More and More New Art Spaces and Events for Penang

loading Container Art in Butterworth. Photo: Zaini "Zart" Zainul.

HAS PENANG WHAT it takes to be a satellite arts hub in Malaysia, once new purpose-built infrastructures are in place?

An informal talk Missing Links: Piecing Together a Penang Art Scene held at the Hin Bus Depot on January 14, gleaned over art issues, events and personalities in Penang in the past tense. It featured Prof Hasnul J. Saidon, Datuk Tang Hon Yin, Hoo Fan Chon and Ooi Kok Chuen, and was moderated by Dr. Sarena Abdullah and Beverly Yong.

What about the future of art in Penang; what is the future like, say over the next five years?

What about the future of art in Penang; what is the future like, say over the next five years?

At the opening of the Cheah Yew Saik Retrospective at the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) last November, chief minister Chow Kon Yeow said: “The state government is, of course, fully committed to develop the arts scene. The 9-acre Penang Art District (PAD) shows how serious the Penang state government is about art.”

Chow then teased PAD adviser and point man, Lee Khai, who is also the PSAG chairman, about his commitment to the cause, and Lee Khai effusively replied in the affirmative.

What is the PAD?

The mantra in the website reads: “Penang Art District is envisioned by the Penang state government to be the creative hub of Penang’s contemporary arts and culture, as an initiative to catalyse the economic growth of the creative industry in Penang… PAD will enhance the value of Penang’s arts and culture by engaging artists, craftsmen, educators and the community at large through the activation of creative spaces with interactive art-related programmes.”

Aiman Zamri’s “The Triplets”, Penang Art Open’s Consolation Prize winner.

Lee Khai, in a WhatsApp message, tentatively revealed that a purpose-built art museum (PSAG) will be constructed, with some 50,000 sq ft of exhibition space – five times the size of the present one. He added that there are plans for an art college, too, with a hostel. The proposed museum is expected to take five years to build.

In 1998 I had argued in an open letter to then chief minister Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon, published in the New Sunday Times (Style), that Penang badly needed a purpose-built art museum because of appalling structural deficiencies and outdated amenities in the premises then being used, at Dewan Sri Pinang. In a follow-up, some 88 artists led by Dr. Chew Teng Beng copied a signed petition in support of this, and it was carried in the New Straits Times.

With the insipid (in the arts) Koh Government, nothing happened, and precious years were lost as he put a pathetically clueless Datuk Kee Phaik Cheen in charge of the Arts, Culture and Tourism portfolio.

In the intervening years, Singapore and Hong Kong had instituted ambitious visionary programmes to become the art beacons of Asia, while other satellite centres have emerged in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Taipei, all over South Korea, Shanghai and Beijing and all over China. Even Japan, blighted by years of economic stagnation, is having a resurgence to reclaim its pre-eminence.

But it would be foolhardy to expect the future of Penang art to depend on the PAD alone.

The Light Waterfront Penang with the RM88mil Lin Xiang Xiong Art Gallery is another major catalyst. Set to be ready by 2023, it will have some 88,000 sq ft of space. It is being developed by Jelutong Development, a subsidiary of IJM Land, the supporter behind the Penang Sculpture Trail Project which counts four monumental sculptures so far.

Importance of Activities and Events

Activities won’t just centre on the Unesco World Heritage conurbation and the periphery. Lee Khai further reveals plans for a 2-acre international art village by artist Peter Liew in Balik Pulau in southwest Penang, and a mammoth 70-acre site in the same area for unspecified art activities. These will complement the RM20mil Hakka Cultural Village which will have a traditional dulou (circular)-shaped modern hotel and an art museum-gallery for trilingual exhibitions.

Looi Wan Tian “Greatness In Motherhood”, Penang Art Open’s Photography winner.

Penang is not only island-bound. Over at Seberang Perai, architect-artist-gallerist Zaini “Zart” Zainul has opened up new art coteries and centres, like the Butterworth Art Walk and Butterworth Art Market.

The setting up of the Hin Bus Depot in 2014 has been a great fillip to the art development with its Covent Garden-style attractions. A new space is Jetty 35.

