Artists pour scorn on complaint that led to removal of Sabah collective’s artwork

By Zurairi AR
A visitor browses artwork on display at the ;Escape from the SEA' exhibition held at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur March 15, 2017. — Picture by Yusot Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, March 16 ― The recent removal of Sabah collective Pangrok Sulap’s artwork from an international exhibition last month has incensed several artists, especially following allegations that it was the result of a complaint from “high-up.”

Up until now the identity of the complainant remains unconfirmed, and some in the arts community see the move by Escape from the SEA exhibition organiser Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL) as “censorship”.

“There is nothing uglier than a vengeful Malaysian who, usually for selfish personal political opportunism, reports a fellow Malaysian to authorities when that fellow Malaysian has done nothing wrong but exercised their constitutionally guaranteed rights. No one likes a snitch,” Kota Kinabalu-born photomedia artist Yee I-Lann told Malay Mail Online.

In a public Facebook post on Tuesday, local artist Sharon Chin labelled the move as “self-censorship”, a complex act she described as “violence internalised as a result of power used to create fear.”

“Our society is poisoned by a culture in which individuals appeal to state power to intervene on their behalf,” Chin said.

So why did JFKL take it down?

The Pangrok Sulap piece titled “Sabah Tanah Air-Ku” was removed from the exhibition just two days after it opened on February 24. It was one of two large pieces simultaneously on display at the Art Printing Works space and the National Visual Arts Gallery (BSVN).

The group pulled out of the exhibition over the weekend to protest the censorship of their artwork, saying that it was “demotivational” to their craft. Their second piece was taken down from the BSVN on Monday morning.

Researcher Sze Ying Goh and Filipino academic Alice Sarmiento, two of the four co-curators of the exhibition, had on Monday published a timeline which aims to shed light on the events that led to the removal.

According to them, the first complaint against the artwork was received on the same day the exhibition opened. Following discussions with the artists, the curators decided on February 25 to deliberate on the matter pending a formal complaint letter from BSVN.

Local visual artist Yap Sau Bin, one of the two lead curators, told Malay Mail Online that JFKL then removed the artwork on February 26 even before any formal request was made.

Goh and Sarmiento revealed that it was only later that JFKL received a letter of objection from BSVN director-general Prof Datuk Dr Mohamed Najib Ahmad Dawa addressed to the foundation’s director Koichi Horikawa. That was on March 1, nearly a week after the first complaint was made known.

Multimedia University lecturer Yap has since expressed his disappointment over the removal, and his exasperation over the bureaucracy that was involved in the decision making. He is particularly incensed by the complaint, which he said had come from a “faceless” figure.

“I think if there is disagreement over artistic and cultural expression, whether it is anonymous or not, it should be properly documented and formally brought forward to the affected parties for discussion such that those who are affected, be they artists, organisers, or audience could learn something new,” Yap said.

“There ought to be liability even from those who disagree and not remain as a mere faceless public. After all, a healthy society would respect a forthcoming disagreement, differences of interpretation from a genuine member of public than an anonymous complaint, this is more mature and enabling to our intellectual progress.”

Was the artwork ‘misread’?

JFKL told Malay Mail Online in an email that “despite the earnest intentions of the artist there has been a misreading of the artwork” which then led to some complaints.

Four artists who also participated in the exhibition — Ali Alasri, Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, Mark Teh, and Wong Tay Sy — had last week condemned JFKL for using the “misreading” excuse.

“What was ‘misread’? How exactly was ‘Sabah Tanah Air-Ku’ at APW ‘misread’, and what was the rationale or motivation behind this?

“And most importantly, who ‘misread’ the work, and following that, seemingly lodged a complaint to the exhibition organisers and/or other authorities, which led to the decision to take down the work?” the group asked.

They also said that Pangrok Sulap’s work received many positive responses from audiences, citing the many photographs and selfies taken by the public with the piece.

Pangrok Sulap, an art collection in Sabah said they withdrew from the exhibition to preserve their integrity and protest against art censorship in Malaysia. — Picture by Julia Chan

“It goes without saying that there are many, multiple ways to ‘read’ a work of art, and debate and dialogue about the merits and content of any work, as well as the artists’ right to express their positions, must be defended.

“To insist on only one reading of the work, and to take action based on this narrow reading closes off many other ways of interpretation, thinking, expression and dialogue,” they added.

Yap came to Pangrok Sulap’s defence, explaining that the curatorial team has no doubts about the group’s work, and had discussed the theme together with them since May last year.

“There should not be any changes to the visual or their intention. In fact they work from their heart and soul, it is their heart-felt observation of the aspirations and experience of the people they live with.

“We can only address any 'misreading' if the misreading is clearly articulated and forthcoming. Else we are just wrestling with menace of phantom,” Yap said.

So, who is the snitch?

Pangrok Sulap told Malay Mail Online its work was labelled “too provocative”, and the complaint had been taken all the way up to the Prime Minister’s Office.

It is believed that the complainant is someone with a close relationship with BSVN, and is also an art collector known to the arts community.

Malay Mail Online has yet to verify any of these claims with the Gallery. JFKL did not respond to our request for the identity of the complainant.

The National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

BSVN is no stranger to self-censorship. The last incident was in February 2014, when it removed two artworks by Cheng Yen Pheng and Izat Arif Saiful Bahri, the finalists of the Young Contemporaries 2013 art competition.

The Gallery had defended itself back then by saying the exhibition had allegedly caused “distress” to visitors, and they had the right to remove any pieces deemed “inappropriate.”

The official objection lodged by BSVN to JFKL on March 1 has since been criticised by University of Malaya’s art historian Simon Soon, who claims that the former’s chief Najib had demonstrated “reactionary self interest” upon receiving a complaint.

“He needs to be made accountable for this action because he has demonstrated a dereliction of duty to protect and defend our artists,” Soon told Malay Mail Online.

Yee, Soon, and three other artists had over the weekend approached BSVN for clarification over the identity of the complainant but did not receive any response, even after Yee met Najib.

Whoever the complainant is, Yee reminded Malaysian authorities to respect the local arts scene, which she dubbed a “tiny little landscape.”

“These authorities must respect dissenting voices, who are sometimes plain rude. That is the prerogative of the arts and it will be through the arts and critical thought that Malaysia becomes a civilised thinking society,” Yee said.