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"Fuck fear, Let's Dance": The fearless face behind the "design revolution" of Malaysia

BY Abhinay Lakshman / University of Newcastle | 01-Sep-2016
In 2015, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was found to be at the centre of a multi-million dollar corruption scandal. This incident rocked the nation to its core and fanned a revolution - a "design revolution". Read how artists Fahmi Reza, Pangrok Sulap and GRUPA are redefining the role of design in the Malaysian society. @kuasasiswa #pangroksulap #corruption #malaysia #revolution #design #art
Tucked in between the mountains of northern Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, seven to eight people, residents of Ranau, gather in a sulap (Dusun for hut), and create wood-block paintings. Their objective is simple: to express the reality around them through their art. They call themselves “Pangrok Sulap” (Punk Rock).

At the same time, 1,500 kilometres away, graphic designer/activist Fahmi Reza, 39, is being charged under the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act in Kuala Lumpur for doing exactly that.

On Jan 30, Fahmi drew a portrait of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as an evil clown with the caption – “Dalam Negara yang penuh dengan korupsi… kita semua penghasut” (In a country full of corruption… we are all seditious).

He posted this drawing on his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts and within three hours, the Police Cyber Investigation Response Centre (PCIRC) retweeted his post with a warning in Malay which said: “Your account has been placed under police surveillance. Please use it prudently and according to the law.”

In response to this warning from PCIRC, he posted another image of Najib as a clown, this time with the caption: “Warning: your account is under surveillance. Please use it prudently. Big Brother is watching you.”

These were the events that eventually led to Fahmi being charged under Section 233 of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Act on June 6. But he is not alone in his crusade to defend the right to criticise the country’s leadership. In the last five years, artists in Malaysia have started, what some call a “design revolution”.

Ezrena Marwan, 37, founder of Malaysia Design Archive and art curator, says that design in Malaysia has always been used by the people in power to define the national identity. But in recent years, graphic designers and artists are creating political art that questions this narrative.

“They are expressing dissent… so it is a revolution. The voice of [the people in] power is not as strong as the voice of the rakyat (people),” she says.

Jerome Manjat, 32, co-founder of Pangrok Sulap and a close friend of Fahmi’s says that artists/activists like Fahmi and himself were born out of a system that has neglected the due process of a democracy.

He says that ideally, the media in a country is entrusted with the responsibility of bringing the truth to the public’s attention. But since the Malaysian media is failing miserably, they have had to pick up the mantle of telling the truth through art.

And in recent years, cases of the Malaysian government using laws like the Sedition Act to silence its critics have only increased. An Amnesty International report published on Jan 26, declared that since 2013, there have been 176 Sedition cases in Malaysia which involved commentary that was deemed to be “critical of the government”.

This recent wave of criticism in Malaysia has come after it was revealed that more than US$ 600 million was transferred to the Prime Minister’s private bank account in Kuala Lumpur, allegedly connecting him directly to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption scandal.

Fahmi says that there is a singular purpose to laws like the Sedition Act. “It is basically being used by the people in power, the ruling elite to silence dissent… they use the law to silence criticism.”

While the government in Malaysia is using the law as a tool to “silence criticism”, these revolutionary artists intend to use art as their tool to fight back against a corrupt government.

“I think art is a very powerful weapon that can be used to fight against the people in power. And that is what I’m doing now… I’m using art as a tool to challenge the status quo,” Fahmi says.

Artists like Fahmi are changing the face of design in Malaysia. They are questioning the narrative on what it means to be a designer and the role of design in the Malaysian society.

In 2015, Grafik Rebel Untuk Protes & Aktivisme (Graphic Rebels for Protest & Activism) (GRUPA), a design collective comprising thousands of anonymous designers, was founded with the objective of commenting on the political happenings of Malaysia.

Ezrena says that works of such artists “are changing the way the community and society look at the role of design and who a designer is”.

However, this revolution gained momentum only after Fahmi was charged for his portrait of Najib. Apart from the controversy that the image stirred, Ezrena says that the simplicity of the design itself contributed to it going viral.

“And also to actually use the image of someone in power and make it into a clown. I think that’s why it is so iconic,” Ezrena says, referring to the design of the clown-face portrait.

Artists of GRUPA, Pangrok Sulap and throughout the country root themselves deep within the punk subculture. The rebellious, anti-establishment and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) aspects of punk appear to have significantly inspired these artists and their works.

Marco Ferrarese, 35, author of Banana Punk Rawk Trails, who has extensively explored the influence of punk in south-east Asia says that artists in Malaysia seem to identify with punk and the subculture mainly because of the forces of globalisation.

“[These artists] have been affected by an idea of punk that is overtly political. So to them, punk means rebellion or revolution,” which Ferrarese says is true but not all that punk is about.

Because they believe in the power of the “individual”, in doing things by themselves, artists like Fahmi and Pangrok Sulap tend to be most attracted to punk’s DIY aesthetic which their artworks clearly reflect.

Fahmi’s designs are mostly black-and-white or bi-coloured, which helps him disseminate his message himself at lower costs of printing and reproduction.

Similarly, the art that Pangrok Sulap makes is inspired by the DIY ethic. Starting from carving designs into the wood to printing them on cloth or paper, they do it all by themselves.

Fahmi says that there is more to the punk subculture than just the music or the fashion. He says that listening to the highly political lyrics of punk music is what gave him his political awareness and fanned his rebellious spirit. “And I think my rebelliousness is reflected in my art,” he says.

Recent events like BERSIH 4.0 rally, in which approximately 500,000 people took part, are proving that the Malaysian people are ready for change and are willing to voice out their opinions to bring about that very change.

Fahmi reckons that movements like BERSIH are proving that “the culture of protest and resistance is growing stronger”.

Fahmi has made his designs available for everyone to use and says that people are printing out the clown-face poster and pasting it across the country. “Most of these posters that these people paste won’t last a day. But amazingly, people keep sticking the posters.”

Manjat says, “The government has so much power and they are using everything that they have [to stop us]. But we using art, we using music, we using everything that we have to fight back [sic] because we need to educate the people about the issues and urge them to do something.”

Even though the Malaysian government is evidently trying to curb free speech, expression and dissent, this tight-knit group of “artivists” seem to be determined to continue their work and defend their right to political commentary.

As Fahmi says, “They can jail a rebel, but they can’t jail the rebellion.”