The events leading up to the surprise overturning of Malaysia’s 61-year-old regime exactly a year ago included corruption, kleptocracy and dramatic politicking. These sound like key ingredients for artwork that is equally over the top. The art of Malaysian illustrator Charis Loke, however, moves away from satirising political heads and instead shifts the focus to the everyday man and woman and their seemingly small attempts to make a difference.
A year ago, on 9 May 2018, the citizens of Malaysia came together in droves to polling stations despite numerous attempts at bridling them. The climax of a reformation movement that started approximately 10 years ago, the political tsunami that was Malaysia’s 14th general elections ousted Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition for almost all of Malaysia’s years of independence from British colonisation.
The art scene had much to say about the Barisan National period and its conclusion. The media, too, cast the country’s politicians as heroes or villains. Loke’s illustrations, unsensational and focussed on Malaysia’s citizens, stand in contrast to that, as exemplified in her Bersih Rally Sketches. “Politicians may be the figureheads for parties,” she explains, “but at the end of the day the people who actually get things done are the regular people — like office clerks, teachers and council workers.”
Between 2007 and 2016, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) organised five mass rallies. Covering the 2015 rally, Loke used illustration to capture the human moments that could be found among its participants. This was a response to the flurry of photography and videos produced for mainstream media that concentrated largely on the size of the crowds.
Loke wanted to capture the moments of respite within the crowd, to focus on the gestures of and interactions between individuals. This plays into the overarching angle that she often takes when approaching issues that weigh on a nation— that big changes are often the culmination of small choices. “Everyone who was part of the crowd, who was there, had to make an individual choice to come.”
Loke explored creating protest art with her next work – Protest Flowers, a series made in response to the 2016 arrest of activist Maria Chin Abdullah, the chair of the Bersih rallies. Despite Loke’s anger about the injustice of the arrest, she picked the route of non-cynicism and positive visual imagery. She chose to draw flowers, a nod to their being a big part of protests around the world as well as symbols of growth and hope.
While the nation’s more prominent political artists, like Zunar and Fahmi Reza, drew provocative caricatures that struck a nerve in Malaysian society, Loke wanted to make art that was less about satire and more about highlighting the issues at hand.
“It’s quite easy to get carried away,” she says of the way social media users react to satirical art. Noting how comments can escalate from snide jokes to outright bashing that prevents critical discussion of complex issues, Loke says she doesn’t want to make “that kind of art”. She believes that art, satirical or not, can stand for something without ridiculing what it stands against.
Loke’s excitement about the events of 9 May 2018 shows in her attention to small details in her GE14 Sketches (of last year’s elections), from the faces in the campaign rallies to the specifics of the ballot box. This excitement has grown momentous for Loke, who was voting for the first time. “I don’t think I imagined that what happened would actually come to pass,” she says of the opposition coalition’s win.
A year has passed since the elections. Despite ongoing religious conservatism and bad news for the LGBTQ+ community, Loke reminds herself about the people working behind the scenes to set in motion positive change that may not show its effects until much later. “The politicians that were elected are definitely different,” she says, “but it will take a while to see how they run the country.”
Malaysia’s desire for urgent change will need to be balanced with the realisation that some changes could take decades. As Loke strives to make thoughtful and thought-provoking art that highlights the power of the people, what she teaches us, most importantly, is how to be a critic without losing one’s faith.
Adeline Chua is an arts and culture writer-educator based in Malaysia