Butterworth: A City of the Arts

Butterworth Art Walk. Photo: Think City

Street murals have given Butterworth’s image a makeover. Among other efforts in Butterworth, Think City transforms an ordinary alley into an art walk.

Since Ernest Zacharevic’s wall murals first caused a sensation in Penang in 2012, street art has become recognised as an art form as opposed to being seen as mere graffiti. This acceptance, particularly by governing bodies and urban planners, has been a rather welcome surprise, and has had a direct effect on the burgeoning street mural scene in Butterworth.

Butterworth first got into the act with the Urban Xchange Festival in 2015, an international public art festival, which saw the birth of several large-scale public murals including an art installation featuring a 12-sided star.

Prior to that, under the auspices of the Different Strokes Street Art Festival, renowned Argentinian street artist Martin Ron endowed the city with a mural of a man with turtles, painted on the side of a shoplot along Jalan Raja Uda.

In that same year, the Butterworth Fringe Festival (BFF) debuted as part of the George Town Festival (GTF) in collaboration with Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai and Think City, to bring part of the GTF crowd over to the mainland.

BFF was successfully held again in 2016 with more public murals introduced, and has recurred every year since.

This series of events have undoubtedly sparked the birth of Butterworth as a city of art.

Murals for Miles

Martin Ron’s painting of a man sitting cross-legged, one hand extended, with turtles swimming around him is a significant work of art in the Butterworth art scene, simply because it was the first. An impressive piece that has captured the hearts of locals and visitors alike, its trompe l’oeil effect lends an air of surrealism to the streetscape, located on the side of a row of shoplots in the busy commercial district of Jalan Raja Uda.

Another mural soon followed with Spanish artist Sabek’s mystical piece of a woman in the embrace of an eel.

A mural by Argentinian artist, Martin Ron (top) and one by Madrid-born artist Sabek (above) are two of the earliest murals in Butterworth, premiering in 2015. Photos: streetartnews.net (top) / Think City (above)

Later in the same year, during the Urban Xchange Festival 2015, more murals were added and Sabek returned with another mural on the same site, replacing the woman with the eel with a woman holding a blue apple.

Not far from it is the impressive four-storey star installation by local architect and artist, Ong Jun Hao. The star appears lodged into the bare, incomplete structure of a building.

A few hundred metres from there, right at the junction of Jalan Raja Uda, a large abstract piece by Iranian artist, Nafir, faces the traffic.

And near the ferry terminal, along the Butterworth Outer Ring Road, on the side of a very old building, world-famous street artist, Vhils, from Portugal has etched a woman’s face on the wall. Vhils, whose real name is Alexandre Farto, did not use paint but a drill to create this piece. His aim – works of art that will never fade.

Malaysian artist and architect Ong Jun Hao’s installation. Photo: jun-ong.com

In 2016, during the BFF, British artist Thomas Powell was commissioned to create a series of works titled ‘Bounties of the Sea’ and ‘Doorway to Penang’.

Powell turned the crumbling ruins of an old building into an outdoor art gallery that depicted the culture and history of the area, which used to be a fisherman’s village.

Paintings of fishes are all over the cement floor while busy fishermen — from hauling in the catch to cleaning the fish — were brought to life all over the wall.

In his ‘Doorway to Penang’ series, Powell painted two old wooden doors; one showing a fishmonger while the other, a lantern maker. Both doors are now displayed outside the Lodge 18 Hotel along Lorong Bagan Luar Satu.

Doorway to Penang by Thomas Powell. Photo: thomaspowellartist.com

The Butterworth Art Walk

Meanwhile, just a stone’s throw away, Think City and architect Zaini Zainul have collaborated to convert the narrow 400-metre-long alleyway stretching from the side of Lodge 18 to Kompleks Bagan, into an art alley.

Zaini led a team of six other artists to paint murals on the walls flanking the alleyway; telling the story of Butterworth from the origins of its name to the many trades of its residents over time. The six other artists who contributed to the project include Shazwan Jalil, Syamsul Addenno, Suhaimi Ali, Hadi Ramli, Nazmi Jamarudin, Amir Andha and Azmi Husin.

The wire-mesh monkey sculpture by Shahidan Muhamad that Zaini helped curate for BFF 2016 has since been relocated and now sits perched at the top of the alley while colourful plastic ‘tudung periuk’, a household object familiar to Malaysians, are strung like festive lights across the alley.

Think City Programme Director, Murali Ram, at the launch of the Art Walk. Photo: Think City

Murals of sugarcane plants, elephants and a sugarcane juice trader, tell the story of how sugar was once the main output of Butterworth.

The origin of the town’s name is remembered with a painting of William John Butterworth who was the governor of the Straits Settlements between 1843 and 1855.

The project which began in December 2016 was concluded in two phases, continuing down the same alley, but across a road.

The Making of Art Spaces and Events

With these positive developments, Think City has been steadily working on projects that convert buildings and shoplots into spaces for designers, artists and makers.

One such space is the Lokalhouz Event Space by Hafidz Adnan, a row of three bright yellow wooden shophouses along Jalan Pantai, which has been converted into an artist and makerspace. Right next to the row of shophouses is a large grassy plot of land now reserved for concerts and other events.

“I had been searching for such a space along with a vacant piece of land so that we can have events and now every month we have a programme here, in collaboration with Think City, called Pagi-pagi Butterworth,” Hafidz said.

It may be called Pagi-pagi Butterworth but the event is a whole-day affair beginning at 9am and stretching on till 11pm. Held at the vacant lot every second Sunday of the month, the event features busking by local musicians, “live” music and other performances, handicraft, art and food stalls, and even a “street library” where locals can read at leisure.

Another event called Butterworth Also Can features workshops and talks on songwriting and poetry.

Lokal Houz aims to nurture local makers and artists. Photo: @lokalhouz/Instagram

“Butterworth has a raw art scene that is slowly emerging out of the shadows. These are part of our efforts to encourage artistic expression and uncover local talent,” said Think City Butterworth Programme Director Murali Ram.

“I believe that BFF has been an effective catalyst for a vibrant local art scene, and we will constantly be identifying available spaces to be restored and converted into art and public spaces in Butterworth.”

Unused public spaces beneath the Butterworth Outer Ring Road Highway. Photo: Think City

In an effort to further develop public spaces in Butterworth, Think City has joined forces with the Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia (ILAM) to organise a Design Idea Competition. The programme is to encourage creative projects aimed at activating unused public spaces below the Butterworth Outer Ring Road Highway. For further information click here.


This article was originally published in The Malay Mail and has been edited with consent for The Citymaker.

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