We spoke to British artist Thomas Powell, who like a lot of visiting Westerners in Penang has decided to take up residency on the quaint little island. Tom lets us into his world by telling us the inspiration behind his latest work, Chinese Zodiac, as well as what brought this young artist to flourish here in Malaysia.
Could you first tell us the inspiration behind Chinese Zodiac?
The initial seed was planted after completing two paintings for Macalister Mansion’s bar area called the Cellar. They were comprised of a male and female human body with a stag and deer head respectively. I decided it would be interesting to try and visually represent the animals of the Zodiac by using their heads on human bodies. The exhibition explores the relationship between the 12 animals of the Zodiac and the characteristics each animal bestows upon people born during that year. The 12 animals from the 12-year cycle have given way to 12 paintings. A representational head of each animal has been joined with the body of a human, highlighting some of their characteristics, enabling viewers to recognise their own Zodiac animal and exploring what this means to them.
How long was your process in creating this body of work and what challenges did you come across?
It’s difficult to say as I rarely work on just one project at one time, this only happens when it comes close to the deadline and I need to focus on a particular body of work. With that said, I first had the idea about a year ago, since then I’ve been back to the UK for seven months where I explored the theme further whilst working on other pieces for a group show in October last year along with other projects. Macalister Mansion and George Town Festival agreed for the exhibition to be held towards the end of 2014, I had started work on two of the paintings so I had examples to show. The most challenging part was the research for the animal’s characteristics, there are lots of books out there but many of them don’t agree with each other, so I tried to focus on only the essential qualities for each animal that most books seemed to agree on. The next challenge was selecting a body that I felt represented these attributes, I chose key words from the descriptions of the animals such as “stylish and sophisticated”, “loyal”, “leader”, etcetera, which made the selection easier.
How did an artist like you from the UK end up basing himself here in Malaysia?
I first came to Malaysia while backpacking with my friend James in 2009. I then met the creative luminaries Joe Sidek, Fuan Wong, and Howard Tan, each of whom has been mentors of mine and helped me become the artist I am today. I also took part in a six-month artist in residence programme (Malihom Artist in Residence) in 2010, which was set up by Irene and Stephen Yeap. That helped my creative development immensely. I have been back and forth from the UK to Malaysia ever since.
How do you feel about being an artist from overseas but flourishing here in Malaysia?
I think it is excellent, you learn a lot about yourself in a new place, and with a new place comes new ideas and new source material. The great thing about art is that it transcends place, it does not matter where you are or where you are from as long as people can take something away from it, good or bad, the point is to share and experience. There are no winners or losers, it is a way to just explore something original or experience a new take on something that already is.
So what is it about Penang that draws you to continue staying there?
Penang is a cultural melting pot and a very visually stimulating place, not to mention incredible food, people, and architecture – and of course, weather. But it is also a great base to be able to visit the rest of Southeast Asia. Since my first visit in 2009, Penang has changed a great deal, it is a port city and always has been, only now it seems to exchange ideas more than goods, it is very exciting to be a part of that exchange.
Having been a part of it, how is the art scene in Malaysia?
There is such a wealth of talent here from local artists and foreign alike, the George Town Festival has been an incredible catalyst for creativity and it feels like there is a critical mass of creative people here at the moment, that I can foresee fuelling this current artistic chain reaction and keeps it going from strength to strength.
Date 1 – 31 August ‘14
Time 10am – 6pm
Venue Macalister Mansion, 228, Jalan Macalister, George Town
George Town Festival 2014 is happening throughout this month. Details about shows and ticketing are available at www.georgetownfestival.com.