Azmi Hussin Continues to Create During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Behind every comic lies Azmi’s enduring message to live life to the fullest.
If there’s one thing we know about Azmi Hussin, it’s that he works hard. At one point in his life, the then father of two with a third on the way had only RM 2.50 in his pocket. While sitting at the Esplanade scrolling through his phone to see who he could contact to lend him money, a tour bus stopped in front of him, and many tourists disembarked. He thought to himself, “maybe I could draw caricatures for tourists and they could pay me money”.
So he set up his caricature station under the shade of a tree, with the goal of earning just enough to buy diapers and milk for his children. He made RM210 that day.
Over the years, Azmi has made a name for himself in the industry. Since that fateful day in 2013 at the Esplanade, he has made it into the Malaysia Book of Records for the most caricatures drawn in 24 hours (2017) and for the longest coffee painting (2019). His sophomore book, “The Little Mamak”, which the National Book Council listed as one of 50 “Malaysia Best Titles”, represented Malaysia at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. For his contributions to the industry, he received the PeKOMIK Kembara Award by Persatuan Penggiat Komik (PeKOMIK) Malaysia (2018).
Azmi continues to showcase the breadth of his talent – from comics to still-lifes and portraits – through the years.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic swept in. Everyone in Malaysia, including those in Penang, retreated indoors. The George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site, where Azmi usually would sell caricatures to tourists, was empty. Art spaces and markets closed their doors, festivals and events halted production, and galleries shut down. All public gatherings, performances and exhibitions were cancelled or postponed in the interests of our collective wellbeing.
A survey by the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) in 2020 showed that out of 519 participants, 94% of the participants are collectively fully & partially dependent on the arts, while 70% of artists had lost most, if not all, of their income.  Artists like Azmi who would normally depend on festivals and events for income – had been left to their own devices.
Some artists took to cyberspace to bring cheer to those stuck at home. Others, like George Town Festival, took the bold step and ventured into a different sector like publishing, giving artists and those in the creative sector the opportunity to continue what they do best. As someone who has always preferred caricatures, Azmi used this time to create in new ways. “In the beginning, I was worried because many events had been cancelled but the pandemic forced me to come out of my comfort zone. I did new things like mural painting and designing t-shirts, which actually kept me afloat during these trying times,” says Azmi.
Azmi’s mural of the football greats featuring Ali Bakar, Datuk Namat Abdullah, M Kuppan, Pang Siang Hock, Shukor Salleh and Mohd Faiz Subri (the first Asian to win the FIFA Puskas Award) at the City Stadium in George Town.
But at the back of his mind, Azmi knew he had to continue to do what he does best – caricature. He began to observe the new lifestyle brought on by the pandemic in order to gain ideas.
One of his earliest pandemic caricatures completed during Cheng Beng (Tomb Sweeping Day) in 2021 depicts two ghosts discussing if they should scan the MySejahtera QR code first before eating, which was well received by netizens. “I think because it resonates with people,” he says.
Checking in with MySejahtera, 2021.
When Azmi sketched the state’s last remaining “squatting” Teochew porridge stall, he had no idea the stall had decided to call it a day at the time. The Teochew porridge stall, which belonged to Tan Jin Hock, 80, used to be a popular spot for the elderly to gather during lunchtime along the busy Jalan Magazine.
“When I drew this sketch, the stall was still operating. After that, I read in the news that the stall is closing down. It is sad because the stall is such an important part of Penang’s heritage. That particular sketch will be a memory for Penangites who have eaten there before,” he says.
Yay to Dining In, 2021.
Azmi’s endeavour to sketch Penang’s pandemic stories hasn’t been easy, though. One of his main challenges is getting ideas. “To convert the current situation into a cartoon is not easy. I need to do some research and explore Tanjong, the old name for George Town, for my reference.
“Sometimes inspiration randomly came out of nowhere, too, like when I was walking down Lebuh Pasar and I overheard an uncle telling his friend the number of the day’s daily cases and his friend thought it was a 4D number,” he says.
Ministry of Health Daily Updates, 2021.
But which of his sketches is his favourite? “I like the sketch of Hari Raya 2020. At that time, interstate travel to balik kampung for Aidilfitri was not allowed, but we were allowed to visit our nearby families and our neighbours under strict SOPs. So, I imagined a scene of how we would celebrate Hari Raya if we were not allowed to even visit our neighbours.
“However, due to the high number of cases, even visiting was not allowed in 2021. So it came as a surprise to me that I managed to sketch this year’s Aidilfitri, one year before it happened. It’s time to buy a drone,” he jokes.
Preserving Traditions Creatively, 2020.
Pandemic art has been around for a long time; Edvard Munch literally has a painting called “Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu”. But rather than capturing sad realities of the pandemic, Azmi injected humour into his work to keep us going. “I am a true believer that we must move on in life, no matter how dire the circumstances.
I wouldn’t be where I am today if someone had lent me the money I needed that day at the Esplanade back in 2013, and I wouldn’t have survived the movement control order if I stayed in my comfort zone. We must keep fighting to move on in life,” he says.
Find these comics by Penang-born cartoonist Azmi Hussin in the “Tanjong Life: The New Norm” comic book. Presented by George Town Festival, “Tanjong Life: The New Norm” is a comic book created entirely in lockdown by Azmi Hussin. The book’s publication will be followed by a sharing session, scheduled to be held alongside George Town Festival 2021 in July this year. Click here for more information.
 “COVID-19 Impact to the Arts Report”, Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA), (2020).