I have recently just returned from a trip to Malaysia and Singapore, where i was invited to paint a mural, as well as give various talks and seminars, between the dates July 4th-9th. Once again, much like my tours of other places such as the USA and Australia, a very intensive experience, where back to back, my schedule was packed out.
Invited over by the the Young Muslims Project and the British Council Malaysia, for the Knowledge & Arts Tour, which included myself as the artist, as well as various islamic scholars from the west, one of those being Imam Suhaib Webb, an american convert to islam.
This project was unique in how it brought islamic knowledge through lectures and combined that with the visual arts as way to inspire the people of Kuala Lumpur. It certainly did inspire the people, as it recieved widespread coverage in the KL media, including a primetime breakfast show slot on national tv. I was told that this was one of the first times anything like this has taken place in Kuala Lumpur, where religion and Islam was discussed so openly on television, where the youth had something alternative to the regular islamic lectures in mosques. This was revolutionairy, and i was excited to be a part of it.
For the opening of the event, I delivered my talk ‘Can graffiti really change the world?” which is a visual presentation, a journey through the history of graffiti, from cave inscriptions thousands of years ago, through to the 70′s graffiti of New York. I spoke about my work, my personal journey, and then showing them various murals i’ve done from around the globe. It was a very visual presentation, with about 50 slides in total! I like to keep it interactive, so I encouraged Q & A, where I engaged more so with the audience. The audience was mainly young muslims, but it seemed to me, they were curious about this alternative style of graffiti that I was doing, which quite boldy and unashamedly, displayed an expression of islam. Kuala Lumpur, like any other major city in the world, has its own graffiti scene, and you can see the usual scrawlings of tags on various walls, to the more artistic and colourful expressions, but certainly, like all the other places i’ve visited, the people of KL had not seen anything like this before.
Suhaib Webb’s talk inspired the youth, and you could tell the people were mesmerised by this american convert to Islam. One thing that excited me about this whole project, was how being side by side with islamic scholars – me as just a graffiti artist – were bringing sacred knowledge and the arts together on the same platform was very unique and innovative. This is how it should be! In fact, the night before I met up with Imam Suhaib Webb, to discuss what themes I could explore within the mural i paint in KL. Who would have thought, an Imam and a graffiti artist planning a graffiti mural?! Thats a first for me!
After the talks, i did a quick demo piece on some boards, just outside the lecture hall. It was a good taster for the people of whats to come. A nice crowd gathered, and a lot of people got to have a go. I had support from a local graffiti crew PhobiaKlik, who assisted in showing the people how to paint.
After the opening session, I had various other events planned, an intimate talk at the Annexe gallery and at the Cyberjaya Multimedia University with the students. At both of these events I delivered my talk again to a different audience, an arty crowd, as well as students. But I did my best to talk about issues relevant to them, so at the art gallery, we also spoke about artist development, funding, responsibilities as an artist etc, and at the university issues such as motivation and personal development came up.
At the Annexe art gallery event, it was great to meet and hear from local graffiti artists. There is an emerging graffiti art scene in KL and I enjoyed being able to engage with those guys. I said to those guys if I return to KL, i’d like to paint with them sometime. Thats the kind of thing graffiti artists do, if you respect an artist, you paint with them, and do a kind of collaboration.
Whenever i visit a place to paint, I like the murals to reflect the societies i visit. I like to incorporate issues which the people are feeling, and be influenced by the environment around me. I like to immerse myself into that place and just absorb everything. I like talking to people and getting to hear about what life is like for them, what problems the youth face etc. Murals are the voice of a city, they tell a lot about a place, which is why i think its important to understand the city i visit.
As part of my quest for inspiration, i explored the city and took photos of various buildings. I also had read a lot about the Batik patterns of this region, unique to this part of the world, especially the floral/geometric style. I was taken to Selangor Islamic Arts Complex, which is like a museum of traddtional islamic arts and discovered these patterns which were unique to Malaysia. They had their own Quran printing facility, and the illumination of each of the pages of the Quran were done by experts at the centre. I started snapping away at these floral patterns, which i wanted to incorporate into the mural.
I had asked about the script of Malaysia before I arrived, and was dissappointed to hear that it was the same as in english, using roman script! But upon arriving, i’m informed about the revival of the Jawi script – which was the Malay language but written in arabic script – now thats more like it! So we had one of the expert calligraphers of the centre, write some words in Jawi script. I asked him to write Truth for me in Jawi. This was now getting exciting, incorporating a local Jawi calligrapher into the mural i was painting. I explained to him what I was going to do, he looked a bit puzzled, but I encouraged him to come along and help me on the day.
The final mural took me 3 days to complete. Good crowds turned up throughout to witness its creation. A lot of people were able to get involved at the start filling in block areas of colour, but of course there came a point where i had to take over and do the detailed parts.
Progress was hindered by having to do many media interviews while the wall was being painted, which was organised by the British Council. We encouraged the press to come near the end of the murals completion, just so that they have a nice visual backdrop to do interviews against. Many a time on projects like this, we have had newspapers turn up at the start of the mural to find a blank white wall, much to the dissappointment of the newspapers photographers!
I always embrace media if they wish to cover what i do, for one reason. The walls i paint with striking powerful messages for the whole of humanity, will be appreciated by hundreds and thousands of those who walk past that wall every day. But with media, you are multiplying the benefit, with millions now hearing and seeing about this wall.
The message of this mural was very simple, “TRUTH” written primarily in the local Jawi script, which is actually the Malay language but written with arabic script, then the word for truth in arabic written in arabic, as Haqq, then the translation of the word truth into Malay, which reads Kebeneran, and then of course good ol’ english TRUTH! So bringing together the various words for truth, with a backdrop of the Kuala Lumpur skyline, incorporating the tradditonal, local Batik floral patterns.
I met many people who are keen to develop future programs in KL. I would be more than happy to return, and be part of something that will contribute something longer term, rather than the one-off sporadic events. I am used to doing one-off events, but i’m always hopeful for organisers to develop something ongoing, whether its with myself or not – thats not my concern, I just love to see progresss in a community.