Malaysian artist and activist Fahmi Reza poses for a picture holding his artwork bearing an image of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, during an interview with Reuters, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia July 29, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng
Designs of Dissent: In conversation with Fahmi Reza, Malaysian activist and graphic designer
Dania Kamal Aryf
It was a Sunday afternoon when I was offered the surprising opportunity to sit down face-to-face with Fahmi Reza. We found ourselves in the most unlikely setting; Within the cramped kitchen of a friend’s apartment in London, I sat with my laptop and notebook preparing a list of last-minute questions as chaotic and unexpected as this conversation came to be.
I was greeted in said friend’s room upon arrival. It was a very characteristic bedroom – charged with youthful political adrenaline, fuelled by classic rock anthems, and adorned with protest posters across its walls. We decide to move to the kitchen, where it would be quieter to conduct a formal interview.
Fahmi remains seated across me at this tiny, Ikea dining table. The faint rhythm of 70s rock continues to hum in the background from the room beside us.
I ask him to ‘introduce himself.’ I explain how I enjoy asking this ‘very basic question’, because often, “the public have their preconceived perceptions of high profile individuals, that may not necessarily be accurate.” Yet, speaking to anyone on a personal level – whether ‘high profile’ or not – and asking them to introduce themselves, can often offer an entirely different perspective.
Fahmi nods in agreement. “If I were to describe or introduce myself with specific labels, I would probably go with the term ‘political graphic designer’, or ‘visual activist’ – because a lot of my activism predominantly involves graphic design and visual art,” he says.
Fahmi Reza also has never shied away from his admiration for music, especially punk music – and explains how his ‘political awakening’ was first incited by his involvement in punk. He emphasises how Punk, as a specific genre and movement has played a pivotal role in political protest and the expression of dissent. In the late 1990s, throughout his time as an Engineering undergraduate at Vanderbilt University in the United States, his interest in punk continued to intensify. As a student, he began designing posters for band performances, and recalls the ‘first official album cover’ he designed for the band ‘From Ashes Rise’. Upon returning home in the early 2000s, he was also briefly a guitarist in a Malaysian punk band, called ‘Skullcrusher’.
“Despite your involvement with other forms of art, would you say you are apprehensive about identifying as an ‘artist’ then?” I ask, curious.
“I would not say I am ‘apprehensive’, but I do usually tend to introduce myself as a ‘political graphic designer’ first, instead of an ‘artist.’ In some ways, I definitely am an artist, considering all the work I’ve done. But I believe there’s still a distinction between these terms,” he says.
Fahmi continues to explain, “an artist is someone who uses creative forms of expression, whether for themselves or for an audience. Their work is often welcome to other people’s interpretation. But for me, as a political graphic designer, I use the same medium of art to send a very clear message to my audience – I don’t hide the purpose of why I’m creating it, and there is much less ambiguity or open-endedness.”
“When I produce my artwork, I deliberately hope that people understand the messages I try to convey. If the message fails to come across, then it means I have failed in my design – and I think this is what I use to distinguish between ‘designer’, and ‘artist,’” he emphasises.
Similarly, in 2010, he led the project Chow Kit Kita (Chow Kit is Ours) in an attempt to re-frame the public’s perception of Chow Kit, an often neglected, working-class neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur. The project ran in three subsequent phases, each with a different focus: initially, on the religious diversity of the area and its houses of worship, then on food and culture, and finally, on its vibrant markets and street clothing. The project was also successful in its aims of platforming children from the area to creatively re-design their own narratives of home through various forms of art.
When we sit at this Ikea dining table in my friend’s kitchen, I ask Fahmi how he has managed to sustain himself over the years – alluding to the common trope of a ‘starving artist’, and a dissenting one, at that.
“I’ve always bought second-hand clothes, I don’t overspend. When I came back home after university, I lived with my parents for quite a while. Despite graduating with an Engineering degree, I willingly chose this route. Sustaining yourself as an artist can be difficult sometimes, but the idea of not ‘selling out’, and of sticking to my principles is very important to me,” he emphasises.
In his early 20s, Fahmi started out with pro-bono design work for community-based NGOs. After a period of time designing pamphlets and posters with Amnesty Malaysia, he finally began getting paid for his art. Fahmi explained how he would only be willing to take on paid work from causes he supports.
He continues, “it’s also part of the whole ‘DIY’ nature of Punk sub-culture too, you know? You don’t really do things for socio-economic or monetary gain. You just do what you think is right. It’s not a lavish life, but I genuinely enjoy it.”
Speaking about his time at university, he emphasises how his early 20s played a crucial role in determining his future trajectory.
“It was only at university when I began to seriously question the overall concept of authority, and the nature of conventional social norms. It made me realise that I did not want to work in an office, nine-to-five. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get married or have kids, and realistically, the lifestyle I live would not even be financially sustainable to support and raise a family,” he says.
