From paintings on the walls to creative spaces in the mind, Penang’s art scene is complicated to say the least.
Striving to break out of its shell, the scene’s identity today is in constant conflict – from Insta-crazed murals and a struggling-yet-determined musical stage to independent art collectives that are soldiering on in a George Town that has seen freer days.
With delays in the erection of the Penang Art District (PAD), much of the arts scene has relied on independent spaces and collective energy to keep the island’s creative spirit alive.
Soundmaker Studio is the most established and perhaps the only performance venue for underground and indie music on Penang island.
The studio began in 2006 with three people but is now synonymous with one man – Cole Yew Kuok Cheong.
Yew was a victim of the dot-com crash and found himself with IT qualifications but no job in the early 2000s. He moved to Penang from Cameron Highlands in hopes of getting involved in the music scene – a passion he has had since he was a kid.
“I started a band with a few friends and Chin Wai Kong (from the former The Actors Studio @ Greenhall) taught me how to organise gigs. After a few times, we realised that all our money was spent renting spaces and venues so I thought, why don’t we get a space ourselves so we can do as many gigs as we like?” remembers Yew.
Working a variety of odd jobs to support himself, Yew slept in the studio to save on rent before landing a job at a hotel and later, at a factory.
“When we opened the studio, the extreme genres in the underground community tended to be more consistent. So, out of 10 gigs that we hosted, maybe six or seven would be metal or punk.
“These sub-scenes also didn’t have many places to go to perform because they are quite chaotic. It’s not easy to cope with their music as your sound system has to be very robust, ” says Yew candidly.
Soundmaker was located at the back of a Chinese kongsi on Weld Quay for the past decade (after, Yew notes, being kicked out of a neighbouring building), but has since moved to Lebuh Bishop.
At the new venue, many things look familiar.
Signboards, the stage and even doors have been relocated from the old site to save costs. But there are some things that are new.
Yew runs a small bar outside the performance space, a room at the back is reserved for the use of a local band and just past the airwell, a homegrown fabric printing business called Radical Silkscreen operates.
“I wanted to share this space with relevant art-related people. When there are no events, at least there are people going in and out and it makes the place more alive, ” Yew says.
Despite the long and bumpy road of an underground music maker, 2019 opened new doors for Yew.
“In September, (state executive councillor) Zairil Khir Johari helped us with a grant for the Api Api Music Fest and in the same month, we ran the Perai Riverfest for Think City. That was a personal achievement for myself and it was the first time we have been acknowledged by state bodies, ” says Yew.
A deep-seated love of music and its power to connect with others remains at the heart of Soundmaker and the man in charge of it.
“The core and drive of Soundmaker Studio is that I want to make music. I plan on going solo, stop hoping for a band and have my own dreams of travelling and performing. Music gives me meaning. It inspires exchanges of emotion, which I think makes us all feel alive and less alone, ” he says.
This year also saw the cultural centre of George Town expand southward towards Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) with explosions of creative energy from both inside and outside the campus.
The delightful Jungle Book The Musical – A Rohingya Journey was staged in September featuring a dozen refugee children and university staff and students, while Ruang Kongsi – a collective space aimed at promoting social engagement – celebrated its first anniversary in October.
Run by nine young people from varied backgrounds, the new locale was formerly the state operations centre of human rights organisation Suaram.
Lee Cheah Ni, one of Ruang Kongsi’s co-founders, says the group decided to take the leap after contemplating the creation of a space for over a year.
“Our Ruang Kongsi members come from different backgrounds – we have journalists, activists and artists – and some members had worked with each other before in other projects. We decided that USM is our main target.
“Universities open up spaces and ideas but if you look at the Malaysian scene, a lot of university students study in a vacuum environment. So, Ruang Kongsi hopes that by throwing out ideas, USM students can start thinking about new spaces – physical, creative or spaces in the mind – that they want to create, ” explains Lee.
Crowdfunding was used to raise money to renovate the space, but as with most art initiatives, money is a challenge and members here have been known to dig into their own pockets to host events.
In addition to a space for workshops, talks and programmes, Ruang Kongsi also houses a social science library-cum-resource centre.
