If the UK cost of living crisis makes us hesitant about self-publishing, then Fahmi Reza’s stirring publications inspire us to do just the opposite. Last month, we dragged ourselves out of post-Covid convalescence to hear the controversial designer speak in London. Covid has been bothersome but the downtime forced on us was also an opportunity to work on our second publication of After The Rain. Also in this week’s highlight: Morley College announces fiction award.

Cost of living crisis hinders self-publishing

There has been no respite for publishing and publishers since we got hit by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

At least the Chancellor Rishi Sunak listened to the publishers at the height of the pandemic. In 2020, he axed the reading tax. The removal of VAT on e-books and digital publications ensures that they can be sold in the UK like print editions. That helps.

Then the war in the Ukraine happened. The cost of living in the UK skyrocketed as a result, leaving us to decide whether to fill our belly or to save up for heating. Not doing both will kill us. So which arm to hack off, metaphorically?

And what of self-publishing? That cornerstone of British democracy. The platform of self-expression that, in the past, launched revolutionary ideas by William Blake and Karl Marx, and Shakespeare’s First Folio of plays. Do we have to sacrifice self-publishing?

The cost of a hundred copies of a 20-page magazine is the same as, if not more expensive than, a month’s rent in Greater London.

We asked an independent publisher, who requested to remain anonymous, about a magazine he produced recently. His first inclination was to try and help the local printer by having his magazines produced locally in the UK. Guess what? The cost of a hundred copies of a 20-page magazine is the same as, if not more expensive than, a month’s rent in Greater London. Disappointed, this publisher looked to an online publishing platform. The cost was slightly cheaper. But the printer isn’t based in the UK. The only upside is that it offers a print-on-demand model. At least it reduces the carbon footprint in the supply chain.

But where does this leave our local British printer, not to mention our skint authors and artists already juggling with a few jobs to fund their own publications? Self-publishing in this context isn’t vanity publishing. It is part of our culture and storytelling tradition. Slap an ISSN number on yours and it’s the British Library’s obligation to preserve your publication for posterity. You are to the future readers what the 16th Century diarist Samuel Pepys was to the Victorian audience.

If the establishment can’t help with the cost of living crisis, then help the independent creatives promote and sell their works. Locally and abroad. Educate them on financial literacy and intellectual property so they can expand their revenues – and survive.

London welcomes Malaysian rebel designer

Fahmi Reza, the Malaysian social activist and graphic designer known for his visual commentaries on the country’s establishment, was in the UK in May 2022. It was a short detour from Brussels, Belgium, where he and his theatre group was invited to perform at the 2022 edition of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

To give you an idea who he is, we’d say he is the British equivalence of Grayson Perry and the US equivalence of David Carson. The only difference is that Perry received a CBE from the Queen for his artistic expressions, and Carson is respected as a design authority for his deconstructionism movement in the 90s. Fahmi, however, got thrown to prison and sued for defamation several times for doing pretty much what Perry and Carson have done: holding the mirror up to society through arts.

The UCL Chadwick talk: the man and his medium

We attended his first talk at our Editor’s old university, University College London (UCL), at the Chadwick Building. The Saturday 21 May talk introduced us to the man behind the memorable posters. “People know of the killer clown rendering of Najib Razak,” he said, referring to the disgraced former Prime Minister of Malaysia, “but they don’t necessarily know me as the person behind the images.”

In the first talk, Fahmi’s activism was chronicled in a two-hour lecture with slides detailing his punk years at the Vanderbilt University, his first arrest and beating in a police van in Kuala Lumpur, to his most recent role as the thorn in the current Queen of Malaysia’s side for his controversial Spotify list, Dengki Ke? (“Are you jealous?”).

Fahmi, however, got thrown to prison and sued for defamation several times for doing pretty much what Perry and Carson have done: holding the mirror up to society through arts.

