The Art Exhibition of GE14

Ng Sek San – The Malaysian Spring initiative. Flower beds of colourful flags "springing" up at "plantable" spaces around the Klang Valley.

Jonos – MO1 in an hourglass.

Dreaming of Equanimity in Kuala Terengganu, part of Chang Fee Ming's Fake News Series.

Fahmi Reza – Game Over. Clown caricature of Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Jonos on the SPR chairman being a hand puppet of BN.

Tan Kuan Aw, penning his take on "fake news".

Tan Kuan Aw – A biting comment on the rakyat's exercising of the vote.

Nurussalam Ahmad – The Legend Is Back.

Adeputra Masri – Fiesta Makan Percuma.

Amid the raucous cacophony of flags and banners of political parties jostling for the minds and hearts of voters in the 14th General Election, mini flags of various colours sprouted like morning dew in public places in the Klang Valley, on roundabouts, grassy slopes and ledges, and lining inner sidewalk fringes.

A sense of deja vu prevailed. These symbols of freedom and community first appeared in the 2013 General Election. And like in 2013, no sooner had they been planted were they uprooted and confiscated by the authorities, lest they became a siren call for rebellion.

Ironically, therein lay its existence and power. The flag-removing paranoia had only validated its presence, affording it a mythic resonance.

The brainchild of landscape architect/eco-tourism homestay pioneer Ng Sek San, Malaysian Spring was a non-site-specific, open-ended installation involving volunteers who made, assembled, sorted and installed the ready-made “flower beds” in a gotong-royong spirit.

Are such flags of conviviality and camaraderie provocative, sinister and malicious? If so, how? The guilty mind works wonders, especially during election time.

There would soon appear a rash of artworks and mostly caricatures recording or documenting personalities and events. And this is in a country never known to be strong on politically charged works. The earliest iconic work of that type was Chia Yu-chian’s 1978 Election Fever (National Art Gallery, KL, collection), if one does not consider anti-Japanese artworks from the Second World War, but very few of these have survived.

In GE14, most works were descriptive, of the salubrious festive air, avoiding cantankerous hot-button issues or using captions that were all-embracing, meaning everything and nothing. Perhaps this was unwitting self-censorship – the artists might not have wanted to take risks, especially in light of the newly minted Anti-Fake News Act 2018 passed on April 11. While not specifying who decides what is fake and what is not, and how, the Act encompasses “any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas”. The targets are those “creating, offering, publishing, printing, distributing, circulating or disseminating” such “objectionable” materials. Even those providing financial assistance are not spared. The penalty is oppressive: a fine not exceeding a whopping RM500,000, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six years, or both.

In February Fahmi Reza Mohd Zarin, dubbed the “Malaysian Banksy”, was fined RM30,000 or six-months’ jail by the Sessions Court, under Section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, for uploading a “Kita Semua Penghasut” clown mutation sketch resembling then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. His protest art was commodified into laminated stickers, metal lapel pins, posters and T-shirts.

Conspicuous by his absence was the internationally acclaimed political cartoonist Zunar aka Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, who had been arrested, jailed and constantly sledgehammered with the Sedition Act, Penal Code, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

Min Yin Thant's portrait of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, the Man of the Moment.

Charles Cham – Decision Time.

Ng Bee – Years of Expectations.

Rosniza's portrait of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

But there seems no lack of cartoonists spicing Malaysia’s political satiredom. One revelation is Jonos (Nor Azlin Ngah) with one work showing MOslipping down the quicksand of an hourglass, another with the SPR (Election Commission) chairman as a glove puppet of the then-incumbent BN, and one more on Najib wheelbarrowing a crippled Umno logo out. Montreal-based concept artist Aadi Salman shows Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed looking out from his cut-out profile of a Pakatan Harapan (PH) billboard, a bit piqued at overzealous SPR officers.

Computer-aided childhood cartoons done by wheelchair artist and disabled rights activist Ka Tan aka Tan Kuan Aw take on new political piquancy in a new GE14 series with naive-like posers featuring a Rolex-wearing canine and a frog wearing an oversized crown. In one, a wheelchair user confirms she would be voting despite “access” problems, in light of bona-fide voters quizzingly discouraged from exercising their right by the ruling BN. In another, the dog visits the frog in jail, and the latter declares, “I wrote about dirty river and they said it was fake news.”

