourite spot for outdoor sketchers.

The operator of the coffee shop opposite Simon’s painting recalls: “Simon cycled here and stopped by for coffee. While chatting with me and a few other customers, he suggested he paint on the opposite wall. With the owner’s agreement, he began painting and completed his work in a few days. My customers and I enjoyed watching him painting. We are happy to see the final outcome. Now, groups of visitors on bicycles still stop by to take photos with the painting.”

Pastoral Inspiration

“As an artist, I see Balik Pulau as a paradise,” says Koh. “It offers a lot of inspiration – from nature and heritage to the living culture – and all of these should be preserved. Years ago, I dreamt of making Balik Pulau an international art village, a ‘utopia of art’, with the hope that through art, the process of drastic developmental change could be decelerated.”

Koh initiated multiple small and big art activities, aiming to gather artists from everywhere to come explore and paint Balik Pulau – in the process exhibiting Balik Pulau’s beauty to the world. Recently, Koh secured a collaboration with investors from KL to turn a plot of land at Air Putih into a space for artists, namely Balik Pulau Artists’ Village, with the support of David Goh, a nature and art lover, who advises on managing the site.

Equipped with a multipurpose hall and rooms in an authentic village house, Koh hopes for the site to eventually become a central point for artists. It fulfils the requirements to hold exhibitions, art talks, workshops and artist-in-residence programmes. With minimum interruption to the surrounding greenery, Goh hopes that the artists’ village will inspire environmentalists and like-minded investors to create ecological developments. The site has officially welcomed its first group of artists from Singapore and Penang, who exhibited their works in the hall after a two-day sketching programme in August. Next, it will host its first artist-in-residence, Anees Maani, a wood sculptor from Jordan.

Through art, artists and art patrons advocate to preserve Balik Pulau by highlighting the splendour of its nature and the significance of its local identity, making Balik Pulau truly a different kind of destination. It begs the question, though: Will art eventually gentrify the township? Hopefully, with mindful initiatives that are connected and relevant to the locals, it could generate more benefit than drawbacks.

Koh art studio.

The opening of the joint exhibition of Anees Maani’s wood sculptures and Koh’s palette knife paintings. Also on display is David’s private collection of traditional sculptures from around the region.

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


Related Articles

Oct 2017

Empowering Penang’s MICE industry

With an estimated RM808mil economic impact, business events in Penang are big business.

May 2010

The Prince of Wales Island Gazette

Introducing the first ever newspaper to be published in South-East Asia.

Jul 2010

By George Town! A festival to inherit

The George Town Festival 2010 is just around the corner! We talk to festival director Joe Sidek and highlight some big performances.