The sign reads “Penang Malay Artists Association (PMAA) Gallery”.
But there is much more to it. For one thing, the name is at odds with the arabesque stucco pediment of alabaster-white with a vestibule passageway double the width of a conventional five-foot-way.
There is more to it. It’s actually a mausoleum of one of Penang’s most aristocratic merchant families – the family of the Kapitan Keling II Noordin Merican, who has a road named after him. No wonder it can hold its own against the adjoining worldfamous Kapitan Keling Mosque.
There is more to it. It used to house an informal children’s class for Qur’anic studies.
What it is now is the home of the PMAA, but then again, it isn’t, because the PMAA is no more, having been deregistered in 2010.
Says Abdul Rashid Razak, the association’s president from 2002 to 2010: “We are trying to revive it, with a new name.” Rashid, 62, is the curator cum permanent resident artist of the gallery, the space for which is leased to the association since 2007 by the Penang Islamic Council.
Rashid became famous when he won the Mahsuri painting contest in Langkawi in 1995 which was worth RM30,000! The Mahsuri Mausoleum adopted his painted version as the official face of the local beauty, Mahsuri, who was wrongly accused of adultery and put to death.His Mahsuri portrait is based on a fetching village girl called Nurkumalawati who is his muse in several other figurative works. “But her hands were based on studies of my daughter’s hands,” says Rashid, a self-taught artist who is also adept at painting landscapes and abstracts.
The Mahsuri portrait in the gallery is a twin copy of the one that now hangs in the Mahsuri Museum.
At its height, the association had 56 members.
Where are they now? Most of the members, unlike Rashid, have other bread-and-butter jobs. Rashid himself worked as assistant researcher (drug abuse) at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) for 16 years before taking up optional retirement in 1993.
After a short two-year stint as resident artist at the Golden Sands Hotel, he decided to concentrate on painting what he wants, although he still takes commissions.
Groups under the “Malay” appellation are uncommon. But there is a comparatively smaller group of Malay artists in Penang, which by dint of history became a Chinese bastion.
But the equations have evened up now (an unofficial 2010 estimate put the Malay to Chinese ratio in Penang at 43:46). The rural-urban migration in recent decades from neighbouring states to what was then the Silicon Valley of the country saw an influx from neighbouring Kedah, Perlis and less so, Perak.
The area around the gallery/mausoleum and the mosque, right in the heart of the Unesco heritage enclave, was also the staging post of Arab and Indian Muslim communities, with a Malay nucleus at Acheen Street, while some others settled in Pulau Tikus, Jelutong and Air Itam.
Penang, after all, was the birthplace of pioneer artist Abdullah Ariff (1904-1962), while another pioneer artist, Hoessein Enas (1924-1995, later made a “Datuk”), initially settled in Penang from Indonesia/Singapore before he was lured by better job prospects to Kuala Lumpur.
Arguably, the greatest of them all is the consummate and extraordinary actor-director-singer-musician-composer Tan Sri P. Ramlee, but his museum on the street named after him (Jalan P. Ramlee) looks like a forgotten shrine now.
Penang was also the birthplace of bangsawan and boria although both have faded considerably.
Abdullah Ariff himself also has a road named after him, in Air Itam, but that could be more because he was a municipal councillor in 1955 rather than his being an artist, cartoonist, teacher and owner of the advertising agency bearing his name.Penang, especially the touristy beach areas, used to be a playground for Malay artists from Kedah; specifically, A.B. Ibrahim (1925-1977) and A.J. Rahman (1922-1995). Kedah Malay artists seem to have stopped making “pilgrimages” to the island.
Whatever their racial background, people do move around in search of a better job and life. Penang in a way is a rest stop for “outsiders” or transients. It is fortunate to have been chosen by poet-painter Abdul Latiff Mohidin (born in Negeri Sembilan, 1938) as his “retirement home”. He bought a house off his good friend and fellow-artist Askandar Unglehrt, who was smart enough to accept part of the payment in paintings. This has paid off considerably with the high prices commanded for Latiff’s art. German-born Askandar’s wife is Datuk Tengku Idaura Tengku Ibrahim.
Latiff was trained at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Germany and honed his printmaking skills at the Atelier La Courriere in France and the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York.
He is the last of Malaysia’s top art triumvirate – the others being Datuk Ibrahim Hussein (1936-2009) and Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (1929-2011).
But Latiff has become reclusive and is rarely seen in public events except when he has a new book or a major thematic exhibition, the last being The Journey to Wetlands, and Beyond in Singapore in 2009.
Penang has attracted excellent academic, intellectual and/or practising artists by default because of educational institutions such as USM. USM boasts of heavy-duty teaching staff members such as associate professors Hasnul J. Saidon (born in Perak, 1965) and Fauzan Omar (born 1951).
Hasnul and Fauzan, both American trained, did their Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and the Maryland Institute College of Arts in Baltimore respectively.
Hasnul is the local czar of electronic arts as artist-animator cum promoter, while Fauzan excelled with his cut-canvas collages like in his Luminosity Series in the 1990s.
Two other heavyweights from the USM staff list, Datuk Mohd Najib Ahmad Dawa (born in Pahang, 1954) and Professor Madya Dr Zakaria Ali (born in Rembau, Negeri Sembilan, 1946) have been transferred out.
Najib, who had his PhD at the Manchester Metropolitan University and was dean of the USM Centre for Art Studies, went to the National Art Gallery as director, and then headed to Akademi Seni Budaya & Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara).Harvard-trained Dr Zakaria, who is also a poet and has written several art books during his stint at USM, now lectures at the Sultan Idris Education University in Tanjung Malim.
A Penangite who rose high, and in fact became the director of the National Art Gallery was Rahime Harun (1954-2008). He was also an art dealer (AP Gallery) and printmaker.
Ismail Hashim (born in Penang, 1940), one of Malaysia’s most scathing social commentators in photography and a fastidious perfectionist, retired in 1995.
A USM graduate, he lectured at the Graphic Design and Photography faculty between 1979 and 1995. He qualified with an MFA at the Washington State University, and was honoured with a Retrospective at the Penang State Art Gallery in 2010. His iconic works that tell about nostalgia and vanishing scenes include his hand-tinted commentaries of mundane objects and subjects such as Kedai Gunting and multiple capsule images of post boxes, bicycle seats and trishaws. Educational institutions such as the Equator Academy of Art, UiTM Permatang Pauh, Wawasan Open University, Olympus College and Stamford College are ideal talent banks cum conveyor belts for attracting and churning out promising talents, who may stay put after completing their studies.
Hasnul’s daughter Rozana, a batik artist, runs an art space on Lebuh Acheh called Rozana’s Fine Heart Gallery & Refreshing Batik, while another female Malay artist, Sharifah “Sherry” Mazwani, operates Art Wave Art Space (Awas) at Babington Road together with her well-known Canadian artist-husband Drew Harris.
As Rashid who spent 17 years in Kuala Lumpur before returning to Penang, two others have since also returned to Penang. They are Shamsul Bahari, who spent a total of 21 years in the US and Japan, and more recently, Ismail Lepat, after long spells in Bremen in Germany.
The trend and certainly, quality, of the artwork are not dictated by the politics of demographics. There is no escaping falling into one’s ethnic and religious ghettoes. Still, depending on what one paints and the race-conditioned worldview, more pluralistic and even syncretic forms of expressions may emerge from there.
Ooi Kok Chuen has been writting on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.