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Travel & Holiday

By George, what a city!

George Town is fast becoming a canvas for artists and drawing tourists, especially in July, because of its annual George Town Festival. Could art put the World Heritage City onto the contemporary art travel map?
The Business Times - June 16, 2012
By: Cheah Ui-Hoon
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By George, what a city! CULTURAL BUZZ rnHotel Penaga - Malaysia's first 'art hotel'.

LITHUANIAN artist Ernest Zacharevic was painting a mural along Armenian Street, one of the more historic streets in George Town, Penang, when a lady approached him and insisted that she must come and draw on her wall. "I was like, 'yeah', half-heartedly, since I've been getting requests like this since I started," relates the London- trained artist who came to Penang a year ago.

But Mrs Chew was very insistent and Zacharevic finally figured it was worth checking out. "I was blown away when I saw her house on Chew Jetty (where all tenants are named Chew; one of the seven "surname" jetties near the Penang Ferry Terminal each with a specific surname) and immediately said 'Yes, I'll do it!'"

He started painting there a few weeks ago, in the evenings, because that side of the wall is shaded from the afternoon sun. Painting on an old wooden house built out in the sea has its challenges, says Zacharevic, because of the fierce sun and corrosive salt on the wood, so he would have to give his mural a bit more special treatment so that it can last about three years.

This time around, however, unlike the first two murals he did on his own in George Town a year ago, he's found a supportive sponsor in Murobond Paints Penang, which specialises in high-quality, water-based paints. That's because this mural is one of six large-scale wall paintings commissioned as street art by the George Town Festival, now in its third year.

"I want to highlight the people who work and live in the city and I ended up using the children I teach as my subjects," explains Zacharevic who had simply been travelling through when a few nights' stay turned into months.

His paintings are beautifully realistic but also larger than life, especially in their unique settings. One of the first murals that got him noticed was a giant portrait of an elderly man, floating above the windows on a long stretch of wall of a shophouse.

George Town, named after King George III, was at one time a crumbling city, silently fading into obscurity for the past few decades, but it has been blossoming under the Unesco listing since 2008.

Boutique hotels, inspired by the city's original architecture have been popping up and quirky cafes too. On the food front, the new restaurants and cafes still haven't quite caught up with the generally high standards of hawker food in the city, but some of them are doubling as arty spaces as well.

Unlike snazzier joints one can find in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Penang's appeal is in its bohemian charm. As if by some pact, or perhaps in reflection of the thriftiness that Penangites have long been noted for, businesses have decided to keep their establishments quite "original" - like not painting over stained walls, not fixing anything unless it's broken, and decorating with vintage effects.

So George Town's streets still have a mid-20th century feel to them - especially as much of its original architecture is still intact, with original tenants. As far as the city's rejuvenation goes however, its current vibes are very much fed by contemporary art - from visual to performing arts.

The annual month-long George Town Festival (GTF) - which started yesterday - plays its part. Which makes July (or in this year's case, June included) one of the best times to visit the state.

Rattling off a few figures, festival director Joe Sidek notes that GTF's website had over 2.7 million hits when it was launched this year, compared to 1.2 million last year; and Penang hotel receipts in July last year drew a RM2.17 million (S$877,300) income directly related to the festival. "We also had tourists from 54 countries signing guestbooks at GTF's events last year," he adds.

A passionate advocate for Penang and its capital city, the businessman enthuses that George Town is having its much-deserved renaissance now after having lost its shine a few decades ago.

But one of the reasons why the GTF has taken off so well - despite a tight budget of only RM3.6 million from the state government and sadly, very little private sponsorship - is because it celebrates the city's multi-cultural heritage. George Town's Open Day for instance on July 7, sees all manner of clan houses, institutions, and religious buildings in the city open their doors for visitors to wander in and out.

He also thinks that visitors want to see an authentic George Town, so he hopes to help re-stage traditional arts within contemporary settings. This year's opening festival show, for example, will see the Malay art of Silat set to music and dramatised, in a production helmed by award- winning Malaysian producer/director Saw Teong Hin, of Puteri Gunung Ledang fame.

