If you’re someone who is even slightly immersed in the Malaysian art scene, you would have already heard the news of Pangrok Sulap’s Sabah Tanah Air-Ku artwork removal from Art Printing Works Bangsar followed by the collective’s complete withdrawal from the recently launched exhibition, ESCAPE from the SEA.
Pangrok Sulap is a 7-year-old art activist collective that hails from Ranau, Sabah. Since its establishment, Pangrok Sulap has achieved various feats—some of which include being part of an exhibition in Tokyo and conducting intimate outreach programmes for Sabah’s small towns. When asked by the Borneo Art Collective to briefly describe themselves, they spoke of themselves as a collective of artists, musicians and social activists with the purpose of empowering rural communities through art.
The collective is also no stranger to crafting ambitious pieces—their art usually towers high above average human height. This is where the Ranau community comes in. It’s not unusual when Pangrok Sulap recruits members of the community to help out with their artwork. In fact, this has happened on more than one occasion and every experience gives an inclusive environment to all involved.
Sabah Tanah Air-Ku is the name of the twin artwork which was previously part of ESCAPE from the SEA, a collaborative exhibition between Balai Seni Visual Negara (BSVN), Japanese Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL) and Art Printing Works Bangsar (APW Bangsar). One half of Sabah Tanah Air-Ku was displayed at Balai Seni Visual while the other half was presented at APW Bangsar. On 26th February 2017, people were stunned to find out that the APW Bangsar installation of Sabah Tanah Air-Ku was taken down.
On 10th March, 11 days after Sabah Tanah Air-Ku’s removal, Rizo Leong on behalf of Pangrok Sulap finally broke the collective’s silence over the matter by posting this status on Facebook.
The only known reason for its subtraction from the exhibition is that exhibition goer found the work of art a little too provocative and submitted a complaint to the organisers. This garnered a mixed feedback from concerned netizens including activist Fahim Reza.
— Fahmi Reza (@kuasasiswa) March 13, 2017
Later in an interview with Malay Mail Online, a member of Pangrok Sulap, Jerome Manjat, said that they were told by the organisers that they (the organisers) had received a complaint that the work was too provocative and that the complaint had been elevated to the Prime Minister’s office. Pangrok Sulap was also told that the organisers wanted some time to solve the problem which they (the collective) understood.
The silence by Pangrok Sulap that followed after the removal of Sabah Tanah Air-Ku was to make space for the organisers to explain their decision to the public and deliver a public statement addressing the subtraction of the 8-by-12 artwork from APW Bangsar. However, after almost two weeks of waiting, no public statement had been made.
The collective eventually came to the decision to withdraw completely from ESCAPE from the SEA as retaliation against the censorship of their artwork. “The two pieces go hand in hand, it cannot be one without the other,” said Jerome to Malay Mail Online. Now, ESCAPE from the SEA will carry on running until 23rd April in the absence of work from Pangrok Sulap.
In regards to Pangrok Sulap’s withdrawal from ESCAPE from the SEA, JFKL director Koichi Horikawa added that the semi-government entity respected the artist’s decision to withdraw from the exhibition stating “We understand their decision, and that only having one piece up does not deliver their message” in an interview with the Malay Mail.
This incident has ushered in a much needed conversation about art censorship and what it means to live in a world where like many things, art becomes victim to censorship. The cliché of art revolves around freedom of expression and that artists escape mainstream to voice out their opinions in differing artistic forms but when artists aren’t even allowed to speak up even in their own safe space, then does artistic freedom even mean anything anymore?
Every story inevitably has multiple perspectives and one must understand why the organisers of ESCAPE from the SEA resulted in deleting the artwork from the exhibition. Director of JFKL, Koichi Horikawa said that as a semi-government entity, it is of essence that JFKL makes the right decision when dealing with national sensitivity. After receiving a complaint, it seemed natural for JFKL to remove the piece.
Here’s a little background of JFKL for you. It is a semi-governmental body that aims to enhance the Malaysia-Japan relationship and to promote mutual exchanges be it in any form. In this case, there is an exchange of mutual understanding in the form of art. Now, if JFKL’s purpose is to tighten the bond of our two countries, then it’s understandable why this decision was made.
Horikawa said in an interview with the Malay Mail that “We had to take the complaint seriously as well as consider many other aspects in this. As a foreign organisation in Malaysia, we have to respect public opinion and due to the unexpected strong reaction to the piece, we had decided to take the artwork down.”
However, this does not completely make sense as according to Yap Sau Bin (one of the curators of the exhibition) all artists involved in ESCAPE from the SEA have been working alongside curators and supervised by JFKL since May 2016. If they were supervised throughout the whole process, they must have had at least a discussion before this. Did JFKL not sit down to discuss the potential fires they would have to put out as a result of displaying a potentially provocative artwork?
JFKL has received criticism for the way they handled this situation. Their failure to immediately inform the public with a crystal clear statement resulted in further confusion. Pangrok Sulap representative, Rizo Leong, told the Malay Mail Online that “I think we are most disappointed by how it was handled. We knew there would be some backlash especially on social media about why it was removed and we wanted the organisers to answer these questions. We wanted them to take responsibility for answering it and hopefully defend the artists’ work.”
Other participating artists also chimed in and defended the Sabahan collective in a Facebook post by Mark Teh, one of the great minds behind The Complete Futures of Malaysia (Chapter 1), a feature in ESCAPE from the SEA.
Art censorship is a grizzly monster that is getting mightier by the day, being fed by ‘dengki’ hearted Malaysians who snitch on their fellow countrymen. Perhaps art censorship will come to a complete cease when people realise that criticism in the form of written word, art or speech should all be welcomed in order to reevaluate what must be changed about the country.
If there’s something to criticise about, surely there is something worth criticising, kan? What do you think about this fiery frenzy and what opinions do you have on art censorship? Let us know in the comments, tweet us or hit us up on our Facebook page!