I nod in amusement, still listening, then ask, “so were you ever a troublemaker back in primary or secondary school?”
“Surprisingly, not really,” he says, laughing. “I think I’ve always been a non-conformist in my own way, I did often question the rules, especially if I did not understand why they were necessary. But I think it was only when I was much older that I finally had the courage to ‘go against the grain.'”
He recalls nostalgically, “the band that first got me into punk rock was definitely Bad Religion, and their album Against the Grain. I was really moved by the artwork on their album cover, and I think this whole process of discovering their music was what eventually ‘turned me into a punk’.”
“But no, I was not much of a troublemaker in school,” he continues.
“Though one rule I clearly remember breaking was that I always brought my walkman to school. It was the early 1990s, I went to a boarding school. We were allowed to listen to the radio, but not our own music – and at the time, I just thought it was a really stupid rule, you know? I still wanted to listen to my own music, but without getting caught.”
As an undergraduate History student myself, I take advantage of the opportunity to ask him what he thinks about how History is being taught in the country.
He responds, “our textbooks are often creations of those within positions of power, and this is almost always the case with any ‘official’ narratives of history. There are still so many gaps within this ‘official narrative’ that desperately need to be filled – so many important yet undocumented accounts that aren’t widely known to the public. This is why I’ve made it an attempt to re-trace the history of Malaysia’s student activism, the Malayan left, and the historical struggles of ‘ordinary people.'”
Emphasising how the social history of ordinary lives can shed an important light on the formation of collective consciousness, he adds how, “too much of how history is told is focused on leaders, without an emphasis on the lives of ordinary people,” he says, and stresses the importance of honouring and documenting the personal accounts of ‘ordinary people’ whose participation has always been crucial as agents of change.
When talking about ‘collective consciousness’, much of Fahmi’s work thus places an emphasis on the necessity of protecting human rights and free speech. Curiously, I bring up the fact that in liberal Western democracies, the terms ‘free speech’ and ‘human rights’ are often used in an entirely different context than in Malaysia – instead, often by a more conservative audience to justify hate speech and discrimination. I thought it would be interesting to ask Fahmi what he thought of this discourse.
He nods in agreement, explaining that hate speech is an inevitable outcome of ‘free speech’, and says, “there is always a limit on what should or shouldn’t be censored, but who gets to decide? Hate speech is discriminatory, it shouldn’t be justified. We can all understand how this is bad.”
“But I don’t think that censorship should be regulated by those within positions of authority. Often, authority uses ‘censorship’ as an abuse of power, and a means of silencing the oppressed. Hence, I very much believe in the importance of self-regulation instead. Ideally, people should be able to know where to draw the line on what constitutes as hate speech, bullying and discrimination – in comparison to unnecessary censorship against any form of subversion,” he explains.
Noting that nearly an hour has passed, I become mindful of the time.
So finally, I ask, “the Malaysian public knows a lot about your work. But if this isn’t too personal, I hope you don’t mind me asking about your family?”
“Oh no, of course not, it’s not too personal at all!” he says. “I am really grateful because my family have always supported everything I do. My siblings all have conventional jobs and families of their own, unlike me, but they have never been opposed to my work.”
Fahmi recalls how his initial graffiti, protesting against mandatory National Service in 2003, was sparked by frustration and outrage from his younger sister, who had then been required to participate in the programme. He also tells me how his mother had come up with the English subtitles for his award-winning documentary film.
“My mother, who recently passed away several months ago, always showed up to court for the trials whenever I got arrested, and she would usually be one of the first few people I’d call whenever I get in trouble with the authorities,” he adds.
Smiling, he continues, “my late mother really enjoyed learning about the world. She would have loved to travel, but she did not have much money. Instead, she would often host couch-surfers from across the globe, and exchanged cultures and ideas with them. She always makes it a point to show them my documentary, and often, this would be their first introduction to Malaysian history.”
Sensing that our conversation is drawing to a close, Fahmi then adds, “my mother has always been my hero, and I really look up to her. And the rest of my family have always been supportive. I definitely wouldn’t be who I am today without their support,” he says.
We are still seated at this tiny Ikea dining table when we both check the time, and he announces that he has to leave. I offer my thanks, and as we get up from the table, he enthusiastically shows me a picture of his adorable, newly-adopted kittens.
In perfect coincidence, the kitchen door flings open and another friend barges in with a speaker clutched in hand – blastingTeenage Kicks by The Undertones at full volume.
*Fahmi Reza will be hosted by the Oxford University Malaysian Society to give a talk on art and dissent, this Saturday, 28 May.
Due to space potentially being limited, participants are encouraged to register their attendance via this Google Form.
The event will begin at 3.30pm, in the Harris Seminar Room, Oriel College.