From an all-white club to a society accepting even non-artists as members, Penang’s visual arts groups have come a long way since the 19th century.
By Nicole Chang
Take a trip with us as we track the origins of artists groups through the decades as they socialise, promote and celebrate artmaking in Penang.
Before 1930s: A European-majority art club
The earliest mention of a formal artist group is of the Penang Impressionists, believed to have existed since 1898. Penang was under British rule, which saw English and European travellers, colonials, Chinese traders, and artists start to document local scenes through topographic and landscape watercolour paintings.
Starting out as a European-only art group, the Penang Impressionists saw its first local members in 1920 with the inclusion of Abdullah Ariff, an art instructor, and Mrs Lim Cheng Kung, whose husband was manager of the Straits Echo newspaper.
Cowherd, circa 1930 by Abdullah Ariff. Courtesy of The Art Gallery
1930s: The rise of Chinese painters
During the 1930s, the local art scene was fairly active, with artists staging solo exhibitions in Penang. Together with some local artists, Yong Mun Sen, the “Father of Malaysian painting”, formed the Penang Chinese Art Club (also known as the Yin Ying Art Society) in 1935.
Harvest, 1939 by Yong Mun Sen
In 1937, the Penang Impressionists put together its last show alongside invited local artists from Penang Chinese Art Club. That was the final exhibition for the Penang Impressionists before it disbanded as the Second World War approached. Similarly, the Penang Chinese Art Club was also dissolved before the war.
1940s: Rebuilding after the Japanese Occupation
During the Japanese occupation between 1941 and 1945, art activities were disrupted, and many pre-war artworks were lost. However, after the British re-established its rule in Malaya in 1945, new modernist art activities and development in the country commenced.
Self-Portrait, 1941 by Lee Cheng Yong, founder and former president of Penang Chinese Art Club
The local visual arts scene revived with the formation of informal groupings among artists in Penang and later in Kuala Lumpur. Local artists that shared the same passion and direction in visual arts gathered to form their own communities.
1950s: Art teachers unite
In 1952, the Penang Art Teachers’ Council was founded by the late Dato’ Tay Hooi Keat. Aside from being an art educator, he held the position of the Penang Superintendent of Art in 1952 and the Federal Inspectorate of Art at the Ministry of Education in 1957.
Houses by the Malacca River, 1958 by Tay Hooi Keat
Penang Art Teachers’ Council was initiated as a platform for members to connect over the teaching and learning of visual arts in Penang. The group later joined forces with the Thursday Art Group in 1964 and renamed itself the Penang Teachers’ Art Circle (PTAC).
Present-day: Becoming more inclusive
PTAC’s membership continued to grow and its members came to include not only art teachers from Penang but also teachers from outside of Penang that were interested in art.
According to Koay Soo Kau, who was the Chairman of the group from 1993 until 1997, PTAC serves as a platform for the sharing and exchange of knowledge, skills, methods or approaches in teaching visual arts among art educators.
As the advisor to PTAC now, Koay insists that serious passion and the right attitude among art teachers at schools is very important for the development of art education in the country. They organise activities such as art talks, sharing sessions and technical workshops for teachers as well as non-members. Although participation is not very encouraging, Koay says that PTAC will persist in its efforts.
Koay Soo Kau (seated, far right) at the 54th Anniversary Exhibition of The Penang Teachers’ Art Circle 2018
With an attempt to be more inclusive in promoting local art and culture, Penang Art Society (PAS), the oldest registered art society for Chinese artists in Penang since 1953, has opened its membership to artists from all ethnicities and nationalities. Membership is even opened to non-artists to include art enthusiasts, art professionals, art collectors or supporters. The society currently has more than 600 members.
With its multiracial and multinational members practising various art forms, PAS president Ch’ng Huck Theng says that remaining relevant to the times and meeting expectations from its members is a challenge to PAS. To manage this, he feels that the society’s leadership should have a shared vision and purpose. “It is crucial for the committee members to work together for the benefit of the whole society instead of working on individual agendas,” he says.
Ch’ng Huck Theng (far left) at Synergism: Philippines + Malaysia Art Exchange Programme in March 2019
One of the younger committee members, Chin Wai Min, comments that the role of an art society should go beyond connecting and promoting artists. It should attempt to educate the public about aesthetic values and art appreciation, broadening their understanding of artworks that push conventions.
He also urges the government to be better involved in art group initiatives. “I hope the government representatives will actively engage and participate in our activities instead of merely attending our opening sessions.”
According to Haryany Mohamad, director cum curator of Penang State Museum and Art Gallery, there are 10 different formal art groups, societies, and associations which are currently active in Penang. She thinks that it is a good thing to have multiple groups around for healthy competition. “That encourages each to perform better for the local art scene,” Haryany comments.
Although visual art collectives are nothing new in Penang, there seems to be a lack of interaction, collaboration or partnership between the diverse groups. The greater collective power of groups banding together could be the missing ingredient in building up a stronger visual arts ecosystem.
This article was written based on studies by Piyadasa (1994), Tan (1996, 1998 & 1999), Jamal (1996), Ooi (2002, 2013) and Boey (2016). Special thanks to Dr Sarena Abdullah for providing us with valuable feedback.
- Boey, T.S. (2016) A history of Malaysian arts: Part I – From prehistory to modern. China, Nanjing: Nanjing University.
- Piyadasa, R. (1994) On origins and beginnings. In: T. K Sabapathy (eds). Vision and idea: Relooking modern Malaysian art. Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: National Art Gallery. p.13–48.
- Tan, C. K. (1996) Penang state art gallery permanent collection 1965 to 1996. Malaysia, Penang: Penang State Art Gallery.
- Tan, C.K. (1998) Social responsibility in art criticism (or why Yong Mun Sen is the father of Malaysian painting). Malaysia, Penang: The Art Gallery.
- Tan, C.K. (1999) Treasury of Malaysian and international art. Malaysia, Penang: The Art Gallery. Jamal, S.A. (1996) Malaysia. In: J. Turner (eds) The dictionary of art. New York: Grove Publication. Vol. 20. p. 172.
- Ooi, K.C. (2002) A Comprehensive History of Malaysian Art. Penang, Malaysia: The Art Gallery.Ooi, K.C. (2013)
- When Artists Come Together. Penang Monthly, August Issue, 2013. Available from: http://penangmonthly.com/article.aspx?pageid=5602&name=when_artists_come_together
Cover image courtesy of Penang Art Society showing a group photo from an exhibition it organised in 1962 titled Six Young Artists Exhibition.
Images of paintings sourced from Penang State Museum’s website unless stated otherwise.
Nicole Chang is a graduating social science PhD candidate interested in the art sector’s contribution to creative city-making.