The fall of the Barisan Nasional government in Malaysia’s recent general election was heralded by many—especially those who had long been in opposition politics—as a historic victory, the culmination of years of hard work. But for graphic designer, street artist and political activist Fahmi Reza, the struggle goes beyond a change in government. Regardless of who is in power, his political activism, done through his art, continues to hold everyone to account.
“We celebrate the victory of the people after decades of struggle. But my loyalty is not to any particular regime, political party or leader. I will continue to criticise the new Pakatan Harapan government and its leaders if they act like dictators,” says Fahmi.
He’s been concerned with social and political issues from his earliest work, created in 2004: “My stance does not change—to use graphic arts as a weapon to fight against injustice, oppression, human rights abuse, racism and any acts denying the people’s freedom of expression.”
Fahmi’s provocative political art has often landed him in trouble. In 2004, for example, he created a series of designs as a protest against police brutality—one such poster depicted a police officer pointing a gun in a pose that resembling American artist J. M. Flagg’s iconic 1917 army recruitment poster featuring an illustration of Uncle Sam. For that, he was arrested and beaten by the authorities.
12 years later, he was again summoned by the police over his most celebrated and influential work, Kita Semua Penghasut (We Are All Agitators). It ridiculed then-prime minister Najib Razak by portraying him as a clown. The image was produced as a poster and went viral online; a single act of defiance was turned into a social media icon, reproduced again and again as it passed from one to another.
The authorities took a dim view: Fahmi was fined MYR30,000 (USD7,520) and sentenced to one month in prison. But such work—fearlessly irreverent and satirical—has contributed towards the social and political mindset shift that ultimately led to Malaysians voting out their long-time rulers.
The use of satirical graphics and cartoons as a form of political expression is not new. Long before Malaya gained independence from the British, cartoonists used both the Malay- and English-language press—notably Utusan Melayu and Lembaga Melayu—to trigger public debate through satirical graphic commentaries on the economic, politics and social issues of the day. Humour was sometimes a useful way of escaping colonial censorship.
From the 1970s onwards, a new wave of “humour magazines” emerged, most famously Gila-Gila. Their artists drew on folktales, fables and film parodies as the basis for sharp social commentary. Zunar, Malaysia’s most well-known political cartoonist, had a regular column with Gila-Gila early in his career.
Thanks to a combination of rising print costs and the reach of the Internet and social media, graphic artists like Fahmi emerged online after the decline in popularity of the humour magazines. They quickly found a new audience: young, politically engaged and socially diverse. It was an opportune moment: the Reformasimovement of the late 1990s had begun to challenge a static, repressive political landscape. Street protests and political conversations added bite to the politics of change. Cartoonists and graphic artists from various social and political backgrounds seized the moment.
Participation in the art-making process
Studying in the United States in the late 1990s, where he was exposed to the political punk music scene, influenced Fahmi’s political activism. He began designing for punk gigs and bands. One of his first pieces was a striking album cover for the band From Ashes Rise: a monstrous insect sucking the blood out of a Planet Earth portrayed as a skull. The cover signalled some of Fahmi’s enduring motifs: the punk feel; the stark black-and-white drawing; the themes of life and death; the direct critique of exploitation. He was paid in vinyl records.
Back in Malaysia after four years in the States, Fahmi’s graphic work took off from modest beginnings. His work might start off as a single image, but he’s a master of multiplying its reach: posters, placards, banners, T-shirts, badges, and, inevitably, online digital images. He harnessed local and global political understandings of resistance, and plunged himself into political activism.
For Fahmi, art is a communicative process; he takes a participatory approach to his work, encouraging the public to be part of the creative process.
“The use of crowdsourcing in the art-making process aims to cultivate a ‘participatory culture’ as the main element in creating an egalitarian and horizontal participatory democracy,” Fahmi says.
“It is important for the people to be more active participants or producers, instead of being passive consumers, as well as to use their power, knowledge and wisdom in decision-making processes.”
Fahmi suggests that “most of my graphics and posters function as a medium for the people to speak. So their participation in the art-making process is vital in order to make the end products relevant and representative.” He engages his audiences through social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. This allows them to be part of the process, from collectively selecting the subject matter, such as during the creation of ABC Politikus Malaysia—an “A to Z” colouring book of Malaysian politicians—to the final stages of printing and dissemination.
This participatory method creates in his audience a sense of ownership over Fahmi’s artwork. In Kita Semua Penghasut, for example, Fahmi encouraged people to download and print the image as stickers, or print them on to T-shirts. He waived his copyright, so people could use the image for free. Many small printing companies also supported his cause, donating profits from T-shirt sales to community activism projects or charity organisations.
The pen is mightier…
The decade between the 2008 general election—the first time the Barisan Nasional failed to win a two-thirds majority in Parliament—and today has seen a remarkable rejuvenation of politics in Malaysia.
