Artist Bibichun revels in the freedom of the internet and the streets

Artist Bibichun revels in the freedom of the internet and the streets

Infused with a sharp, internet-inflected wit that pokes fun at local politics and popular culture, Bibichun’s work mixes satire and juvenile humour to a liberating effect.

By Ellen Lee

Bibichun isn’t a teenage boy, though he seems to dress and think like one. He has wide, enthusiastic eyes and a laddish good humour that makes itself felt in the frequent sexual innuendoes in his works. But the innuendoes come with an edge sharpened by keen engagement with local current events, and passed off skillfully with bold, clean brushstrokes and a sophisticated eye for colours.

He’s older and wiser than he looks, an active art practitioner for years now with networks first in Kuala Lumpur, then in Penang. Still, he remains under the radar in contemporary Malaysian art. With his background in street art and its attendant preoccupations with anonymity (he’s used the same pseudonym ‘since the Counter Strike days’), perhaps it’s become an ingrained part of his identity.

Any resident of or visitor to George Town will have seen one of Bibi’s street pieces, even if they didn’t realise it was his. They could more accurately be called street commentary rather than street art, since they can only be read contextually, as a response to their exact site, such as when he captioned a local guardian shrine with the words, ‘I want to believe’, or attacked the bare blue wall of a lot that used to display a logo of the recently out-of-favour Barisan Nasional political coalition. He’s also added onto other artists’ works around the town, earning him the title of ‘terrorist painter’ from Ernest Zacharevic, the artist responsible for most of the Instagrammable street art around George Town and also a friend to Bibi.

Bibi himself euphemistically describes his more ‘terroristic’ embellishments as ‘collaborative outdoor projects done with local artists’ on his Facebook page. He calls his George Town street works his Kocak series, and retroactively cites them as his doorway into the local arts scene.

Seeing the traces of a Barisan Nasional logo on the wall of a carpark next to Prangin Mall in 2013, a year after he moved to George Town, Bibi responded by creating a short drama in which a Malaysian tapir fearing erasure effectively has its wish granted by a Chinese panda.

Before moving to George Town in 2012, Bibi got his start in Kuala Lumpur out on the streets, ambushing walls with the local graffiti scene and DIY-ing his own exhibitions with the community at the Central Market Annexe, gradually coming into his own as an artist. It was in Kuala Lumpur that he birthed his most recurrent motif, the tapir, which features in both his street and gallery works as a symbolic stand-in for Malaysia and its people.

His most recent tapir is a pink, screaming newborn wood assemblage bluntly satirising a perceived infantilism in Malaysian people’s understanding of media, exhibited as part of the P!NK group exhibition in 2019.

In 2013, the year of the 13th General Elections, his tapir motif acquired a new relevance in response to national panda mania. A RM25 million enclosure, built using funds from the government and heavily scandalised 1Malaysia Development Berhad, was used to house two pandas on diplomatic loan from China, while the Malaysian Chinese Assembly of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition created a panda named Wen Wen for their election mascot. The Malayan tapir, Malaysia’s own endangered black-and-white species, was being slowly neglected for a Chinese panda instead, a conflict that Bibi dramatised often in his works.

Malaysia pun boleh, 2019

Much of Bibi’s fine artworks are like his street works, responding to local politics and pop culture with snarky commentary written within the piece itself or as the artwork’s title. His enduring use of text reflects a respect for the impact of language even in a visual medium, comparable to the popular format of memes, which form a large bulk of internet visual culture.

‘My first access to the internet was during my high school period, on a 56k modem back then,’ explains Bibi (‘And already I discovered internet porn’). ‘[The internet] makes it easy for others to copy and take advantage. Eighty percent of my works are copied, modified, developed from the internet.’

Queen of Sheba Kneeling Before Jvasant Panchami, 2015, from Naan Fiction, a series of digital collages fusing images from Western and Eastern art history.

He cites the internet as being one of his greatest influences, which isn’t surprising, since the internet and the streets share the same logic: a radical belief in public ownership over public space and the tacit understanding that every individual voice will be drowned out by the next one, like graffiti artists painting over each other’s works. Bibi’s entire canon can be characterised by this play with anonymity, authorship, and appropriation.

On the streets and the internet, anything that happens today can be forgotten or destroyed by tomorrow or, like mimesis, the origin for the word meme, can self-replicate into something totally different. Street art and the internet object have their own inner volition that enable them to perpetuate their own creation. On the internet, this is easier of course — with a few clicks, anyone can copy an image and manipulate it for their own purpose and context, like some of Bibi’s digital collages — but on the streets, it’s simply up to whoever’s next willing to fall into a dialogue with your work, even if a dialogue means erasure.

In 2016, Bibi painted local cartoonist Zunar gagged by UMNO flags in response to the harassment Zunar claimed he received for an exhibition in Penang. A year later, a stranger blacked out the UMNO flags. Bibi turned the blackout into a stubborn monkey wearing a helmet with the UMNO logo.

In a way, Bibi’s like an internet troll. His art and his personality are a bundle of contradictions, in keeping with the fractal and accelerated nature of internet-era consciousness. He has a teenaged brain but a matured artist’s hand, he paints and sells sex jokes to pay his rent, he brought street art into the commercial gallery. He’s an artist who can truthfully say that his art has evoked something in his audience even if that something is pissing them off. All of this is what gives his works their joyful appeal.

Aqikah Korban, 2012, a response to the ‘cowgate’ scandal of 2011 when the chief of the women’s wing of UMNO, Tan Sri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, was accused of misappropriating government funds which were meant for a cattle-breeding project.

Lately, he’s been reflecting on his career and wondering about long-term sustainability —financial realities that hijack most artists’ idealism—but his artistic intentions remain pure. ‘[My greatest motivation] is the desire to experience the process of creating. With headphones on, hearing only the music in my playlist. The world outside is not my concern. Once a work is done, I move on to the next one, just like the music in the playlist. This experience is the pure pleasure of freedom.’

All images courtesy of the artist

Ellen Lee is a writer and art worker based in Kuala Lumpur. She is interested in all forms of culture, from fine art and poetry to trap music and anime.