When the government first imposed the Movement Control Order on March 18, many blissfully assumed that things would return to normal within the stipulated 14 days. A handful of friends thought of killing time during the lockdown by using art to help others. Calling themselves Duduk Rumah Artists, a name reflective of the times, they came up with #PORTRAITSFORMALAYSIA, whereby they drew portraits of those who made donations to local organisations and NGOs involved in Covid-19 relief efforts.
“When we started on April 2, we thought it would be just a 10-day project,” say Queenie Wong Quin Ee and Mich Hoo Zhi Xin, two of the group’s five co-founders. The others are Ho Kae Jing, Oscar Lee and Celine Tan.
“We selected some organisations affected by the pandemic and asked that donors send us their receipt and a photo. We then drew their portraits for free and emailed it to them.”
Some people asked if they could pay to have the physical artwork posted to them and the artists — 26 altogether, including two administrative personnel roped in to help — happily obliged.
#PORTRAITSFORMALAYSIA raised RM19,992 for 24 organisations. Beneficiaries included the visually impaired, refugees, migrants, single mothers, Orang Asli and autistic children.
Touched by the generosity of Malaysians and having developed “a sense of ownership” over their little community, Duduk Rumah Artists have another initiative, this time in aid of Cancer Research Malaysia (CRM).
Launched on Aug 23, #MERDEKAVATAR is on until Sept 16. Make a minimum donation of RM20 to CRM and you will receive a personalised avatar in the colours of the Jalur Gemilang, created by one of the participating artists. He/she gets RM10 for every avatar drawn — “to show our appreciation for their time and talent” — and the rest goes to the organisation, whatever the amount donated. Donations from RM60 and above are tax-exempt.
CRM, established in 2001, focuses on cancers that commonly affect Asians and is working to reverse the language of cancer “by transforming the big ‘C’ to a little ‘c’”, especially in communities where the disease is still considered a stigma.
It aims to empower people to have proper screening and treatment, and improve the survival rates of patients. Acknowledging that developing new cures is costly and risky, it wants to make cancer treatment affordable and timely by repurposing drugs.
Wong says they took inspiration for #PORTRAITSFORMALAYSIA from Fahmi Reza, who did customised avatars for those who donated to a Kita Jaga Kita initiative during the first two phases of the MCO.
The idea of using art for good came about as she observed what her family was doing during the spell of staying home. “Suddenly, everyone had too much time on their hands and were always on the phone.”
Elsewhere, people were even spreading fake news and negativity, she adds. “I thought if there were those who needed help during this period and another group just scrolling through social media, what could we do?”
Duduk Rumah Artists hope to bridge the two sides, as they aspire to be “a platform and a community that supports and empowers local artists”. Apart from a core team handling the nitty gritty, anyone is welcome to join their programmes, run on an ad hoc basis.
Wong and Hoo share that two autistic artists were among those who drew the portraits. One is Luqman Hakim, 27, who garnered social media attention with his sketch of Malaysian director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah on a Starbucks cup. The other, 16-year-old Amira Daniea Saiful Amri, is in on the avatars too.
Alongside the portraits, the artists did an #UNSUNGHEROES series that singled out Malaysians working quietly to fight the pandemic — among them volunteer scientists behind CoronaTracker, a platform that offers real-time data and updates on the outbreak.
The community members did not put their tools away after the portraits project. Some took it upon themselves to find out more about the recipient NGOs and drew posters to advocate their causes and concerns. As the MCO measures were relaxed, they posted posters on social distancing to remind Malaysians to remain vigilant in public areas. Finally, as a sort of “closure” to their Covid-19 experience, they produced a set of 12 postcards for sale, depicting what they did indoors.
Wong was Hoo’s senior at Chong Hwa Independent High School, Kuala Lumpur. The schoolmates reconnected last year in Europe, where both did their master’s — the former in architecture, urbanism and building sciences at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, and the latter in city resilience design and management at Universitat Internacional Catalunya, Barcelona.
They found themselves relating on many levels when the coronavirus pulled the brakes on their hopes of finding work soon after returning home. So, they turned their focus to helping raise funds, putting in place the mechanics involved within 48 hours.
The pair approached artist/designer friends facing a similar plight and began uploading posts on what they were doing. “Our first [#Portraits] donor was a Malaysian living in Rotterdam, Holland. She gave RM200. We didn’t expect that and were quite motivated.” Things snowballed from there and the talented community has not been idle since.
From their maiden effort, Hoo says, “We realised that portraits mean a lot to people. Some use them to commemorate loved ones who have passed away. Others use them as gifts for their parents or children. Because they could not meet during the MCO, it helped them remember each other.”
Duduk Rumah Artists have no physical plans for after #MERDEKAVATAR ends on Malaysia Day. What the community has in mind is meeting each other — many of them have never met — or visiting the NGOs to draw their stories and posting them on social media. Having art-related activities for people under those set-ups is another possibility.
Reaching out to low-profile organisations is one way to “fill the gap” so they are not overlooked, says Hoo, who is no stranger to organising events and doing presentations as they are a matter of course in architecture. “What we have learnt is the communication aspect and the stakeholder perspective — talking to donors and NGOs, and incentivising artists to draw for us. Most of our community members have full-time jobs. Showcasing their work on our website gives them recognition.”
Job-hunting is still a priority for Hoo — her interest lies in urban mobility and development, and policies for walkable cities — and Wong, who leans towards heritage homes, affordable housing and Global South developments.
Hoo says the approach towards urban development in Malaysia is more profit-driven than human-centric. “A lot of designs are based not on human needs and environmental concerns, but [geared] towards maximising profit.” To pander to the trend of getting the perfect Instagram image, people are designing picture-perfect space instead of prioritising comfort, Wong adds.
As part of her Delft assignments, she did a project on affordable housing in suburban Mumbai, India, taking social factors into consideration. Wong knows work is scarce now because most companies are not hiring. There are community-based projects, but these are mostly carried out on a voluntary basis.
“Covid-19 has made us realise there is really a lack of public spaces that people can enjoy in KL. Once the MCO was eased, everyone rushed to the same parks,” she says.
That would be something worthwhile for Duduk Rumah Artists to draw attention to.
This article first appeared on Aug 31, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.