It was a weekend not to be missed for art lovers and aesthetes. Open Studios Penang – a festival that celebrates the paint and brush, and the artists behind the canvas – kicked off its very first edition last June 14-16. Styled around the theme “Bringing Art Together”, the three-day art event, the biggest ever to be held in Penang, featured close to 100 leading artists – think Malaysian pioneer artists Khaw Sia, Kuo Ju Ping and Yong Mun Sen – and emerging artists from Penang and Malaysia, from Singapore and Vietnam, and from as far away as Australia, Denmark, India, Sweden, Bulgaria, the UK and the US.
“We are very excited about the way Open Studios really is ‘Bringing Art Together’ in Penang, and are encouraged by the feedback we have had from the art community. It means a lot to the artists to be able to interact with the public in this way and bring their works to a wider audience,” says organising group member and early initiator of Open Studios Penang Louise Goss-Custard.
A purely private initiative, the event was put together by a group of volunteers on a shoestring budget, with most of the investment being the hours of tireless work put in by the volunteer artists and art lovers behind it. “It’s been a really organic bottom-up initiative and it is quite stunning how Open Studios has evolved into this enormous weekend of art activities,” says Goss-Custard.
It certainly delivered an exciting programme line-up – exhibitions, site-specific installations, workshops, art trail and talks were conducted all over Penang Island, reflecting the diversity and creativity of Penang’s vibrant art scene.
“We wanted to make Open Studios more accessible to the Penang public and the artists themselves,” explains Goss-Custard. “George Town Festival (GTF) has been an amazing concept in that it has brought such dynamism to the art scene in George Town. But there are a lot of very talented artists who aren’t based in George Town, and the beauty of the Open Studios concept is that it’s open to anyone to participate.
“Artists like Ch’ng Kiah Kiean and Aboud Fares have their centre of artistic activities out in Tanjung Tokong and Tanjung Bungah, but they are also very much part of the George Town art scene. We even have the artist Maizul Affendy taking part despite his studio being a little off the beaten track in Bayan Baru.”
Penang’s Art Scene Today
Creativity thrives on the cross-fertilisation of ideas. “Bringing art and artists together is always a good idea – they can learn new techniques and approaches. Creativity needs an environment in which idea exchange can take place and inspiration can come from sources other than the artists themselves,” says GossCustard.
“I think this is what has happened a great deal in Penang in the last 10 years. Penang has a fabulous history of arts. But what we have seen recently is a much more diverse artistic scene and part of that has to do with GTF and the Unesco listing that made George Town such a funky, trendy place for artistic people to gravitate towards.
“Still, it can be a very daunting prospect to hold a solo show because of the quantity of artwork needed for the exhibition, and adding to that, the investment in terms of arrangement, finding a space, negotiating with the gallery and publicising the show. For well-established artists, it’s a whole different ballgame because it’s the gallery that approaches them instead. But for somebody who’s early in their career or hasn’t yet broken through, a group show is ideal. It’s a much smaller hurdle. It’s still a hurdle to participate in any kind of show – you’re putting yourself out there for public criticism – but it’s within a supportive environment,” she says.
Mandy Maung with her mural of Dick Van Dyke as Bert from Mary Poppins in Shoreditch.
“Obviously, as a group of volunteers, we couldn’t curate the artwork. All we were doing was putting people in touch with each other and contacting the venues. The artists displayed as they wanted; it was fascinating to watch from afar the progress of the different negotiations, and I’m so happy it turned out as well as it has.”
Meet the Artists
It’s impossible to profile all the artists who participated in what has been touted as the biggest art event ever to be held in Penang. We pick two who stand out for their work done locally and abroad, and who are hungrily on the rise.
Artist Mandy Maung (also known as MāMa) draws inspiration from the human body – with all its strange peculiarities and beauty – for Self-ish, a series of self-portrait and anatomy studies of the artist herself, shifting through her own space of thoughts, challenges and musings as a creative person four years into the local art scene.
