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Shika, besides being an artist who has shown at the Singapore Biennale, a Nippon Foundation API (Asian Public Intellectual) scholar, a transgender activist, and a prolific blogger, designer, illustrator, and graffiti writer, is also lead singer for the Ting Tong Ketz.

I watched them play a couple of weeks ago. ‘Pulang, marilah pulang, ke pangkal jalan…’ chanted Shika, in a song she dedicated to JAKIM. She pointed to the crowd, and on cue, we screamed the refrain: ‘TAK NAK!!!’

The joy of that refusal: I felt it crack out from under my ribs and bounce across the room – unapologetic, free.

‘Pulang ke pangkal jalan’ is what we say to people who’ve strayed off the path. It’s a call to come back, back to the crossroads, before you went wrong. They’re iron words in a velvet glove, often used by those with power – the state, religious authorities, parents, society – to persuade you that not only is their path better and safer, it’s the only one that’s true.

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One of my favorite Shika designs is the logo for Pangkal Jalan Pub. I have it sewn above the left pocket of my number one jacket, which I wore to the opening of “Buang Bayi”, where Pangkal Jalan Pub transformed from an idea into something real. Shh… Diam! (the sharpest and funniest band in Malaysia right now, btw) set up a bar on folding tables, DJ CT spun from her collection of vintage Malay pop, and visitors toasted to the only paths worth taking – our own.

The society we live in makes some paths much more perilous than others. Being a transgender person in Malaysia means traveling a road strewn, literally, with dead bodies, but also, discrimination, abuse, exploitation, rejection and violence.

To call “Buang Bayi” an exhibition about transgender issues would be like putting a label next to an arrow pointing to somewhere in an exploding nebula, and saying: here, this is what this is, and this is how you should look at it.

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Instead, Shika’s show makes me feel like I’m inside a spaceship. From there, I see that a world in which gender was radically redefined would be a world expanded beyond recognition.

In the sheer density of creation and universe building, Shika reminds me of Eko Nugroho, or Yoshitomo Nara, only about a hundred times more fun. The space – Kerbauworks is artist Yee I-Lann and punk rocker Joe Kidd’s multipurpose studio – is stuffed, wall-to-wall, with zines, posters, paintings, patches, sculptures, toys, t-shirts, tote bags, buttons, postcards, drawings, prints and more. In one corner sits her guitar, in another are sashes meant for the beauty queen, MISS GENDERED.

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The amount of material created in all manner of techniques and mediums is almost dizzying. There’s the campaigns she created for I AM YOU: BE A TRANS* ALLY, and Justice For Sisters, infographics on SOGIE, fictional characters, autobiographical cartoons, and on and on. But there’s an order to this universe – formed by Shika’s virtuoso sense of design, as well as a syntax of recurring symbols: mirror, bicycle, raft, unicorn, butterfly, roadside table, and humans escaping from their own skins, amongst others.

It’s an alternate galaxy tethered to earthy reality. Take the exhibition title “Buang Bayi”, which refers to the disturbing recurrence of baby dumping in Malaysia, or the aforementioned Pangkal Jalan Pub: Shika twists familiar images into a multi-angled mirror, simultaneously reflecting back to the world an image of itself as it is, and as it could be.

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Shika’s universe was made to be distributed. If you took a piece of it home, whether a painting or a patch, it feels like another baby would quickly spawn and be dumped in its place. Most days, the artist was on site, singing songs, drawing alternate gender portraits of visitors, making paintings, and updating to Instagram. It’s the model of an art exhibition as a living, breathing, social thing, and not, as I’ve said before, dead objects on display for two weeks.

What Malaysian society and media tells us about transgender people and gender identity is a feedback loop of ignorant garbage. We can’t even get the pronouns right. Don’t worry, I’m learning too. Read this handy guide to transgender terminology. It’ll take you 5mins.

Shika built a spaceship for an expanded universe that doesn’t exist yet. She filled it to overflowing with beauty, joy, solidarity, punk rock and a future in which anything’s possible. I want to go where it’s going, into the deep unknown.

