Penang-based British artist Thomas Powell launches book of collected works

Opalyn Mok
Artist Thomas Powell with his distinctive paintings. — Pictures by Steven Ooi KE

GEORGE TOWN, July 16 — If you visited Penang in the last few years, chances are you would have seen one of Thomas Powell’s Chinese zodiac-inspired murals around the city. 

A rat in blue imperial robes, a rabbit in a monk’s orange outfit, a dancing dragon in a traditional Chinese gown or a goat with a flute.

These paintings were instant hits when the British artist held his solo exhibition here in 2014 and since then, the Penang-based Powell has gone on to paint more similar portraits: a blue-eyed Tiger Queen with her loyal generals, the legendary general Guan Yu as a monkey in China House and a pig on the exterior wall of That Little Wine Bar which later morphed into an ox pouring red wine into a glass.

There was also the impressive spear-wielding Guan Yu as a dragon riding a red horse and dressed in emerald green on the exterior wall of the Dripping’ Dragon Hostel on Hutton Lane. 

The artist took his favourite theme — Asian cultural figures such as Chinese opera characters in full dress costumes — to other countries such as the Urban Art Festival Amsterdam 2017.

Thomas Powell’s book ‘Chinese Zodiac and More’ is a compilation of his many paintings and murals.

All of these images, including those of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, have been compiled into a book titled Chinese Zodiac and More to showcase some of Powell’s masterpieces in the last few years.

The book starts with the story of how the animals were chosen in the order that they appear in the Chinese zodiac. 

There are many versions of the story but Powell chose the Great Race version that tells of how the animals raced each other for a spot in the zodiac. 

The book will be launched today but is already available at Powell’s art gallery on Armenian Street. 

Powell has been kept busy with commissioned works the last few years, so much so that he has not had a chance to create a new series.

But he is now working on a new collection for another exhibition early next year.

“I am ready to do a new body of work that is very different from what I have done previously,” he told Malay Mail.

He wants to incorporate a narrative about the issues the world faces today — pollution, climate change, bad governance, education — into his art.

Chinese opera artwork by Thomas Powell at his gallery on Armenian Street in Penang.

The central images used would again feature figures from local cultures, such as Chinese opera characters in full dress costumes, but these would then be combined with symbols, sounds and even flashing lights for a more interactive experience for the viewers.

“It would be a body of art that explores the things that are more meaningful to me, it will be a visual thinking thesis and these paintings will act as portals to access different information on the issues of the modern world,” he explained.

The work will be a combination of Asian and Western cultures interposed with messages to force viewers to think, reflect and perhaps change mindsets, he said.

Each piece will also come with QR codes for links to more reading materials on the topics highlighted. 

Powell will be exploring multi-layered paintings which changes between light and dark and teamed with music and sounds to drive the message across. 

“I hope to complete the new works and hold an exhibition by the end of this year or early next year,” he said.

The new collection is still untitled but loosely based on the concept of “distraction”; it’s about how society is often distracted from the real issues affecting the world. 

An example is this painting of a Chinese opera performer, dressed in red complete with an intricate gold headdress, beckoning to the crowd to pay attention with three dead birds lying by his side.

Even in a recent collaborative work with Switch and Otterbox, he came up with a Chinese opera character based on Zhang Fei — a general who served under warlord Liu Bei during the Han dynasty — to represent the societal paradigm shift caused by the introduction of mobile phones.

Chinese opera is a recurring theme in many of Thomas Powell’s work.

A Chinese opera character is used because in the old days, Chinese opera was a form of communication that relayed stories and legends to the audience. 

He painted an image of Zhang Fei on a big canvas and another on 300 phone cases that he will then place on the canvas to change the single character to a mirror image to represent communication between people.

The Zhang Fei painting was unveiled during the Switch World event on July 4 and Powell put up the painted phone cases on July 5 before the cases were then sold at premium prices. 

Find out more about Powell’s works at thomaspowellartist.com.

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