Penang, a hub for homegrown artists, may run over with street art, but you’d be surprised by its lack of bona fide art galleries. The following establishments receive top marks in our books for some or all of the following: 1) inspired collection curated by art experts and enthusiasts; 2) unconventional though easily navigable venue; 3) strong community involvement such as hosting artist residencies or organising local events.
A bustling bus depot in its heyday, Hin has evolved into an unlikely art space, courtesy of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic’s first solo exhibition ‘Art is Rubbish/Rubbish is Art’ in 2014. Painted over crumbling arches and half-obscured by thick vines, some murals from said exhibition can still be found in the gallery’s open-air section. The curators do a good job of exhibiting edgy urban art, but take the cake for organising community-based events. Besides its fortnightly screenings of cult films, Hin has hosted a skatefest, pop-up concerts and paint jamming sessions.
Enter via one of two entrances, the first being on Lebuh Farquhar and the second inside the posh Eastern & Oriental Hotel. While the space itself isn’t new, the gallery is a fairly recent collaboration between the E&O and Penang’s iconic street artist Ernest Zacharevic. You’ve seen his famed street art; now check out his framed works. Fans can’t claim to have seen Zacharevic’s complete oeuvre until they’ve stopped by to appreciate his lesser known paintings and raw-form sketches. The gallery’s rotating exhibitions also feature works by Zacharevic’s friends and contemporaries.
ChinaHouse, a household name among locals, is an ambitious institution housing several dining halls, a wine bar, a library, a central courtyard, myriad performance spaces, a gift shop and two art galleries. Art Space I displays the works of mainly local artists, while Art Space II is reserved for photographic works. Both galleries are located on the first floor and are accessible via rickety flights of stairs, where the former ingeniously incorporates the heritage shoplot’s original architecture, letting in shafts of natural sunlight from a sky roof, while the latter is tucked away in a peaceful corner of the shoplot. We like that the owners are receptive to featuring new artists. They even encourage customers in the restaurant to create art by providing mahjong paper and crayons while you eat. Furthermore, personnel from art organisations can look to ChinaHouse for a roof over their heads while visiting Penang.
This quaint art gallery in Pulau Tikus is easily overlooked, but warrants a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood. Founded by two dedicated art lovers, Alfred and Jeff, a2 is housed in one of the many identical bungalows on Bangkok Lane. Though a small space, a2 gives off a professional vibe and has made a name for itself by exhibiting contemporary works of high calibre from both local and international artists. Don’t leave without checking out the tiny garden terrace on the top floor, which offers a close-up view of Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram temple’s conical dome.
Fergana Art Space was founded in 2014 to shine the spotlight on contemporary and modern Malaysian art. The gallery’s location alone proves worthy of interest – you’ll find Fergana inside the Whiteaways Arcade, a gothic complex built during the British colonial era. While it isn’t abnormal for art organisations to take artists under their wing via residencies, Fergana goes the extra mile by offering curators and archivists their very own fellowship programme.
You can cross off two of our recommended galleries in one go since Run Amok Gallery now shares the same compound as Hin Bus Depot Art Centre.
'We've been getting higher foot traffic - more than 100 visitors per day', said Hoo Fan Chon, founder of Run Amok.
We'll miss the old gallery's homely feel, but are glad that the non-commercial gallery, which is more daring in terms of its curation, can expose its socio-political art to the public at large.