Patriotism through street art

A week before our national day, I was walking along Johor Baru’s Jalan Ibrahim to go to an event at Eh He gallery but when I reached its front door, my path was blocked by a crane truck with its boom raised against the wall of the building.

Artist See Poh Chen, calling out directions
to the crane operator to adjust the boom!
I looked up and spotted artist See Poh Chen on the platform, calling out directions to the crane operator who was working hard to adjust the boom’s position to let her continue painting her wall mural.  

I recognized her design with mythical birds and whales and the familiar figure of a little girl wearing red and a blindfold from her mural painted on a wall within Eh He but here, the little girl was holding a huge bunch of coloured balloons.  My curiosity increased when I spotted yet another wall mural rendered in a dramatically different style on the wall of the corner shop across the road.

I got hold of Eh He’s Art Director, Yap Leong, who is also See’s husband, who filled me in on what he and his artistic team have been doing for the Petronas #tanahairku project.  From where we stood, he pointed to another wall mural on the UMNO building at Jalan Segget and told me that several local artists have also been commissioned to complete their wall murals at four other sites in JB’s heritage area in time for the official launch before the national day.

#tanahairku JB

In the days before the Petronas launch event, I read a few Facebook posts with curious questions about the wall murals on several buildings in the heart of the city.  Photos of these artwork on familiar streets was stirring up interest and I patiently waited for the launch event to get a clearer picture of what was happening to our city walls.

Kita Jaga Sama-sama by Taib Aur and Jeps
Then I met with the artists who shared their thoughts about the artwork they had to complete in a short space of time.  When the artists took me on a walk to look at their wall art, I learnt more about the artworks for the #tanahairku project that portrayed the artists’ personal reflections of Merdeka and its meaning to them.

Taib Abdul Razak, better known as Taib Aur, a founding member of the Johor Sketchers, teamed up with Jefri Abdul (Jeps), to create their wall art on the wall of The Fitting Room at the corner of Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Trus.  Entitled, Kita Jaga Sama-sama, this literally translates as “we protect together.”  Their creative expression is boldly illustrated by a gigantic pair of hands holding twin towers of colourful Lego bricks that represent the National and the Johor flags. 

“JB is the home to the first Legoland Park in Asia so we decided to include the iconic Lego bricks in our design,” said Taib who explained that their design depicts a legacy of a nation and its state which in reality, is no child’s play.  It rests in the hands of its people.  With Malaysia’s rich multi-racial landscape, the need to protect the peace and harmony in our nation is crucial.

Magical Land by the Eh He team led by Yap Leong
and See Poh Chen
Directly opposite, the façade of the Eh He building was covered in an intricate design with mythical birds and whales, and icons of the main ethnic groups featuring the familiar figure of a little girl wearing a red dress and a blindfold.  Magical Land, the artwork by the Eh He team led by Yap Leong and See Poh Chen, tells the story of a girl’s journey into a captivating world where different cultures and traditions merge in a unique identity we call Malaysian. 

“The little girl is wearing a blindfold so as to listen more intently and begin to appreciate each other’s beauty in diversity,” said Yap who aims to remind viewers to learn from each other and work towards building a beautiful homeland where all can live in peace and harmony.

Bahtera Merdeka by Snake Two and Cuz One
Two blocks down Jalan Trus where the road meets Jalan Dhoby, I see the artwork on the wall of Roost Juice Bar by Muhammad Abqari Ahmad Shakri who goes by the moniker, Snake Two, and Muhammad Azri Zahri or Cuz One.  Entitled, Bahtera Merdeka, the image of a war ship dubbed Merdeka, was sailing through obstacles and riding over waves of challenges to achieve independence, as a tribute to Malaysia’s naval heritage.  The ship is painted against a background of the Port of Tanjung Pelepas while the adjacent wall is covered by the outlines of a nautical map.

From where we were standing on Jalan Trus, the artists Iqbal Hareez Osman and Cheong Jiun Wei pointed to their towering piece of artwork that featured the profile of a roaring tiger painted on the UMNO Building at Jalan Segget.  They explained that their artwork, The Tiger Roars, with an eye-catching roaring tiger, is a symbol of a sovereign nation, surrounded by modern development while it stands tall protecting the nation, undeterred by any challenges.

Just a few steps further up Jalan Trus, the wall of an old City Council building diagonally opposite Hua Mui restaurant has been transformed by the artwork by Muhammad Danial Awang Samad (Nellaone) and Iskandar Noor Rahim (Akeem).  The art entitled, Muafakat, depicts two children hanging out clothes while their mother is looking out from an upstairs window.  The traditional costumes they have hung out represent the 3 main race groups in this nation, all hanging on a clothes line that aptly portrays the concept of Muafakat where each race is irrevocably linked together!

Social Cohesion

The national oil company, Petronas, has earned a reputation for their memorable festive TV commercials and I have my favourites by award-winning film director, writer and scriptwriter, the late Yasmin Ahmad. 

The Tiger Roars by Iqbal Hareez Osman
and Cheong Jiun Wei
For the past two decades, Petronas has brought Malaysians together through heart-warming TV commercials that crosses cultural barriers and this year the spirit of National and Malaysia Day 2015 is celebrated by promoting love for the nation through the #tanahairku 2015 project in Johor, Sabah and Sarawak.  A total of 22 street artists have been commissioned to paint 10 selected walls in JB, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.

Staying true to its commitment towards promoting social cohesion, the campaign this year also included a web-film and TV commercial entitled, akrab.  Directed by Johorean, Quek Shio Chuan, this web-film set in 1957 about three boys, highlighted the value of friendship and perseverance – two elements that contribute to unity in a multi-racial community.  The cast was introduced to the audience after this highly anticipated web-film premiered at the event.

“Through the National and Malaysia Day 2015 campaign, we hope to present Malaysia as a unique melting pot of cultures and traditions,” said Petronas Senior General Manager of Group Strategic Communications, Liz Kamaruddin. 

“We strongly believe that the common values we share are what makes us Malaysians, a message we hope will come through in this campaign,” she added.

#tanahairku project

Conceived in 2013, this is the third edition of the project by Petronas to celebrate Malaysia’s independence and emphasise its significance among the youth of the country.  The inspiration for this project was Tanah Air, a 1956 poem by National Poet Laureate, Usman Awang.  This poem was essentially an ode to the motherland, an expression of unbounded love for the country and the optimism of a nation on the verge of independence.

Muafakat by Nellaone and Akeem
In recent years, societies around the world have moved from regarding street art as a public nuisance to embracing it as a cultural asset that also rescues heritage areas from decay and deterioration.  Petronas is aware that one of the main appeals of street art is its accessibility to people from all walks of life and there is no admission charge.  

Street art is used as a medium to reach out and stir conversation because creative expressions have the power to transform people’s behaviours and serves as a subtle reminder to the younger generation as to what makes Malaysia special.

“I trust that the Petronas #tanahairku campaign will encourage the generations born after our nation’s independence to feel a sense of patriotism,” said State Domestic Trade, Consumerism and Tourism exco Datuk Tee Siew Keong, at the launch of the project in JB.

He was particularly pleased that the five sites picked for street art by Johor artists will add value to the city attractions in the heritage area and one of the illustrations even has an inspiring quote by Johor-born National Poet Laureate, Usman Awang, “Kerna kita satu sama dipunyai.”

A version of this was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 27 Sept 2015

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