How PSA posters have been the visual language of the pandemic in Malaysia


  • Arts Premium
  • Monday, 08 Jun 2020

Arts activist and designer Fahmi was one of the first to start a PSA series, with works made even before the start of the March 18 movement control order. Photo: Fahmi Reza

Aleff Ahmad has had no murals to paint during this coronavirus outbreak, but he wasn’t sitting home idle.

In the early stages of the movement control order (MCO) period in Malaysia, the Kuala Lumpur-based freelance designer and muralist produced – and posted online – a series of Covid-19 awareness posters that were mainstream and informative.

Mirroring the “stay home” directives set in place by the MCO on March 18, Aleff’s messages were simple and concise: “Just Stay At Home, Duduklah Di Rumah, Duduk Diam Diam”.

Besides, who could say no to the endearing Super Mario when he cautions in familiar pixelated fonts, “Go Out, Game Over”? In this poster, which even children can relate to, you can almost hear the Super Mario music ringing in your ears.

“I’m just a designer and mural artist who hopes to contribute to spreading awareness. The posters have messages that are easy to understand because my goal is simply to remind people to stay home, ” says Aleff, who used pop culture references for his PSA work.

Aleff’s PSA series used pop culture references to present  #stayhome messages. Photo: Aleff Ahmad Aleff’s PSA series used pop culture references to present #stayhome messages. Photo: Aleff AhmadWhen he created his PSA poster series on Facebook, it had been several weeks into the MCO, but various degrees of non-compliance were still making headlines.

“There were people not complying with the stay home order and not taking the necessary precautions, ” he says.

Aleff’s posters arrived at a time when similar ideas and concepts were surfacing and shared online by Malaysian designers, illustrators and artists. Judging by the enthusiasm that met these Covid-19 themed works, perhaps it is indeed true that a picture paints a thousand words.

One of the earliest designers to warn about the Covid-19 was arts activist Fahmi Reza, who geared up for the PSA task in early March. His was a hard-hitting “Stay Home” series, inspired by the punk aesthetic of British artist Jamie Reid (who worked with The Sex Pistols). Fahmi picked the multilingual route with his PSA works, and even had an expletive-free versions of them so that the public could choose what to share.

Red Hong Yi, who goes by the moniker Red, is known for her use of unusual media. During the MCO, she produced a new series titled I Am Not A Virus – from a hashtag on Twitter that started in France, #Jenesuispasunvirus – created with items you can find in your pantry such as tea leaves, salt, coffee powder, rice, cake sprinkles, fennel seeds, goji berries and eggshells.

When a spate of anti-Asian racism attacks stemming from ignorance about coronavirus made headlines, Red saw this as a way to share her thoughts.

Red Hong Yi's anti-racism PSA series caught worldwide attention. In this work (made of fennel seeds), she pays tribute to Jonathan Mok, the Singaporean college student who was punched in the face in Oxford Street, London. Photo: Red Hong YiRed Hong Yi's anti-racism PSA series caught worldwide attention. In this work (made of fennel seeds), she pays tribute to Jonathan Mok, the Singaporean college student who was punched in the face in Oxford Street, London. Photo: Red Hong Yi

“Asians have been punched in the face, spat on, yelled at and turned away just based on their ethnicities. In my series, I highlight the stories of these people. Racism exists everywhere, in every skin colour, every country, every culture. I want us to be aware of that and make the conscious decision to stop it and to speak up against it. I want to believe that most people are kind and understanding, and that racism exists in the minority. I have an international following and thought I could use my platform to speak out against this, ” says Red, who was born and raised in Kota Kinabalu.

Also based in Sabah is the art collective Pangrok Sulap, which also began a daily PSA series in late March.

There is a deep sense of community spirit when it comes to Pangrok Sulap’s works in these times.

In one work, we visit a house where children are deep in sleep and the adults deep in worry, as they stare at a list of household expenses. The caption reads: “Good night. Dreams are not always beautiful”. In another piece that captures the situation during the early days of the MCO, we see children gazing out the window, longing for freedom like the birds that fly in the sky.