Art tourism

Visually, the city is turning up many contemporary visual art surprises as it becomes a magnet for artists. This should in turn start to draw more "art tourists" in time to come. Penang was the muse for renowned German artist Strawalde recently, when he stayed for a month at the invitation of Art Trove Singapore which represents the artist. He painted 23 abstract and semi-abstract works.

One is even up for a silent auction, with proceeds to be donated to the Penang Heritage Trust. (The reserve price for Penang I is RM150,000 and bids will be open until the exhibition closes on June 20. Check for details).

Angela Hijjas and her husband Hijjas Kasturi have infused art into their Hotel Penaga, making it Penang's - and Malaysia's, for that matter - first "art hotel". The couple behind Rimbun Dahan, a long- time Kuala Lumpur-based arts residency programme, has also started an arts residency programme at Hotel Penaga.

The current one is occupied by Singapore-based artists, filmmaker Marcia Ong and sculptor Hilary Schwartz. "We've (also) started looking for space, accommodation, and sponsors for at least 10 artists from the Asean region and from the developed world, for when the Penang arts residency programme kicks off in early 2014," says Angela Hijjas.

Australian Tim Craker, who completed his residency at Hotel Penaga a year ago, decided to stay on in Penang and is offering his own space for an artist's residency starting in September (

One of Penang's avid contemporary art collectors, Lee Khai, says that Penang has had a long, reputed tradition of producing feted artists, but what's exciting now is the extent of contemporary art that is also being seen in various gallery spaces. There's definitely a critical mass now for one to do an "art walk" in the city such as the one held last September.

His own "gallery" or "temporary art space" at 212 Beach Street is one of the more interesting ones - being a dilapidated shophouse along one of George Town's earliest roads, Beach Street, linked to the city's early trading days and free port status. The shophouse used to be owned by the last Qing Dynasty vice-consul to Penang. For GTF, it will host the exhibition Rescube - a collaborative multimedia show that will involve five young Malaysian artists and also Zacharevic.

Just a road and a couple of turns away, another one of Malaysia's top contemporary art collectors, Ng Sek San, has carved out Sekeping Victoria - the latest addition to the sekeping family of retreats - which sees echoes of his design styles: industrial-like concrete juxtaposed with cracked, unpainted, and stained lime clay walls and brickwork on the ground; and trees planted inside and outside the space.

A couple of doors down, hip eatery China House has a burgeoning art gallery that is hosting a contemporary art show curated by one of Kuala Lumpur's leading galleries, Galeri Chandan. The exhibition will showcase works by 15 of Malaysia's top contemporary artists, with luminaries like Ahmad Zakii Anwar and Jalaini Abu Hassan heading the line-up. "We've definitely seen more contemporary art activities in Penang lately and artists outside of Penang are also getting interested in George Town," notes Lee Khai.

But the best part about Penang is that one doesn't have to be a top level contemporary art collector to appreciate art in the city. Motorists, motorcyclists, trishaw riders, and pedestrians are getting their fair share of humorous street art - in the form of wire sculptures that look like caricatures of the city's residents.

At the Hutton Road and Transfer Road junction, where one could be taking the corner to Penang Road's famous cendol stall, a shoeshine man is used to illustrate the activities you can find along the five-foot-way; along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, a bullock cart illustrates the Hokkien phrase "five cents (is) bigger than a bullock cart wheel"; on Love Lane, a man is seen climbing into a window, sneaking into his mistress' room.

A project commissioned by the state, there will be a total of 52 sculptures by 2014. Now, there are just over 20 sculptures all over town. "It takes about three months to make a sculpture," explains Tang Mun Kian, the project's creative director from Sculptureatwork. George Town is shaping up to be a unique artist's canvas now - so much so that Zacharevic found it difficult to find suitable wall space initially. "I'd identify a space and find that it's already been reserved by Sculptureatwork's project!" he laments.

This only bodes well for George Town - if every nook and cranny is bursting with something engaging, from its ever popular street food to burgeoning street art. It's all about new art in an old city (223 years old to be exact) - and tourists with an eye for art will be quick to pick it out.


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