When they heard of an upcoming protest in Malaysia, a band of graphic designers rallied to do what they do best: design posters for a cause.
Calling themselves the Grafik Rebel Untuk Protes & Aktivisme (Malay for Graphic Rebel for Protest and Activism) or GRUPA, the hastily formed design collective released 110 protest posters online before a recent rally to push for government reform in Malaysia and the resignation of its prime minister. Organized by civil society movement Bersih (Malay for “clean”), this latest rally is known as Bersih 4.0 and came about amid allegations of a corruption scandal involving 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund, and the country’s prime minister, Najib Tun Razak.
Since it was founded in 2006, the movement’s most visual signifier was wearing bright yellow T-shirts at rallies that called for a reform of Malaysia’s electoral system to ensure free and fair elections, but the founders of GRUPA noticed a striking lack of placards and posters in Bersih’s previous three rallies. This seemed like more than just an oversight, but a major missed opportunity to create striking, graphic visuals to symbolize the people’s struggle. So GRUPA took it upon itself to independently created a collection, while also crowdsourcing online for A2-size black-and-white posters that the public could download for free and print inexpensively.
“We wanted to play our role in visualizing the anger and outrage of regular citizens like us who are taking to the streets to make their voices heard,” said the group, founded mere five days before Bersih 4.0.
As tens of thousands protested on August 29, the sea of yellow was punctuated by the sharp, monochromatic posters GRUPA released less than 24 hours before. On GRUPA’s Facebook page, you can view the entire collection of designs that give a clear nod to Shepard Fairey and punk aesthetics in general (clenched fists and molotov cocktails abound). Many posters specifically target prime minister Najib, portraying him as a money-sucking vampire, a “crime” minister, and even a toilet bowl to, well, y’know.
The eclectic poster styles reflect over 50 designers and illustrators who choose to remain anonymous, with many simply signing their work as GRUPA. This isn’t out of fear, they say, but to focus on the movement and to empower individual protestors instead.
“Being part of the nameless, faceless masses we think helps spread the message, rather than concentrating on the individual—normally known as hero worship—a large part of the problem in Malaysian politics,” they explain.
While little has changed in Malaysia since the protest, the design collective is pressing on with new projects and its belief in using graphic design for the common good. “As GRUPA, we see ourselves as continuing this tradition of graphic designers who join forces to use design as a weapon for protest and activism.”