An Ambitious Overview of Penang’s Art Scene

By Rachel Yeoh

November 2022 FOR ART'S SAKE
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THE ARTS SCENE in Penang is an ecosystem of many layers; it is a network of art makers, suppliers, platforms, non-profit and non-governmental art organisations and relevant governmental bodies.

Recently, Arts-Ed Penang, Penang Arts District and the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) detailed an ecosystem map of Penang's performing and visual arts scene. At a glance, one may infer that the scene is a dynamic entity of entities, linked to each other in an almost-symbiotic relationship. However, from my distant affiliation of simply waltzing in and out of some of these circles, I observe that artists (be it the visual, performing or literary types) can never be accurately contained in a rigid, organised structure.

I say this not with a frown but a twinkle in my eye, because it is proof that art – and artists – cannot really be boxed. As these creators thrive when their ideas are allowed to run wild and free, the success in mapping these artists and other players in the arena is a feat that deserves applause.

The groups championing visual arts in the list are the Balik Pulau Art Society, Artopia Education Trust (Balik Pulau International Art Village), Penang Chinese Brush Painting Art Society, Penang Water Colour Society, The Calligraphers’ Association of Penang, The Penang Teachers Art Circle, TK Art Collection and Urban Sketchers Penang. Most on this list have been around for more than a decade, and work to cull talent within their circles.

However, one must also know that the growing art scene also consists of thriving artists that do not come under art groups or associations. One such person is Ivan Alexander Francis Gabriel, a visual and performing artist and a curator.

“I value my independence a lot; I have never resonated with being in a structured collective,” he says, adding that he still has peers whom he works with collectively for shows and also to bounce ideas off. “Though we are not in a particular association, we have good peer responses where we back each other up, harness opportunities to the best of our abilities ‒ to me, it is about finding your right people and forming a community, not so much a union.”

That said, Ivan believes these associations and art groups are still relevant as there are guides and mentors within the guild to guide the next generation on a particular skill.

The same is true for the performing arts scene. On paper, three associations contribute to the performing arts in Penang, namely the Penang Theatre Art Solidarity (PENTAS), Persatuan Anak Seni Utara and Penang Arts Council (PAC). Nonetheless, the performing groups present a burst of diversity, from underground music to classical ensembles and pop wedding bands, traditional dance troupes to contemporary dance companies, and English-influenced drama societies to folk puppetry.

If you were to walk the streets of George Town after sundown, it is difficult to miss the straying sounds of muffled music at a distance. It becomes increasingly clear as you pass a bar or cafe and find a live band playing upbeat music to an enthusiastic crowd. Then there is a trickle of stand-up comedians who take the stage at open mic events often held at several F&B spaces to test their newly written pieces. Most do not come under a group or association, and yet, they are out there, almost daily, creating art through their performances.

I must admit that I spent a lot of time staring at the mapped-out ecosystem, trying to find the glue that links them all together, only to realise that there is none. Instead, bodies like CENDANA act as an umbrella to shelter these practitioners and offer aid when needed.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, CENDANA’s Covid-19 Impact on the Arts Report revealed that 95% of 500 artists surveyed have been negatively impacted. Izan Satrina, Founding CEO of CENDANA, revealed on the website that 70% of these struggling artists have lost most, if not all their income.

In response, CENDANA organised multiple funding programmes to support Malaysian artists, collectives and arts and creative organisations. A total of RM10mil was channelled into the industry and to its practitioners.

“Ultimately, the goal is to keep our arts and culture sector intact. And that once the worst of the pandemic is over and we start to find our legs again, the ecosystem is still there to support our artists and for Malaysians to respond,” writes Izan on the website.

Ivan explains that all artists work differently and thrive in different settings. Sometimes, they ebb and flow from one group to another, others stay on for decades and there are also those who seek collaboration rather than unity under a community.

Perhaps this depiction of the nature of artists is what makes the scene flourish ‒ the individuality and transience. Many may desire to put them in a neat little box, expecting these practitioners to function like a business or an organised entity when they are wired differently. Most just want to focus on the creative process, and definitely not on networking and looking for new ways to market their art.

The mapped ecosystem, however, is still useful as a guide to connecting creators, regulating bodies, private investors or businesses, policymakers and consumers to the growing landscape. Some artists may moan that the opportunities in Penang fall short of the ones in Kuala Lumpur; however, I would like to hypothesise that the growing number of artists leaping out of organised art systems, joining them and collaborating with them, may be a healthy contribution towards a robust art scene for the state. The goal of the Penang Ecosystem Map is to bring connection, but the heart of it all is about the freedom to express and expand.

Rachel Yeoh

is a former journalist who traded her on-the-go job for a life behind the desk. For the sake of work-life balance, she participates in Penang's performing arts scene after hours.