Penang Photographer Albert Foo loves Chinese opera. His passion for an art form he fears is dying in Penang is gloriously obvious in this exhibition of his photographs at Keeni Kessler Gallery.
The photographs were all taken against the magical light of the twilight zone at 7.45pm during the annual month-long Hungry Ghost Festival, as the performers were preparing to go on stage. Traditional Penang Chinese believe that during the Festival, the Gates of Hell are opened for spirits and ghosts to return to earth and roam freely in search of food and to visit their living ancestors. Temples erect stages on streets and put on elaborate opera performances to entertain the ghosts and divert them from more nefarious purposes.
Each photograph has an explanation beside it, introducing the artist depicted, and explaining what they were doing at the moment it was taken. For the viewer, it is the opportunity to share an intimate moment, and understand a little more about the behind-the-scenes preparations for Chinese opera.
Some of the elaborate costumes and head-dresses used during Chinese opera are also on display at the Gallery. Make a point of asking to view the photographer’s two videos while you are visiting. These are compilations, each a few minutes long, of photographs not on display in the exhibition, and set to music. Particularly moving is the one entitled “So Sad”, a beautiful succession of close-up photographs of meticulously made-up opera performers, with faces contorted into powerful expressions of grief , some with real tears.
The exhibition can be viewed at Keeni Kessler Gallery, 21 Jalan Nagore, between 3pm and 5pm daily except for Sundays, or by appointment (call 014 250 6292 to arrange). A sister exhibition by the same photographer, entitled “Backstage” offers another, and equally worth seeing, selection of Albert Foo’s Hungry Ghost Chinese Opera photographs. The Alliance Francaise is on Jalan Phua Hin Leong, and is open 10am-6pm Tuesday-Friday, and Saturday 9am-3pm.