Ernest Zacharevic’s Decade of Art, Rubbish and Transformation

By Sheryl Teoh

February 2024 PENANG PROFILE
main image

10 YEARS AGO, Ernest Zacharevic debuted his first solo art exhibition, “Art is Rubbish is Art”, at Hin Bus Depot (HBD), setting into motion a chain of events that would kick-start the entire venture and turn the derelict building into the beloved, bustling hangout spot it is today. A decade later, the Lithuanian artist, now Penang-based, is holding another art exhibition at the place where it all started. “Art is Still Rubbish” pays homage to its first rendition, showcasing never-before-exhibited works of the artist.

At his studio in Lebuh Melayu, surrounded by his stunning works of art, some completed, others still in progress, we talk to Ernest about his journey as an artist and what art means to him.

Penang Monthly: So, 10 years have zipped past just like that… Tell us what the journey was like.

Ernest Zacharevic: Yeah, so I think that all started with my friendship with Shih Thoe, which was established when I first came to Penang. I was doing the bicycle mural commissioned by the George Town Festival and he owns a paint company. He was one of my first supporters, back before people knew of my work.

Shih Thoeʼs family owns a lot of properties in Penang, and they have contributed a lot of the locations for my murals. You know, when I first started approaching people to do it everyone was very sceptical. But Shih Thoe was as excited as I was from the outset. So, thatʼs the story of the start of our beautiful collaboration. After a while, I decided I wanted to do a show in Penang.

PM: When was that?

EZ: That was around 2012 or 2013.

My murals were getting more and more popular, and people wanted to see my studio.

Now, I’m a rubbish man myself, you know [laughs]. I’m a hoarder. I pick up so much stuff from the streets and my wife always complains about it. So, I decided to do a show about that—about all the beautiful rubbish that I find around George Town.

I started looking for locations and I wanted the place to truly click with the idea and the vibe of the exhibition. So I started looking around the MBPP rubbish disposal areas.

And right behind HBD, there is an area where MBPP trucks bring in rubbish to sort out. And I was like, “Oh, this spot is beautiful [laughs]!”

I started asking around but then I realised that working with MBPP will mean working with the government, and I understood that it would not be easy to get anything arranged with them.

So, I started looking for alternatives and asked Shih Thoe if he knows anything about working with MBPP. He said, “No, but I have a building just next door, and itʼs just as rubbish-y. If you’re interested, we can go have a look at it.”

We went and HBD was full of bats, rats and snakes and it was very abandoned. Perfect!

So, we started planning and it took us about a year to open it. We both worked very hard—me on my artwork and Shih Thoe on cleaning and fixing up the space. I think he worked way harder than I did to set up the place.

PM: And itʼs been 10 years. How does it feel like to return to the space again, and see how different it is now from when you started?

EZ: Itʼs like dusting of an old book—itʼs nice. I have a lot of nostalgia for the place, a lot of sentiments…

It feels great to see how it has evolved and grown so much to become this creative hub in George Town. And I love Shih Thoeʼs commitment; itʼs like his baby, you know. He puts so much time and effort into it and heʼs there, personally, every weekend, always smiling.

I know a lot of people are sceptical about it—that itʼs too popular, or itʼs too crowded. But I think it has its charms and itʼs not trying to be anything else. Itʼs a family place; itʼs where people go to relax and have fun. They bring their friends and spend a great weekend there.

PM: And now it has come full circle. Is there anything you want to highlight in your upcoming show?

EZ: Itʼs come full circle, full rubbish [laughs]. I guess people will see when they visit, but we will be highlighting everything that has happened in the last 10 years; to see HBDʼs humble beginnings. So many people love the place but don’t know much about how it came to be. I think this is the story we want to share.

PM: And what about your story? How have you evolved in these 10 years?

EZ: Thatʼs a good question; I wish I had an answer. So much has happened, so much changed and so much didn’t as well. I think I try to keep the same hungry energy I had 10 years ago and try to continue being open to ideas and—

PM: Do you still rummage through rubbish?

EZ: I do. But now, I try to limit myself so I don’t hoard. But I still collect a lot of things—I like old stuff. I like finding beauty in the things that are trash for other people.

So much has happened in my career since the exhibition—in fact, it was what brought a lot of attention to my work. While my George Town murals were very popular, I remained quite anonymous—people didn’t know who painted them. But the exhibition was what put me on the map and tied my art to my name. I started getting a lot of invitations from overseas; they saw the work and they wanted to do something similar, you know. I started travelling everywhere. For a period of about five years I would spend every month in a different country, literally just going round and round the world.

