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I’m no freak, says ‘outsider artist’ Rahmat Haron

MALAYSIANS KINI | Try typing writer and artist Rahmat Haron’s name into a Google search bar, and you will notice that ‘Rahmat Haron tattoos’ is one of the suggested entries, denoting that it is a popular search term for those that googled his name.

Though one must admit, that at first glance, with his floor-length dreadlocks and numerous tattoos, some may be intimidated by his undoubtedly distinctive appearance.

And unfortunately for most people, his highly visible tattoos become the sum of his person.

But looks can indeed be deceiving. and the Malaysiakini columnist is one clear-cut example why we should never judge a book by its cover.

For example, one of the tattoos on his arm reads “jangan bunuh bahasa ibunda” (don’t murder the mother tongue), in support of the anti-Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) movement.

However if you were to speak to him, you will find that he is quite articulate in the English language himself.

When met at his home in Ampang, Rahmat apologised profusely for the “messy” conditions of his home. This, despite his living area being like any other living room, and some who may see him as being artfully “messy”.

Rahmat even asked whether the interview would be a conflict of interest due to his position a columnist for Malaysiakini’s Malay section.

Throughout the three-hour long interview, Rahmat often break into toothy smiles while speaking on various issues, as he sporadically puff on his rolled cigarette.

Describing his tattoos, Rahmat is definitely not in the dark about how some people perceive him.

“This is the first thing that they Google about me, they are not interested in my art (but) they are interested in my appearance.

“They don’t talk about my ideas, my views published on Malaysiakini. They just say ‘he has tattoos’.

“Which is strange - it shouldn’t be that you view people just by their appearance,” he said.

Rahmat, who has more than 10 tattoos, admits it is considered “blasphemous” to have them, at least according to polite society.

But the 39-year-old believes he is merely celebrating the Malaysian culture by having tattoos, citing Chinese traditions as well as that of East Malaysia.

“It’s just that I don’t come from those cultures. But that’s how cultures are made - it’s something fluid,” he said.

For the artist, having tattoos is not about morals and Malaysians should instead talk about the various problems plaguing the country.

“Maybe according to your dogma and morals, it’s bad and it’s sinful to have tattoos.

“But using your own logic and argument, it is also sinful also to be involved in corruption, to destroy the ecosystem.”

So Rahmat’s most pertinent question for the public is this - how are they affected by his appearance?

“What is so criminal about this look? Am I robbing your money or asking you for tax?”

I am not a freak’

Other than stressing that he is more than just the sum of his tattoos, Rahmat also took the opportunity to refute the “myths” percolating about him.

“Most of the things they talk about me are not true,” he stressed.

So much so that he was once interviewed by Mastika - Malaysia’s oldest magazine which often tells ‘real-life’ stories, though mostly it is famous for stories of the weird and the paranormal.

“At first they didn’t tell me that they were from Mastika, they just said they were from an alternative magazine. After the interview ended, they admitted they were from Mastika.”

Even though Rahmat told them that the interview was, as such, off the record, they still went on to publish the interview.

But appearing in Mastika, he said, shows that one is “pelik tapi benar” (strange but true), or a freak, for lack of a better word.

“So that’s my category - a freak. But I’m not just some ‘pelik tapi benar’ mythical figure in Mastika,” said Rahmat, adamant.

A freak he may not be, but the “outsider artist”, or so he calls himself, said he considers himself to be outside of the normal artistic circles, as never studied art formally before.

Rahmat however actually studied economics at Universiti Malaya until he decided to quit, three semesters short of graduating from his degree programme.

The Johor Bahru native’s interest in the arts developed after he started travelling while still a student in 1999.

It was his first time being out of the country, and Rahmat had gone to Indonesia on a fact-finding mission, hoping to find out more about Acehnese refugees.

The trip started the ball rolling for him, artistically speaking, as it opened his eyes to sights, sounds and ideas beyond Malaysian borders.

The youngest of 10 siblings, Rahmat later became active in off-campus student activist group, ‘Universiti Bangsar Utama’ (UBU).