It’s the software of activities and events that will determine a place’s destiny. Over a recent two-month period, there are two major events – the Penang International Container Art Festival and the Penang Open competition. This is apart from the usual suspects of galleries like Galeri Seni Mutiara (Wings&Bloom led by Dr. Neoh Chin Boon); Vincent Tai’s Daiichi Art Space and Arte Restaurant (a “mixed hang” show); The Art Gallery (Flowers for my Valentine, February 14-March 8); Ming Fine Art (Straits Quay); ChinaHouse; G Art Gallery (G Hotel); Jade’s Art Space (Gurney Plaza); Gehrig Art Gallery (Flowers, Jan 18-Feb 29); Island Art Gallery (Penang Intercultural Exhibition with artists from Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, February 23-29); Penang Malay Gallery; and E&O Hotel Art Colonnade (Soon Lai Wai’s Born Out of the Mud, February 8-April 12).

It’s the software of activities and events that will determine a place’s destiny.

Still more new spaces like M. Mall (Sherry, March 2-April 12) at Penang Times Square opened. Last July, Lee Mok Yee even used Yap Temple and Ng Fook Thong Temple for his Superstition II exhibition, while Lee Khai’s heritage house at Lebuh Ah Quee when, under massive renovations, provided an uncanny ambience for exhibitions too.

There are also the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Galeri Tuanku Fauziah, Dr. Tan Chong Guan’s Batik Painting Museum and Yahong Art Gallery (virtually the Datuk Chuah Thean Teng Batik Museum). But many galleries have closed like Alpha Utara (formerly Ching Lotus Space), Run Amok Gallery, Alyssa and some at The Whiteways Arcade.

One of the great new events is the Container Art Festival complete with two symposia (until May), helmed by street mural czar Tan Chor Whye. Among the participants are Russians Julia Volchkova and Marat Danilyan, Canadian Emmanual Jarus, Dutchwoman Judith de Leeuw and local Dr. Caryn Koh.

ArtPenang on the Way

In the Penang Art Open, Tan Kai Sheuan (b. Kedah, 1984) was the new supernova overall winner (RM15,000 prize money) and also 2-D Category winner (RM3,000) with his work SG.RA (silver leaf, pen marker, acrylic on canvas) with Zulhanafi Rosfadzilah taking the 3-D Category Award with RM4.20 (RM3,000), and Looi Wan Tian the Photography Award (Greatness In Motherhood, RM3,000). There were no winners in the New Media Category (only two entries). Altogether, 135 entries were received and since the 1990s, the competition was decided by given themes.

Lee Khai revealed there will be the inaugural ArtPenang 2020 (festival) from May 30 to June 14, with some 50 art events over five zones, stretching even to the mainland. It will complement the popular George Town Festival.

Tan Kai Sheuan's SG. RA (silver leaf, marker pen, acrylic on canvas), Penang Art Open's overall winner and 2-D Category winner.

Educational institutions, especially in art, like USM and Datuk Chuah Kooi Yong’s Equator Art Academy (since 1987) are important, as they can augment the pool of artists staying and making a living in Penang, especially among the young. Others that had been set up by Datuk Khor Gark Kim (Penang Art Centre), Yuen Chee Leng (Conservatory of Fine Arts) and Kok Lok Sain (Sain Academy) have closed.

Sculptor and conceptual artist Hitori Nakayama, British painter Thomas Powell and Lithuanian-born mural icon Ernest Zacharevic are among foreign artists who have made Penang their home, while artists such as Eric Quah, Dr. Chew Teng Beng and Khoo Sui-Hoe have made Penang their base, with Eric Quah relocating permanently since his 2011 Retrospective.

There is a crying need to augment the collectors base, also among the expats, those in new industries where they can be made to take up a small percentage of their budget to put paintings and sculptures in their business premises, if not help the industry as individual collectors.

Greater connectivity within Penang will also be a great economic impetus. At present, two bridges link the island and the mainland (there must also be a plethora of lifestyle water transport), and the George Town-Bayan Lepas elevated LRT (light rapid transit) is scheduled to be onstream in 2024. The Neanderthal ferry services ought to go.

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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