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A clown face caricature of Malaysian PM Najib has landed its creator, Fahmi Reza, in hot water. The artist tells DW why protest art has been steadily gaining traction among Malaysians weary of an unchecked executive.
Accompanied by the hashtag #KitaSemuaPenghasut (Malay for "#We Are All Agitators"), Fahmi Reza's artwork was meant as a dig at a repressive colonial-era sedition law routinely used to stifle dissent.
In January 2016, Malaysian graphic artist and activist, Fahmi Reza, posted a sketch of Prime Minister Najib Razak as a clown on his Twitter account with the caption: "In 2015, the Sedition Act was used 91 times. Tapi dalam negara yang penuh dengan korupsi, kita semua penghasut (But in a country full of corruption, we are all agitators)." The police notified him that his Twitter account was under surveillance.
Fahmi had created the image in protest against Najib, who was alleged to have funneled millions of dollars into his personal bank accounts in 2013 from the indebted state-owned investment fund, 1MDB, which he founded in 2009. The fund is currently being investigated in several countries. Activists, artists or lawmakers who have criticized or exposed matters related to the scandal have since found themselves slapped with various charges from "breaching the peace" to "sedition."
Fahmi was eventually arrested for selling t-shirts bearing the clown image at a shopping complex. He was charged in June 2016 under Section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, which prohibits online content deemed to "annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass" others. He pleaded not guilty.
Last week, Fahmi was found guilty and sentenced to a month's jail and fined 30,000 ringgits ($7,650, €6,270). The jail sentence has been stayed, pending his appeal.
Meanwhile, his hashtag has steadily gained a following, and the clown image now graces merchandise from t-shirts to lapel pins to mock exercise books commonly used in Malaysian public schools. Following his sentence, Fahmi set up a crowdfunding page selling the merchandise to raise money to pay his fine. Malaysians raised more than he required in less than 24 hours. As of February 25, the amount stands at 54,209 ringgits.
Fahmi is one of several Malaysian artists who have been prosecuted for acts or art critical of the government. In an interview with DW, 41-year-old Fahmi shares his views about the prosecution and impact of protest art in Malaysia.
DW: First of all, was the clown face inspired by the character Pennywise, from Stephen King's novel "It"?
Fahmi Reza: (Laughs) Not really. But I did also design a parody image of Najib looking like Pennywise from the new movie remake of "It." Malaysian politics is a circus full of clowns, with Najib being the biggest clown of all, feeding us with lies to distract us from knowing the truth about his corruption and wrongdoing.
What signal do you think Malaysians have given the authorities through their speedy and successful response to your crowdfunding effort?
It is a signal that the culture of solidarity and resistance is growing stronger. People are no longer afraid to express their dissatisfaction with the government. They are standing up for freedom of speech and expression as enshrined under our federal constitution, and defending artists who are using their art as weapons of change.
It is as if your words in a previous interview have come true: "They can jail the rebel but not the rebellion." How did you feel when you saw the initial proceeds of the sale of your "offensive" clown items?
When I registered the crowdfunding campaign on the Pozible website, I set March 31 as a deadline because I initially expected that it would take at least one month for me to be able to raise the funds. But I ended up reaching the target in less than 24 hours. I was amazed that people were willing to openly defy the government by purchasing these subversive and "offensive" clown face items and helped to spread this visual protest symbol even more. This is truly an act of civil disobedience against this government that is abusing the country's laws to silence dissenting voices.
How relevant is protest art in the current Malaysian political climate?
Artists and designers are citizens too, and as citizens we have the power to use our skills and creativity to visualize the anger and outrage of regular citizens who are already fed-up with all the scandals and corruption. I believe that in a country where artists and satirists have been censored, arrested and incarcerated for their art, it is important that this vital form of artistic expression - parody and satire as a form of political protest - continues to be practiced and defended at all costs.
How successful has Malaysian protest art been so far in creating awareness and discourse among Malaysians, especially with regard to political wrongdoings or civil liberties?
I think the clown protest image has now been successfully transformed into a Malaysian symbol of rebellion. Just look at the thousands of subversive clown t-shirts that have been sold so far and the numbers of clown posters and stickers that have appeared in the streets of many cities all over the country. Kids have bought and worn the t-shirts and enthusiastically share selfies of themselves on social media using the hashtag #KitaSemuaPenghasut to express their protest and dissent. More young people are becoming aware that our country is being governed by clowns and crooks.
Other Malaysian artists have faced (or are still facing) legal action for protesting through their art forms. What is your view of the authorities branding protest art as a "breach of peace?"
The authorities and the ruling elite in this country don't have a good sense of humor, and will treat any form of political satire or parody against them as an act of sedition or defamation, and protest art as a "breach of peace." In the past, the authorities issued stern warnings and took severe action against political cartoonists, writers, musicians, theatre directors, and even bloggers and YouTubers for producing satirical work that they considered "offensive" and "disrespectful." These actions clearly show that the ruling elite have always been intolerant of dissent, especially creative forms of dissent. It also shows that they are acknowledging the power of protest art in stirring up the masses.
Will you continue "agitating" through art and are we to expect any new pieces in light of the upcoming elections?
I have been openly critical of the government in my work for the past 16 years, and have been arrested, banned and prosecuted for my art and activism even before this current criminal conviction for the clown graphic. I don't see any reason why I should stop now. I won't be cowed into silence. You can expect more subversive art coming from me this year.
Fahmi Reza is a political critic, street artist and documentary filmmaker based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The interview was conducted by Brenda Haas.