The Whiteaways Building on Beach Street was originally built in 1903 to house Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co.’s a department store, the first of its kind on Penang Island. It was initially owned by Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee, the richest man on Penang Island at the time, and was described as ‘the finest and newest block of offices in Penang’. The department store was at the Bishop Street end of the building, and sold primarily imported European goods, and the Netherlands-Indian Discount Bank was based at the Church Street end of the building. Other businesses inside the building included the Pinang Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper on Penang Island, and various upmarket shops. The building continued to house businesses until the 2000s, when the repeal of the Rent Control Act forced tenants to vacate the building. It was then left abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair. When George Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, the Whiteaways Building was given a new lease of life. The interior was renovated and one of the ground floor lots was turned into a pathway to a courtyard equipped with benches and a granite stage. The renovation works were completed by 2011 and the building was renamed the Whiteaways Arcade.
Start on the ground floor, crossing the courtyard, and visit Space of Time. This is the 6th International Women’s Art Festival exhibition since the International Women’s Arts Exchange Association was established in South Korea in 2012. The exhibition showcases the works of over 50 women artists from Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and the USA, shining a light on the role of women’s art in society, and is comprised of 90 paintings, photographs, installations and sculptures.
Also on the ground floor, in a smaller space, is Noted, a photography exhibition displaying some of Malaysia’s greatest public literary figures, which has dazzled visitors. Comprised of black and white portraits, the exhibition also reveals pages from the notebooks they use, revealing the way each writer organises their thoughts and ideas on a range of subjects; an intimate look at a very private stage in the writing process. It is a collaborative effort made possible by New York Times contributor, Chen May Yee, and photojournalist, SC Shekar.
Still on the ground floor and adjacent to Noted is Portraits of George Town, a detailed look into people’s lives, this time concentrating on some of those who have made George Town into the city it is today. In this hall of fame, view photos and paintings of the everyday people who work here, live here, and call George Town their home. Each with their unique styles and mediums, every artist’s portrait not only displays the person but also their artistic personality and character. A collaborative exhibition involving Ammar Khalifa, Ch’ng Kiah Kien, Regina Ibrahim, Dr. Ooi Cheng Ghee and Karyn Leong.
The last space on the ground floor is taken by Cosmicomic Toyscapte, which claims to show six life-size toys to show the fun elements of science, but they weren’t working properly when we visited, so not so much fun really…
On the first floor of Whiteaways arcade is the exhibition, Joined by the Crown. The premise of the exhibition is a good one: to explore the long and deep ties between Penang and Singapore, and to cast an artistic light on the connections between the two cities and how they have shaped the communities living there. Unfortunately, the exhibition doesn’t really deliver. A handful of photographs and a strange map confuse rather than explain. But the accompanying booklet however has lots of interesting information about the many streets in Penang and Singapore that share the same name.
All Exhibitions are open from 11am until 6pm, are free of entry charge, and will run until the end of the George Town festival.
The Art-Deco building was constructed in the 1930s, and housed the Indian Overseas Bank from 1937 onwards. It was renovated in 2016, and is now the Penang office for Khazanah Nasional, the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, and the event spaces on the ground floor and first floor can be used for public meetings and exhinitions, like these ones.
Photojournalist and photographer Jimmy Nelson brings to George Town the stunning result of five years journeying across Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the South Pacific, during which he visited thirty-five indigenous communities. In his exhibition Before They Pass Away, Nelson displays these tribal communities through breath taking imagery with the sound purpose of raising awareness about the world’s indigenous cultures. He creates aesthetic visual imagery as a reminder of the drastic homogenising forces of a globalising world. Nelson’s photographs have taken the world by storm, with exhibitions held in major cities like London, New York, Paris and Shanghai. As reviewed by the Huffington Post, UK, this “exquisitely photographed showcase for world tribal culture is not only a joy to look at, but also an important historical record.” With this in mind, this exhibition is a must-see, before the tribes featured in it are lost forever.
Nelson spent his childhood in Africa, Asia and South-America and trekked the length of Tibet on foot at the age of nineteen. He documented Russian involvement in Afghanistan, the long strife between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and the war in former Yugoslavia. In essence, he is a photojournalist with a lifetime of experience and someone with a wealth of advice to share with budding photographers.
In 2014, however, Nelson came under fire from Stephen Corry, director of Surviving International, as misrepresenting tribes. Corry, the world’s foremost defender of indigenous peoples, described the series of photos as “false and damaging” and “just a photographer’s fantasy, bearing little relationship either to how these people appear now, or how they’ve ever appeared. Of course, rendering people more exotic than they really are is a timeworn tradition.” In his own defence, published in an article for The Times, Nelson explained that the project was an “aesthetic, romantic, subjective, iconographic representation of people who are normally represented in a very patronising and demeaning way.” If little else, it is a controversy that Penangites can now contemplate first-hand and discuss among themselves.
Photo credit: Nardya Wray
The Tales of Pua Kumbu
A remarkable exhibition of shawls, throws, and other items crafted from the beautiful pua kumbu, dyed silk cloth which is produced by the Iban tribe of Sarawak, and is an integral part of their intangible cultural heritage and way of life. The cloth is woven from thread that has been dyed using natural ingredients, and talented artisans are at the exhibition with their looms to show you exactly how it is done.
The exhibition demonstrates the age-old technique of weaving, but integrates modern technology too. You can download an app to your smart phone, which will tell you more about the motifs used on each individual cloth when you hold the phone above that piece. There are also interesting videos about the dying processes.
The pieces are so beautiful, you will want to take one home with you, and the good news is that you can – certain items are for sale.
Photo credit: Nardya Wray
Both exhibitions run until August 27th, and the Bangunan UAB is open from 11am until 6pm daily. There is no charge to visit.