“Artists can play a role in helping to keep spirits up during these difficult times. We feel compelled to contribute in our own little way through art. I am a small town boy and I know what it is like to work hard just to make ends meet. So when we find ourselves in challenging times, my heart goes out to those in need, ” says Rizo Leong, one of Pangrok Sulap’s co-founders.Pangrok Sulap’s tribute to the countless volunteers across the nation who have sacrificed their time to help people in need. Photo: Pangrok SulapPangrok Sulap’s tribute to the countless volunteers across the nation who have sacrificed their time to help people in need. Photo: Pangrok Sulap

Keeping the energy alive

The burst of PSA posters online during the first, second and third MCO phases told a story of how art was getting the important messages across. Some committed artists and designers have stayed the distance with daily PSA work on their social media, while others have done sporadic messages in recent weeks. Some have stopped to take a break.

Even the most dedicated lot have had their share of PSA fatigue. Have all the themes and issues been used up?

For certain, Leong says the themes have changed. The issues have now been about coping with the new normal ahead.

“There are definitely no more PSA warnings about ‘toilet paper hoarding’. The pandemic has shifted the way we live, even in Sabah, nothing will be quite the same. So many people have lost their jobs, how will they survive? As artists, we will continue to find new ways to express these uncertain times through art, ” says Leong.

How will these works be remembered and are they being documented as coronavirus artefacts?

The Artortoise group, comprising Mohd Ikhsan Kamarudin, Mohd Ikhwan Kamarudin and Nur Sarah Adilin Mohd Darus, has had little time to think about how history will view their PSA series.

In recent weeks, Artortoise has gradually shifted its frontliner-based artwork (paying tribute to doctors, nurses, postal workers, etc) to capturing everyday MCO scenarios and how the new normal will look like.

With the #kitajagakita hashtag, this work by Artortoise is one of the endearing PSA works from the last three months. Photo: ArtortoiseWith the #kitajagakita hashtag, this work by Artortoise is one of the endearing PSA works from the last three months. Photo: Artortoise

"Just like many others who are sharing their work online, it’s a challenge to refresh recurring themes mostly revolve around social distancing, washing hands, staying home and frontliner tributes.“We aspire to deliver information in different ways. When touching on a heavy subject, it is sometimes important to adopt a lighter note when delivering the message so it reaches as many people as possible. If a singer or songwriter can influence listeners with their music or song lyrics, then we can use the same method but in a different form. In our case, this would be through illustrations, ” says Mohd Ikhsan.

Another series of PSA posters that went viral is titled Postcards For The Rakyat, an ongoing series by Syazri Zamrod, the self-taught graphic artist and illustrator behind Cultkids.

Postcards For The Rakyat was released as a collaboration between local apparel brand Tarik Jeans and Cultkids, with designs inspired by old advertisements, film and music from the 1950s era.

“I illustrated, designed and combined this with updated slogans on the do’s and don’ts during the Covid-19 outbreak. These posters have a signature Cultkids design, which is retro-natured, ” says Syazri.“I hope that these posters can be used by all Malaysians to share this message with their family, friends, colleagues and the public. It is a lighter take on things despite the seriousness of the situation and what it means to be Malaysian during this trying time. Let’s pull through together and come out of this stronger as a nation, ” says Syazri.

Postcards For The Rakyat started out with 10 posters, with additional works being shared throughout the CMCO.

A PSA poster by Cultkids, featuring the Malayan tapir. Photo: Cultkids/Tarik JeansA PSA poster by Cultkids, featuring the Malayan tapir. Photo: Cultkids/Tarik Jeans

Unsung role of art

With so many creative people sharing their pandemic/MCO themed works online, it is hard to miss how this form of visual communication has been utilised in these recent life-changing months.

Its reach has been far and wide, in part due to the fact that the outbreak and partial lockdown rules affect everyone.

Asian art specialist RogueArt’s Beverly Yong hopes that these engagement efforts of artists and other visual workers will continue as it has encouraged a wider appreciation of art and visual culture, and the role it plays in our lives as individuals and as a society.

“These art/design-based campaigns will surely remain as testimony of a specific important moment and the part artists played in it. Writers and researchers may well make note of them. This is also an important opportunity to get audiences and policy-makers to rethink this idea of art’s ‘value’, ” says Yong.

