For its seventh year joining with George Town Festival, the Obscura Festival of Photography is exploring the topic of ‘subcultures’. This theme is not only the focus of talks and workshops but also the free exhibition, titled ‘Subculture: An Exploration into the Human State and Mind Being’, which is a fantastic display of work from eminent photographers from across the world: Roger Anis, Rory Doyle, Isabella Melody Moore, Anita Pouchard Serra, Anton Polyakov and Hiro Tanaka.

The photographs by Roger Anis, Rory Doyle and Isabella Melody Moore outside the clan house. Image courtesy of Obscura Festival of Photography

The exhibition is split between two venues, Soundmaker Studio and Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi. Separating one exhibition between two such disparate locations — one a small young venue that regularly hosts indie music performances, and the other a historic clan temple — at first struck me as mismatched. In reality, though, it really works. Both locations carry associations with various kinds of subcultures, the clan house being that of the Hokkien community in Penang, and Soundmaker Studio being popular with the young and ‘indie’ demographic. Not only this, but the works exhibited in each venue have been chosen with care, ensuring that the exhibition space and the photographs interrelate cohesively. 

The photographs of Hiro Tanaka in Soundmaker Studio. Image courtesy of Obscura Festival of Photography

The photographs by Roger Anis, Rory Doyle and Isabella Melody Moore are exhibited outside the clan house. These are high-resolution compositions that are rich in colour and texture, the kind of photographs you’d expect to see in TIME magazine: quite literally, for these photographers have been published by the likes of the Guardian, the New York Times, Dazed, and so on. 

Moore’s fantastic portraits from the Mullet Festival in the small town of Kurri Kurri struck me immediately as comical, yet on closer inspection they draw interesting questions regarding cultural signifiers of masculinity and what she calls ‘quintessential Australia’. Doyle similarly questions markers of identity in his series Delta Hill Riders. Despite making up a quarter of cowboys since the Civil War, the presence of black cowboys in pop culture has been close to none. Doyle’s stunning photographs resist historical and contemporary stereotypes, while questioning what it means to be black in Mississippi, or to be a cowboy. 

Isabella Melody Moore

Meanwhile, the work of Anita Pouchard Serra, Anton Polyakov and Hiro Tanaka are housed in Soundmaker Studio; these photographs are more low-fi and snapshot-like shots that focus on the vibrant myriads of youth culture. Exhibited in smaller formats that are collaged upon the wall, these photographs and their curation fit the informal venue perfectly. 

Anton Pol

Anton Pol, for instance, presents the varieties of youth culture of Transnistria (an unrecognised state, Transnistria is a 125 mile strip of land between Ukraine and Moldova) through monochrome shots. From tattoo enthusiasts to teenagers supporting their local football team, Pol is fascinated by the diverse subcultures that are being developed by the youth: “they are not limited by the borders of one state and have the opportunity to form their own cultural identity, including by observing their peers from other countries”. The vibrant — in colour and subject — photographs of Hiro Tanaka are equally fascinating, their surprising playfulness making them feel as if they are fresh from the music-orientated society that Tanaka usually draws from.

The Subculture photographic exhibition has, for me, been a highlight of George Town Festival 2019: I urge you to go along — it really is worth visiting both venues.

Hiro Tanaka

Where? — Soundmaker Studio and Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi
When? — July 13th – August 31st 2019. Soundmaker Studio: weekdays 12 – 6PM, weekends 12 – 8PM // Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi: 9AM – 5PM
Who? — Everyone
How much? — Free

The Obscura Festival for Photography also has a range of other events, including talks and workshops. To find out more, visit their website here.

Written by: Eleanor Ohlsen