Penang Gets Competitive as a Visual Arts Education Centre

THE STUDY OF visual arts is not a popular major for Malaysian students pursuing tertiary education. In fact, it is safer to place one’s bet – and future – in the more common fields of medicine, law, and even accountancy.

Recently, however, the economic potential for creativity has gained sufficient attention and traction globally for demand to grow locally for visual arts-related courses. In Penang three tertiary educational institutions offer such programmes: School of the Arts (SOTA, at Universiti Sains Malaysia, USM), Equator College (EC, formerly Equator Academy of Art) and The One Academy (TOA). Their courses are as listed in Table 1.

Different Specialisations

As an overarching term, visual arts include any permanent art form created using suitable materials, techniques or technology which appeal to the visual senses.1 A visual arts education combines the study of fine arts (drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, printmaking, etc.) with applied visual arts (graphic design, illustration, digital animation, creative multimedia content, etc.). The latter are taught through different specialisations.

The gallery space at SOTA, USM. Photo: SOTA, USM

Students of fine arts in Penang typically enrol at EC to pursue a three-year diploma course or for a four-year degree programme at the Fine Arts Department at SOTA USM. Students are exposed to conceptual and theoretical art knowledge; and in the process of creative art-making, are encouraged to experiment with diverse materials.

Both institutions also offer courses on applied visual arts, under two specialised disciplines: graphic design and digital animation. The Diploma in Graphic & Multimedia Design (EC) and BFA (Hons) in Graphic Communication (SOTA) are designed to equip students with relevant knowledge and practical skills. This includes translating visual communication into digital media.

The Sculpture Studio at SOTA, USM. Photo: SOTA, USM

The annual art showcase of EC's graduating students. Photo: Equator College

For budding digital animators, the Diploma in Digital 3D Animation (EC) and the BFA (Hons) in New Media Design and Technology (SOTA) teach concepts, theories, techniques and application of digital tools for 2D and 3D animation productions. USM also allows students from different majors to take up visual arts courses as minor programmes.

Meanwhile, at TOA Penang, more emphasis is put on its applied visual arts programmes. “We focus on commercial arts. We produce creative talents to meet current industrial market demands such as games, movies, advertising, animation and other creative content industries, where visual arts and design are applied for commercial and functional purposes,” explains Leong Hoy Yoke, the principal of TOA Penang.

Fine Arts vs. Applied Visual Arts

EC’s fine arts students exhibited their artworks at penangpac. Photo: Equator College

There has been a long-standing debate on whether fine arts are distinct from applied visual arts, or whether one is subsumed into the other. Founder of EC Dato’ Chuah Kooi Yong, Head of Studies Lim Chun Woei and Fine Arts lecturer Ricardo Chavez Tovar seem inclined to the latter view.

“Applied visual arts developed from fine arts, with the support of advanced technology,” says Chuah. He explains that as basis for visual arts, fine arts focus on art forms created using points / dots, lines, and surfaces / planes, which are relevant across fields of applied visual arts.

Ricardo adds, “Generally, they are both visual art expressions but in different media and orientations. The main difference is that established fine arts go for an art market, while applied visual arts react to a constantly changing commercial industry guided by trends and fashion.” Lim says that, ultimately, in order to foster an effective art and design education, it is crucial that students are sensitive to the connection and correlation between the two.

Skewed Demand

A student’s pre-understanding of the career opportunities available under each specialisation and art discipline is also important. Of the programmes offered at SOTA and EC, the graphic design course is vastly more popular than its fine arts sibling. Dr. Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi, chairperson of the Fine Arts Department at SOTA, provides a possible explanation for this, “Students of applied visual arts may have a clearer or more direct career path, while fine arts students will be constrained by a lack of job prospects after graduation.”

TOA’s students working on a studio assignment. Photo: The One Academy Penang

Ricardo, however, chooses to see the silver lining in the situation. “I believe the small number of students helps in building better student-lecturer rapport; this close mentorship is also the reason why many of our fine arts students excel in art competitions, both at national and international levels.” In discussing the malleability of employment in the Malaysian art trade, Ricardo says a number of his students are now with Genting Highlands Theme Park, conceptualising and designing art decorations. “I also have students who are junior curators in KL; some became art teachers in Singapore while others are working for established sculptors and ceramists in Taiwan.” Tetriana adds that besides practicing as artists, fine arts graduates from USM have found employment working with art galleries, museums as well as graphic design companies and other related institutions.

Among the four applied visual arts specialisations listed in Table 1 at TOA Penang, illustration and digital animation enjoy higher demand. Leong attributes this to Penang’s expanding digital games creation industry. “We now have well-established creative multimedia content companies setting up base here, like Lemon Sky Animation and Left Pocket Creatives,” he says, adding that many of TOA’s alumni and fresh graduates are currently working with Lemon Sky Animation. “The studio manager told me that the company is keen on hiring more talents. Each batch of our graduates is able to easily secure employment at local creative companies.” On the whole, Leong sees a bright future for TOA’s graduates in Penang.

Artworks by TOA students. Photo: The One Academy Penang

Teaching Art Online is Tricky

Notwithstanding weak internet connectivity and speed, and obvious absenteeism from virtual classrooms, art educators also encountered a very specific set of challenges when lecturing online during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tetriana admits, “I couldn’t properly assess my students’ artworks, e.g. the intensity of colour and shadow.” The pandemic has been loaded with limitations, but Tetriana says her students are a creative group. “Since physical exhibitions are out of the question, they have turned online to promote themselves and their artworks.”

Ricardo uses WhatsApp as a communication channel with his students, but insists that the teaching of fine arts needs a physical space, e.g. a well-equipped studio / workshop on campus. “Students need facilities and tools to create art.” Though theoretical subjects can be taught online, Leong adds that face-to-face teaching is still the more practical approach in guiding students to develop relevant skills in applied art creations.  

1 This definition is obtained from the gazetted National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011 (Act 724). 



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