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  • Writer's pictureHusna Khaidil

Art as a Catalyst for Change: Art Activism at COP28 with Shaq Koyok

Updated: Apr 2

Photo Credit: Artivist Network (Photo by Bianka Csenki)

Who is behind these placards?

Have you ever found yourself amid the bustling crowds at the UN Conference of the Parties (COP), surrounded by a sea of placards bearing powerful messages, and paused to ponder about the creative minds behind those impactful visuals? Within the labyrinth of climate negotiations and policy discussions, an often unsung but profoundly influential force exists – the artists.

These individuals armed not with policy documents or scientific charts, but with brushes, cameras, and an unwavering commitment to environmental advocacy, play a crucial role in shaping the narrative of our collective climate action.

Jiya Gupta argues that while activism moves the material world and art touches the heart, body, and soul, combining the two results in a practice generating a powerful Effect—an emotionally resonant experience leading to measurable shifts in power. [1] Maria Martinez adds that artists with cross-cultural experience can break down barriers, dispel ignorance, and build trust.[2]

Nevertheless, despite the undeniable relevance of art activism in shaping social discourse, particularly in the crucial realm of environmental action with global implications, the arts community finds itself noticeably excluded from significant platforms, such as COP.

In simpler terms, within the context of environmental action on the global stage, artists often take a backseat to more prominent figures like environmental consultants.

The Role of the Artivist Network at COP28

Essentially, the Artivist Network, breaks this barrier of artists' exclusion by providing the platform for them to be at the front end of social discourse.

The Artivist Network, comprising arts activists and facilitators, strives to enhance the role of artists in climate justice by introducing innovative political interventions that empower them to spearhead profound structural and intersectional change. Over the past decade, the Artivist Network has established autonomous infrastructure, providing creative support and organizational assistance to groups interested in conducting imaginative actions during COP.

Photo Credit: Artivist Network (Photo by Bianka Csenki)

At COP28, their pivotal role in art activism unfolded through the efforts of their artivist-in-residence, collaborating with diverse groups to contribute visual art, street art, creative storytelling, inflatable art, and coordinated creative actions. Noteworthy campaigns, including #EndFossilFuels, #LossAndDamage, and #CeaseFire received support from the Artivist Network.

Our exploration into the realm of art activism at COP28 takes us backstage, where we had the privilege of interviewing the talented artist and activist, Shaq Koyok. Invited as part of the Artivist Network's artist-in-residence program, Shaq played a vital role in crafting banners, placards, and props for demonstrations and live performances throughout the event.

Photo Credit: Shaq Koyok

Overview of Shaq Koyok's work as an artist and activist

Shaq Koyok is a versatile individual who combines his love for the arts with his passion for advocacy with ease. Immersed in both fields, he possesses a deep understanding of Malaysia's societal and cultural landscape. Through his work, he aims to amplify the voices of marginalized communities, particularly the Orang Asli. As a member of the Temuan tribe in Kampung Orang Asli Pulau Kempas, Selangor, Shaq has personally faced numerous environmental issues such as deforestation, illegal logging, and land rights.

To express his emotions and the trauma his village has experienced from the loss of their home and struggles for survival, Shaq turns to art as a powerful medium for communication and activism. His works have been featured in respected exhibitions, including Richard Koh Fine Art Gallery and Galeri Petronas.

In 2017, Shaq was granted the prestigious Merdeka Award for International Attachment, which allowed him to travel to Australia (National Art Gallery in Parkes, New South Wales), New Zealand (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington), and Britain (Eden Project Botanical Garden, Bodelva, Cornwall) for a total of three months. This honor was especially significant as he became the first Orang Asli to receive the award for his exceptional proposal.

Shaq's dedication to advancing the rights of the Orang Asli has driven both his activism and art, which he sees as intertwined. He is deeply involved with the people and causes he portrays in his paintings, making him a familiar figure in events promoting environmental justice and raising awareness of the Orang Asli's struggles and the impact of climate change.

Artists as Agents of Change

Despite Shaq's impressive achievements in both art and activism, he revealed that there were still many aspects of his COP28 experience that he had yet to encounter. This came as a surprise, given his stellar track record in these areas.

The whole experience gave me time to think about how art can be agents of change for the environment, whether in the form of developing action work on the street or as a performance piece that involves human interaction. It was something that I haven’t had any chance to be involved in.