“A work of art’s monetary value is just one expression of its worth. The work of artists has many bigger values – it can be an effective means of social messaging as seen here, within a broader ambit of helping us find meaning in ourselves and our world, ” she adds.

Malaysia Design Archive (MDA)’s Jac SM Kee notes that visual communication has always spoken to us in a way that text cannot, for numerous reasons.

“Embedded within imagery are emotions, communication cultures – why something speaks to us in the way they do – and community sensibilities: design and artistic choices carry within them a long trajectory of history and culture which doesn’t always seem evident, but when unravelled, can be very revealing about what has influenced us along the way, ” says Kee.

“So it makes sense that this form is something that we take pleasure in engaging with, whether by sharing, archiving, being inspired to make more works and so on. In the age of social media where the entire dynamics is engineered for sharing, art is a very fertile seed for sharing because it is succinct, but also expansive in its ‘silences’ that allows for different kinds of engagement, ” she adds.

Need a haircut? Artortoise's art during the outbreak echoes our concerns. Photo: ArtortoiseNeed a haircut? Artortoise's art during the outbreak echoes our concerns. Photo: ArtortoiseKee notes that one of MDA’s core mission is to create space for archiving and documenting the visual landscape and history of our everyday spaces, and through that, to also look at the values, concerns and relationships we have with each other.

“In that sense, these visual expressions become very important historical artefacts of this moment. How are we understanding this crisis? What are the important messages we want to share with each other? Who are we seeing and speaking to?” she offers.

Simon Soon, who is also with MDA, muses that at this point, he is reminded by author Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a text in the MDA and Imagined Malaysia Counter Cartography reading group.

“There is a line that continues to resonate with me especially when everything seems dismal on the political horizon: ‘seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’ #kitajagakita and #migranjugamanusia are forms of caring that we hope will endure. The archive can give space to these forms, ” says Soon.

Are PSA works worth exhibiting?

The PSA art we see shared online often feels like a breath of fresh air, a visually fun way to convey important messages amid the repetition of MCO instructions in other forms.

“Where text may not have such a broad or immediate reach, visuals – whether posters, photography or comics – often seem much more accessible. These PSA posters are a way for artists to share their response with the public and they also reflect our concerns in these challenging times, ” says National Art Gallery (NAG) curator Tan Hui Koon.

“In our fragmented new reality, whether physically or psychologically distant, it is interesting to see how visuals speak to us, how they play such an important role in society and unify us as a community, ” she adds.

The NAG in Kuala Lumpur occasionally runs exhibitions featuring public art, such as graffiti art exhibition The Wall in 2018, or more recently, MyPost, which focused on Malaysian posters, which ended March 15.

However, Tan notes that when such work is brought into a gallery setting and becomes a commodity, it ends up being contradictory to the artist’s initial intention, or the spirit in which the artwork was created.

“We should be mindful that such public art will be seen in a different light when displayed in a gallery exhibition instead of in public spaces or online. Of course, for the purpose of education, research or documentation, it is something that galleries could consider, ” she adds.

The Pangrok Sulap collective will be remembered as one of the key sources for PSA artwork during the MCO. Photo: Pangrok SulapThe Pangrok Sulap collective will be remembered as one of the key sources for PSA artwork during the MCO. Photo: Pangrok SulapAs for the perceived surge in visibility in such kinds of visuals, Kee notes that it is not so much a recent “trend”, in that designers and artists have always engaged with current issues and concerns through their medium of expression.

So although the theme itself might be new in these unprecedented times, the call to action is not.

“For example, during elections, we also see many works of art and communication design that either speaks to an opinion or that shares helpful information. Or during campaigns that mark important issues, like the recent #migranjugamanusia online campaign that aimed to push back against the xenophobic attacks on migrants during this pandemic, ” says Kee.

“Many artists and illustrators also participated in this. In fact, memes have been one of the most vibrant and responsive forms of expression in this country – where imagery and wit come together in a perfect container of vernacular expression that is easily shared and appreciated between many people, ” she adds.

This current creation and sharing of work is very much part of this living tradition and way of engagement.

“It is great to also have this be recognised as a valuable form of contribution and participation to this moment where we are all trying to make sense of what is happening, to enact our sense of solidarity with each other, and to support in whatever form we have the most capacity to, ” concludes Kee.

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