they are unseen, neglected, often dirty and sometimes unsavoury. these pockets of ‘negative spaces’ – the back lanes of shops and commercial buildings – are ubiquitous in every city, but few have the desire to venture there. not unless there’s a good reason to, and that is the basis for two community art initiatives of the majlis bandar shah alam (mbsa), the council of selangor’s capital city. mbsa’s objectives were two-fold: clean up the back lanes, and beautify them so that people not only feel safe using them but also have a reason to interact with the space.
in late 2013, mbsa collaborated with creative agency khznh studio, who proposed using art and architecture as the medium to achieve the end. a short stretch of back lanes in the city’s seksyen 2 was transformed an outdoor gallery of street art called laman seni. plain white walls became canvases for vibrant pop art, graffiti-style portraits and installation pieces that capture the memories of the area, the city’s first commercial development.
the art ranges from simplistic graphics to bold strokes of colours and realistic depictions of recognisable local elements; two murals of the familiar school buses and an installation art of study desks are easy favourites, providing a tinge of nostalgia to malaysians born in or before the 1980s.
laman seni gave residents a reason to go around the shops and instead of having to step around rubbish dumps or litter on the ground, be able to take a leisurely stroll along tidy lanes while taking in the works of art. far from being ignored, the back lanes became a centre of attention, a meeting point and a space where people can spend quality time with friends and families.
its popularity mooted the idea for a second gallery, laman seni 7 (ls7), a far bigger back lane space in a thriving commercial area fronted by three-storey restaurants, islamic fashion boutiques, bookstores and boutique business hotels. in order to curate the best works for this second instalment, a month-long urban art competition was held last april. local street artists, art students and architectural firms competed in four categories – 3d installations, 3d art, on-site painting and street furniture – for a total prize money of rm71,000.
from nearly 170 entries, 40 finalists were selected based on originality of idea, complexity and composition of materials used. they were then given about three weeks to complete their works and on 22 june, laman seni 7 was officially unveiled to the public.
while laman seni 2 was very much a local haunt known mainly to shah alam’s residents, ls7’s spotlight was cast wider, attracting the interest and a steady stream of visitors from the rest of klang valley. on any given weekend now, ls7 is abuzz with college students, urban art aficionados, parents with young ones and sometimes grandparents in tow. there’s a carnival-like mood in the air as visitors pose for photos –often as creatively as the art they are trying to capture – while children run around the car-free space, enamoured by the bold colours and oft-whimsical props.
there are plastic traffic cones painted to resemble ice-cream waffle cones in chern aka cloakwork’s 3d installation, melting, with splashes of colourful ‘ice-cream’ dripping from them. in potrait, karupiah studio has strategically placed the image of an aged rocker so that the existing air-conditioning units on the wall double as the eyes.
aesthetics aside, each of the art comes with a social message of some sort. a huge pink hippotamus is emblazoned with a reminder to appreciate the beauty of animals; the pencil-like legs of zakaria bin sharif’s firewood bench symbolises the importance of knowledge as a foundation in life; cnvsstore’s owl, painted on site, is a nod to shah alam’s status as a hub for learning (several universities and colleges are based here) and the hardworking students who often pull all-nighters.
it is clear to anyone visiting that both projects have achieved what they set out to do and khznh studio hopes to take the idea nationwide. “our vision is for all cities in malaysia to have their own laman seni, each with a different concept and approach,” says project leader mohd afiq bin tajul ariffin and it looks like that will soon become a reality. “we have received several invitations from other city councils to do that. at the moment, we are still in the proposal stage. hopefully our dream will come true.”
> laman seni 2 is at jalan bunga melur 2/18, seksyen 2, shah alam, selangor
> laman seni 7 is at jalan plumbum q7/q, seksyen 7, shah alam, selangor