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

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.

“I use other forms of art as well – I’ve made documentary films, videos, participated in theatre, made music, given lectures. I don’t restrict myself to only one form of art. But I do think it all depends on who your target audience is. Regardless, I often employ the phrase ‘Seni Sebagai Senjata’ (Art as a Weapon) when describing my work and in raising awareness on the power of ‘visual disobedience’.”

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’. 

Fahmi’s initial graffiti work from 2003. He recalls how prior to social media, artists often uploaded their work onto the online platform, ‘Stencil Revolution’ for widespread circulation. His design, featured above, was adopted by protesters in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011.

“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. 

He continues, “my graphic designs have so far been the main reason why I have been arrested, convicted, fined, and sentenced to jail multiple times. These designs have hence been the most effective and impactful, which is why I mainly identify with the ‘graphic designer’ label. At this point, I’ve been doing graphic design for over 20 years, so it barely feels like ‘work.’ But I guess you could still say that it is a medium I use to express my opinions.”

Fahmi Reza’s creativity in expressing such opinions have thus consistently made him an infamous target amongst the Malaysian authorities. While fellow dissenters continue to show admiration for his relentless determination and undying loyalty to his principles, many also view him as a ‘provocateur’ and instigator of conflict. Despite his work spanning more than two decades, his most prominent ‘rise to fame’ mainly happened in 2016, when his clownish caricature of the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak gained an incredible amount of traction, and giving birth to a dissenting movement of its own, widely known as #KitaSemuaPenghasut (‘we are all seditious’).

Recently, Fahmi was also initially blacklisted from leaving Malaysia, only a few weeks prior to arriving in London. Upon eventual success with the immigration authorities, he travelled to Brussels – where his theatrical play on the unfulfilled revolution of the Malayan Communist Party, was staged at the Kunsten Festival des Arts. He has since decided to visit the UK on a stop-gap tour around different universities.

Alongside discussing his art, he has also been giving his trademark lecture on the history of Malaysian student activism – formerly censored and banned by several prominent universities back home. His longstanding project, ‘Student Power’, aims to document the histories and personal accounts from the radical movements of 60s and 70s Malaysia, and was featured as an exhibition for several months at the contemporary Ilham Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, 2017. 

Bristol, rich in its history of dissent and home to the artist, Banksy (whom Fahmi has been likened to as the Malaysian equivalent) was the first destination on his UK excursion. He then visited UCL – discussing his journey as an artist over the past 20 years to an audience of over 80 people. I had the opportunity to attend his lecture, listening to his recounts of the early 2000s.

He tells the audience about his initial days as a graphic designer, his involvement in theatre and filmmaking, alongside several other community projects he had been involved with. In 2007, for example, he partook in organising a cultural event and shadow puppet performance for the children of Kampung Berembang, a village in Kuala Lumpur where occupants were forcefully evicted and had their homes demolished for gentrification.

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.

Fahmi’s initial design work for Amnesty Malaysia, urging to end the violence in Acheh, Indonesia (2002).

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 can’t deny that I live a very frugal life,” he says. “I spend most of my money on essentials, and whatever else I have left to spare then sometimes goes into expanding my record collection.” I nod, smiling – Fahmi occasionally posts images of his impressive collection of records and CDs on social media. 

“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’.”

He also tells me about Crass, an anarchist band from the UK in the 70s, and their song Big A, little a, being “one of those songs that influenced me the most, and taught me the importance of questioning authority… especially with its insightful, politically-charged lyrics.”

“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.”

Laughing, he adds, “so what I did was cut out a huge chunk of paper from my really thick copy of the Kamus Dewan dictionary, and I made a hole that was big enough to fit my walkman in.”

 

Official poster for the documentary film, 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka(Ten Years Before Independence).

Alongside his graphic design, the documentary film 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (10 Years Before Independence) has also become one of Fahmi’s well-known works. The short film recalls the Malayan struggle for independence against British colonialism from a left-wing revolutionary perspective – often erased from the mainstream History syllabus back home. For this, 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka was awarded the ‘Most Outstanding Human Rights Film’ at the local Freedom Film Fest in 2007.

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 – blasting Teenage 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.

For more information about Fahmi Reza and his work, visit his page, www.kuasasiswa.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram, @kuasasiswa.

All images featured in this article are attributed to Fahmi Reza.