Shaq recognizes the immense impact of art as a means to motivate and instil confidence in individuals, particularly for those living in a society where freedom of speech may not be widely accepted, or where there are limited outlets for self-expression. Synchronizing with this, he also explained how art activism can play a crucial role in raising awareness and mobilization among diverse audiences as art at the end of the day, is a universal language.

Photo Credit: Shaq Koyok

Participating in the international conference of COP28 provides Shaq with the opportunity to utilize his freedom of expression. This experience is both refreshing and empowering, as it allows Shaq to gain confidence while engaging in a new and exciting process.

It was invigorating to witness how international audiences value art and the involvement of the creative industry. As an artist, we hold the power to effect change, whether it be in social or environmental movements. This experience has also motivated me to contemplate my next steps.

Nurturing Change Through Education

The acknowledgment of culture and heritage as essential elements in the efforts to combat climate change at COP28 was a notable achievement, underscoring the central theme that Shaq has been promoting for Malaysia through his campaign of utilizing education as a means for instigating change.

Photo Credit: Shaq Koyok

Shaq's main motivation for his campaign lies in his strong dedication to promoting education. He has demonstrated this by devoting his time to painting murals at schools attended by the Orang Asli, aiming to instil a sense of pride in their cultural heritage among these indigenous children. Yet, even if Shaq were not involved in advocating for the rights of the Orang Asli, he maintains that Malaysia's journey towards appreciating the arts will still be a lengthy one.

The government doesn’t pay much attention to the art industry and even our education system doesn’t put art as the core subject or as important subject. I hope with this kind of movement, which has been going on a global scale - it will influence countries like Malaysia and those in Southeast Asia to see that art too can be an agent of change. I hope that it will give us the space for creative people to be part of the development process of any kind, and not at the pedestal.

Behind the Scenes of Art Activism

Photo Credit: Malaysia Pavillion at COP28

As glamorous as the world of art activism may suggest, Shaq's behind-the-scenes experience reflects a chaotic yet dedicated effort. Balancing the creation of artworks for COP28 by representing his paper on sustainability practices in Malaysia and advocating for indigenous communities on the frontlines of protecting forests in both Thailand and Malaysia Pavillion, Shaq navigated a demanding schedule.

I was there pretty early because we had to do all the preparation work before COP28 started. We had to set up the studio, gather materials for the oil paintings, and ensure all the artwork was ready. Simultaneously, I had to write the paper for my presentation. We ended up working late into the early hours of the morning, around 3-4 am, and resumed work shortly after waking up.

Despite the stress of art-making and preparation for his presentation, Shaq reflects positively on his global stage experience, deeming it "worth it." He highlights the immense opportunity to collaborate with diverse individuals and communities worldwide, spanning creative, corporate, and various national backgrounds. Contributing to the global climate change conversation, Shaq hopes that his work will encourage other artists to follow in his footsteps and create art for change.

The Journey Will Not Be Easy

Photo Credit: Shaq Koyok

However, Shaq reminds us to maintain a clear mindset and acknowledge the inevitable challenges. Successfully navigating these hurdles requires a strong mindset and a dedicated commitment to finding solutions. Developing a resilient spirit and determination will be crucial for this endeavor, as the realms of art and social advocacy can be challenging and potentially dangerous.

First of all, when I started with art, I never thought I would become an activist. But before I became an activist, I never thought I would be known as I am now. My mindset was very clear for art, similarly, you will have to pour your heart out. However, there will be challenges but if your heart is on it, you will find a way to solve the problem.

In conclusion, art activism at COP28 has shown to be a powerful catalyst for change, both in terms of addressing environmental issues and promoting social justice. Through the tireless efforts of activist groups such as the Artivist Network and the dedication of artists like Shaq Koyok, the role of art in driving impactful and measurable shifts in power has been highlighted. The journey towards greater recognition of the arts in the global climate action discourse may not be easy, but it is a crucial one that requires a resilient spirit and unwavering determination.

As such, it is essential to continue nurturing and promoting the role of artists as agents of change, as their creative expression and advocacy have the power to inspire and mobilize audiences worldwide. As we move towards a more sustainable future, it is crucial to acknowledge and embrace the influential role of art activism in shaping our collective actions and efforts towards a better tomorrow.


[1] Gupta, Jiya (2021). ART ACTIVISM: NOT JUST VISUAL APPEAL BUT A CATALYST FOR SOCIAL CHANGE. Int. J. of Adv. Res. 9 (Aug). 1021-1046 

[2] Martinez, M. X. (2007). The art of social justice. Social Justice, 34(1), 5-11

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