By Eva McGovern
As Malaysians prepare for the most hotly anticipated General Elections in the country’s history, three contemporary artists shares their observations and frustrations on various social issues taking place today. As such they create a critical and humorous appraisal on the state of corruption, prostitution, crime, advertising and transgender and LGBT rights and realities in Malaysia today. Featuring the work of Bibichun, Snozze and Shieko, Ape Cerita presents painting, sculpture, drawing, video and performance to express autobiographical experiences abd explorations on political, social and historical issues. The flaws of humanity and consequences of a Malaysia divided by race, religion, gender and class has long served as a compelling subject for artists to respond to in their work. As such many ‘creative mirrors’ have emerged highlighting, in observational and innovate approaches, the never-ending problems and complications of our contemporary condition. However rather than didactic opposition through art historical strategies like Social Realism, many artists prefer satire and metaphor in order to dialogue with the socio-political.
Such is approach of the three artists on display, whose cast of humorous characters and play on words asks the question ‘what’s the story Malaysia?’ Bibichun, Snozze and Shieko enter into the gallery world via a grounding in the KL graffiti art scene, having created many public murals, elaborate tags and spray painted characters that at times, have also commented on culture and society. Each has developed a distinct style and voice based upon their personal histories, aesthetic interests and social curiosities that the exhibition introduces to the wider art world. By situating their work within the gallery and not in the street therefore, they aim to create a more focused dialogue between their artworks without the ‘noise’ of advertising, other competing graffiti art and distractions of the urban environment. In this more concentrated setting, they hope to communicate distinct ideas to an audience who is purposely there to listen.
The politics of space, language and the impact of signs and the things they refer to influence the work of Bibichun. His public artworks have humorously paired language and various characters such as the Malayan tapir to create witty visual one-liners for immediate recognition and understanding. As an endangered species, the tapir represents positions of vulnerability and in Foreign Labour becomes a hybrid creature with the Chinese panda to comment about the impact of migrant workers from mainland China in their new host countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. In the artist’s signboard series he appropriates and creates new street signs based upon familiar existing designs. Questioning the effectiveness of warnings about snatch thieves and crime, he comments that these appear to place the responsibility of crime awareness and even prevention, on the public and not the police. Therefore prohibition signs that ban motorcycle stunts by Mat Rempits seem nonsensical, as perpetrators will not stop their activities because of a sign, and can only be stopped by the police. Awas penyamun, bawa duit lebih (Beware of robbers bring more money) is a re-imagined sign in direct response to a student who, after a brutal robbery, was denied assistance by a nearby medical clinic, and tragically died en route to the general hospital. In order to avoid such violence, Bibichun’s sign amusingly advocates for victims to submit to their assailants, even carrying more money with them to escape injury. However, his dark comedy of errors focuses on not just the acts of criminals and delinquents but the flaws of the public themselves. Sebab Aku Lapar (Because I am Hungry) is about how, for the sake of convenience, drivers often double park their vehicles to avoid walking to get their food due to laziness or a lack of enough temporary parking. This then causes traffic congestion on the roads, inconveniencing other drivers. With little parking regulation to reduce this problem, double parking has now been added to a distinctly Malaysian type of road selfishness. This impact of human/Malaysian behaviour in public spaces continues in his works throughout the exhibition, whether through issues of traffic congestion in Sand Clock or illegal advertising for services such as loan sharking that competes with sanctioned advertising to question the strategies and ethics of promotional activity.
