Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Stripes and Strokes

In George Town, a Proxy War for the Nation

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By Kathy Rowland

(1165 words, 5-minute read)

Coloured ink on paper. Only a society that polices gender and sexuality can turn ordinary photos into weapons of mass gay conversion.

Over the past eight iterations, the George Town Festival (GTF) has built an international name for itself as a gem of a festival – a small, crowd-pleasing melange of events set against the worthy decrepitude of a World Heritage site. Funded by the Penang State Government, the festival enjoyed additional cache as an opposition state success story where freedom of expression was allowed. That all came to a grinding halt days after GTF’s official opening on 4 August 2018.

The Penang State Secretariat, on the instructions of Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, ordered the removal of two portraits, of transgender activist Nisha Ayub and LGBTQ activist Pang Khee Teik from the Stripes and Strokes exhibition by photographer Moorayameen Mohamad.

Festival Director Joe Sidek complied, setting off a storm of public protest. The order, when it came, led Joe to make a calculated choice to “lose the battle and not the war”. Over the past eight years, the Penang government had given him “total freedom” to program works that pushed boundaries. “I would have been glorified if I’d made a stand and not removed the photos … but it would have meant that the Penang government would have receded from its permissiveness, towards a mainstream, ‘citrawarna’ festival. There are issues here that cannot be solved in one festival,” he said.

Artistic directors of festivals have many masters. But it needs to be said that for all stakeholders – including state and private funders – responsibility to the artists and art work is primary, for without them, there would be no festival. The biggest misstep by Joe Sidek was perhaps the failure to consult with Moorayameen, Pang and Nisha, and tap into a wider network of civil society players, allowing GTF to build a coalition of support that could have led to a different outcome.

Joe Sidek’s approach to festival programing has been informed by the context of Penang – the UNESCO heritage listing, the Penang government’s outsider status, and an embryonic arts infrastructure. Further complicating things is Joe’s own precarity, as a Malay-Muslim who has received death threats for his support of members of the Muslim trans community in the past.

Stripes and Strokes is itself an exemplar of GTF’s programming – works that tell stories and communicate on a person-to-person level. These are not radical, edgy images meant to cause discomfiture. Carefully composed colour portraits of politicians, activist and celebrities stare out with limpid eyes. The Malaysian flag enshrines each subject as heroic, evoking in the viewer a sentimental patriotism. Stripes and Strokes’ power comes from the way it makes unremarkable the inclusion of Nisha Ayub, a trans woman and Pang, an openly gay man. They are, like the other 26 subjects, simply a material fact of the nation.

The exhibition is at least a year old, having begun life as 60×60: sixty portraits of Malaysians by Moorayameen to mark the 60th anniversary of independence in 2017. Why then did it draw the attention, and action, of a federal minister only now?

GE14 was a watershed moment for Malaysians, but its significance varies. For some it was a referendum on the scandal-plagued Najib government. For others, it was the fulfilment of a 20-year battle for justice (and political power) that began with the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim. Many voted for change with the expectation that a more liberal society would follow. Others were happy for the incremental influence of theology on the nation state to continue.

Competing desires, a renewed interest in nation building, and an activated public space: the arena was set for different publics to gird their loins and fight over incidents with high symbolic currency. Enter child marriages, universities entrance issues, and the LGBT issues. In such an environment, the ordinary inclusivity of Stripes and Strokes was read as a radical act that could not go unchallenged.

On the campaign trail, Mujahid Rawa had asserted the citizenship rights of the LGBTQ community. In his new role as the Minister in charge of Religious Affairs however, Minister Mujahid communicated the fine print: tolerance on sufferance. Over the past week, it has been heartbreaking to watch the Minister – seen as a moderate – respond to the humanity of Nisha and the trans community and criticise the intolerance and hate directed at the LGBTQ community, only to placate his base with equivocations the next day.

Sadly, representatives from Penang – including Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy and MPs Nurul Izzah and Zairil Khir Johari, who were all at the GTF 2018 launch where the 28 portraits were proudly on display – have remained publicly silent. Where before, the opposition-led Penang government may have scored political points by defying a Federal minister’s call to remove the photos from the festival, the move from opposition to coalition requires obedience lest it fuel rumours of a fractured coalition.

Instead, elected officials have transmitted fear and bigotry, pathologised homosexuality and turned the community’s fight for the right to peaceful co-existence into a sinister attempt to corrupt the young, convert the straight and foist ‘foreign’ values on the nation.

It is a delicate time, as the nation tries to attain equilibrium and different stakeholders test out how best to navigate majority-minority interests (themselves a false binary), and create spaces for discourses guided by constitutional principles. While these undercurrents ferment, the removal of the two photos has opened the floodgates of public vitriol and aggression towards the LGBTQ community.

Charles Santiago, Chong Eng and Tony Pua are amongst the few lawmakers who have spoken against the censorship. MP Tony Pua, Director of the Penang Arts District, noted that while “one may object and disagree – that is the right of every person – but the portraits clearly depicted their (Pang and Nisha) existence … an attempt to remove the portraits is an attempt to erase their existence. That is the worst kind of censorship.”

When art is censored, it twice disappears. First, the physical removal, a scene cut, a painting removed, a film banned. Then, in the inevitable scrum of outrage, counter-outrage and BBC World reports, the meaning of the work – the nuance, artistry, form – is obscured. With Stripes and Strokes however, the censorship has backfired insofar as the photos of Nisha and Pang have become ubiquitous, reproduced in the international press and across social media. If they were not icons before, Nisha and Pang have certainly become so now, thanks to the good office of our Minster in charge of Religious Affairs.

The exhibition has evolved, as several of those featured have withdrawn their portraits in solidarity with Pang and Nisha, such as Alena Murang, Bernice Chauly and Siti Kassim. Small placards, with the words “Nisha Ayub was here” or “Marina Mahathir was here”, are witty placeholders, making visible the erasure. These acts of solidarity, public proliferation and creative humour have imbued the two works with a significance and mythic power that far surpasses the specifics of 28 colour photos.

Art can do that.


Kathy Rowland is the co-founder of ArtsEquator.com. Born and raised in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, she now lives in Singapore.

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