Punk music – a medium Fahmi picked up whilst at the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, US – gave the engineering student his first graphic design commission: punk posters. It was punk that Fahmi brought back to Malaysia and later appropriated as a medium of protest. But he was aware that punk fans weren’t necessarily interested in social issues.

So Fahmi extended his voice to the graphic medium. It began with paper, stencil and spray paint. Over the years, he experimented with video, social media, live streaming, an A-Z colouring book of Malaysian politicians, more books, shadow puppetry and of course, that offending Spotify playlist. He almost didn’t make it to Europe last month because of the image of a monkey in royal regalia that he published recently on Twitter. Well, the people weren’t offended by them but the establishment was. One of his design influences was the poster that was appropriated for the Arab Spring movement in the early 2010s.

He almost didn’t make it to Europe last month because of the image of a monkey in royal regalia that he published recently on Twitter.

The UCL’s Institute of Education talk: A history of student activism

The second talk by Fahmi that we attended was at UCL’s Institute of Education (IoE), the world’s number one school for education. On Monday 23 May, he gave a lecture on the history of student activism at the University of Malaya in the 50s and 60s. He chronicled the birth, height and decline of the student movement up to 12 May 1969, the day that the key states in Peninsular Malaysia got embroiled in a political deadlock after a closely fought general election. This deadlock was entangled only by a horrible race riot the following day.

It was a riot fanned by the fire of misinformation, slander and racial prejudice from many sides. The Malaysian politics had gaslit its citizens good and proper. The student activism got pulled into different directions in a blinding polemic of divide and conquer. That was the conclusion we drew from Fahmi’s lecture of the sad history of Malaysia. It was a difficult topic bravely and openly discussed by Fahmi. It brought about a dialogue amongst the audience – students and non-students – about change, the difficulty of change and how to bring about change regardless.

We left the IoE talk feeling slightly hopeful. We were grateful to UCL for hosting Fahmi Reza. After that talk, Fahmi went to speak at Sheffield Hallam University, University of Manchester and University of Oxford to tell students stories that they needed to hear about his country.

Malaysia faced one of the worst floods in living memory earlier this year, a result of years of deforestation and unchecked urban development. Fahmi Reza’s visual comment (pictured) reflects the mood of the Malaysian citizens.

More on artists and the art of dissent

Struck down by Covid again

We did say we are convalescing from Covid-19. Sadly, we picked it up for the second time in March 2022 at a post-event gathering to celebrate the wrap-up of a photo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As a result, we had to miss the spring MCM Comic Con 2022 event as well as the London Book Fair 2022.

John Crace, the Guardian columnist and author of A Farewell to Calm: The New Normal Survival Guide (2021) wrote recently that he struggled to finish two books because of Covid fatigue. Yes, that’s the feeling we’ve been having since last autumn. It worsened for a bit after the second infection this March. But we think we are on the mend. The good news is we used the ‘quiet’ (suffering) time to complete After The Rain: Number 2.

Photographic meditation informs sustainability action

In March 2022, before we got infected by Covid-19, the Creative Director presented a talk about our publication, After The Rain, and the sustainability efforts that the photography journal inspired at the Exposure+ Photo event.

The event ran from 26 February to 13 March 2022 under the theme ‘Belong’ – a celebration of unity and triumph over adversity. Eleven photographers based in Malaysia and five international photographers contributed towards a series of exhibitions, talks and screenings held in and around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The event was sponsored by Canon.

Our Creative Director shared her observation on methods in using photography to inform sustainable product design. You can read more on that here.

Morley College fiction award

We’re glad to drop the name of UCL, our Editor’s old uni, in this edition. But we’re not going to forget our old polytechnic academy, Morley College. When the Editor studied photography and multimedia design there, it was known as Kensington and Chelsea College. This was way before her time at UCL Anthropology. Our Creative Director also did her documentary film-making course there.

Recently, Morley College has invited unpublished aspiring authors of colour to submit their works for the Morley Prize for Unpublished Writers of Colour 2022. Think you have to study at a red brick university to write fiction? No. Don’t be shy and share us your story.