[Written by Christina Britto]
Colourful graphics, graffiti and strongly worded slogansadorned the walls of Coda, the art gallery at the Syopz Mall, as I walked along as a spectator to Ten years of Visual Disobedience; a exhibition consisting of 100 colourful posters and talk sessions with Fahmi Reza, held from 12 to 15 May 2014.
Fahmi Reza is a self –taught graphic artist and designer, researcher, director, punk rocker and activist. His first work of art was an album cover for a punk rock band. At that time, even though he had no knowledge of producing computer-generated graphics, he conceptualized and produced the entire project by hand – his payment was in the form of a few CDs.
At present, even though he has now acquired the knowledge to produce more than your average poster, he works for free, dedicating his work to aid NGOs and thereby empower those he thinks need it the most.
In the course of the decade that he has spent conceptualizing and designing posters he has not undertaken a single commercial task:
“I think people should have their own personal standards of ethics. I don’t feel comfortable using my skills to sell a product and to promote more to the consumer culture we have today. The thing with advertisements is that it makes people want things that they don’t need. I would rather play a role in motivating people to want things that are important than materialistic wants. I try to be a more socially conscious graphic designer,” he said.
In addition to his pro bono work with NGOs, Fahmi organizes free workshops for children during which he teaches how to create computer-generated typography and images, thus enabling them to produce artwork by themselves. He hopes that those he teaches will teach others in turn, encouraging more and more socially conscious graphic designers – something he thinks the world could use more of.
Walking around the art exhibition, one could hardly imagine that the creator of the many posters on display has a degree in Electrical Engineering, but it is precisely what Fahmi was awarded with; a scholarship to study in the United States.
Having completed his education, he returned to Malaysia in 2002. By 2004, he was already heavily involved in fighting for the causes he believes in. He designed a poster with all the required material for a protest against police brutality, staged an event in which people were invited to stand their ground and voice what they felt about the issue at hand in front of the Police Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
The authorities sought to arrest him, but rather than let the events of the day demoralize his ambition in life, it only stirred him more towards the cause and he is proud of the pressure he placed on the authorities on behalf of victims, who would have never otherwise received any justice for the hardships they faced.
From thereon it was a journey that involved giving a “voice to the voiceless” and tackling head on issues close to his heart. The park that he used to spend a lot of time in as a child was demolished in the nineties- by 2013 he was spearheading a protest against the proposed multi-billion Warisan Merdeka development, a 186-storey construction project on what was once the park.
People joined him in pasting posters on the hoardings that were utilized to encircle the space. Others brought chairs, artificial grass, food and even their kids to make a park of their own.
“I think it’s important to know about what’s going on in your city and to care about what happens to it. They took our park away, so we parked.”
Of course the authorities took down the posters, but rather than focusing on that aspect, Fahmi Reza chose to value the additional support that he managed to get from people both known and unknown to him.
Fahmi believes politics is the everyday choices people make, and does not think it is about elections or who is in power. He sees a lack of democracy in Malaysia, and does what he can to change it, a poster at a time.
Fahmi draws inspiration from the books he has read and billboards that he has seen on his drive home. In addition, he claims that other people have helped him develop his skill as a designer, or “his voice”, as he calls it.
He is an ardent supporter of the “doing-is-learning method” and encourages everyone to do the same, but warns that as everyone is different from one another. Methods that are effective for one will not necessarily be as effective for another, just as one artist’s creative expression will not be the same.