His stint in activism, eventually led him to his involvement in performance arts.

And true to his claim of being an ‘outsider artist’, Rahmat said that unlike performing arts with its categories and classifications, everything and anything can be a performance art, he explained.

His love for performance arts led him to delve deeper in the symbolism of the arts, and he continued participating in relevant festivals around the region.

“I’m involved in a lot of things, though I think I’m a master of none,” said Rahmat, chuckling.

But tattoos and his outward appearance aside, Rahmat's discourse ranged from education, the arts and politics, to ecological issues.

This is his story, in his own words:

MY FAMILY IS BEING SUPPORTIVE BY NOT BOTHERING ME. Maybe they don’t agree with the things I do but they don’t prevent me from doing them. They state that they don’t agree but that it’s up for me to decide; and that’s important for me. It’s the same with society. Not everything needs to be uniform. Just like scarves, there are all kinds of scarves. But if everyone has tattoos, that would be funny, right?

I wasn’t molly-coddled even though I was the youngest. My mum is a single mother. When I was little, I lived with my grandparents. My village in Johor Bahru is no longer there. I grew up there until I was 18, then moved to Kuala Lumpur. I have been staying in Kuala Lumpur since then.

But I kept on moving; I didn’t stay in one place for a very long time. This is because I keep on renting. When the landlord raises the rental, I would move if I could not afford the new rental. I usually rent with friends - it’s more economical to share. Rent in the city is very expensive.

ECONOMICS WAS NOT MY CUP OF TEA. I realised it was not something I wanted to do at the time. (I also quit to be) in solidarity with other student activists who were expelled from university. Another reason that made me decide to quit my studies was my experience with Universiti Bangsar Utama (UBU). We were much inclined with human rights NGOs and civil society movements, including the Reformasi movement. UBU opened my eyes about life.

My interest on arts, poetry and literature developed during those years. University during that time was not vibrant for various activities, it was very bureaucratic. That’s why UBU was formed.

At the beginning, my family was a bit upset with my decision. The life I chose was not the easiest compared to being an economics graduate, with a more secure job. But after some time, maybe because of consistency, they let me be whatever I want to be. Even though they don’t let me, I would still be what I want to be. Even if they don’t allow me, they don’t have enforcement power. When I was a kid, sure, but now it’s up to me.

I was also frustrated with the university and it’s been proven after some years - look at our education system. In Malaysia, art is not something that is great. The sculpture of the late National Art Laureate, Syed Ahmad Jamal was demolished by the Kuala Lumpur City Council (DBKL). It shows how the city council cannot appreciate art.

And this was not my kind of art. It’s the work of a person who defined art. The local modern art came from Syed Ahmad Jamal. But look at how they treated his legacy?

MY HAIR IS IN DREADLOCKS BECAUSE IT’S THE EASIEST WAY TO KEEP LONG HAIR. I don’t have to use conditioner and I don’t have to comb my hair. I started growing my hair in 1999 and started putting them in dreadlocks in 2004. Keeping my hair long and in dreadlocks is just a personal preference - it has nothing to do with the Rastafarian movement although I do listen to reggae and ska music. But I also listen to other kinds of music, too.

Having dreadlocks is the easiest form of commitment that I want to show, which is simply by keeping my hair. And it’s not a fashion statement as fashion changes over time according to trends. I don’t know until when I will grow my hair. I just let it be. If it stops growing, then it stops; nothing lasts forever. But at the moment, I don’t have it in mind to cut it. It’s not a hassle as I’m used to it. Like Malaysians, we normalise with corruption and the authoritarian state.

STARES FROM OTHERS BECAUSE OF MY TATTOOS ARE NORMAL. I have been confronted many times by random people. But so far I have never been physically harassed for the way I look. Advice and lectures are normal; I have to accept that not everyone is like me. People like me are the minority. Yes, I have my idiosyncrasies but I also have to accept that this is how society thinks.

