The Malaysia Design Archive actually began in Havana, Cuba. In 2007, founder Ezrena Marwan visited the city for the Icograda World Design Congress, where, as she listened to Cuban graphic designers share how they were limited to creating propaganda by their country’s politics, Ezrena was struck by how different it was from her own experience as a graphic designer back home.
“We only design for commercial stuff, and we don’t really pay attention to anything else,” she says. “I was really inspired by how much they think about design, and how much it’s linked to politics and the land.”
She started collecting and documenting everyday graphics in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and shared them online. That marked the beginning of the Malaysia Design Archive, a website that traces the history of this Southeast Asian nation through its visual culture.
Packaging, magazine covers, and posters are just some of the site’s hundreds of ephemera—the results of one woman’s search for her nation’s design history. For over a decade, Ezrena scoured books, the national archive, and other private collectors, laboriously scanning each design piece organizing them based on their graphic and symbolic characteristics.
At the heart of the archive are four collections with over 200 graphics that visually retell how Malaysia emerged from its roots as a British colony, survived the Japanese Occupation, overcame a Communist Emergency, and marched towards independence.
This century-long timeline is Ezrena’s answer to questions that emerged as she built the archive. “I couldn’t make sense of the contemporary because I didn’t know what the history was,” she explains. So after two years of amassing the collection, she began to research the history behind it, building a timeline that has transformed the archive from simply a repository to a narrative about design.
“Design has a place in history, in nation building, and it has its own narrative—all of this is really, really important in trying to understand and articulate who we are as Malaysians,” she says.
Ezrena points to how Malaysian design directly reflects the country’s social and political climate throughout different periods. In the early 19th century, for example, the illustration style of British railway posters is evident in posters used to promote their various colonies’ railway systems. Another example, which is also Ezrena’s favorite piece from the archive, is a 1951 poster persuading citizens to join the police force. Featuring a man dead center pointing at the viewer, this illustration is a striking reference to the iconic “I Want You for the U.S. Army” poster by American illustrator James Montgomery Flagg. Ezrena later discovered that the Malaysian version was illustrated by the country’s father of portrait painting, the Indonesian migrantMohammad Hoessein Enas, and it’s likely he used himself as the model.
Besides historical gems, the archive also houses contemporary collections, including political memes by artist Chris Chew, ephemera from Five Arts Centre, a pioneering institution of the country’s arts scene, and even Malaysian punk zines. Many of these entered the collection after others heard about the archive and asked Ezrena to take in materials they were holding on to. However, as a one-woman operation that’s entirely self-funded by her day job as a graphic designer and lecturer, there’s a limit to what she can collect.
The archive has given Ezrena opportunities to give talks and organize exhibitions about Malaysia’s design history, but one of her greatest satisfactions is seeing once forgotten visuals find new life in contemporary times. She recalls how the Hoessein Enas poster was appropriated by other designers during the country’s recent string of protests.
“It was nowhere before, ever. It was just stuck in Arkib Negara (National Archives), so when I discovered it and put it online, people started using that image to create their own posters,” she says. “I think it’s great. Even if they don’t know why they’re doing it, they know this represents who we are visually.”