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Thursday, 17 December 2015


Penang Art Open for 2015 with the theme ‘Hope’, received a total of 173 works from 137 artists, compared to 159 works from 133 artists last year, and 102 works from 83 artists in 2013. The numbers of entry and artist this year are the largest since 2010, perhaps indicating an encouraging ‘hope’ for this annual art event. 

As usual, paintings dominated the numbers of entry with 145 followed by 20 sculptures, 6 installations and 2 video-based works. This year exposition also received entries from 2 international artists, thus enriching the interpretation of the chosen theme through “the perspective of those who are not Malaysian citizens.”(Haryany Mohamad: 2013)

The criteria for judging as underlined in the previous report by Awang Damit Ahmad (2012), was adopted as the generic guide. The initial phase of selection was done based on votes given by the four judges. Entries that received one or no vote were eliminated. Few entries that initially received two votes were further deliberated for a ‘second look’ and consideration. Finally, 41 works that received three and four votes were selected for exhibition and consideration for awards. 

The second phase of the selection was also done based on further voting. 8 works that received three and four votes were selected and considered for awards. The 8 selected works emit heartfelt responses and thoughtful interpretations towards the given theme, delivered skilfully with a high degree of mastery in their chosen materials, techniques, styles and pictorial traditions.

3 of the 8 selected works were given consolation prizes, mostly due to minor flaws related to finishing, choice of presentation and degree of technical challenge. Despite the relatively high quality of the 3 works, the judges felt that the 3 artists could have avoided these flaws and performed better.

The remaining 5 works were then further deliberated for a major award. One particular work stood out, predominantly due to the display of highly imaginative visualization, exceptional skill, high mastery of the chosen medium, challenging techniques and appropriate choice of presentation. The remaining 4 works were given minor awards.

Major Award winner, ceramic sculptures by Mohamad Rizal Salleh

PART 2    
The word ‘hope’ may be interpreted in many different ways. It may trigger our mind to conjure various different visions. Equally, and perhaps more pertinent to pro-active individuals, ‘hope’ may trigger a range of emotions related to expectation, anticipation, confidence, optimism, courage and even faith. For some, hope is often associated with prospect, possibility, promise, potential, change and transformation.  Hope in short, is commonly associated with what we take as a positive attitude that we choose to bring into our life, regardless of what life can throw at us. Such attitude can be linked to empathy, compassion, love, sincerity, honesty, joy, and beautiful imagination – traits that hopefully can be traced in our visual artists.

Neuroscientists and mind experts would probably refer to the emotional experiences above as emanating from a state of higher consciousness. Higher consciousness, according to my reading as a non-scientist, refers to active neural activities that take place within the higher part of our brain called neo-cortex or the higher brain.  They give us the universal and inspiring feeling of empathy, universal love, oneness, connectedness, wholeness and selfless-ness or egoless. Higher consciousness is commonly referred to as levitation or creative life force in several spiritual traditions – chi, reiki, prana, semangat. This range of experiences is traditionally achieved through relaxed contemplation, mindfulness, meditation, fasting, chanting, prayer and for some, pilgrimage. Hope in this case, can be taken as a word that may spark neural pathways towards a higher state of consciousness full with positive take on today and future prospect, possibility, promise, potential, change and transformation, in short – of getting high.  

If art is argued as having the ability to influence our consciousness (see Jacob Devaney: 2015) through ‘mirror neurons’, then the decision to select ‘hope’ as the theme for Penang Art Open (PAO) 2015 can be taken as a subtle way to implore the higher state of consciousness amongst the participating artists, of getting high in the euphoria of hope. The audience then, would understandably be expecting to experience potentially inspiring and elevating interpretations of hope.

Well, that was perhaps the initial ‘hope’ of the PAO organiser, and the judges too.

Yet, that was partly not the case, at least not for the judges.  Hope, in most of the entries for PAO 2015, has been interpreted and responded through visions and experiences related more to the lower mind instead of the higher.