I chose to be like this so I have to accept the consequences. For those who want to lecture me, I let them do so; it’s freedom of speech, as long as there’s no violence. It’s a good thing that they want to talk because then there’s a chance for me to reply and we can talk about bigger problems like 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), ecological disasters and Orang Asli land rights.

But I have never been thrown out from a mosque because of my tattoos. It was only once when a person told me I could not enter. But when I gave the salam (Muslim greeting), he said, “Oh, you’re Malay”. That was something sweet because there was no moralising, maybe he just thought it was strange.

For others, maybe they think I am from Sarawak or a convert. It’s very rare that I enter mosques, anyway. But I do join programmes at mosques and suraus for things like poetry reading.

I HAVE NEVER DRIVEN A CAR. It’s for economic reasons - I cannot afford to have a car. The money I have is enough to pay the rent and food. If there’s more, it’s for leisure purposes like buying books. Even if I can afford, I don’t think I will ever own a car. This is because I support public transportation.

Apart from this, I am just afraid to drive. It could be due to trauma as many of my friends had passed away in road accidents. I’m okay with being in a car but I don’t dare and have never tried to drive.

I’ve operated a forklift, though, while working at a factory. I have also rode motorcycles but my motorcycles were stolen twice. So the best thing is to use public transport. Now there’s Grabcar and Uber so it’s easier. When I don’t use them, I ride the bus or just walk.

I’m not sure whether I would learn to drive. Maybe if I’m forced to. I always told myself that I should learn to drive especially should there be an emergency. But I have never pursued this. It’s become one of those things that you want to do but never end up doing.

DOING ART IS LIKE THERAPY. Sometimes you read a lot or are into some problem and you analyse. When you do art, you don’t have to think - you stop thinking. For me I just do it, it’s almost automatic. It’s very seldom that I paint through symbolic representation, most of the time I just explore form.

It’s the same like poetry, maybe grammatically, a particular work is full of errors and may not be fit to be called a sentence. But poetry is expression through words and text - it's free form. I’m quite distant with the art scene. I’m there but not there. I don’t really delve into the local arts scene. I’m considered as an outsider, you can term my art as outsider art as the art making I do is not bound by a set of rules.

There are both good and bad when it comes to the current arts scene. You can see more artists and more of expressions. But I think that’s not enough. Because I expect more artists like Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque) and Fahmi Reza. Syed Ahmad Jamal is a very good example of the state of the arts in Malaysia.

He is like the father of modern arts - he was the one who set the curriculum of what we now understand as fine art and visual art. But look at how the authorities treated his work.

I’VE HAD VARIOUS WORK EXPERIENCES. After the Aceh fact-finding mission, I joined an election observation mission for Indonesia in 1999. I was deployed to North Sulawesi under the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel). I was also involved in election monitoring in Cambodia and Thailand.

I also joined the National Institute for Electoral Integrity (NIEI). With regard to it, I don’t think we are linked to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Just look at me, a CIA agent can’t be like this. A CIA must have proper income. I’m surviving, basically, on Malaysiakini. It helps me to pay my rent.

I don’t survive on selling my art work - I sell my art work once in a blue moon. My last book was published in 2006, titled ‘Utopia Trauma’. I am coming out with a new book - a collection of poetry, to be published this year.

I also used to write for Suara Keadilan and I was an editor for the Malay version of The Rocket. After Barisan Alternatif disintegrated, I was involved in another project with the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ). I was also a radio journalist for quite some time. I can be anything, really. I once worked washing dishes and as a janitor. I would love to work full-time if there’s an art culture literary magazine. But we don’t have such magazines.

MY INSPIRATION TO WRITE POETRY COMES FROM BOTH INSIDE AND OUTSIDE ELEMENTS. It’s a bodily and mental experience. My subjects range from politics, ecological critique, the people I meet and the situations I encounter.

My blog is called ‘Sampah Seni’ partly to it being an ecological critique and partly due to the play on words. Sampah (rubbish) is also how we reflect the society. We have to have more of the 3R culture of reduce, reuse and recycle. Ever since I started writing for Malaysiakini in 2012, I haven’t updated the blog.

