GEORGE TOWN, Aug 5 — Potted plants line up against a striking blue corrugated zinc “wall” from the construction site next door. Cats may be seen lazing around, matching the bucolic vibe of the small lane that leads past the homes of five families.
It could have been any other laneway in George Town — ubiquitous yet neglected and often unsightly — but with a little effort, it has become a neat, clean and functional walkway.
Why can’t more of the city’s vacant, abandoned spaces be put to good use? This was a question Narelle McMurtrie often asked whenever she walked past on her way to or from her uber-popular café, China House.
Narelle is no stranger when it comes to the conservation of Penang’s built heritage. In the last decade or so, she has breathed new life into a number of centennial buildings, transforming them into hospitality and retail outlets.
Besides China House, which takes up two linked pre-war shophouses, she also co-owns Straits Collection, a boutique hotel comprising five old shophouses.
A trip to Lisbon, Portugal last year further convinced her that something more could be done to transform George Town’s negative spaces. “There are a lot of pop-up parks there that make clever use of urban spaces. I also noticed how similar Lisbon and George Town are, and I felt that we could do the same here,” says Narelle.
George Town’s thriving street art scene, she adds, is subjected to Unesco approval and so there are limited opportunities for artists to showcase their works.
In Australia, where she’s from, local councils would list building spaces that are available for any period of time while waiting to be renovated. Artists can bid for the space and successful applicants can then utilise those spaces as art galleries.
“My suggestion was to look at the empty lots in George Town, let artists go in and put them to good use,” Narelle continues.
At the same time, it helps generate interesting hubs for locals and visitors to hang out, admire and be immersed in art.
Narelle prepared a paper on that and spoke to then mayor Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, who agreed with the idea. Before it could be put into action, however, Datuk Maimunah left to helm United Nations’ Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).
Her dream could have ended there. Instead, it became a reality faster than she expected. “Daniel, the owner of China House’s neighbouring Sixth Sense boutique, told me about two shophouses at the other end of our row becoming available. He was going to take up one of them and asked if I was interested in the other.”
After checking out the lot, formerly a seafood and tomyam restaurant (their signboard still hangs out front) and later a warehouse for a hardware company, Narelle saw the suitability.
“We – China House and Sixth Sense — make a good combo where we are right now, and it made sense to replicate that just a few doors away,” she relates, adding that “I have to put my money where my mouth is!”
Within two weeks, she had the keys to 127 Lebuh Pantai and Art Lane Penang began to take shape slowly. The corner lot is an exact replica of China House, also made up of two linked shophouses that run from Lebuh Pantai all the way to Lebuh Victoria.
Picture the café, sans all furniture, fittings and its iconic Cake Table, and where every wall is a blank canvas waiting to be covered in murals or graffiti and you have Art Lane.
The building’s organic rawness, stark and cold on its own, was a fitting backdrop to the street aesthetics that were meant to fill up the space.
In the beginning, Art Lane provided paints and brushes and allowed anyone to go in and paint to their heart’s content. But that meant there was no quality control of any sort and not everything that ended up on the walls were aesthetically pleasing, even though there are painted signs reminding people that anything political, sexual or obscene were not allowed and that offensive works will be painted over.
A new system was then put in place, whereby anyone who’s interested to leave their mark on Art Lane’s walls first had to submit their proposed works to China House for vetting. Upon approval, they will be allocated space and provided with paints and brushes.
Narelle also commissioned some pieces that are already talking points among Art Lane visitors. UK-born artist and Penang resident Thomas Powell, known as the “Chinese zodiac artist” for his memorable exhibition on said subject during George Town Festival 2014, makes a powerful impression with his larger-than-life painting of a Chinese opera performer. A ping pong table is parked below so you can have a game under his watchful eyes.
Chris Stone, a textile designer from Australia who has exhibited in Penang, contributed a pastel floral piece painted on a black background. Local artist Fuan Wong will be installing one of his trademark glass sculptures next to that.
At the Lebuh Pantai entrance, Ono Kang’s Chae Chuan Kui, Chae Yit Cheh (Above All Else, We Must Learn To Control Our Breath), a mixed media installation featuring a rotating globe, invites you to pause and think.
Inspired by a time machine, it serves to remind us that we are entirely in charge of the course of our future. Time is important but what is even more important is what we do with the time that is given to us.
Further in, Indonesian street artist duo Fahla Fadhillah Lotan (Dila) and Bonar Diat Senan Putro (Otong), known collectively as thedeoMIXBLOOD, have created no less than four different artworks.
You can see Dila’s “Sweeter Than Candy” on a wall beside the first staircase, in which she immortalises the 30 cats she used to keep at her home in Yogyakarta.
Vibrant and cheerful like the artist, whose background is in graphic design, it’s also a relevant reference to LASSie (Langkawi Animal Shelter & Sanctuary Foundation), which Narelle co-founded and supports via China House as well as Temple Tree and Bon Ton Resort in Langkawi. LASSie houses neglected, abused and needy animals, particularly cats and dogs.
Otong’s art, on the other hand, is more figurative and surreal and is inspired by traditional folklore and popular culture. The duo is used to painting under the heat out in the open, so being able to create their art in the relative comfort of an indoor space is a welcome respite.
“It’s a different feel for sure... a bit sterilised compared to being on the streets but we also feel safer in here,” said Dilla.
Art Lane doesn’t aim to replace the street canvases of George Town but complement them by offering an alternative space for creative expressions while meeting the interests of art-loving tourists.
Its location, a skip and a hop from Ernest Zacharevic’s “Little Children on a Bicycle” installation-mural that often serves as the starting point of the city’s art trail, makes it easily accessible to the public.
In conjunction with this year’s George Town Festival, Art Lane will be organising an arts and lifestyle event that brings together artists, artisans and makers under one roof.
Besides a craft market, there will be workshops, free talks and community classes. It is scheduled to take place this August 25 to 26.
The event aims to introduce Art Lane and celebrate the city’s heritage. “I hope that Art Lane will set an example for others to see what they can do with abandoned buildings and vacant lots in George Town,” says Narelle.
Art Lane is at 127 Lebuh Pantai, George Town, Penang Opens 9am-7pm daily