Securing Democracy, One Art Event at a Time

Jumble of the digital-print posters.

Posters strung at the MAP Publika boulevard.

Poster lauding Mexican feminist artist Frida Kahlo.

Poster of the Hindu patron saint of the arts Saraswati Devi.

Posters against logging.

Hishamuddin Rais taking Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on a tour of the exhibits.

Curator Intan Rafiza Abu Bakar.

The past 20 years – what a reversal of politics, fortunes and notions of freedom!

In 1999 a loose group of artists under Wong Hoy Cheong surreptitiously organised the Apa? Siapa? Kenapa? exhibition at a new vacant office lot in Setiawangsa. (Such was the conspiracy of fear that no one dared lend their space as venue save leading designer William-Harald Wong.)

It was to protest the sacking and subsequent incarceration (April 1999) of then-Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim by his then-boss Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It was also to agitate for the repeal of the draconian Internal Security Act.

Fast-forward 20 years. Under the aegis of Forsea (Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia), the Democracy In Action multidisciplinary event was held with much fanfare with the twin issues of government corruption and abuse of power, among other bugbears such as the environment, aboriginal land rights and economic inequality.

Involving more than 20 performing and visual artists from Malaysia and within the South-east Asian penumbra, it was held at Black Box, MAP Publika, KL, on February 13-17 (extended to February 21). It reflected the mood of the more palpable democracy heralded by the government changeover to Pakatan Harapan on May 9, 2018.

The event even saw second-time prime minister, Mahathir, visiting, with Forsea KL general manager Hishamuddin Rais showing him around. The irony was not lost that Mahathir, the ogre of the Reformist Movement in 1998, had become the poster boy of Malaysia Baru.

It was a new roster from the 1999 participants, save for Ahmad Fuad Osman. Fuad, a stalwart of the renowned Matahati artist’s cooperative, went all white (bed, gloves and ladder) in his 1999 installation, A Malay(sian) Dilemma. In his 2019 foray, he presented two works, The Birth of Tragedy (2014) and De Ja Vu (2017).

With the mantra of “Art of All”, the event was dubbed by curator Intan Rafiza Abu Bakar as “a multidisciplinary art as a voice, medium and platform in the practice of human rights and democracy.” She pointed to the role of artists as “mediators who form a public dialogue through their work and provide feedback on social concerns.”

Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque), who received the international 2016 Cartooning for Peace Award, was given a room to display selected political cartoons for which he was harassed by the previous government and slapped with a raft of nine trumped-up charges from six laws, with the threat of 43 years in jail if found guilty.

Limited edition prints by Temiar artist Shaq Koyok.

Works of strong political activism of past events in digital-print posters abounded. Like Sharon Chin’s Penulis and Seniman Membantah Akta Hasutan (2014) for the Walk for Peace and Freedom on October 16, 2014; Rosanisa’s Bersih 3.0 (2012) in the Sit and Protest Assembly on  April 28, 2012; Buta Seni’s 2016 woodcut diptych protesting the demolition of Artist’s Laureate Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal’s monumental sculpture, Puncak Purnama.

Sabah’s art collective Pangrok Sulap, which has been getting a lot of traction with invitations to the Asia-Pacific Triennial and the Kochi Muziris Biennale in December 2018, presented Berjuang Untuk Generasi Yang Akan Datang (2015) on the plight of the villagers of Buayan, Ulu Papar, facing eviction because of the Kaiduan Dam project (later replaced with the Papangan Dam project). In March 2017 they had one work from the Sabah Tanah Airku series taken down from the Escape from the Sea exhibition held at the National Art Gallery. The works in full were subsequently displayed at A+ Works of Art in October 2018.

LostGen founder Yeoh Lian Heng (with the help of Lim Chea Cheng, Sun Kang Jye, Ah Piao, Ng Zing Shein and Lok Kha Wha) did a four-metre tall Liberty installation of recycled wood blocks and barbed wire called Pembebasan in the Publika main square.

Visitors looking at the works of the Indonesian art collective, Taring Padi.

One of the revelations was by the Temuan artist Shaq Koyok, with his work, Land of Hopelessness done on mengkuang (screwpine) mat, commenting on the proposed 7,608ha Telom Dam in Pos  Lanai, Kuala Lipis, which will displace some 2,000 aborigines. Shaq also did a ritual performance complete with a sacred sanggar (altar). In the Human Being exhibition at Ken Gallery in March, he did a work commenting on the Orang Asli activists defending a roadblock against logging activities at Kampung Tohoi, Gua Musang.

Gorilla Art 55’s Ubah touched on the Teoh Beng Hock death interrogation and the NF Corp condo scandal, while Amin Landak’s works, Tiada Ijazah Sakit, Ada Ijazah Pun Sakit (2017) and Membaca Adalah Jenayah, were self-explanatory. Other local artists invited were Fadhli Ariffin, Sabihis Pandi, Seth Akmal, Hasnoor Hussain and Kelab Bangsar Utama.

There was also a panel discussion between Ambiga Sreenevasan and Claire Rewcastle Brown, with Kean Wong as moderator, on the rule of law, legal reforms and clean government.

Work by Sabah art collective, Pangrok Sulap.

Dance performance by Arahmani.

The foreign delegation comprised Arahmaiai (Indonesia, Handle With Care); Taring Padi (Indonesia, Terompet Rakyat, Penyingkapan Politik); Zoncy (Unknown Women: End Violence Against Women in Armed Conflicts); Le Brothers (Vietnam, The 365 Days Project and The Game Project); Anida Yoeu Ali and Studio Revolt (Cambodia); Khai Maew (Thailand); and Seelan Palay (Singapore, 32 Years: The Interrogation of A Mirror).

Taring Padi gave a preview of a poster on Fake News that will be the basis of their street work for the April Indonesian general election. Zoncy focused on abuses in IDP camps in Kachin in Myanmar while Seelan’s work, survived in digital prints by Foo Chuan Wei, referenced the incarceration of Singapore dissident Dr Chia Thye Poh. Seelan did his performances on October 1, 2017, at Speakers’ Corner, the National Art Gallery and the Singapore Parliament, where he was arrested, and subsequently served two weeks in jail in lieu of SG$2,500 fine.

On a brighter note across the Causeway, the five-year ban on Namewee’s movie, Banglasia, rebranded as Banglasia 2.0, was lifted and the film released on February 28.

So can Art change the world or at least be a catalyst for human rights and change?

In an unrelated comment, Canada-based critic-artist-academic Niranjah Rajah notes: “Political authority remains concrete and artists have to negotiate the parameter or perimeter of the possible, in order to assert feminist, homosexual, ethnic, dissident expression.”

Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk is more hopeful, saying: “Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics”.

As a cautionary note, Noam Chomsky, in a message to Forsea on democracy uploaded on YouTube, comments on the rise of the far right in the West with deepening autocracy and the collapse of centrist institutions.

Perhaps, apart from Article 10 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, it’s pertinent to heed the dictum of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s Father of Independence, stated on December 7, 1957: “Whatever others may do, and however hard we may have to fight, we will stand by the ideals, and the principles of democracy. We are determined to create a new nation evolving our own personality, maintaining our Malayan way of life and defending our Parliamentary democracy and upholding the principle that the state is made for men and not men for the state.”

NOTE: Apart from Apa? Siapa? Kenapa?, other politically tinged art exhibitions were What About Converging Extremes (GaleriWan, 1993); Manifestasi Dua Seni (1970); Towards A Mystical Reality (1974); and Warbox, Lalang and Killing Tools (October 1994), with Wong Hoy Cheong’s Lalang parodying the 1987 Ops Lalang police crackdown.

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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