The fight against government corruption and the abuse of power are recurring themes among many of the artworks featured at the Democracy In Action exhibition at the Black Box, MAP, Publika in Kuala Lumpur.
A small gallery of cartoonist Zunar’s politically slanted works greet visitors as they walk in through the door while Sabah-based art collective Pangrok Sulap’s Sabah Tanah Airku woodcut works are back in the spotlight.
These large woodcut prints hang proudly and prominently at the venue. In 2017, one half of this diptych series was taken down by organisers from an exhibition in KL for being “controversial”.
Today these Sabah Tanah Airku works – brimming with social commentary about the Sabahan condition – are travelling abroad and also shown openly here.
Political, social and environmental issues are also dominate in Indonesian art activist group Taring Padi’s contributions to the Democracy In Action exhibition. This longstanding Jogjakarta-based collective, which turned 20 last year, is previewing a street poster election campaign series called Terompet Rakyat, Penyingkapan Politik ahead of Indonesia’s fiercely contested general elections just two months away.
This group exhibition, a part of Forsea KL 2019‘s inaugural Democracy Festival, gathers together more than 20 visual artists, performance artists and artist collectives from South-East Asia. The entire event – involving talks and forums – is organised by the regional group the Forces of Renewal for South-East Asia (Forsea).
“Not every artist is influenced or moved by the aesthetics of beauty. This is a very different kind of art exhibition which you couldn’t have imagined happening in KL before the change of government in Malaysia,” says Intan Rafiza Abu Bakar, a KL-based artist and curator, who pieced this showcase together in three months.
“This exhibition, essentially, brings together artists navigating the arts and activism worlds. It’s a small survey of what is happening and stirring in the region. Despite the language and culture differences, you can generally understand and grasp the directness and the messages in the artworks.
“From KL to Yangon and back to Jakarta and Singapore, the concerns are universal. They relate to pressing issues like freedom of expression, corruption, human rights, the environment, the distribution of wealth … and even how to combat fake news during an election season as can be seen in Taring Padi’s latest works,” she adds.
Orang asli land rights, social issues and education are also part of the conversation here. Shaq Koyok, a contemporary artist from the indigenous Temuan tribe of Selangor, sees a greater public awareness when it comes to understanding concerns such as orang asli self-determination and control of resources.
“In the past, we never knew we could even fight for our rights through the arts. An orang asli artist representing Malaysia in an activist art exhibition? That was unthinkable back then.
“But things are changing and more people are beginning to see the struggles faced by minority communities here,” says Shaq, who has brought an altar (sanggar) to the exhibition space to perform a daily ritual to invoke blessings from orang asli ancestors.
Yeoh Lian Heng, artist and gallery space Lostgen’s founder, contributes a 4m tall installation called Pembebasan and it is situated in the Publika Square area. The installation, a tangle of recycled wood blocks and barbed wire, is Yeoh’s reflection on how much Malaysia has “progressed” since GE14.
“Malaysia has changed governments and we did it through a peaceful transition. No violence. But democracy is always about fighting and voicing out. There is still a lot of pain in this country and I added the barbed wire to the work to warn of the cuts and bruises ahead. We bleed because we want a better country,” says Yeoh.
Other Malaysian names at this exhibit include Ahmad Fuad Osman, Amin Landak, Sharon Chin, Sabihis Md Pandi, Seth Akmal and Hasnoor Hussain while the regional artists are Anida Yoeu Ali (Cambodia), Arahmaiani (Indonesia), Khai Maew (Thailand) and Le Brothers (Vietnam).
Arahmaiani is scheduled for a performance art show called Handle Without Care at the Black Box venue today at 12.30pm.
Democracy In Action is on at Back Box, MAP, Level G2-01, Block A5, No 1,, Jalan Dutamas 1, Publika in Kuala Lumpur till Feb 17. Open: 10am to 8pm. Free admission. FB: Forsea KL 2019.