George Town, Malaysia – The arrest of graphic designer and social activist Fahmi Reza for a list of satirical songs poking fun at a comment by the Queen of Malaysia has reignited the debate over free speech in the Southeast Asian nation.
Police arrested Fahmi, who rose to prominence in 2015 with a now iconic clown cartoon that ridiculed then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, on April 23, accusing him of insulting the Queen with the playlist, which he titled Dengki Ke (Malaysian for “Are you jealous?”) and illustrated with a cover image of the royal.
He was also accused of sharing “offensive and threatening material” for the list, which he uploaded to Spotify and Apple Music, containing songs such as Jealousy by Queen and God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols.
The queen, Tunku Hajah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah, had been criticized earlier for saying, “Are you jealous?” to an Instagram user who questioned the alleged privileged access to COVID-19 vaccines on his personal Instagram account.
In the wake of the arrest of Fahmi, 44, Award-winning political cartoonist Zunar He also found himself under investigation – for a cartoon of a chief minister of state he published in January.
The two cases brought censorship back to life in a country where the freedom to be creative has long been hampered by restrictive laws, as well as political, religious and cultural sensitivities.
Most of the people in Malaysia are ethnic Malays who are Muslims, but there are also large communities of ethnic Chinese, Indian and indigenous people who follow other religions and beliefs.
“There is always a limit when a work is intended for the public, whether it is a mural, a sculpture, a performance or an installation,” said Bibichun, an artist. Leading visual based in George Town, a UNESCO protected site, in the northwest of Penang Island.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the city was a magnet for tourists who flock to see street art which began to spread through buildings and alleys after Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic painted six murals there in 2012 and captured the imagination of the public.
Before the lockdowns, eight million tourists were expected to visit the island in 2020, providing valuable income for artists like Bibichun who make most of their money from commissioned murals, which start at a minimum of 1000 RM ($ 243) per piece.
“Sexy, racial and political artwork is not allowed,” said Tan Chor Whye of Can Can Public Art, an organization in Penang that commissions artists to revitalize urban spaces with street art. “If a project is supported by the state government, there is more control over the topics, while individual funders allow more freedom, but you still need to consider authorities and community feedback. . “
Even heritage organizations and religious agencies sometimes have a say in them.
“Simply put, just paint some pretty, happy Teletubbies-style pictures, or the audience will go crazy,” Bibichun said. “Opposition propaganda would be suppressed before it could even begin.”
An underground graffiti scene continues, but artists face prosecution for breaking the law and are not making any income from their work.
Since the murals help attract tourists and liven up the city streets, they are in demand even in small towns like Sasaran, a west coast fishing village just over an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.
It was here that Bibichun and two other artists commissioned from Penang, Sliz and her intern Lyana Leong, came under fire for two pieces they painted on the walls of the Sasaran Arts Community Hall.
“Our goal is to bring the arts into our community, so that people in the countryside can see and learn the art,” said Ng Bee, president of the Sasaran Arts Association, which organized a series of festivals of art in recent years. .
Sliz and Leong’s mural was supposed to depict three women wearing vests holding hands, loosely based on La Danse by French painter Henri Matisse.
But on April 19, even before the two artists had completed the basic three-body complexion form, some residents of Sasaran took to social media to lament that the “naked” figures offend religious sensibilities and may incite to racial hatred among the various Malaysian ethnicities. groups.
“I noticed it was mostly ethnic Malays who made comments against us,” said Lyana Leong, 24, who is part Chinese, part Malaysian and from Penang. “Maybe they are not very educated about the arts and thought it would be inappropriate for children to see our works.”
Malaysian artist Sliz says rural communities in Malaysia are the most likely to be offended. He is disappointed that those who were upset by the work did not even bother to tell the artists about it.
“If you see something wrong in your area, take calculated and rational action. Writing a triggering racial / religious Facebook post is not. Passers-by could have approached us to ask questions, as they had time to snap a photo and initiate hate speech online.
After Sliz and Leong adjusted their mural, Bibichun found himself attacked for the rainbow he was painting at the entrance to the lobby as people on social media criticized him for “supporting the community.” LGBTQ ”, a group that is still avoided and watched in Malaysia.
Ng did not identify any particular ethnic group for the comments.
He said that the villagers and the local government have always supported Sasaran’s activities, which “have helped promote local tourism”.
Malaysian artists also face regulation from government agencies and often work closely with other agencies that provide funds and space.
Last month, the Sabah Art Gallery came under fire after drawing 31 drawings for display in central Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Borneo.
Painted by various artists on the columns of a dilapidated 1920s heritage building, the pieces were unveiled on December 20 last year as part of the third edition of an outdoor art installation called Pillars of Sabah ( POS).
In 2018 and 2019, the paintings were erased with the consent of the project founders and participating artists to make room for new works of art.
But this year, the Sabah Art Gallery, which claims ownership of the heritage site, has moved forward “without any warning or explanation” to prepare the space for an upcoming project, POS co-founder Jared said. Abdul Rahman at Al Jazeera.
“We don’t mind what’s to come, we just wanted to be informed. The Sabah Art Gallery owns the site, but has given us permission to use it for our project, which is funded by CENDANA, a national arts funding agency. It has deliverables that we cannot fully achieve now. “
The issue concluded after an online debate on April 29, when the Sabah Art Gallery posted a public apology on its Instagram page.
“The arts community should create their own support system,” Jared said. “We have to put an end to such dependence on government, especially when it does not have the interests of artists at heart.”
Gallery director Jennifer Linggi did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
“Renting commercial space is also prohibitively expensive, and COVID hasn’t helped,” said Penang artist Timothy Chan, 24, who juggles orders with running the small OTW gallery he co- founded with Fakhrur Razi Maricar in Soundmaker Studio, George Town’s only underground music space.
OTW opened in April with the group exhibition Faded showcasing works by artists such as Sliz and Bibichun. Sales can help keep them afloat, but with a limited market outside the capital and domestic tourism restricted by interstate travel bans, murals remain the fastest way to make money.
“What happened at Sasaran is a question of mentality,” Chan said. “Murals reflect what artists see and shouldn’t be too frowned upon. I think there is still room for Malaysian painters to learn from this experience and develop. “
– ARTICLE 19 Malaysia (@ Article19Msia) May 5, 2021
Fahmi, meanwhile, was returning to a police station to be questioned on May 6 over two more posters he had designed – including one mocking the health minister – and posted on Facebook and Twitter earlier in April.
Unlike other Malaysian artists who are willing to negotiate restrictions on making art, Fahmi is not backing down.
He posted on his Facebook profile on April 30 that he was “ready to face any further investigation or accusation, and ready to defend all my graphic works.” As usual, I will not delete these messages. The people must not be afraid of the government, a government must be afraid of the people. […] Whatever the obstacles, I will continue to fight.