A New Dynamism Pervades the City’s Art Scene

loading Retrospective of Cheah Yew Saik at Penang State Art Gallery. Photo: Penang State Art Gallery.

The visual art scene in Penang has for many decades now been nourished with various elements borrowed from local and neighbouring regions. In recent years, however, it has witnessed more dynamism, with the emergence of different art forms and their respective platforms. Penang Monthly takes a look at some of these emerging art practices.

Penang Expressed through Painting

Lee Khai, chairman of the Penang State Art Gallery. Photo: Penang State Art Gallery.

Essentially, art is a form of expression to connect artists with the outside world; and it is through interacting with, and appreciating the artworks that viewers’ emotions and feelings are nurtured and heightened. A key feature of Penang’s visual art scene is its amalgamation of various painting techniques and traditions. The Nanyang Style, for example, saw the skilful blending of traditional Chinese painting techniques with local elements by first-generation Chinese artists who emigrated to Malaya and Singapore. Through this art medium, the deep and complicated emotions of an era are tangibly conveyed; and of the struggles and continuous dialogues between one’s own hand and tradition intermixing with the local culture in which many experimentations took place, the Batik painting is one such example.

Similarly, the paint and brush offered opportunities for self-discovery in which much of “Penang” was explored. Its living environments – streetscapes, temples, kampung life and local customs – are important sources of inspiration for these artists to capture and ponder the different painting traditions and the Self.

Establishing Art Spaces

Kopi Jantan series – Kopi Burung Cenderawasih. Photo: Hoo Fan Chon.

To support the growing art scene, and by extension the need for physical spaces to host exhibitions, art societies were established, such as the Penang Art Society which was founded in 1953 and is the oldest registered art society in the state. Similarly, the formation of the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) in 1965, located within the Penang State Museum at the time, marked the importance of an official art space. With the opening of commercial art galleries in the 1980s, artists were provided with more platform options to build and strengthen their network. Among them, the Art Gallery, established in 1989, is one of the pioneering efforts; other recent examples include the Mutiara Gallery, Daiichi Art Space and Ming Fine Art Gallery.

The emergence of these spaces made clearer PSAG’s mission, which also includes organising social functions. By 1994 the move to its present site at Dewan Sri Pinang proved that the local visual art scene had cemented its independence, away from the museum’s influence. The year also introduced the tradition of hosting retrospective exhibitions for Penang’s visual artists, including painting and photography; and since 2007 these exhibitions are held annually.

However, the lack of space remains a challenge, says Lee Khai, chairman of PSAG. To address this, the Penang Art District (PAD), with the support of the state government, is actively scouting for a larger art space to accommodate more social functions, including better presentation of valuable collections and educational activities. Regarded as an important future platform for Penang’s visual art scene, PAD is presently channelling efforts into enhancing the “software” aspect of the local art scene, e.g. cultivating connections, both formally and informally, between artists and the community through public discussion forums and Seni Seni talks that invite artists to share their views about art. To some degree, the PSAG and PAD assume complementary roles in conducting better outreach art programmes and in encouraging new art practices.

Art Collective as a Social Experiment

The artist Hoo Fan Chon and co-producer Jamie Oon, who is also the co-owner of Narrow Marrow. Photo: Pan Yi Chieh.

In today’s digital age, new elements and thoughts have been incorporated into the art scene. The diversity of platforms, including a burgeoning online community, has provided increasing opportunities for artists to extend their networks worldwide. Still, it does not necessarily discount the importance of local art spaces; rather these changes provide a chance to rethink old practices.

Hoo Fan Chon is an interesting example. A visual artist who moved to Penang in 2012, Hoo worked as a curator and co-founded the art space Run Amok in 2013. His various interests naturally led to completely different ways of rethinking art and spatial practices. A case in point: unlike typical art galleries, Run Amok functions more as a collective that provides unknown albeit talented artists with a space to showcase their works. The mechanism Hoo introduces tries to dampen the power relations of gallery owners, artists and collectors, which is typical of today’s commercial art galleries.

Hoo’s exhibition “Biro Kaji Visual George Town” held in Narrow Marrow last December is another art practice example that combines a variety of media, such as sculptures, photography, videos and paintings. The exhibition was a labour of love and featured an interesting curation of visual cultural symbols found in George Town – the result of Hoo’s many years of observation. From the embellishments of the state's city council logo and creative “No Parking” sculptures to the images of “kopi jantan”, these common everyday symbols are often not paid attention to. Hoo even roped in many of his artist friends to be part of the exhibition: cafe owner Jamie Oon was the co-producer; Tauras Stalnionis was in-charge of designing; while other friends took on different roles, including painting the sculptures.

The coat of arms for Bermimpi Demi Negara. Photo: Hoo Fan Chon.

While such collaborations can be challenging at times, what mattered more to Hoo was fostering the spirit of “community”. “This ‘community’,” he explains, “is not only limited to my art circle, but also includes the neighbourhood communities of George Town, like the uncle from a photography shop that gave me many ideas while he was developing my film – art basically should be accessible to the people.”

It’s tough for artists to eke out a decent living, this is especially so for those who opt for alternative ways to practise art, and support from the art community is very much needed. Adding to this, the line is sometimes blurred between art that is commercial and art that is non-commercial. Nevertheless, it is through this process that a decentralisation of art is achieved. Many current aspects are in need of revision, including the present mechanism for the art scene, the position of artists, and even the definition of art. With more new stimulation, the more dynamic and diverse the visual art scene becomes.

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