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It didn’t take very long to figure out that since joining Site and Space, I already had an inkling that Penang would be a research topic that I am going to focus on for the long haul. Unlike my other two field director colleagues, this is not my area of expertise. The only concession I possess is being Malaysian, and thereby have a good understanding of how to get things done locally. But one also discovers that very often, getting something done means knowing who to ask for help, what communities can you turn to. It seems like, besides having to rely on the experience of the Penang team in site and space, I also have to find local ones.

We observed a moment of silence to remember the contributions of contemporary artist, editor, and cultural worker, the late Roslisham Ismail.

For the past year or so, not only have I been trying to catch up on the length and breadth of literature written about Penang, the time I spent speaking to colleagues who wear the research hat in many different contexts have gradually nudged me to think differently about research significance. More often than not, as scholars, we think of research significance primarily as the capacity to advance scholarly knowledge on a particular subject matter. But if one has a different relationship to a site and space, the place of research is no longer just a subject. More importantly, one discovers a new kind of responsibility towards colleagues and people committed to a locality.

Sarena Abdullah presenting on early 20th-century art movements and visual culture in Penang and Paul Agustin spoke on music cultures of Penang.

It is this sense of responsibility that informed my participation as one of the four committee members, along with curator, Lee Cheah Ni, artist Okui Lala, and cultural officer Stephanie Kee, who put together a one-day symposium about Penang art history on 27 July 2019 (Saturday) during the George Town Festival. It all began with a simple invitation to deliver the opening speech, but my role soon expanded beyond that. First, it started with my volunteering to run a workshop on researching colonial history using digital archives  that preceded the symposium. We organised the workshop, ‘Researching Colonial History like a Millennial‘, over two evenings at Ruang Kongsi, an independent library/discussion space located right outside the university campus in Penang.

While the program was slowly taking shape, as the historian on the committee, it fell on me to bridge the older members in the arts community with the younger ones. Thinking back at how easily we as a committee complemented each others’ strengths and weaknesses, the experience of designing the symposium was nothing but pleasurable.

While there were some speakers, who we initially wanted on board, could not participate in the symposium due to other commitments, we felt that our final line up was representative enough to provide a loose chronology of Penang’s art history. To find out more about the schedule and program, click here.

After a period of deliberation, we decided to call the symposium, ‘Great New World 新大世界 دنيا راي بارو பெரிய புதிய உலகம் – from freeport to world heritage site’. In describing the aims of the symposium, I penned the following:

What was Penang’s cultural history? How does this help us to understand the role that visual and performing arts play in Penang’s society today? What is the future we want to imagine for Penang’s art scene? Great New World is a one-day symposium with the aim to discover the world narratives that can be told from Penang. It is a ground-up initiative to discover Penang’s art historical consciousness over a series of presentations and conversations.

The symposium provides a loosely chronological overview of Penang’s art history in order to ask what new areas and frameworks of research can help enrich our understanding of Penang’s artistic past, present and future. Invited speakers will survey current scholarship on Penang’s art history as well as identifying knowledge gaps and prompt possible directions for future scholarship.

For the longest time, the art history of Malaysia has always focused on Kuala Lumpur as the centre of activity. Join us on this occasion as we decenter this commonplace narrative, to discover what we can learn about Penang’s artistic past, in order to understand what is happening in Penang today, so that we can begin to recognise new horizons for Penang’s artistic future.

Ghulam-Sarwar Yusouf on the founding a performing arts school in 1970 at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. 

Ray Langenbach sharing experimental art practices and student works of the late 1980s and early 1990s at USM, when he was a visiting lecturer. Here, he reflects on his 1993 performance that critiqued blind regurgitation of Freirean pedagogy on the occasion of a Freirean conference at USM. 

Having been to many symposiums, I can say this is really one of the most exciting that I’ve attended. There was hardly a boring or uninteresting moment. Our speakers not only provided the much-needed overview, but they have also enlivened the occasion by reminding us of many subjects and histories that await to be written. We even ended the day with a mock town hall meeting, where the symposium’s speakers competed against each other to carve out their own arts-related campaigning platforms to run for office in the Penang Hall. This was then put to vote. Naturally, the transparency platform triumphed.

A more detailed report on the symposium has since been written up by Derric Ee. Click here to read more about what exactly transpired during the day.

Fan Chon mapped out Penang’s contemporary visual arts ecosystem. 

Wong Lay Chin and Hilyati Ramli having a skype conversation swapping notes on the Chinese language and Malay language performing arts scene in contemporary Penang.

Hilyati Ramli was voted into office as president of the Penang Arts Town Hall. The award? A laser pointer, which will no doubt come in handy for Hilyati, who is a lecturer in the drama and theatre department at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.