Art in its various forms has been an instrument for social and political change in all cultures over the ages.
It’s no different in Malaysia, although it must be said that its voice was never strident and never violent, unlike in some countries.
Dormant for a long time, the embers of artistic protests have sparked again; albeit on too few occasions and by too few artists.
Traditionally, protests and criticisms took the form of Pantuns.
This art form has seen a revival recently when the Tengku Mahkota Johor used Pantun to remind his subjects of their place.
TMJ posted on the net: “Don’t forget an Eagle and a Sparrow do not fly at the same height. Be aware of where you stand and keep your dreams lower than the grass”
@Kylebrachon’s Pantun is one of many responses.“Helang terbang tinggi Pipit terbang rendah Pabila tinggal tulang dan gigi Pakaian dan pangkat tiada faedah”
(Eagles fly high, sparrows fly low, when you are just bones and teeth, clothes and position have no meaning).
This nose-thumbing at royalty (unimaginable in the past) is an indication that the position of the royalty is not what it used to be – Malaysians are shaking off their feudalistic mentality.
While artists have used their paintings as flags of rebellion against the injustices of society. Rebellion against the exclusion of certain sections of society. Condemnation of the abuse of power. Apartheid.
In Malaysia, it is more the exception than the rule. A reputable art expert when asked could only mention two artists – Samsuddin Wahab and Noor Azizan Rahman. But who else?
The rest are just painters of “pretty pictures” as Djoko Pekik the great Indonesian artist-activist calls them. Other than the aforementioned artists work, I cannot think of a painting that even hints at protest let alone open rebellion. No cries of defiance, no pricking of our collective conscience. Where are the paintings which talk about racial, gender, religious and LGBT discriminations? The exploitation of migrant workers? The corruption by those in positions of power? Expose the charlatans who peddle religion to enrich and empower themselves?
With regards to the visual arts (paintings, sculptures); if I am allowed to say this without sounding sexist: Paintings are not just about beautiful girls – bimbos if you like – although that has its place. It must also be of girls with brains and spirit; multi-layered; darkness and light; more Sheherazade than Salome.
From Khartoum to Yangon to Jakarta and Cape Town, artists and actors and graffitists protested – each in his own way. Many of them paid a high price for their cause, but their conviction never dimmed.
What about Malaysia?
It’s not just the traditional artists. Can anyone point me to a street art anywhere in Malaysia that is vaguely a protest? Oh yes, in Ipoh there is a painting of an old fogey drinking coffee who has a vague resemblance to Chin Peng. That was enough for the authorities to demand that it be painted over. Looks like our authorities have not shed their “reds-under-the-beds” mentality. Yet our government has now invited the reds into their bed to do business.
While our painters have failed, others of the Arts fraternity have had some measure of success.
Usman Awang’s seminal poem “Sahabat Ku” was a full-blooded attack on bumiputraism – the racial wedge that has divided our people. It spoke of the shattered dreams of a Bangsa Malaysia . . . and more.
Yet how many Malaysians know the work of this poet laureate, novelist, playwright, rebel, maverick, activist, true Malaysian Patriot?
Usman’s work is probably kept from our school children in case they are corrupted by liberal thinking.
And I suspect many Malays are embarrassed by the truth of his writing for which they have no credible counter-argument.
Zuna’s caricatures have caught the imagination of the nation. Unfortunately, they also caught the attention of the authorities who obviously don’t like his protests.
Yasmin Ahmad’s films (e.g. Sepet) have always pushed the idea of a multi-racial Malaysia.
The millennials were not to be left out. Namewee, rapper, hip hop artist, composer, filmmaker and actor did his part to expose racism in the country.
The side-splitting duo of Alan Pereira and Indi Nadarajah in Comedy Court take the mickey out of everyone – politicians, religionists, Chinamen, Kelings, Melayus; no one is spared. They eviscerate that e-system and get away with it.
Before you crucify me for using inappropriate words – let me say I do not subscribe to political correctness for its own sake. We have used Chinaman, Keling and Melayu for a long long time without anyone taking offence. That was before this generation grew thin-skinned. Despite that, we got on better than this generation with its political correctness. So there!
They have all contributed but we need more – especially from our painters. As they say; a picture is worth a thousand words.
If everyone chips a bit at the rotten socio-political edifice it will fall.
To be frank, we are a timid lot compared to the Indonesians or South Africans or for that matter anyone else I can think of except the Singaporeans.
Most painters struggle to survive, yet they remain true to themselves and their art. Djoko Pekik had to clean sewers for 17 years to support his family and his calling. Budi Siagan a Medan artist lives from hand dreams to mouth but his defiance burns as fiercely as ever.
Michael Malaapo had his house burned down for his paintings depicting the evils of racism.
In the Arts community, it is our painters who are most timid. I think this has something to do with being government-sponsored (most received government scholarships); many still depend on government patronage or that of corporations like Petronas and other GLCs. Maybe that’s why they are timid.
I once asked my friend Koay Soo Kau, curator of the Galerie Seni Mutiara in Penang, to have an exhibition of protest art (paintings); his answer was “where will I get the paintings?”
Say no more.
Artists (all disciplines) are more powerful and influential than they realise. Through their art, the corrupt are exposed. The powerful brought down. Religious charlatans unfrocked. The marginalised and disenfranchised can be heard and seen.
Art is a slow-burning fuel which once ignited, shed light on issues governments cannot ignore and are not able to extinguish.
Artists are indispensable to rebuilding Malaysia; they only need to light the fuse for change.
The Man from TR