You only appreciate something when you no longer have it. That hit home for APOM’s creatives who, geared to spring back in June, got the wind knocked out of them by the latest lockdown.
Not for long, though. After moaning about cabin fever and how they missed the food and other unique things in the different states — out of bounds because of travel restrictions — the team decided to use the time on their hands to do something positive.
They approached fellow designers and artists from around the country with an idea: What are you proud of from your home state? What’s cool about it? Can you capture that in a design?
That was the spark for #empatbelas, a project to celebrate the country’s 14 states through curated merchandise by APOM — which stands for A Piece of Malaysia — created by 14 local designers, each representing their home state.
“The aim is to showcase what makes them proud of the place they call home, whether it is the scenery, food, culture or local slang,” says Kelvin Long, who co-founded the brand retailer in 2017 with his wife, Chantelle Teoh.
Pride is encapsulated in each design, which had to follow a simplified shape of the state. And excitement colours the works submitted by the designers, many of whom came across surprise finds and things they did not know while doing research for the project.
Dolphins in Perak? Ask Ze Hem — “Call me Ham” — a mechanical engineer by day and surrealist artist by night, who loves the concept of surrealism because “in the surreal everything you can imagine is real”.
Ezra Quek is proud to be an Anak Negori [Sembilan], the only state with a number as its name [State 9]. And what’s cool about Selangor? Our state always has no water, says Zulfikar Zulkernain, a creative designer-cum-illustrator passionate about breaking new ground through collaborations with peers and brands.
Melaka’s Joanne Loo, curious from young about food and oral storytelling, drew inspiration for her colourful design from a childhood filled with grandma’s dishes, Peranakan antiques and Enid Blyton books while Suhaibah Azmi from Terengganu, who graduated in graphic design at the start of the pandemic and has been jobless for over a year, is glad to be doing something in line with her training.
Long says he learnt many things from the stories behind the designs. “Everyone is kind of proud to be Malaysian, but when you get down to the state level, there are unique things we don’t see from afar. Even the way the designers speak and what inspires them are different.
“There is so much talent here and the designers were so supportive and willing to jump on board and try to find a way to make this thing bigger than it really is. I am quite grateful to all of them.”
A percentage of proceeds from sales of the #empatbelas merchandise will be shared among the designers. What’s more, the new normal routine of working remotely has opened the door to fresh possibilities, Long says.
“We used to go in to the office to discuss things. Now that we have adapted to working online, we can collaborate with different designers across the states. It was like having our own parliament,” he adds, referring to the experience of connecting online and getting everyone together for discussions on Zoom.
“We’re proud that we are able to use a platform like ours to highlight these local talent.” Surprised and encouraged, he hopes there will be more collaborative projects down the line.
He is also hopeful that state pride will lead to a sense of patriotism, with Merdeka coming up and Malaysia Day on Sept 16. “It’s going to be the most subdued Merdeka. With so much gloom around us at this time, we wanted to do something positive.”
#empatbelas is APOM’s most ambitious project so far. “We had our Instagram platform and fans on our FB page, so we thought, why not connect with fellow designers and artists who, like us, have more time because of the pandemic, and see if this could work,” Long explains.
The call for participation was made in early June and within two weeks, they had received more than 70 entries, comprising illustrations, digital works, paintings and photoshopped images. The team selected 14 designs. “They had to have a certain standard that could translate the project into something people would like to wear or use.” From there, it was just a matter of tweaking the proportions to fit the products.
Like everyone else, he looks forward to the lockdown being lifted soon. Should it be extended until 2022, he remains buoyant about #empatbelas because “it is about the states, not just Merdeka”.
Merchandise for the project — a range of T-shirts for adults, totes and mugs — was launched on Aug 5 and APOM, known for its humorous take on what makes us Malaysians, is taking pre-orders. “When the factory opens, we will fulfil the orders. We want to ease in and see how things go.”
The team is looking into children’s tees and rompers, calendars, coasters and other products. Even a pop-up exhibition would be great, Long thinks, with the artworks printed out large for people to view and learn about the different states. When borders reopen, they may want to visit and see or experience the unique places and things.
“There is so much beauty in our country. When travel restrictions are lifted, it will be hard for the industry to get started again. What better way to give it a boost than by going to our neighbouring states instead of overseas straight off?”
This article first appeared on Aug 9, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.