Ever since Ernest Zacharevic’s wall murals became a hit back in 2012, street art became a recognised art form here instead of being treated as mere graffiti.
While Zacharevic’s works are mainly on the island, he inspired many others to follow suit and before long, the street art scene in Penang grew.
Even quiet Butterworth on the mainland got into the act with Urban Xchange Festival 2015 — an international public art festival — which included several large-scale public murals and a 12-sided star art installation.
Prior to that, the Different Strokes Street Art Festival also saw a large impressive mural of a man and turtles by Martin Ron painted on the side of a shoplot along Jalan Raja Uda.
In that same year, the Butterworth Fringe Festival (BFF) debuted as part of the George Town Festival (GTF) in collaboration with Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai Think City to bring part of the GTF crowd over to the mainland.
BFF was successfully held again in 2016 with more public murals introduced on the mainland. It is expected to be back again at this year’s annual GTF.
The art festivals highlighted the growing art scene in Butterworth and leveraging on the momentum created, Think City embarked on more events and collaborative efforts to further enhance the growing art scene here.
Murals? We’ll give you murals… and more
Martin Ron’s painting of a man sitting cross-legged with one hand extended and turtles swimming around him is an impressive piece that captures the attention of anyone walking past.
The 3D effect of it, as if the man’s hand is really sticking out of the side of the building, lends an air of surrealism to the whole scene.
This was the first of the large-scale public murals to make an appearance in Butterworth. It is located on the side of a row of shoplots along the busy commercial district of Jalan Raja Uda.
Just across from this row of shoplots, at the side of another row of shops, Spanish artist Sabek painted a mystical piece of a woman with an eel around her.
These two murals were part of the Different Strokes Art Festival 2015.
Later in the same year, during the Urban Xchange Festival 2015, more murals were added. Sabek came back and painted on the same site, replacing the woman with the eel with a woman holding a blue apple.
Not far from it is the impressive four-storey star installation by local architect and artist, Ong Jun Hao; the star appears lodged into the bare, incomplete structure of a building.
A few hundred metres from there, right at the junction of Jalan Raja Uda, a large abstract piece by Iranian artist Nafir faces the traffic.
Near the ferry terminal, along the Butterworth Outer Ring Road, on the side of a very old building, world-famous street artist Vhils from Portugal created the portrait of a woman on the wall.
Vhils, whose real name is Alexandre Farto, does not use paint but a drill to create works of art that will never fade.
Last year, during the BFF, British artist Thomas Powell was commissioned to create a series of works titled Bounties of the Sea and Doorway to Penang.
Powell turned the crumbling ruins of an old building into an outdoor art gallery that depicted the culture and history of the area which used to be a fisherman’s village.
Paintings of fishes are all over the cement floor while busy fishermen — from hauling in the catch to cleaning the fish—were painted all over the wall.
In his Doorway to Penang series, Powell painted two old wooden doors; one showed fishmonger while the other, a lantern maker. Both doors are now displayed outside the Lodge 18 hotel along Lorong Bagan Luar Satu.
Butterworth Art Walk… yes, art is everywhere
This is a collaboration between Think City and architect Zaini Zainul to turn the narrow 400 metre-long alleyway starting from the side of Lodge 18 Hotel to Kompleks Bagan into an art alley.
Zaini led a team of six other artists to paint murals on the walls flanking the alleyway; the paintings tell the story of Butterworth from the origin of its name to the many cash crops it used to have over time.
The other artists who contributed to the project are Shazwan Jalil, Syamsul Addenno, Suhaimi Ali, Hadi Ramli, Nazmi Jamarudin, Amir Andha and Azmi Husin.
The wire-mesh monkey sculpture by Shahidan Muhamad that Zaini helped curate for BFF 2016 was relocated and now sits perched on top of the alley while colourful plastic colanders and baskets are strung up like umbrellas across the alley.
Murals of sugarcane plants, elephants, even a stall selling sugarcane juice, tell the story of how sugar was once the main agriculture product in Butterworth.
The origin of the town’s name is remembered with a painting of William John Butterworth who was the governor of the Straits Settlements between 1843 and 1855.
The project started in December 2016 and phase one will be completed soon. The group of artists, all from Shah Alam save for Azmi and Shahidan from Penang, will then startwork on the second phase which is down the same alley, across the road.
The making of art spaces and growing of events
With these positive developments, Think City has a few other projects that will turn some buildings and shoplots into spaces for designers, artists and makers.
One such space is the Lokalhouz Event Space by Hafidz Adnan. Lokalhouz is a row of three bright yellow wooden shophouses along Jalan Pantai very near the ferry terminal.
Almost hidden from the main road and located right at the end of the road after a long row of shops selling a variety of local snacks and jeruk, this place is perfect for artsy workshops and events due to the ample space.
Right next to the row of shophouses is a large grassy plot of land used mostly as a parking space but Hafidz says he has already leased the land to use for future events.
The shophouses are still being restored by Hafidz and his team. Only one is completed while they are still working on an event hall.
“I’ve been searching for such a space along with a vacant piece of land so that we can have events and now every month we have a programme here, in collaboration with Think City, called Pagi-pagi Butterworth,” Hafidz said.
It may be called Pagi-pagi Butterworthbut the event is a whole-day affair that starts at 9am and stretches on till 11pm at night. It is held at the vacant lot every second Sunday of the month and there’s busking by local performers, various performances, “live” music, handicraft and art stalls, food stalls and even a “street library” where you can sit down and read any of the books there free of charge.
“In February, we will have another event called Butterworth Also Can which is a series of workshops and talks on songwriting and poetry,” he said.
The project by Bad Wolves is supported by Think City and kicks off on February 25.
This is just the beginning as more programmes are being lined up; soon the art scene in Butterworth will be just as lively as the one on the island.
“Butterworth has a raw art scene that is slowly emerging out of the shadows. These are part of our efforts to encourage art expressions and uncover local talent,” said Think City Butterworth Programme Director Murali Ram.
He believes BFF has been an effective catalyst for the building up of a vibrant local art scene.
Think City is also currently identifying available spaces to be restored and converted into art and public spaces in Butterworth.