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The activist artist and the Malaysian palette

 | March 25, 2017

It's funny that Zunar was not at a forum on editorial cartooning.



It’s disappointing that Zunar, Malaysia’s most controversial cartoonist, was not on the panel of last Monday’s forum on Press Cartoonists and Society, organised by Alliance Francaise to celebrate French Language Day.

The two Malaysians who did speak at the event, practising cartoonist Reggie Lee and Universiti Teknologi Mara’s cartoons and comics lecturer Muliyadi Mahamood, can both be described as people who play it safe.

Both made reference to Zunar’s work. Lee said he disagreed with Zunar’s focus on a small group of characters and advised him to diversify by drawing other people. Muliyadi said Zunar was too provocative. But both praised his talent.

Lee said that he practised self-censorhip because he had no desire “to give problems to the editors”. Muliyadi, in discussing censorship, said the Malaysian environment was strained and he blamed government policies and issues related to media ownership.

Others who spoke at the forum were French comic artist and writer Nicole Lambert and Belgian cartoonist Cost. They said they enjoyed complete freedom in their countries.

While it is Lee’s and Muliyadi’s right to criticise or advise Zunar, they could have gone a little more deeply into the oppressive atmosphere that Malaysian activist artists work in.

Some artists see it as their duty to bring about positive change through provocation, and that’s what Zunar does. Indeed, provocation can be an effective method of getting a message across to decision makers, especially if the institutions of state have lost their independence.

Any political cartoonist worth his salt would try to articulate what the people are thinking.

Zunar is not the kind of cartoonist who uses his talent to glorify the niceties of our daily lives. He is bold, up close and personal. He draws our attention to the corruption, the abuse of power and the injustices that are perpetrated by the corrupt.

His canvas is not cluttered with scenery or idyllic social scenes. His brush strokes convey what you need to know. There is nothing sinister or seditious about his work unless you are his subject.

Instead of telling Zunar how to become more acceptable, Lee and Muliyadi should have praised him for being daring and funny at the same time.

Zunar’s presence at the forum would have made the discussion more lively. Why wasn’t he invited to the forum? Was Alliance Française practising self-censorhip so as not to upset the authorities or embarrass Lee and Muliyadi? Zunar would certainly have overshadowed the two.

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

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