Watercolour doyen Chang Fee Ming in his Fake News series has one drawing, Equanimity Anchored, in Kuala Terengganu, Equanimity being the name of the US$250mil super-yacht “belonging” to 1MDB broker Jho Low which was seized by the United States Department of Justice in Bali. The work is done in the vein of Datuk Ibrahim Hussein’s 1969 My Father and The Astronaut.

There is no iota of doubt that Mahathir, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, helped trigger the Malaysian tsunami that ousted Najib’s domineering, kleptocratic regime, and thus you get Mahathir being deified as Superman ( Jonos), Ironman and The Terminator. Some like Rosniza and the KL-based Myanmar artist Min Yin Thant painted time-tinged portraits of Mahathir, while Nurussalam Ahmad ventured a capsule collage of the life and times of Mahathir, The Legend Is Back!

The Malaysian flag is shown like a kelir screen with liquefied outlines of writhing figures in Latif Maulan’s painting, insinuating suffering – probably caused by the burdensome 6% GST implemented by Najib which led to prices of food and services to skyrocket.

Adeputra Masri shows the epicurean gluttony in Fiesta Makan Percuma with the bloated (from dedak, which derogatorily means “chicken feed”?) politician offering food to hoodwink what he must have thought were famished, ignorant voters.

In Zulkifli Yusoff’s New Reformasi series, there are four related GE14 works including Manifesto 14, as a reminder to the contending parties to fulfil what they promised.

“Mr Sasaran” Ng Bee shows the poignant hope of a man holding a dove (symbolic of freedom) with a sea of ordinary-looking people holding PH flags, with one policeman watching over in the work, Years of Expectations.

Zulkifli Yusoff – Manifesto 14.

Ng Kim Heoh – Leap and Reap. Oil on linen, 61cm x 61cm, 2018.

Against the grain, Ng Kim Heoh’s Leap and Reap (oil on linen, 61cm x 61cm) invests a heroic quality on the maligned frog in the wake of the “horse-trading” among frenziedly contending parties, especially in Sabah. Her take is that it is basic human instinct to adapt to the surroundings and circumstances in order to survive, and thus the amphibious frog is only hopping for a rosy future, and for success and prosperity as signified by the peony.

Multiple-award-winning Novia Shin Pui San, noted for her miniature figures and architectural objects, illustrates an instructional pamphlet with the two major blocs confronting each other.

For some, it was all just to record. Watercolourist Khoo Cheang Jin took the opportunity to sketch in dim light the atmosphere of the PH rally at Han Chiang School in Penang, while Nik Rafin, known for his linear pictorialism, captured the festive rivalry in GE14 in works like Flag War and Election Fever. Orang Utan House’s Charles Cham has his multiple heads with Decision Time.

When Mahathir decided to throw his lot behind the seeming withering fortunes of PH and save Malaysia from slipping down the path to perdition, Nizam Rahmat recalls the Trojan Horse in Homer’s Iliad/Odyssey epic. Nizam’s work seems prophetic, for like the way Troy fell, the once-mighty Independence-gaining party Umno was vanquished after 61 years at the helm. In light of all the cross-overs, loathed as a betrayal of the aspirations of voters, the work of the Trojan Horse might also be taken as a cautionary tale, lest these defectors taint the new body structure.


Khoo Cheang Jin's on-the-spot sketching at one of the Pakatan Harapan rallies in Han Chiang School, Penang.

The spectacular Second Coming of Dr Mahathir, purportedly to redress past shortcomings and relay the foundations of good governance and of the Rule of Law, is mistaken as a “comeback” of the much-adored cartoonist Datuk Lat (Mohammad Nor Khalid), with an old work of a tuk-tuk tour driver awaiting the change of the Thai government. Therein lies the danger – that every work posted on social media is seen with political overtones even if it is an old work, or something much more innocuous but now given imaginative interpretations.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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