At the time, I was just grabbing all these opportunities, hungry for everything, saying yes to everything and going from country to country. But now, I feel like I’ve seen enough. I want to stay put, I want to produce my work, focus on my studio work. I find myself thinking, OK, this is where I want to be in life, this is where I want to spend my time and where I want to find my focus. And that brought me back to Penang.

So, I’m back in the place that I love; that really gives me my quiet. I can really focus on my work here. When I did my first show in HBD back then, I didn’t know where it would take me but I was so happy then. It was the most productive time in my life.

Now, I have my studio, I produce and I still travel, but not as sporadic and manic as it was some years ago. Now, I only go if thereʼs a project I like and I come back to my peace of mind.

PM: You mentioned in 2019 that you regret turning Armenian Street into a tourist attraction with your mural painting. Do you still feel the same way?

EZ: There are a lot of negative connotations to the word “gentrification”. How artists contribute to the overpopulating and overcrowding of places is something I think about a lot.

Over the years, Shih Thoe and I talked a lot about it and we’ve figured that gentrification isn’t necessarily always bad if done consciously and strategically. It can be done in a way to bring people out of the heritage area, which was getting so much attention and tourist traffic, to locations that deserve to be seen and experienced, but aren’t.

This part of George Town, which is just on the other side of KOMTAR, was deserted for the most part back then. So, it was nice that HBD could divert some of that traffic from the heritage zone and relieve some of the stress there. This is a great example of how gentrification can be made positive—to develop run-down areas with potential, and bring up the value of its local community.

PM: How do you see the role of art in public spaces and what impact do you hope it has on the local community?

EZ: I think itʼs very important to bring art to the masses.

Itʼs important to have museums and art institutions where people like, you know, PhD students and academics can go and study art, but itʼs also as important to have places that bring art to the public—to popular places to remind people that art is important and it is for everyone.

If you live in Penang, other than HBD and a handful of other places, you will not see art in your everyday environment. Most kids don’t even know that it is a career option, or that you don’t have to be artists to appreciate art.

PM: What did you have growing up that shaped you differently, compared to say, a child growing up in Penang? Did you grow up surrounded by art?

EZ: Yes, I’d say I grew up around art. I was born in Lithuania, and I grew up in a small village outside of Vilnius.

My childhood was very romantic; I grew up playing in the puddles, playing with cows and cats, and working in the garden a lot. That really taught me to work a lot—I was a farm kid. I spent my summers picking strawberries and selling apples in the market.

When I was 11, my parents sent me of to boarding school—an art school—in the city. There, I was surrounded by artists, and art was what I did every day. We would spend hours drawing and painting; everyone I knew was an artist or a dancer or a musician.

And then I moved to London and graduated from art school, and I got myself stuck in an environment where I had to work to pay my rent, my studio rent, my materials—I had to work so much that I didn’t have time to do art.

I find myself in the, you know, capitalist machinery of just working and spending and working and spending and never having enough. I never saved any money despite working so much and it was slowly killing my art. What I used to do, which was to spend four or five hours a day painting, was slowly disappearing from my life.

So, I decided to change something.

I travelled and ended up in Penang. And I didn’t really have much to do here—I had a handful of friends and a lot of time, so I started painting and I started doing my high school routine of waking up in the morning and drawing and painting the whole day.

The old routine felt so natural to me. And people started joining me. Like, I’ll meet other artists and we’ll go out to paint walls together and draw, and we still do the same thing now. Here in this studio, we have weekly drawing sessions now and a lot of artists join in. It makes me so happy to have found a community here.

PM: Have you noticed any changes in the perception of art in Penang? Especially since the establishment of art-centric spaces like HBD?

EZ: Yeah, I think a lot of people know HBD, and they know itʼs an artsy place. So, itʼs about putting that consciousness in peopleʼs minds. Back when I first came to Malaysia in 2011 or 2012—because I teach art as well—I noticed there was very little support from parents for their kids to do art. They would bring their children to an art class just to keep them occupied after school. It wasn’t a viable career option.

And kids would say things like, I want to be an artist. But the response they would always get from their parents is, “Go be a lawyer or a doctor first, then you can do art as a hobby.” Now, it seems like there are more parents who are OK with their kids wanting to be artists.

It didn’t even take 10 years; it was probably about five years when I first noticed this shift. Parents would come to me and say, “My kid really loves art and I want them to be an artist. Can you teach them?” That shift was very, very obvious to me, and I think itʼs an amazing thing for Penang.

PM: It certainly is. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us in the midst of what must be a crazy period for you. We can’t wait to visit your exhibition.

Sheryl Teoh

holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Linfield College, a liberal arts college in the United States, and majored in History with a focus on Classical Greece and Rome. Her interests include the study of philosophy as well as a range of humanities and socio-political issues.