Issues related to the environment are close to my heart. For example, my village is no longer there because everything has become developed. My art work - ‘Greenland is an old green man’ is about climate change. It’s a symbolic representation of my vision - the ice is melting in Greenland.

I HAVE FACEBOOK BUT I’M NOT SO ACTIVE ON IT. My world is not so fast-paced in the digital world. In the digital world you must continuously update your status, it’s like reporting to Facebook, giving your data for them to analyse and use it for their marketing purposes. I’m not on Twitter and Instagram.

We are living in the age of metadata - there are no secrets about us. Everything can be traced. Slowly, reality will change into augmented reality. Technology can be quite scary.

I SPENT SOME TIME IN JAIL FOR DRUG OFFENCES. I was remanded for three days after my urine tested positive for marijuana. I was put under police probation for two years and then I filed a review to the High Court and we settled the matter out of court. That was back in 2004.

The process to get justice took some time. Thank God I had legal aid from a fellow activist; my lawyer was Edmund Bon. While under probation, my urine needed to be checked every month. We need reforms in the current system - police officers can’t only be checking urine samples.

I WAS DEPORTED FROM MYANMAR IN 2012. We were on a performance arts exchange programme in Mandalay, Myanmar. We were arrested and questioned by the police as we did our performance arts without permit. In the evening we were released - I thought we were free but the next day immigration officials re-arrested us, took our stuff at the hotel and proceeded to deport us. It was a 14-hour journey from Mandalay to the airport in Yangon.

MY BIGGEST INFLUENCES ARE A SAMAD SAID AND HISHAMUDDIN RAIS. I started being close to Hisham and Pak Samad since 1999, when I was a student activist. They are my biggest influences due to their literary references, philosophy and political theories. I could not get these things in university.

We were like his groupies, he was the oldest while we were university students. Samad lives in Bangsar Utama and will greet Hisham whenever they see each other. It was from there that our relationship started.

I am also close to this husband and wife couple - Nur Hanim Khairuddin and Syed Omar who own publishing company Teratak Nuromar. These people are supportive of me. I'm very grateful because so many people around me are supportive in the things I do. That’s what made me keep on doing the things that I do.

WHEN IT COMES TO POLITICS, I PREFER TO BE ON THE OUTSIDE. I’m not in any political party but I always like being a supporter for movements for change. I was part of Kumpulan Activist Media (Kami) which was formed by editors Ahmad Lutfi Othman, Fathi Aris Omar.

The movement urged free speech and the abolishment of laws including the Sedition Act. I always participate in protests but not as the captain. But I’m always there; like Bersih, I have participated in the rallies since Bersih 1.

From what I see, there is both freedom and repression in the current political scene. Youths have more freedom to choose but it’s not because of the government, it’s the tools youths use. They can channel their angst on social media and as long as they stay in their particular space, they are fine. But once they cross the line, they will become like Fahmi Reza. They can draw whatever cartoons that they want, but if they draw cartoons like Zunar, then they may have problems.

But I think prosecution of cartoonists is something laughable - the world is laughing at Malaysia. The inspector-general of police (IGP) gives commentary on cartoons - that joke isn’t funny any more. You’re the IGP, you shouldn’t comment on cartoons, you should be on a higher operational level since you are at the top of the institution.

I HOPE (PRIME MINISTER) NAJIB (ABDUL RAZAK) WILL RESIGN BEFORE THE GENERAL ELECTION. He needs to resign but the only one who can do that is Najib himself. And then change will be in the framework of the status quo.

But I am pessimistic as how the ringgit declines, in relation to Najib resigning. Because money decides, not democracy. It's the economy that rules the world - so is it profitable if this guy remains as prime minister? Hopefully there will be change with Najib gone. Maybe (Bersih chief) Maria (Chin Abdullah) will become Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) chief and Malaysiakini will be given a permit to publish.

And these things can happen with even Umno in power. When the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) people return to Umno, the party will be a new face and they will make improvements. That’s why I say change will come through status quo.

MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.

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