Surprise discoveries – a closer look at Penang’s past, present, and future in the arts

Surprise discoveries – a closer look at Penang’s past, present, and future in the arts

Insightful observations and revelations made at the Great New World art symposium tell us there’s more to discover in our own backyard.

By Deric Ee

There’s an urgent need to talk about the art which exists outside of cities and hubs. In Malaysia, discourse and documentation on local arts has too long been focused on the Klang Valley, thus alienating significant works and stories situated away from the nation’s capital. Penang, revered globally as an exotic destination long before Kuala Lumpur made the atlas, is one such place where many riveting narratives await excavation.

This was a sentiment shared by speakers at Great New World: From Free Port to Heritage Site, a symposium on Penang art history held at the latest edition of the George Town Festival. Put together by Penang Art District, Ruang Kongsi, and Malaysia Design Archive the symposium comprised presentations and discussions which shed light on Penang’s past, present, and future in the realm of art.

Courtesy of George Town Festival

The keynote ignited the symposium by exploring approaches to documentation and archiving to continue building narratives of Penang’s past. Delivered by Simon Soon, the segment titled Dan Lain-Lain prodded materials and narratives from the past which left room for further discovery and alternative interpretation.

Simon pointed out the necessity to pursue heritage narratives beyond Penang’s state capital of George Town. Fascinating histories can be found in places such as Air Itam, where Chinese scholar and reformist Kang Youwei would carve out calligraphic messages on the surface of rocks during the Chinese Revolution. Elsewhere in Air Itam, the origins of Jalan Zoo and Makam Sheikh Omar Basheer conjure stories capable of decentering Penang’s narrative away from George Town, but these accounts lack the verification of scholarly research.

Utilising photographs of makyong performances in Penang from the 19th century, Simon pointed out the presence of top hats and beer bottles among patrons, which suggested a culturally-mixed audience and the possibility of makyong tents being set up next to Chinese gambling dens, at least in parts of Penang. But “it’s not about discovering which origin is more authentic or true” muses Simon, as the state has “many different origins”. Multiple plausible narratives are welcome given Penang’s cosmopolitan character.

Makyong dance and drama at Penang Island, c. 1903, Lambert & Co.
Source: KITLV Leiden

[Read: Photo festival director Vignes Balasingam on the urgent task of documentation]

While chronicling pivotal artworks from Penang’s past, Sarena Abdullah’s Pioneering Artists, Art Movements & Visual Culture in Penang revealed that Penang’s cosmopolitanism dates back to the early 1900s. But the crux of Sarena’s presentation was that visual culture is strongly rooted in Penang. Intricately-designed Malay manuscripts such as the Taj Al-Salatin have been produced in Penang since the 16th century, while Malay-language daily Cahaya Pulau Pinang featured hand-sketched product illustrations with 3D perspectives since 1903.

Initial pages of the Taj al-Salatin, The Crown of Kings, a Malay ‘mirror for the princes’. British Library, Or.13295, ff.1v-2r. 
Source: British Library

Front page of Chahyah Pulau Penang (Cahaya Pulau Pinang) 30th July 1904. 
Source: Perpustakaan Hamzah Sendut Archive, Universiti Sains Malaysia

Paul Augustin, who presented on Music Cultures & The Performing Arts, hinted of the global awareness of Penang prior to Malayan independence. Paul had archive material on Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth enjoying their visit to Penang, as well as records like Pulau Pinang by Dutch singer Anneke Gronloh and Penang Samba by Lena. He also touched upon the local traditions boria and dondang sayang, which were call-and-response community performances resulting from Penang’s diverse cultural influences.

The Pulau Tikus Borea Party at the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary, c. 1935. 
Courtesy of Paul Farm & Penang House of Music

[Read: 6 works of art inspired by Penang]

Ghulam Sarwar-Yusof however brought in the rain, noting the damaging effect of race politics and religious fanaticism on arts education in Penang. As one of the founding members of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) groundbreaking Sekolah Seni, Ghulam’s segment An Art School inside a New University in Penang shared insight into the battles he faced in developing the first School for the Arts in a Malaysian university. This included internal resistance from the dean, who wanted works of Malay origin to take precedence over international works, and conflict with religious groups, who deemed the traditional art of makyong immoral.

Like Ghulam, Ray Langenbach’s time in USM was also coloured by conflict from religious groups. They protested art installations which bore likeness to human beings, prompting the faculty to shift towards working with robotics. But beyond the university, Ray and his collaborators pursued many bold ideas which addressed Malaysia’s social and political climate, such as interactive performances and installations in public spaces. For instance, Votantu, an immersive outdoor theatre piece held on university grounds, featured 15 actors and musicians with multiple parallel performances including political speeches, traditional music, and a closing act in the form of the police, which were invited by the artists to disperse the audience.

Votantu (1990), Ray Langenbach with Sugu Kingham, Tan Sooi Beng & friends, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. 
Courtesy of Ray Langenbach

Kicking off with Kuah Li Feng’s Heritage and Interpretation in Multicultural George Town, the final segment of talks at the symposium focused on present day Penang and its future. During her time working on a community newspaper, her artist-collaborator’s illustration of a Malay person loaning from a Chettiar money lender caused quite a flare-up. Although the story was provided by local residents, a group wanting to stir ethnic tensions held a public burning of the collateral, saying that it depicted Malays as a poor people. In this regard, she stressed the critical role of an artist to translate cultural content in imaginative ways, taking into consideration various sensitives of a multicultural society. To her, George Town remains an ideal place for artists to use heritage as a platform to communicate ideas that move New Malaysia forward.

Li Feng points out, what in her opinion, is a good example of how multiculturalism is portrayed on a poster for the George Town Heritage Celebrations in 2015.
 Source: George Town World Heritage Incorporated

Closing the symposium were Hoo Fan Chon, Nurhilyati Ramli and Wong Lay Chin. Fan Chon’s visual map of Penang’s art ecosystem was meant to help artists envision the creative ecosystem as a network of mutually-dependent elements. Having encountered challenges in sustaining creative projects in the past, he necessitates knowledge of the who’s and the where’s of Penang’s art scene in order to look beyond state funding and synergise with the rest of the ecosystem.

Hoo Fan Chon admitted that his mapping of the art ecosystem in Penang was incomplete and that he wanted to hear feedback from symposium participants.

Last to speak were Nurhilyati Ramli and Wong Lay Chin, who observed the deeply-rooted language-based segregation in Penang’s theatre scene. The state’s Malay and Chinese communities relied on separate venues, practices and audiences in theatre-making, but Nurhilyati and Lay Chin, having worked together, are bridging that gap. They also noted the importance of the George Town Festival in pooling together local talents to collaborate and create contemporary, multicultural works.

Having highlighted the vast repository of heritage narratives waiting to be discovered across the state, the symposium encouraged attendees to look deeper into their past. The organisers hope that Great New World can be the first in a series of conversations and activities that engage the public in discourse over Penang’s art history; one can only wonder what other interesting findings will appear in another place, and with another set of speakers.

“Intangible heritage is so important,” noted Paul Augustin early in the symposium, “Buildings can be restored, lives cannot.” Rightfully so.

Cover image courtesy of George Town Festival

Full report on the Great New World symposium will be released in October.

Deric Ee is a writer and producer with experience in theatre production, arts writing, and placemaking — which he hopes to channel towards community-driven projects.