Juxtaposed narrative: The dilemma of cultural memory on display in George Town’s street art

Zaki Habibi

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper, not in proceedingpeer-review


Street art is a ubiquitous visual landmark in contemporary George Town, the capital city of Penang state in Malaysia. Both private commissioned and state-sanctioned types of street art are the new significant cultural identification of this World Heritage Site city as inscribed by UNESCO in 2008. Street art in this multicultural city becomes the articulated media that deals with the notion of cultural memory on display. However, the use of street art for displaying cultural memory in this city creates certain dilemma.

This paper investigates the dilemma of remembering and forgetting collective memories depicted on street art in George Town. Drawing from a series of field research in 2016 and 2017, this study employs ethnographic and visual methodology. In terms of methods, this study combines in-depth interview with selected creative collectives’ members in the city, urban walking and street photography. The author embraces what Jane Tormey in Cities and Photography (2013) mentions as the immersive style of making visual commentary of and about the city.

Street art scene in current George Town is initiated by the local government and followed by the involvement from private sector. The Penang State Government commissions several public art projects in-line with cultural heritage and memory. For instance, Marking George Town project has resulted in 52 steel-rod caricature sculptures made by Malaysian artist group. Mirrors George Town, another state-funded project, has commissioned global artists to make distinctive murals, including the series made by a Lithuanian-born and British-educated artist, Ernest Zacharevic. The city’s street art projects are expansively continued and institutionalised since the establishment of George Town World Heritage Incorporated in 2010.

The 2017 promotional campaign by Penang Global Tourism says, “Like subway art is to New York and Paris, and Cosplay is to Harajuku [in Tokyo], George Town has today become well-known for its beautiful wall art.” This way of projecting so-called growth of the city makes use of heritage status, global tourism and trading, and public arts in a global sense. These traits, as Ben Highmore elaborates in Cityscapes (2005), are obviously the very essence of internationalism as “driving force of modernity”, including urban modernity.

The state narrative sees George Town’s development in modernist tone through the making of ‘cultural memory on display’ that concerns with recalling the past in idealistic and linear view. Nevertheless, the narratives based on the way city dwellers and global travellers experience street art are unlikely complied with the state narrative. As visually commented in the collected photographs, global tourists perceive street art in a sense to transform the place into merely a destination. Meanwhile, the city dwellers who work in creative scene negotiate the meaning of cultural memories articulated by the street art in contested ways. During the interviews, they raised their concern about incomplete racial harmony discourse and inter-generational gap as key problems that are neglected and forgotten. In other words, street art in George Town turns into the site of juxtaposed narrative where people construct their meanings of living in or visiting the city.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Oct 31
EventECREA 2018, 7th European Communication Conference: Centres and Peripheries: Communication, Research, Translation - Lugano, Switzerland
Duration: 2018 Oct 312018 Nov 3
Conference number: 7


ConferenceECREA 2018, 7th European Communication Conference
Abbreviated titleECC2018
Internet address

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Cultural Studies
  • Visual Arts
  • Media Studies

Free keywords

  • cultural memory
  • George Town
  • narrative
  • street photography
  • street art
  • urban modernity
  • urban walking

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