What is the lower mind? Neuroscientists would refer to this part of human brain as the reptilian mind. It senses danger and immediate physical threat. It gives a warning of an impending danger or catastrophe, to decide whether to fight or flight. It seeks immediate self-serving gratifications through materialist rewards to feed a selfish and separated sense of self or ego. It strikes back at competitions and perceived threats. It seeks to blame, defeat, control, dominate and manipulate whoever taken as the ‘threatening others’. It sees the world in a very narrow, separated and selfish way. The working of the reptilian mind is commonly referred to as the ‘beast within’ or earthly gravitational pull in several spiritual traditions. Despite its practical use in our day-to-day survival, it can be destructive if left unchecked on both personal and societal levels. Ironically, a competition can also be a fertile field for the lower mind to unveil its many faces.

Therefore, it is not surprising that most of the entries in PAO 2015 respond to the impacts of our competitive reptilian mind.  Instead of the anticipated euphoria of ‘hope’, most of the entries are ironically imbued with the air of fear, anger and despair, or in some, hopelessness.  Instead of getting high, the judges were at times forced to ‘get real’, to confront, deal and struggle with the depressing realities of the lower mind. If this competition is taken as a survey into our inner state of mind and emotion as a society, it is telling us that we are alarmingly overwhelmed by the lower state of consciousness, depress and perhaps stressful.     

A cursory view of the selected works reveals voices of concern towards the stressful impacts of living a life under the sway of lower animalistic reptilian mind. These voices of concern can be relatively discerned through eight common sub-themes, namely:

1.       The impact of rapid urbanisation

Exhibition crew Syafiq, trying out alternative way of presenting Norshahidan bin Mohamad's "Under-construction",
to get the interesting shadow on the wall.

2.       The impact of globalisation
3.       The fate of natural environment (flora and fauna)

4.       Love and pride

5.       Popular culture and the state of education

6.       The condition of inner vibes

Responding to the impacts of lower mind with likewise lower consciousness may yield a range of attitudes and actions that include pessimism, sarcasm, parody, satire and mockery – that for some imply traits of a broken hope and stunted idealism. These attitudes and actions can be taken as a form of coping mechanism, if not artistic strategy for a number of visual artists with personal inclination towards social and political issues. In fact, since the early 1990s, these strategies have been deployed by several young artists in Malaysia then.(Hasnul J Saidon: 2008)

After more than 20 years, perhaps it is about time for these strategies to be reproached. Visual artists should start to re-question their roles and positioning within the larger context of ‘hope’ for positive change and transformation in this beloved country.  Instead of merely blaming, labeling, pointing fingers, voicing concerns, sounding alarms, relaying warnings, lamenting on issues, focusing too much on problems, or even sometimes riding and capitalizing on them for personal fame and gain, visual artists should explore fresh new ways to pro-actively contribute to their immediate surrounding and society.  The harsh realities of the lower mind should be taken as challenges that can elevate us collectively towards higher consciousness.
Thankfully, such tendency has been explored by several young visual artists and collectives in Penang and Malaysia. They have explored new ways of engaging and contributing to the society through communal, educational and transformational takes on art. In doing so, they have reached beyond the gallery walls into accessible public spaces, including the streets. Several creative projects organised and presented during and in between the annual George Town Festival for the past few years for examples, have contributed significantly to the rejuvenation and transformation of the city into a vibrant art and cultural hub in the region. 

Positive transformation promotes higher consciousness driven by empathy, inclusiveness, universal love, oneness, connectedness and wholeness.  Therefore, the lower mind’s drive to compete, must always be balanced by the higher mind’s drive to connect and unite. Empathy, compassion, love, sincerity, honesty, joy and beautiful imagination should be regained as traits of visual artists. Notwithstanding the myth of suffering artists with pain-body baggage, positive take on hope, on today and future prospect, possibility, promise, potential, change and transformation must be reclaimed and maintained by our visual artists, especially the young and less jaded ones.   

Hasnul J Saidon

1.       Awang Damit Ahmad (2012), “Ulasan Ketua Juri” in Pertandingan Seni Lukis Terbuka Pulau Pinang 2012, Lembaga Muzium dan Balai Seni Lukis Pulau Pinang.
2.       Hasnul J Saidon (2008) “Under-deconstruction : Contemporary art in Malaysia after 1990” in Timeline, National Art Gallery of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.
3.       Haryany Mohamad (2013), “Kata Aluan” in Pertandingan Seni Lukis Terbuka Pulau Pinang 2013, Lembaga Muzium dan Balai Seni Lukis Pulau Pinang.
4.       Jacob Devaney, “How Art Changes Consciousness”, October 14, 2015. Accessed on December 1, 2015 at

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