|Not wanting to be identified by the public, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic (pic) covers his face with a basket during a photo shoot at a cafe in Nagor Road, George Town, yesterday. – pic by Hasnoor Hussain, November 22, 2013.|
His street murals have brought him fame in Penang in the past two years but last Wednesday Ernest Zacharevic became infamous when his commissioned Lego mural was whitewashed by the authorities in Johor Baru.
The 27-year-old Lithuanian artist described the incident as "not the most pleasant experience” but said it has sparked discussion on what public art was, the social understanding of art, its limits and boundaries, as well as the freedom of artistic expression, which is like the freedom of speech.
"As an artist, I will always stand for that and everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions," he told The Malaysian Insider at his Penang base in George Town yesterday.
Soft-spoken and shy by nature, he said he did not enjoy the kind of attention it brought him as that had distracted him from his other work.
Zacharevic made headlines last week when the Johor Baru City Council decided to remove his mural of a Lego figurine mugger with a knife waiting to rob a Lego woman with a Chanel bag. The artwork implied that the city had a bad crime rate.
In reply to the council’s decision, the young artist then posted a similar painting on the internet, but this time painting a bunch of colourful flowers over the knife, while fans of his work tried to save the Johor Baru mural by painting a Lego policeman next to the mugger.
Politicians, including Gelang Patah MP Lim Kit Siang, also criticised the council's decision and urged that the mural be spared but to no avail.
Zacharevic, who began painting when he was 12, said he rarely painted on a whim and that what he painted in Johor Baru had come from what he learned from locals there.
"I do not paint on a whim although sometimes I do if I happen to have my paint and brushes with me. I normally plan, research, do some sketching on paper before I start the actual painting.
"I do not do spontaneous graffiti. I spend time and give my best to every piece of my work."
Zacharevic said he drew inspiration for his art, which blends different techniques, from anything that comes to view or mind, including food.
"Artists draw inspiration from their everyday experiences and their different opinions and perception of the world. That is why artists are different and their work is also unique from person to person.
"The art we produce depends on our social experiences and how we see the world, and its light and shadows."
Inspiration for his famous murals of children in Penang, which he painted for the George Town Festival 2012, came from children to whom he taught art.
About some of his murals in Penang being vandalised last year and a few months ago, Zacharevic said vandalism of art was a common thing and he did not mind it.
"If my work is so precious to me, I would never paint in the streets. I have learned not to get too attached to my work and I believe the incident in Johor Baru illustrated this.
"When I paint, my only aim is to finish the piece, regardless whether it is legal or not, or whether I am paid to do it. After that, I do not focus on what happens to it. I just carry on painting (the next one)," he said, but pointed out that with street art, the matter was a grey area.
"Vandalism against street art is a matter that begs to be discussed. It is a big question to the authorities. What is art and what is allowed in public? If art is disallowed, how come we can have advertisements?" he said.
Zacharevic also recounted how he came to Penang and made it its base, although he still travels to different countries every other week for work.
He studied art in London and after graduating, he started travelling. He visited Sumatra and then ended up in Penang after visiting a college friend there.
Throughout his travels, he never stopped painting and was always trying to figure out how to do it while on the move without a studio.
"The streets became my studio. When you keep moving around, it is hard to carrying a canvas with you.
"I used to paint on canvases and then left them behind for friends but it is better to leave my work for the public instead of one person," he said, adding that it was a challenge finding a wall to paint on.
The young artist has since left his public art in his hometown, Belgium, Norway, Tokyo, Singapore, Italy and Kuala Lumpur as well.
Now, Zacharevic is busy with his next project. He is getting ready for what is perhaps his biggest show in his 15 years as an artist, his first solo exhibition on January 17 next year in Penang.
Until he is done with his exhibition, which will show people who he is and what his work is about, he is not painting any more murals.
"I am focusing all my attention on this exhibition, which will feature my work in different media. People associate me with my murals but my experience in art goes beyond that.
"I will try looking out of the box with this show and present a summary of my whole experience in Malaysia," he said.
Zacharevic would not reveal where the exhibition would be held but promised that it would be socially engaging and also do something positive for the Penang art scene by attracting people to the state.
Having stayed in Penang for three years and producing iconic and now world famous murals around the Unesco World Heritage City of George Town, he said other international artists have found his decision to be based in the state a curious thing.
"During my travels, I meet other artists who wonder why I stay and paint in Penang. Thinking that it is better to be in places like Paris, they all ask me what is in Penang and what is going on in Malaysia.
"I cannot say how long I will remain in Penang but I feel at home here. I have friends here. I enjoy the hawker fare and my current favourite is curry mee. I also keep two dogs and a cat," said the
artist. – November 22, 2013.
artist. – November 22, 2013.