Snozze also observes the vices of Malaysian society through works laced with humorous critique. Bapak Ayam is a painting that gives gangster like qualities to a chicken, which also functions symbol for prostitutes and prostitution. Part of a larger Ayam series about the oldest profession in the world, in this work Snozze comments on how alternative social hierarchies form in any type of group setting, and that the male and female pimp can represent a father and mother figure with the prostitutes acting as ‘children’, who must obey their parents. Sometimes these units are filled with loyalty and affection, at others with exploitation and violence. The piece also features his distinct typography, developed as part of his graffiti art, which is an important stylistic identity for street artists working in spray paint. Cakap Nonsense is a criticism on the endless talk with no action that can be found in society at large, whether by politicians or average Malaysians. Seated around a table are four figures, their heads covered by containers inferring they are talking but no one is listening either. By further utilising a background filled with phone numbers for mechanical services, Snozze quotes from the street environment, once again commenting on the endless distractions that blur and divert attention spans, slowing down action and change. In Polis Main Kuda the artists take a playful jab at the role of law enforcers in society. A masked officer sits on top of an electronic toy ride meant for the amusement of children. Often found in small shops and restaurants, money has to be inserted into these machines in order to activate the ride for a short period of time. However upon further inspection viewers notice that a slot machine has also been incorporated into the design – taken from a personal anecdote, the work is a comic imagining on the machinations of corruption.
Visibility, public education and awareness as well as support and acceptance are things that Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) groups in Malaysia have been campaigning for, for many years. Gender and sexuality are taboo and complicated topics to openly discuss in Malaysian society because of the traditions/restrictions of religion, politics and cultural values. Through her art and activism Sheiko, as part of this community, has particularly focused on the realities of transwomen, revealing the social pressures they face as well as their emotional strengths and anxieties. Graphic in style and made up of boldly coloured comic strip like tableaus, her work also gives anthropomorphic qualities to animals to become metaphors for human behaviour. The inclusion of a ‘mother hen’ and fish motifs in much of her work refers to the specificities of transfemale culture where an elder transwoman is called a Mak Ayam. It is a respectful term for these women who usually take Anak Ayam or young transwomen who have often run away from home, under their ‘wing’. As part of this new family, she provides guidance on how to be a woman, and in some cases also organises sex work for her young protégés that she then takes profits from. Usually Mak Ayam also have a toyboy called an ‘Anak Ikan’ who she supports financially in exchange for companionship. This is seen in Mekyam where a mother hen is bottle feeding her ‘little fish’. In Tebabo (Just a Phase) a transwoman is depicted with a watermelon in between her legs, that she has cut pieces from. This is a reference to the confusion felt whilst going through male puberty. Identifying with female sexuality transwomen suffer feelings of hate for their male oriented bodies, often becoming suicidal. Other individuals work towards gender reassignment, while some accept their bodies and persevere without surgery. In Pergi Mamancing, a transwoman is depicted as a sex worker who is being approached by an authority figure who she often has to give sexual favours to in order to maintain her freedom. Ironically, sometimes she can become more financially successful than office workers and such obstacles also allow transwomen to cope better with the struggles of life. Nah! Shows a transwoman holding up a mirror, with the words ‘Take This Society’ written next to it, to highlight the constant scrutiny that members of LGBT communities face, especially transwomen. However sometimes, due to the constant pressures and prejudices, the artist comments, the only response is to smile and just get through it. Sheiko’s various humours and protests therefore, attempt to strike at the heart of complicated issues providing a personal commentary and criticism on the politics of gender inequalities.
Through animal metaphor and humorous word-play Ape Cerita, is a satirical conversation about social issues in Malaysia today. Communicating through recognisable signs and symbols Bibichun, Snozze and Shieko provide accessible entry points into each of their works so that audiences can enjoy and understand the commentaries on display. In addition, as an artist initiated project, Ape Cerita is also indicative of the drive and dedication of creative practitioners functioning outside the mainstream to claim their existence in an art world that can at times, ignore voices because of hierarchy and lack of engagement with the periphery. Rather than spray-painting anonymously in the street they instead, take ownership of their work in the gallery environment to tell the stories of our vices and contradictions. As such the exhibition, within a wider Malaysian context, asks not only ‘what’s the story’ but infers an even bigger and more daunting question of ‘will things ever change?’ Only time will tell.
Eva McGovern is currently Manager and Curator of Manila Contemporary in Manila, Philippines. From 2010-2012 she was Head of Regional Programmes for Valentine Willie Fine Art KL and Singapore as well as Manila Contemporary and Jogja Contemporary. Eva writes broadly on Southeast Asian Art and is based in between Kuala Lumpur and Manila.
Thanks Eva McGovern ~♥Shieko Reto ZewWey Snooze