Four years ago, author Zedeck Siew went on a walking tour of Kuala Lumpur. The stroll, organised by graphic artist Mun Kao, saw Siew accompanying several artists to various places and hideouts relevant to local graffiti artists and street art regulars.
The stops included the walls along the riverbanks of Masjid Jamek and Jalan Jelatek, among others.
During the tour, Siew heard inside stories about the local graffiti scene, and got to know the scene politics better.
“I don’t remember too many details, but I was struck at the resigned, dour mood of my friends. Theirs wasn’t an art form under siege,” says Siew in an interview recently.
“If you are under attack, you are scared, but energised. Back then, graffiti was doing super well. There were paint company-sponsored jobs, DBKL-sanctioned competitions and boutique streetwear brands (keen on graffiti culture). On the day we had the tour, there was a government-organised graffiti competition at a secondary school in KL,” he adds.
In many ways, Siew saw the mainstream appeal of graffiti art and how it could easily lose its street edge.
“It was an art form that had been co-opted. There were corporate or government-commissioned murals. There were artists who had turned their collectives into successful businesses, slotting in neatly in the super-structure of capitalism.”
Some of the graffiti artists, says Siew were never radical to begin with, and it showed in their works.
Inspired, Siew wrote The White Mask, a short futuristic story about graffiti artists in Kuala Lumpur. It was featured in local publisher Fixi Novo’s anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia (2015), which contained 14 short cyberpunk stories by Malaysian authors.
Siew’s short story took the ideas (and creative concerns) presented by his friends, and extrapolated it into the future. It resulted in a tale of people who “unconsciously, gradually, inevitably, exchanged their ideals for comfort, because the (artistic) struggle is so hard.”
Gallerist Sharmin Parameswaran, who read it, was inspired by the tale and decided to one day turn this story into an actual art exhibition.
Sharmin, as a curator, has now realised The White Mask’s potential as a group exhibition, transforming text to works on canvas.
Notes From The Future: The White Mask exhibition, featuring 22 visual artists, is now on at the White Box in Publika in KL.
The exhibition channels a vision of urban Malaysia in a dystopian future. It imagines paint, an old school art medium, adapted to a future of new technology and developments. Things are left in the hands of graffiti artists, who continue to question the structures and rules that govern.
Notes From The Future: The White Mask includes new works by artists such as Ajim Juxta, Alak, Andrialis Abdul Rahman, Bibichun, BlankMalaysia, Engku Iman, Escapeva, Haris Rashid, Haslin Ismail, Lina Tan, Lyne Ismail, Muhammad Afandi, Poodien, Rat Heist, Rico Leong, Sarah Ameera, Sattama, Sherwan Rozan, Sliz, Syahbandi Samat, Tey Beng Tze and Thomasupernova.
The exhibition is being held in conjunction with the fifth edition of The Cooler Lumpur Festival.
“At that time, I was in a phase of reading books about dystopias, which pushed our imaginations and views of the future,” says Sharmin.
“They were mostly bleak. These books were written from a Western perspective. I was excited to pick up Cyberpunk: Malaysia as it gave this genre of storytelling a local context and a relatable backyard,” she adds.
Sharmin says The White Mask short story stood out for her as it pushed the futures of street art culture, relating it to real issues (politics, hyper-commercialisation and even transgender issues).
“The story has many elements for artists to expand on, starting with the obvious being street art and graffiti. It touches on the reasons for street art and the politics of it, the idea and potential of how we use paint in the future, the state of our country and what it means moving forward, and even the idea of (using) masks in society,” she elaborates.
Sharmin approached the artists based on what she thought their interests were.
“Some artists I personally knew. Some I had been observing their work, which perhaps at that point hinted at thoughts and questions of our future states. Some I found through Instagram, which in today’s time is a real-time updated source of visual expression,” she says.
For both Sharmin and Siew, graffiti remains a powerful form of expression.
“Graffiti or street art, is another form of expression of an individual artist. In Malaysia, street art emerged as an answer to authority and control, where young people were able to bring their politics and views back onto the streets. One of the the works in the show conveys a time when Malayan Union posters were made using cut out potatoes reprinted on paper, and pasted all over Kedah using homemade gam kanji (tapioca starch glue) by a future leader of Malaysia,” says Sharmin.
“I think there’s something inherently radical about graffiti. In a gallery, of course, that energy is tamed, because a gallery – like a George Town wall, or a bank billboard – is sanction. But so long as graffiti artists have the power to negotiate, argue with or refuse the interests behind such sanctions, their art will stay powerful,” says Siew.
The White Mask is on at the White Box, Publika, Level G2-01, Block A5, Jalan Dutamas in Kuala Lumpur till Aug 22. Admission is free. Open daily, 11am to 7pm. More info: coolerlumpur.com.