Celebrating Ten Years of Art Writing


TEN years ago, Penang was still a backwater in the national art narrative. There were signs of little titillations, though, that signaled a potential resurgence, as Penang is after all, the cradle of Malaysian art – with at least eight pioneers in the halcyon days.

Good tidings followed one after another: the Penang Sculpture Trail; the revival of the Penang Retrospective into a major annual event like a much-awaited James Bond film; the inscription of George Town as a Unesco World Heritage site; more long-haul art galleries and spaces sprouting up; more youngsters staying put instead of taking the Yellow Brick Road to the “Big Durian” – KL; local and foreign artists increasingly making Penang their base; the street art phenomenon sparked by Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic; the George Town Festival (GTF); the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF); and the proposed Penang Art District.

Indirectly, budget airlines brought the world and the country closer, while the electric train service (ETS) sped up KL-Penang travel. The Penang links also connected to Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)’s Muzium and Galeri Tuanku Fauziah, then under director Hasnul J. Saidon; the Penang State Art Gallery’s (PSAG) Art Acquisition from 1965-2011; and the Penang Batik Museum.

Events and issues covered included the People’s Court community art, Arts-ED, the art boom in Balik Pulau, PIPE (Penang International Prints Exchange) in 2010, GTF and its founder Joe Sidek, Malay artists, expat artists, Utara reunion, Malihom retreat, Urban Sketches, bird artists, female artists (with one national spotlight in the April 2012 issue), and the Teng (batik-art pioneer Datuk Chuah Thean Teng) family legacy (“What now after Teng?”, September 2010).

Unfortunately, there is no foresight for a state-of-the-art purpose-built art museum in Penang, like what is happening in Hong Kong, Singapore and China.

When the then-editor Dr Ooi Kee Beng, now Dato’, invited me onboard to pen a regular column, Penang Palette, I was ecstatic and enthusiastic. As a Penangite who has covered both the local and international art scene for 40 years, I saw it as an opportunity to chronicle, enliven and ramp up the scene. The initial brief was “parochially” Penang, but a year later, when Dato’ Dr Ooi gave the greenlight for a crashing of boundaries, the floodgates opened.

The advent of South-east Asian art auctions starting with the 2010 Henry Butcher banner and the Art Expo Malaysia (AEM – covered 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019) catapulted KL onto the international art calendar. Satellite centres were not ignored, like the Seni Ipoh in the Lorong Bijih Timah enclave.

Penang Palette in Penang Monthly's inaugural issue.

The premier Art Basel Hong Kong (previously Art Hong Kong) was avidly covered, with a look into its strategic peripheral spaces and forward programmes.

Singapore challenged Hong Kong in arts ecology and infrastructure with the newly refurbished SGD532mil (RM1.63bil) National Gallery Singapore, opening with the twin exhibitions of Siapa Nama Kamu? and Between Declarations and Dreams, followed by blockbuster gems such as Century of Light: Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna; Colours of Impressionism, masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay; Yayoi Kusama, the most expensive living woman artist with her Infinity installations among others; and Artist & Empire: (En)Countering Colonial Legacies. Art Stage Singapore was launched in 2014 with great fanfare, and it was covered for Penang Monthly readers until its demise this year, with an unceremonious obituary.

The net is cast further in events that I was involved in: the Asean Contemporary Painting Symposium in Bangkok (August 2014 issue); the IWS Myanmar Exhibition and Painting Expedition from Yangon, Mandalay and Kalaw at end November-December 2017, with a special focus on Myanmar’s most iconic artist Min Wae Aung and his Monk Pop repertoire; the Malaysian artists expedition to Liaoning, China, which included the Li Chi-Mao Museum in Shandong and Confucius’ birthplace in Qufu; the French cultural award end 2015-early 2016 to Paris with a look into its lively winter art-tractions like the Andy Warhol Unlimited, Splendour and Misery at the Musee d’Orsay, Monet at the Orangerie, and Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation museum. There was also coverage on the Malaysian edition of Benetton Foundation’s Imago Mundi, comprising works of 10cm x 12cm format exhibited in Milan, Italy.

Penang Monthly put in perspective the Penang Retrospectives of Khoo Sui-Hoe (2007), John Lee Joo-for (2008), Eric Quah (2011), Datuk Chong Hon Fatt (2012), Tan Chiang Kiong (2013), Syed Thajudeen (2015), James Sum (2016) and Datuk Tang Hon Yin (2018). Also covered were the 2014-2015 (February) retrospective of Dr Choong Kam Kow at the National Art Gallery, and the 2018 retrospective of Peter Liew at Soka Gakkai Malaysia, KL.

Dedicated obituaries to artists were also done: Tan Choon Ghee (1930-2010), including one on the Tan Choon Ghee bequest by his widow Kam Hye Sin to the PSAG; Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (1929-2011), Yuen Chee Ling (1950-2015), John Lee Joo-for (1929-2017) and Khalil Ibrahim (1934-2018), while Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam (1941-2016), batik-artist Lim “Toya” Khoon Hock (1943-2017, July 2011 issue), socio-comic photographer Ismail Hashim (1940-2013, September 2012 issue, and his posthumous Unpack: Repack show) and sculptor Anthony Lau (September 2016 issue; he died on September 4, aged 83) were interviewed before their deaths.

New insights were gleaned from a major exhibition of art prodigy Dzulkifli Mohd Dahalan at the National Art Gallery, while Yong Cheng Wah revealed moments with his pioneer watercolourist father, Mun Sen (1896-1962). Personality focusing shed new light on Rome-based H.H. Lim, Cheng Haw Chien, Cheah Thien Soong @ Cheah Mei, Chew Teng Beng, Datuk Tay Mo-Leong, Datuk M. Nasir, Anuar Rashid, Chang Fee Ming, Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir and the great political cartoonist “Zunar” Zulkiflee Anwar Haque.

Apart from Min Wae Aung, other foreign artists covered were Singapore’s Ong Kim Seng and Indonesia’s Dadang Christianto.

Works and issues of the Bakat Muda Sezaman competition in 2017 and 2019 were discussed, with highlights also on events such as the 14th General Election art, Chinese ink tradition in Malaysia, the Getah Colour “Rub’ A Paint” revolution, the Malaysian Institute of Art’s 50th Anniversary, the KLCA Reunion 2014, the Sasaran art village, Datuk Dr Tan Chee Khuan’s coffee-table books on pioneer artists, Democracy In Action, art auctions, and the South-east Asian art market, including the top 50 grossers.

Penang Monthly also plunged headlong into controversial issues, like the one on art censorship (October 2013) and the demolition of a national sculpture monument, Lunar Peaks, by KL’s City Hall in July 2016 after City Hall lost an epic landmark court case.

Of great interest, too, were the articles on marriages made on canvas (art couples), and old artists above 60 years of age, art Datuks, while the different menus of the art of food/food in art continued to be done since the 2017 issue.

It was a different kind of palette when the focus shifted to the Bujang Valley through its chief champion Datuk V. Nadarajan, and The Artists’ Studio in penangpac under Datuk Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham.

In many developed countries, art has become an integral economic driver, and with globalisation and a borderless art ecosystem, the possibilities are endless and infinite for Penang and Malaysia.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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