Shieko Reto (She, her, hers) co-founded the urban art collective Sembur with Style (Spray with Style) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As a freelance artist, she has been engaged in both advertising and advocacy work, especially with NGOs confronting issues experienced by migrant and sex workers and LGBT people, including HIV/AIDS awareness. She edits OBL (OneBigLongkang), a zine based on her own lived experience as a trans woman in Malaysia. As a grantee of the Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship (2013–2014) from the Nippon Foundation, Shieko dedicated her time to doing research with transgender communities in the Philippines and Japan. Her art has been shown in exhibitions throughout Malaysia, including the 49th Merdeka Mural (National Art Gallery of Malaysia, 2010), as well as Not That Balai (Lost Generation Space, 2005). Her work was also listed as part of the Seksualiti Merdeka Festival, which got banned in 2012. In 2013, Shieko participated in the Singapore Biennale, where she increased awareness regarding issues faced by trans women in Malaysia. She was selected to participate in the 2017 Artist at Risk Program of Perpetuum Mobile for a year in Helsinki. At present, she is currently experimenting with short animation using pixel art and also performing in Kuala Lumpur with her band Tingtongketz.
「 “What Are You Doing Here? When Are You Going to Fly?”: The Trans Experience in Malaysia 」
For the trans community in Malaysia, migration can only be a crucial topic. In this presentation, I narrate the challenges of living as trans from my own experience and within my interactions with fellow trans women in and out of the country. Since 1984, after the first fatwas came out prohibiting transgender identities, many trans women have sought to find a better place to affirm their lives. In countries like Switzerland, Australia, France, and the Netherlands, they have found jobs, met their partners, eventually marrying. Notwithstanding having settled in other countries where they can live without fear, these Malaysian trans women still face a degree of uncertainty. Born and raised in a conservative family, I have also dreamed of migrating to a distant land where I can live freely, as myself, away from expectations of people around me. In 2016, I almost did it. After organizing my first solo exhibition and selling my art in Malaysia, I packed my things for Europe and lived there. During my artist residency in Finland, I met fellow trans women from Malaysia, especially those settled in Scandinavia. Toward the end of 2017, I returned to Malaysia, a milieu that was still the same–inhospitable to queer and trans people. It was an interesting time though, with the opposition party winning the elections for the first time since independence from the British. The trans community in Malaysia today remains hopeful to achieve gender justice. Activists remain militant against conservatives who deny LGBTQ advocacy. Not too long ago, I was at Chow Kit where I met a senior trans woman. What she had said stuck to me: “Buat apa kat sini? Bila ko nak terbang? (What are you doing here? When are you going to fly)?”