George Town, Malaysia – The arrest of graphic artist and social activist Fahmi Reza for a list of satirical songs that mocked a comment made by the Queen of Malaysia has revived the debate on freedom of expression in the Southeast Asian nation .
Police arrested Fahmi, who came to prominence in 2015 with a now iconic clown cartoon presented by then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on April 23, accusing him of insulting the queen with the list of reproduction, titled Dengki Ke (in Malay for “Are you jealous?”) and illustrated with a cover image of the king.
He was also accused of sharing “offensive and threatening content” for the list, which he posted on Spotify and Apple Music, with songs like “Jealousy” by Queen and “God Save the Queen” by Sex Pistols.
The queen, Tunku Hajah Azizah Aminah Maimunah, had been put on fire before answering “Are you jealous?” to an Instagram user who questioned privileged access to COVID-19 vaccines to her personal Instagram account.
Hot after the arrest of Fahmi, 44, award-winning political cartoonist Zunar he was also found investigated by a caricature of a chief minister he published in January.
Both cases have once again highlighted censorship in a country where the freedom to be creative has long been undermined by restrictive laws, as well as by political, religious and cultural sensibilities.
Most people in Malaysia are ethnic Muslims, but there are also large communities of Chinese, Indians and Indigenous people who follow other religions and beliefs.
“There is always a limit when a piece is intended for public display, be it a mural, sculpture, representation or installation,” said Bibichun, a leading visual artist based in George Town, protected by UNESCO, in the northwestern island of Penang.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the city was one magnet for tourists who went into their hands to see street art which began to spread through buildings and alleys after Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic painted six murals in 2012 and captured the public’s imagination.
Prior to the blockades, eight million tourists were expected to visit the island in 2020, providing valuable income to artists like Bibichun who earn most of their money with custom murals, starting at a minimum of RM 1,000 ($ 243). ) per piece.
“Attractive, racial and political works of art are not allowed,” said Tan Chor Whye of Can Can Public Art, a Penang organization that commissions artists to revitalize urban spaces with street art. “If the state government supports a project, there is more control over the issues, while individual funders allow more freedom, but community authorities and comments need to be taken into account.”
Even heritage agencies and religious agencies sometimes examine works of art.
“Simply put, just paint beautiful, Teletubbies-like photos, or the audience will go crazy,” Bibichun said. “Opposition propaganda would be suppressed before it could even begin.”
An unregulated graffiti scene still thrives underground, but the cost of painting on a whim is breaking the law and has no income.
Since the murals help attract tourism and bring the streets of the city to life, they are in high demand even in small towns like Sasaran, a fishing village on the west coast, just over an hour’s drive from Kuala. Lumpur.
This is where Bibichun and two other artists in charge of Penang, Sliz and his student Lyana Leong, were set on fire by two pieces they painted on the walls of the Sasaran Arts Community Hall.
“Our goal is to incorporate the arts into our community, so that people in the countryside can see and learn about art,” said Ng Bee, president of the Sasaran Arts Association, which has organized a series of festivals. art in recent years. .
Sliz and Leong’s mural was supposed to be three women holding hands, loosely inspired by Henri Matisse’s “The Dance,” but completely dressed in vests.
But on April 19, even before the two artists had completed the basic skin tone form of the three bodies, some Sasaran residents had taken to social media to lament that the “naked” figures offended religious sensibility and could incite racial hatred among the different ethnic groups in Malaysia. groups.
“I realized that it was mainly ethnic Malays who made comments against us,” said Lyana Leong, 24, who is partly Chinese and partly Malay and comes from Bukit Mertajam in Penang. “They may not be very educated about the arts and thought it would be inappropriate for children to see our works of art.”
Malaysian artist Sliz says Malaysia’s less urban communities may be the most likely to be offended. He is disappointed that those who were upset about the work didn’t even bother to talk about it with the artists.
“If you see something that you think does not work in your area, take calculated and rational actions. Writing a “racial / religious” Facebook post is not. Passers-by could have approached us to ask us any questions, as they had time to take a picture and start the hate speech online.
After Sliz and Leong adjusted their mural, Bibichun found himself attacked by the rainbow he painted at the lobby entrance while people on social media criticized him for “supporting the LGBTQ community.” a group who are still refugees and under surveillance in Malaysia.
Ng did not identify any specific ethnic groups for the comments.
He said villagers and local government have always supported Sasaran’s activities, which “helped promote local tourism”.
Malaysian artists also have to contend with the regulation of government bodies and often work closely with other agencies that provide funding and space.
Last month, Sabah Art Gallery was criticized after canceling 31 works of art in central Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Borneo.
Painted by different artists on the columns of a dilapidated heritage building from the 1920s, the works debuted on December 20 last year as the third edition of the Pillars of Sabah outdoor art installation. (POS).
In 2018 and 2019 the pillars were removed with the consent of the project’s founders and participating artists to make room for new works of art.
But this year the Sabah Art Gallery, which claims ownership of the heritage site, went ahead “without any warning or explanation” to prepare the space for an upcoming project, POS co-founder Jared Abdul Rahman told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t care what comes next, we just wanted to be informed. Sabah Art Gallery owns the site, but gave us permission to use it for our project, funded by CENDANA, a national arts funding agency. It has deliverable results that we cannot fully comply with now ”.
The issue ended after an online debate on April 29, when the Sabah Art Gallery posted a public apology on its Instagram page.
“The arts community should start its own support system,” Jared said. “We have to stop a strong dependence on the government, especially when they don’t take into account the interests of the artists.”
Gallery director Jennifer Linggi did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
“Renting commercial space is also prohibitive and COVID didn’t help,” said Penang artist Timothy Chan, 24, who is juggling the direction of the small OTW gallery he co-founded with Fakhrur Razi Maricar on Soundmaker Studio, George Town’s only underground music. space.
OTW opened in April with the collective exhibition Faded with works by artists such as Sliz and Bibichun. Sales may help them stay in the fleet, but with a limited market outside the capital and domestic tourism restricted by interstate travel bans, murals remain the fastest way to earn a dollar.
“What happened in Sasaran is a matter of mindset,” Chan said. “The murals are a reflection of what artists see and should not be frowned upon. I think there is still room for Malaysian mural artists to learn from experience and grow. ”
– ARTICLE 19 Malaysia (@ Article19Msia) May 5, 2021
Meanwhile, Fahmi was heading to a police station to be questioned on May 6 about two other posters he designed, including a mockery of the health minister, which he posted on Facebook and Twitter in early April.
Unlike other Malaysian artists who are ready to negotiate restrictions on making art, Fahmi does not back down.
On April 30, he posted on his Facebook profile that he is “ready to face any new investigation or accusation and willing to defend all my graphic works. As usual, I will not delete these posts. People should not be afraid of government, a government must be afraid of the people. […] Regardless of the obstacles, I will continue to fight. “