Art has been used as a means to protest and bring social awareness since the early 1900s. One of the most recognised earlier forms of protest art was perhaps Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, an oil-based mural painting that until today, is still highly regarded as one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history. It was painted in 1937, as a response to the bombing of Guernica, a small village in Spain, by Nazi German and Fascist Italian warplanes.
Protest art, which is also known as political art, takes on many forms – from street protest art that are displayed during rallies to graffiti art and mural paintings to fine art to comic illustrations to poetry to music and even films. The possibilities are endless when it comes to voicing out through art, and it has become a portal for the artists to become activists and the activists to become artists.
Despite the strict governing policies in Malaysia, artists have been fearlessly sharing their works and views through many forms and mediums. This is especially apparent when something particularly striking happens and affects the public sphere. However, there also artists who seem to be committing a lot of their time and effort into pushing their sociopolitical views out in the open, and one of these would be cartoonist Zunar.
Zunar is internationally known not only for his political criticism through his cartoon illustrations, but also for the fact that he is currently facing up to 43 years prison time after multiple charges of ridiculing the government. Regardless of this, he is still actively publishing his comics on his website and even touring other countries to talk about his passion and the importance of speaking up. Besides poking fun at our own politicians and policies, he has also touched on international issues through his cartoons. One of these includes the fatal shooting of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, where he posted a sketch in solidarity with the French magazine despite the backlash he received for showing support to a magazine that is known for ridiculing Islam.
Another prominent political artist would be Fahmi Redza, whose clownish drawing of our Prime Minister has gained him international attention. The drawing, which started off as a response to the sedition act, has since been turned into posters, t-shirts and even graffiti art. In fact, it has gotten such an overwhelming response to the point where “Kita Semua Penghasut” has become a movement for people to show their discontent towards the sedition act. Fahmi’s calling as a political/protest artist has actually begun long before the clown faces filled up the streets of Kuala Lumpur. He used to design posters and banners against police brutality back in 2014, which also landed him in trouble. He has since been arrested, banned and had his artworks seized several times.
Besides cartoon drawings and graphic designs, protest art also exists in the form of performances. Theatre practitioner Mark Teh held a participatory performance called Sudden Death in memory of political aide Teoh Beng Hock. This performance was performed a few times in 2009, the same year where Teoh had mysteriously died. It involved the audience participation where they had to light a candle and lay on ground in the position that Teoh had been found in until the candle burns out. Other than paying respect, Mark had emphasised that the performance was also meant to highlight the deaths of many other individuals in custody. Just like Fahmi Redza, Mark Teh’s individuality and art are highly influenced by the political issues that surround him, including corruption and the abuse of power. In an interview with a fellow art practitioner Rahmat Haron, Mark expressed his views on art and politics, claiming that all artists are political, regardless of whether or not they want to be.
As ironic as this may seem, while most youths are typically the consumers political art, it turns out that the rich are the ones willing to spend on it. The rich, in this context, basically refers to those who are being criticised, or part of them anyway. For instance, a painting called Sering Gigit by Sabihis Md Pandhi, which was a critique of the financial system, was bought by a family member of one of Hong Leong Bank’s co-founders. On top of that, Ilham Gallery, which is owned by former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin, also held an exhibition called Era Mahathir last year. The exhibition focused on critical social issues that came about from Mahathir’s 22 years in power.
This leads us to wonder – is political art only considered non-seditious if they do not criticise anyone in current power? And will support from those in the upper-hand change this in any way? Maybe only time will tell for now. But as for our artists, they are still courageously practicing their art, no matter the consequence. They hold true to their beliefs that with great talent comes an even greater responsibility – to speak up, to raise awareness, to bring about change.