Through the eyes of a local: How mural art is transforming the City of Cats
A vibrant art scene
I drove down Temple Street recently. In this old part of town, the narrow streets were filled with cars just had it always been but as I turned the corner, I suddenly saw it. A baby orang utan, bright eyed and shy in the corner of Singgahsana Lodge.
The heavy traffic soon carried me away towards the Sarawak Riverfront and as I turned into China Street, I encountered yet another unexpected sight:
The sheer realism, detail and skill with which the murals were depicted was stunning and being the millennial that I am, I ran to Google and discovered a Kuching art scene that had existed as far back as the Japanese Occupation.
According to Sonia Luhong Wan, freelance graphic designer Kuchingite and co-founder of contemporary art group 9Lives, "2014 and 2015 were instrumental as the period when the art scene in Kuching started to get more diverse, more engaging and more inclusive for both creatives and the public."
Why 2014? At that time, Ernest Zacharevic was invited to leave his mark along Jalan Power: a baby orang utan hanging from a pipe as well as his furry kin being wheeled in a green wheelbarrow fused to the wall. Forming part of the "Brothers from the Jungle" project, these cheeky murals were a hit and it did not stop there.
In 2017, 20 Arts and Designs students from UiTM Kota Samarahan campus captured iconic snapshots of the Sarawakian heritage and life in vivid colours and bold strokes.
Kai Joo Street
Having met the orang utans, I then took a walk at the adjacent India Street where textile makers had plied their trade for decades. This bustling street opened up halfway to an alley known as Kai Joo Street and it was there that I encountered Leonard Siaw.
Born and raised in Kuching, this self-taught muralist was just into his third week of executing a wall mural that was initiated by the Kuching North City Hall (DBKU) in collaboration with For Art (F'Art).
The wall depicted three famous hawker stalls that had once existed, each selling their own speciality: chicken porridge, soya bean curd and fried cuttlefish (sotong ketuk).
According to Leonard, who has been painting for the past seven years, these drawings were the result of hours of interviews held with locals as they identified the history of Little India and the people that had once worked the streets. The zinc panels were installed because the buildings of Kai Joo Street were once covered by zinc.
Little India still had one more surprise to reveal at the wall facing the old Courthouse.
Named "The Early Mercers", this two-storey wide mural was another artwork by Leonard and depicted Wee Aik Oh and Sayed Ahmad. These two figures were chosen due to their stature as two pioneer textile traders in India Street that began their business back in the 1930s.
What is most interesting is that this is a piece of augmented reality street art by ARx, Sarawak's very own augmented reality startup.
These AR elements are the first of its kind in Malaysia. Through the employment of innovative AR mobile applications, motionless paintings are brought to life using enhanced media content and three dimensional animations. In other words, download the ARx app, open it and point your phone towards the mural art on the wall. Images will start appearing in front of the wall showing the olden days, bringing you back into the time of these textile sellers. There are now plans for this AR experience to spread to the other mural arts around the city.
Clean, Beautiful and Safe ("CBS")
The textile sellers are only the first of many planned technologically enhanced mural art.
"The Clean, Beautiful and Safe concept is how it first started," said YB Datuk Haji Abang Abdul Wahap, the mayor of DBKU. "We want to make Kuching beautiful. The main thing is to get the community to appreciate the city and work together with the city council. The augmented reality aligns with our focus this year on making Kuching a smart and sustainable city. We hope to do more in Kuching, with the paintings coming alive."
But even without AR, some of these mural art already have a "life" of their own.
Remember the old tinsmith with white whiskers earlier? He was part of the "Symphony of the Tin Smith" street art. Also executed by Leonard, these China Street paintings depict local faces and tin-smithing action on the wall right beside where some of them continue to ply their trade.
Come in the afternoon and you will hear the symphony of tin smithing and be sent decades back into the past.
Modern day artists
A mere article cannot do justice to the amount of artistry and history that resides in Kuching. Local contemporary artists are changing the face of Kuching just as they take towards all that modern technology has to offer. 9Lives is a prime example of a group of entrepreneurial young artists getting together and using social media to raise awareness about their projects and upcoming events.
These talented artists all have a similar backstory. For Sonia, she would draw as soon as she picked up a stray pencil, and with Leonard, his interest in drawing began the first day in kindergarten when he first held a pencil. With the election of the new government, the tides are shifting to allow for greater freedom in exploring geopolitical themes that might have been previously unheard of. An endeavour worthy of being supported.
If you're inspired to jump into the art scene, search for "art events near me" on Facebook or Google or ask an artist friend / family friend on how to get involved. There will surely be an art community near you to join.
If creating art is not your thing, then why not support our local talents? Be an investor, art writer or even volunteer at art events. Appreciation and support goes a long way and let's be honest. Who doesn't want to see a baby orang utan peeking out from the corner of a street?