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