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Buang Bayi: An Exhibition by Visual Artist Shika/Shieko Reto, 12 – 27 March 2016, KerbauWorks, 11 Lorong Kurau, Bangsar.

Review of “Buang Bayi” by Art KL-itique

Shika’s blog, Tumblr, Instagram.

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When I think about last year, my mind turns to mash – I can’t remember if I did a thing five months ago, or two years ago. So I’ve been putting this off, because I don’t want to think about what that formlessness of time might mean. Why do the days of 2015 seem like a solid block I can’t enter, where can’t see myself in time?

One possible reason is that I tried to be at least three different people simultaneously.

Sharon-1 wanted to do journalism. Somehow she got attached to the idea of what it meant to be a journalist: objective, authoritative and inherently useful to the public. Maybe she wanted to get away from all the ambiguity and subjective doubt in art – its apparent uselessness, its aura of weakness. This made things harder than they had to be, because those reflexes had already been imprinted on her mind like a muscle memory.

I went places, talked to people, then came home to draw and write stories about what I’d observed (including observations of myself observing things). Mostly I paid attention. I don’t know if I was being a good journalist (for one thing, I can’t write to deadline, which is, like, a baseline requirement), but I was an artist doing something akin to journalism.

For ‘In The Land That Never Was Dry‘, I’d planned to do six illustrated pieces about water issues in Malaysia. I barely managed three.

One was about micro-hydro electricity in the interiors of Sabah, and another about hundred year-old wells in Kampung Hakka Mantin. The draft of the last one, about connecting water pipes in Sarawak, I submitted to my editor hours before the year ended.

Each one felt like wrestling a beast in a dark cave for months, only to find, on cutting off its head, that it was my own shadow.

In August, I went to the Tangkap Najib and Bersih 4 protests, and did stories on both. Those were easier, more immediate. I learned that the more time elapsed after an event, the more a story would turn into that dreaded shadow beast. Better to kill it quick, when it’s young and fresh and dripping life.

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Draft I submitted just before the year ended

 

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Sharon-2 was still a contemporary visual artist, no matter how much she disavowed the ‘art world’, no matter how hybrid her practice. In fact, 2015 marked a solid decade of making and showing art professionally.  While in university getting a parent-sponsored fine arts degree, she remembers flipping through the glossy pages of Art Asia Pacific and dreaming about the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, because Montien Boonma, an artist she admired beyond anything, had taken part one year.

In truth, although my love for Montien Boonma’s work hasn’t diminished, that dream does not occupy the same space it once did. I don’t mean a higher or lower place, as if on a ladder, but space – either I’m bigger, or the dream is smaller.

In any case, it was still something of a big fucking deal, and it’s stupid to say otherwise. Taking part in APT8 was fun, an honor, stimulating, profitable, problematic and hard, hard work. I made 10 WEEDS paintings in 6 weeks, and burnt out the muscles in my eyes, neck and right arm in the process.

I also made activity pages for the Kid’s APT publication, which was pure joy to do.

In November, I went to Brisbane for the opening of APT8. The walls of Queensland Art Gallery are fancy and beautiful. I thought about 2013, when the first series of WEEDS paintings were shown in a one-night gig/art party at Merdekarya. It was a grungier space, but no less beautiful, and certainly more beloved. Both, I thought, nodding to myself. That’s the challenge. The work has to hold up in both places. But what satisfied me most was that I’d made it for Malaysia first.

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Top: Weeds/Rumpai Series I at Merdekarya. Middle: Series II in progress at home. Bottom: Series II in APT8

 

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Sharon-3 was trying to reconcile -1 and -2, trying to knit the disparate threads together; prevent any notion of a harsh and foolish split. She tried all sorts of things.

She filled a binder with inconsequential drawings on foolscap paper and called them antidotes.

She wrote a thing, which, for the first time in her life, she was actually afraid to publish. She even read it out loud to a room full of people.

She made linocuts for someone’s stories, and together they pasted these up at bus stops along Jalan Pudu.

She sent emails.