Ruang Kongsi member Low Chia Ming says with over 1,200 books, the growing library is aimed at promoting life-long learning beyond the traditional school system.
In the spirit of leaderless movements, there is no hierarchy in the Ruang Kongsi collective. Many members work in smaller groups based on the direction of their current projects and interests. Some events don’t even have chairs, with attendees sprawled on the floor on colourful cushions.
The range of programmes that grace the space – from talks on recycling to sharing sessions on democratising architectural design processes – is only limited by the interests and imaginations of its members.
In essence, Ruang Kongsi is the quintessential example of a budding artist – wide-eyed, hopeful, energetic and sometimes, broke.
“We generate our own events but we also hope for collaborations with people who want to share the space for non-commercial events. Everyone is used to thinking of money as the main resource, but at Ruang Kongsi, we try to think out of the box when it comes to other resources – human resources, knowledge and ideas – and how we can create an environment where we don’t always focus on money and the traditional economic system.
“Here, we come up with the idea first, no matter how much it costs, and then see how we can use a collective energy to make things happen, ” says Lee.
Hin Bus Depot
It was a stormy afternoon in early October at the Hin Bus Depot (HBD), a site that has long been labelled the preferred haunt of artists and the indie-supportive public in Penang.
The Kecik-Kecik Group Show Finale was officially opening, the fourth and last stop for the travelling exhibition that had graced Penang since mid-August.
The array of art on display was impressive – 200 pieces from over 100 artists from near and far – and the open-air hall was filled with a number of local art personalities who participated and supported the effort.
Bibichun, a known Penang-based contemporary artist, curated the show that marked the latest in collaborative efforts between PAD and independent art centres.
Returning to Penang five years ago when the GeTo Movement was transforming the state’s art scene, Bibichun says PAD’s efforts to support artists motivated him to organise the second edition of Kecik Kecik, the first held in Kuala Lumpur over a decade ago.
“The sense of community in the Penang art circle is warmer than I expected. We received voluntary assistants that service the gallery setting by providing exhibition tours to visitors and engaging them in conversation.
“A strong communal sense is what’s special about the people here and Penang has this weird charm that attracts people from outside and makes them want to be a part of it, ” says Bibichun.
In a sense, Kecik Kecik is a representation of HBD itself, with many eccentric personalities banding together to create something fresh.
A community art space in the heart of George Town, HBD now boasts of no fewer than 23 tenants of varied backgrounds, from F&B outlets to craft studios to artsy shops. They come together to create a unique visitor experience of winding footpaths, greenery, art and food – one that requires the help of a large directory at the entrance to navigate.
HBD content curator Khing Chuah says the space started as a pop-up gallery to house the solo exhibition of Ernest Zacharevic, known for creating the first of the city’s now-famous street art murals.
The derelict Hin Bus Company Depot, closed in 1999 and subsequently abandoned, was a perfect match for the young Lithuanian artist who showcased Art Is Rubbish Is Art in 2014.
Surviving and thriving in the Penang arts environment is far from simple.
Khing lists a number of challenges HBD faces including a high employee turnover rate, a shortage of grants that are still very much centralised in KL and wanting infrastructure like reliable high-speed Internet in the heritage area.
Nevertheless, through well thought-out initiatives and collaborations, HBD director Tan Shih Thoe says Penang is seeing more artists from outside the state hosting exhibitions here.
“The art community in Penang, especially the young emerging artists, is close knit; the community vibe is very strong. This could be one reason artists are attracted to come to Penang: they feel at home in this community, ” he says.
Noting the explosion in Penang’s art scene following Zacharevic’s 2012 murals, Tan laments that the art scene has since cooled and hopes efforts to reignite it will bear fruit.
“By chance, a spark in the art industry happened in 2012 with the murals and we were propelled on to the street art world stage. When HBD was set up, we rode that wave for the first two years and successfully organised two annual international street art festivals.
“We managed to continue to push the street art scene to new levels especially in South-East Asia, ” he says.
As for the future, Tan says the materialisation of PAD could again put Penang on the map and perhaps revive some excitement in the arts scene.
Till then, HBD will continue soldiering on in its quest to expand the horizons of hopeful artists.