Some of this took place on the elite political level; opposition political parties forged new alliances and became more proactive in pushing a reform agenda, gaining more hands-on experience through running state governments. But change also happened at the more informal, grassroots level; in fact, one can argue that this ground-up growth led to a more sustained social and political transformation in Malaysia.
Many fresh and innovative forms of political involvement emerged, especially in the urban centres: alternative music scenes; punchy fiction and poetry published by independent imprints; thought-provoking performance art; and, of course, graphic art, propelled by its simplicity and immediacy.
Malaysians, often treated as passive receivers, need to be turned into informed and active participants, with a critical disposition towards all forms of political power
Fahmi, for one, believes in a people-centred democracy, where empowerment is key. Malaysians, often treated as passive receivers, need to be turned into informed and active participants, with a critical disposition towards all forms of political power.
“Audiences participate at many different levels, from sharing ideas and information, consultations, to the level in which they themselves take control of the discussions and come out with decisions. And I only materialise them into graphics,” he says.
Some of his projects are clearly driven by everyday forms of resistance from below—mobilising what James Scott once called “the weapons of the weak”. For example, drawing on the inspiration of political developments elsewhere, Occupy Dataran, a grassroots movement where people gathered at Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) in Kuala Lumpur to experiment with models of participatory democracy, was an initiative “to explore the true meaning of democracy beyond the representative system, to redefine democratic participation beyond elections, and to increase and deepen public participation in political decision-making. To give power back to the people.”
In a different vein,Chow Kit Kitawasa community-based project with children that used photography, video, graphics, mapping and performance to change perceptions of Chow Kit, a neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur often linked to crime and drugs. Meanwhile, Missing Mushroom was partly a protest against rampant over-development (and its attendant system of kickbacks) and a challenge to create more green spaces in the city.
Other work often deals with the dysfunctional character of Malaysian politics and its leading personalities. The ABC Politikus Malaysia, for instance, uses one of the sharpest weapons in the political lexicon—satire—to lampoon leaders without fear or favour: the letter K stands for koruptor (corruptor), unsurprisingly former Prime Minister Najib Razak, while D stands for diktator (dictator), illustrated by former and current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The people’s opinions were gathered to decide who would be represented by which letter in the book.
Malay as the language of communication
Fluency in both English and Malay has given Fahmi an advantage in spreading his political messages. He intentionally uses Malay to engage with and appeal to a more diverse audience. In Malaysia, language is a major barrier dividing urban and rural communities, who all too often appear to inhabit completely different worlds—while the more affluent urbanites are fluent in English, rural Malaysians lacking opportunities of global exposure and education are unable to acquire those linguistic skills.
“Even though the majority of youths are well-versed in English, the Malay language remains the common language for Malaysians, even for those who speak English as their main language,” says Fahmi. “The use of English may exclude almost half of my audience. Graphics or any form of visual arts is a universal language. Although one may not understand the language that I use, the graphics can still deliver the messages.”
His conscious decision to use Malay doesn’t mean that his work is narrowly parochial. On the contrary, it has resonated far and wide. The Kita Semua Penghasut project gained support and praise from international journalists and human rights groups after his arrest. Some commentators in the international media have compared his work to that of the famous street art provocateur Banksy.
The struggle continues
For Fahmi, despite the stunning people’s victory in peacefully ousting the Barisan Nasional, the struggle for real social change continues. It’s hardly “mission accomplished”—Fahmi sees the future as a long and winding road—but a culture of protest and resistance has been instilled among the citizens, introduced over years of activism and broad-based movements like Bersih. Protests and community organising across the country signal that people are no longer afraid to express their dissatisfaction towards the government, and are empowered to use their voice.
“With the emergence of new social movements that are more powerful, more effective and last for the long haul in our struggle, I hope to see the future of Malaysian politics head towards a more grassroots citizens-based democracy instead of the current elitist democracy,” says Fahmi.
“In a country that is ruled by the corrupt, the most patriotic that the people can be is to disobey the government”
A sustainable democracy exists when people are empowered to have input in decision-making processes, rather than being forced to leave it all to a political elite. Fahmi believes that there’s a need for all Malaysians to answer the call for political emancipation, rising social consciousness and the creation of genuine alternatives to broken institutions.
“I believe we need to nurture more activists and develop more ‘rebel designers’ to fight for change in this country,” he says. “I hope to see more artists and designers getting involved in the struggle, with the courage to stand up against injustice, to use their art as weapons for change.”
Fahmi also believes that democracy only works when there are active and critical citizens, regardless of the current government’s party colours. As a normal citizen, he says, “the people need to know that loyalty towards leaders and the government is not an act of patriotism. In a country that is ruled by the corrupt, the most patriotic that the people can be is to disobey the government, just like they proved in the election.”
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The “tsunami rakyat” that brought Malaysia its first ever change in government was built on long years of hard work by the country’s civil society. There’s no time for them to rest on their laurels, but activists say they’ve already experienced great change on a personal level.