She watched Mad Max: Fury Road over and over. She took her mother and father to watch Mad Max: Fury Road. She watched the greatest friendship of her life wither, then die. She watched the sunset, drinking whiskey to dull the pain of being an animal capable of feelings, hunger, loss, and muscle fatigue.

She wasted time on the internet. She wasted time worrying about wasting time, wanting every moment to be accountable, unaware that -1 and -2 were doing the same, and that was why the animal was tired, why it wept – it was trying to tell you only machines can use a moment more than once.

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The first image (source) is a screencap from Whisper of The Heart (Studio Ghibli, 1995, dir. Yoshifumi Kondo). Zedeck and I watched it on new year’s eve. He wrote about it, and it says something about our hopes for 2016, better than I can.

Here is a bumper pack of antidote drawings I didn’t manage to post before the year ended. I made one for the first day of the new year, and it’ll be the last one. They’ve served me well, now it’s time for something else.

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This was during the terrible slog of trying to produce the draft for a big illustrated story about my trip to interior Sarawak. I went through several more months of stopping, stalling and restarting before finally completing it, just as 2015 came to a close.

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Mini-PSB’s name is hard to explain. I shall try: We had a dear cat called Penyu, who we lost a couple of years ago. There was a similar-looking cat – all white with an elegant face – around the neighbourhood, so we called her Penyu’s Sister. Then a tom cat starting hanging around Penyu’s Sister, so we called him Penyu’s Sister’s Boyfriend, i.e PSB. He was the blackest cat we had ever seen, and he had a furry stump for a tail. Later, Penyu’s Sister disappeared, but PSB started romancing another cat (Chicken’s Sister – another story, I won’t get into it) who came to us for food once in awhile. They had kittens, and the only one who survived was the one who looked exactly like PSB, so we called her Mini-PSB. True story!

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Around this time I started getting chronic eye strain, which sounds like the lamest thing, but in my line of work, turns out to be debilitating.

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I took a long trip to KL, and when I came home to Port Dickson, Mini-PSB was gone. I did a page of these drawings as a way to be sad (some of them made it into this story about Bersih 4), not really expecting her to come back. The next day she showed up, angry and demanding to be fed.

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Happy new year! I bought boxing gloves and took up boxing again.

More on feeling the animal, and more on the internet wanting all your time.

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Antid Oto – italian for antidote – was one of Leon Trotsky‘s earliest pen names. I also love the Malay word for it: penawar. A few months ago, I started taking regular walks and making drawings afterwards as a way to deal with worry, procrastination, hopelessness, writer’s block, internet rage, and digital distraction. 

 

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This is an illustrated story documenting my time at Bersih 4, a street protest which took place from 2pm on 29 Aug 2015 to midnight the next day in Kuala Lumpur. It’s drawn in india ink on different kinds of paper, including a hotel letter and song sheets I saved from the protest.

The original artwork is being shown as part of Person(a): An Investigation into Self at Black Box, Publika, until 8 Nov 2015. I’m also showing documentation of ‘Mandi Bunga/Flower Bath‘, a project from 2013, which is based on my participation in the earlier Bersih rallies.

Thanks to Zedeck Siew who contributed to the text. Click images to enlarge in a new window.

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Works installed in Person(a): An Investigation into Self at Black Box, Publika, 31 Oct – 8 Nov 2015. On the floor is documentation of ‘Mandi Bunga/Flower Bath‘ project, and on the left side of the wall are original drawings for the Mandi Bunga zine, both from 2013.

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Deadlines

Deadlines

Deadlines

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Deadlines

No time no time no time no time. Late late late late late. Falling behind. Not keeping up. Stuck.

What if you just let it take the time it takes? Where would it go if you let it go where it needed?

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Antid Oto – italian for antidote – was one of Leon Trotsky‘s earliest pen names. I also love the Malay word for it: penawar. A few months ago, I started taking regular walks and making drawings afterwards as a way to deal with worry, procrastination, hopelessness, writer’s block, internet rage, and digital distraction. I’ll post a series of them here, one every other day, for as long as I keep making them.