Take Sorry No Stock, for instance: the painting shows Maung in the shower, her physique masked behind water droplets and a broad red squiggle strategically positioned to hide her breasts. In it, Maung ruminates about “the censorship that we [artists] constantly have to deal with or be aware of, be it the nudity or language the human body conveys.
“Our society still can’t accept anything that is too sexy or carries sexual connotations – it’s such a taboo. Sorry No Stock is like playing peek-a-boo – can see but cannot see. I played with the imagery and our local slang, basically my take on the imposition of self-censorship.”
In Forever21, Maung puts her rebellious streak on full display. “The statements ‘Oh, you look so young’ or ‘You look younger than your age’ are very cliché Asian remarks to make; and the Forever21 shopping bag over my head pokes fun at that, on being forever young, forever 21. And the addition of the cigarette creates an amalgamation of two ideas: Is it my rebellious streak as a smoker or is it my Asian genes that are making me stay youthful?”
Sorry No Stock.
A single mother and full-time artist, Maung says getting her name out there can be an overwhelming task. “I market myself mostly through social media. I’m also slowly trying to tap into the KL market, through open calls and by participating in group shows.” She also volunteers her services to visiting artists and muralists like Argentinian Martin Ron who painted Seberang Perai’s first large-scale public mural depicting a man seated cross-legged, hand outstretched with turtles swimming around him. “I learn best when I see artists at work, like how they paint and mix the colours; I get it – it’s an instant click.”
Maung also tries to squeeze in the occasional street art during her travels abroad, her mural in Shoreditch of Dick Van Dyke as Bert from Mary Poppins being her proudest achievement to date. “The mural was quite big. I had to finish it in one day – a solid eight-hour work – because who knows, if I were to paint it halfway, it might be gone the next day. It’s also the adrenaline rush knowing that the mural will get covered up eventually that gives you the additional push to finish it and take a picture because that’s all you need really, for your portfolio.”
To know more about the artist and her works, visit her website at mandymaung.com or her Instagram account @mama.mandym.
Ch’ng Kiah Kiean
Ch’ng Kiah Kiean wore many hats before devoting himself to his true calling: making art. Combining his love for architecture and graphic design, Ch’ng rose through the ranks of the local art sphere, carving his niche sketching buildings and picturesque landscapes, first in Penang and then, wherever his travels took him.
His latest exhibition, however, takes on a surprising new direction. abstracKK follows Ch’ng’s most recent “nonarchitectural” solo show Close Objects depicting common objects and small things that form ancillary features in his every day surroundings, e.g. corn bought from the market, dried bamboo roots collected from the seaside and withered trees by the roadside. “The art pieces in this series are mostly black and white – a continuation of my current medium of Chinese ink.”
Ch’ng Kiah Kiean.
Ch’ng advises to approach abstracKK with an open mind. “Forget what you know about abstract art; you just need to appreciate it visually for impact. It’s much like listening to music tempo – to me, abstract art consists of a lot of rhythm. But for the expert eye, I think you can make out the artistic principles and the balancing of colour, tone and texture in the series.”
The exhibition was organised in Ch’ng’s studio KaKi Creation, where he also answered questions about prospective careers in art from students of Dasein Academy of Art in KL, who made the trip up north especially for the festival. “It’s both a balancing act and a drawn-out process to put on a solo show because there are numerous elements to consider, from designing to event promotion; and it largely depends on the artists’ self-management skills,” he explains.
Ch’ng is also an avid urban sketcher and belongs to Urban Sketchers, an international non-profit group dedicated to fostering a global community of artists who practice on-location drawing.1 He also co-founded Urban Sketchers Penang in 2010. “Being part of Urban Sketchers and participating in the annual symposiums have opened up many doors of opportunity for me to not only connect with artists who share similar interests, but I’ve had occassion to conduct workshops in many Asian countries as well. But closer to home though, I believe Open Studios Penang has created a wonderful platform for both local artists and art lovers to brighten up Penang’s art scene a bit more.”
For more information about the artist and his works, visit his website at kiahkiean.com or his Instagram account @kiahkiean.
abstracKK follows Ch’ngs most recent “non-architectural” solo show Close Objects