Of the twenty-plus art exhibitions happening during this year’s George Town Festival, five of them are within the Whiteaways Arcade, and so can be visited all in an hour or two. The temporary galleries, although small, make a good temporary use of the empty lots in this heritage building, and if you haven’t explored the building before, the exhibitions are a very good excuse to do so.
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 Toyscape, 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.