Indie art zine delves into Malaysia's gaudy and garish aesthetic


For Jun Kit, a Malaysian hair salon is incomplete without mannequin heads, as featured in the 'Ugly Malaysiana' zine series. Photo: Jun KIt

It's said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But how about ugliness?

It’s a question that led graphic designer Jun Kit, 41, to create his zine series Ugly Malaysiana, an exploration of the gaudy, the garish and the tacky.

“I often have thoughts like why can’t we have a prettier subway logo? Why are our government websites so cheap looking? Why do ‘Ah Bengs’ like changing LED lights so much?”

“So the zine became a cathartic project, where I can go against the grain of ‘good taste’ as a means of coping with mixed feelings of living in a country with such a low focus on design, craft or aesthetics,” said Jun Kit.

Discussing the genesis of the zine, the artist, originally from Seremban, observed a trend over the past few decades. He noted that the proliferation of social media and the widespread adoption of photo editing apps have homogenised visual content, resulting in a “sameness” across various platforms.

“That visual culture of minimalist, tasteful everything (fonts, interiors, layouts and designs) made me crave spontaneity and rawness – generally, just something fun, localised and relatable, so I set up a blog (and later on, an Instagram account) with ugly, unfiltered imagery and campy commentary,” he explains.

Through this 'Ugly Malaysiana' project, Jun Kit (with cap on) has navigated diverse visual expressions and evolving cultural shifts. It’s freeing to break away from conventions and rules, he says. Photo: Kah Min/KLABFThrough this 'Ugly Malaysiana' project, Jun Kit (with cap on) has navigated diverse visual expressions and evolving cultural shifts. It’s freeing to break away from conventions and rules, he says. Photo: Kah Min/KLABF

The “Ugly Malaysiana” Instagram account is decidedly the opposite of aesthetic, from Ah Lian tiles, potholes the size of trucks and gold-painted homes in the kampung to banners with cheap fonts, but rich in humour and the Datin obsession with gilded everything.

Some inclusions extend beyond design-related topics, delving into instances of behavioral “ugliness,” such as queue-cutting.

“I took on a colloquial voice peppered with ‘Manglish’, seasoned with some ‘rempit-ness’ for the captions. Since the posts did well, I decided to continue the project as a zine,” said Jun Kit.

Not follow ‘the rules’

In a Malaysian context, the zine’s title is pretty self-explanatory.

Ugly Malaysiana is both straightforward and sort of comical – who would call themselves ugly!? But it also embodies the spirit of the project – the poignancy of celebrating the underdogs, the undocumented, the unimpressive, and of course, laughing about the craziness of it all,” said Jun Kit.

The cover of Jun Kit’s 'Ugly Malaysiana: Volume 3' zine. Photo: Jun Kit The cover of Jun Kit’s 'Ugly Malaysiana: Volume 3' zine. Photo: Jun Kit

But what qualifies as “ugly Malaysiana”?

Jun Kit suggests that “ugly Malaysiana” manifests in various forms, from cheeky DIY signboards at food bazaars, characterised by an overuse of typefaces and Photoshop effects, to kitschy laminated wall decor in government hospitals. Additionally, it can be seen in the nouveau riche baroque gates of a wealthy businessman’s mansion or the flamboyant and campy style of a music video produced by a beauty mogul.

It could also be disappointing behaviour that will make you laugh and/or cry, such as those who defiantly throw rubbish below “Dilarang membuang sampah” signs.

“Working on this project has helped me make sense of the variety of visual expressions and changing cultural trends. It’s been liberating to be able to go all out and not follow ‘the rules’, as this is not governed by any external client or boss,” said Jun Kit.

“I have a lot of weird pictures of things from the past decade, so there was a lot of material to pull from,” he added.

An interior view of the 'What's Ugly' spread in the zine 'Ugly Malaysiana: Volume 3'.  Photo: Jun KitAn interior view of the 'What's Ugly' spread in the zine 'Ugly Malaysiana: Volume 3'. Photo: Jun Kit

Volume 1 of the zine was released in 2016 as a limited edition risograph-printed zine, while Volume 2 was a feature within the first issue of indie culture magazine Process, published in Dec 2019. The latest volume, Volume 3, was released last December in conjunction with the Kuala Lumpur Art Book Fair 2023.

“Volume 1 was very zine-like, with chaotic collages, fake romance book titles and a legitimate 'rempit' love letter, among other things.”

“For Volume 3, I looked for juxtapositions – Elsa’s face from Frozen, distorted on a tudung, beside a bowl of colourful ais batu campur; or an image of grease dripping down a white wall, placed next to an image of a charmingly naive waterfall mural,” said Jun Kit.

Volume 3 also features contributions from artists, writers and designers on “What Is Ugly?”, in addition to mini essays, stories and collated photographs with extended captions on the themes of Malaysiana architecture, urban decay and aspirational “Datuk Datin” lifestyles.

'Ugly Malaysiana: Volume 1' by Jun Kit remains accessible for zine enthusiasts. Photo: Jun Kit'Ugly Malaysiana: Volume 1' by Jun Kit remains accessible for zine enthusiasts. Photo: Jun Kit

Loosely following the Ugly Malaysiana aesthetic is Jun Kit’s Dalam Bilik Tidur, a latex ink on vinyl sticker which was included in the Favouritism Is My Favourite-Ism group exhibition at The Back Room KL in last December. The art piece features colourful photos of rooms up for rent arranged according to hue.

“Greatly inspired by Simryn Gill’s Dalam series of interior photographs, but through the Ugly Malaysiana lens, this piece offers a peek into recurring Malaysiana motifs and room details, such as fluorescent lights, soft toys, steel bed frames, kitschy art and sentimental deco,” he said.

“I see a sense of newness and ‘sterile-ness’ within 1990s-2000s housing fixtures. Not lived-in, just a blank canvas for out-of-towners who need to be settled into KL for work, for the most part. From afar, it resembles a pixelated rainbow gradient,” said Jun Kit about the piece.

Beyond the zine, Jun Kit has kept busy with various book design projects, including Anna Salleh’s Salleh Ben Joned – Truth, Beauty, Amok And Belonging, and the Maya Press reissue of Kam Raslan’s Confessions Of An Old Boy.

He was also involved in the art direction and lettering for the poster of the award-winning film Tiger Stripes, marking Amanda Nell Eu’s directorial debut.

The film clinched the Critics’ Week Grand Prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, with Jun Kit also crafting the movie’s handwritten opening title.

Ugly Malaysiana: Volume 1 and Ugly Malaysiana: Volume 3 can be found at local shops such as The Ilham Gallery Gift Shop, Menara Ilham, KL; Narrow Marrow, George Town, Penang; The Back Room, The Zhongshan Building, KL; Ilaika Select Store, Taman Paramount, PJ; and Bandat Record Store, Kuching.


Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!
   

Next In Culture

Tracing Chinese memory and identity in Indonesia's history
French author Leila Slimani drafted for Paris Olympics role
Gen Z puts a fresh spin on Kafka and various literary classics through TikTok
Bronze echoes: Gamelan studio resonates in downtown KL
Author Oliver Jeffers makes climate picture books for adults and kids alike
Opera show revisits WWII hero Sybil Kathigasu's bravery
As Gaza war rages, Palestinian cultural life silenced in Israel
Pioneering US video artist Bill Viola dies aged 73
108yo Ipoh Town Hall to be turned into performing arts centre
George Town Festival: where art and culture steal the scene, bring people together

Others Also Read