12 Years of Visual Disobedience @ Five Arts Centre

Entering the space, an OBEY Giant morphed into the prime minister’s likeness is glanced out of the corner of one’s eyes, outlining Fahmi Reza’s approach and a great teaser to this survey of political posters. Fahmi’s “learn-it-yourself” attitude is detailed in conversation excerpts documented by Mark Teh, where remarks such as “(a) lot of the time I spend on the work is actually research”, and “…my inspiration comes from punk music – recorded in one take”, provide insight into his ways of working. The lack of preparatory sketches is also influenced by the powerful aesthetic, of prints produced by the Atelier Populaire during the 1968 student protests in Paris. Shown under the “Early Experiments” banner is a tutup mulut poster that draws from these references. Black & white illustrations compiled into booklets prove to be great reads, where incisive messages are presented in its most direct form.

Snapshots of posters in booklets from "Early Experiments" section

Other exhibited topics “Student Power” (typographic play on flower power), “Solidarity” (poster compositions like Nike advertisements), and “Occupy Dataran” (reference to images from other Occupy movements, and some wonderful rainbow-coloured arrows), spell out the general themes Fahmi represents as an activist, among more sinister inequalities such as police brutality and unjust laws. Visual familiarity is an important part of designing posters, and this aspect affirms how political posters are the same as propaganda materials, its difference dependent on the level of pronounced disinformation. Stereotypes are propagated for mass consumption – policemen have square faces and maids wear ponytails, as stencilled characters and handwritten words depict an informal, anti-establishment viewpoint. 

Installation view of "Occupy Dataran" section

The clenched/raised fist is an international symbol for protest, its manifestation in Fahmi’s posters more powerful in the local context, considering that the authorities tried to ban this motif from a political party flag five years ago. Effective subversions include the distortion of recognised logos and established symbols, such as the blindfolded royal portrait from a banknote, a giant Syabas water tap, and a hilarious Jata Negara cartoon. An understated design proves to be the main criteria for personal favourites – the Malaysian flag’s yellow star melts in ’50 tahun ISA’, a black background emphasises the multi-layered veil masking the stark message ‘Gadis bertudung juga jadi mangsa rogol’, masking tape used as words in a #peoplepower graphic, and the muted yellow drawing for a ‘Foreign domestic worker campaign toolkit’ poster.

Installation view

With the advent of social media as an effective platform for activism, Fahmi’s newer creations are Facebook-friendly and feature more photographs, but lack the unembellished quality of a hand-drawn picture. The use of advertisement typefaces grab viewers’ attentions and helps raise awareness about current issues to a screen-scrolling obsessed public. Evident from the ongoing construction of the Warisan Merdeka Tower, drawing posters does not stop injustice, although looking at mushrooms does remind one of the Hong Kong protests. As Fahmi quotes in another interview, “I think it’s important for designers to ask what their role is to the public… To use the visual skills we have for social good, to support different causes. “ Raising public awareness is an undervalued act that is necessary towards the erosion of power, and this exhibition does a fantastic job at that.

Installation view of "Reclaim Merdeka Park" section

"Poster-poster yang aku lukis ini mungkin tak jadikan aku kaya dan tak berupaya mengubah negara, tapi kalau poster-poster aku ni boleh mengubah persepsi kau terhadap sesuatu isu, boleh mengubah cara kau melihat penguasa dan sistem penindasan yang berkuatkuasa, boleh mengubah perasaan empati kau terhadap mangsa ketidakadilan, boleh mengubah sikap kau dari tak peduli kepada turut sama bersolidariti dan ikut serta turun aksi, boleh mengubah hati dan semangat kau untuk merindukan kebebasan dan turut sama berjuang untuk perubahan, maka kerja aku selama 12 tahun bikin poster-poster ini sudah cukup bererti dan tidaklah sia-sia."
- Facebook post by Fahmi Reza on 14 October, 08:15 [quoted from Fahmi Reza's Facebook page] -

Installation view


  1. As the author of (among other books and essays) the cited article on the history of the clenched fist, I admire and salute this expression of resistance. Posters will always be part of the toolbox for social change.


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