In face of censorship, how should the Malaysian arts community act?

By Zurairi AR
A visitor views artwork at the ‘ESCAPE from the SEA’ exhibition, as organised by Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur, at National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur March 15, 2017. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, March 19 — The recent removal of Sabah art collective Pangrok Sulap’s artwork from an international exhibition because of an alleged complaint from “high-up” has left the local arts community feeling quite bitter.

While the subsequent comments and criticism by members of the community about how the incident was handled by the different stakeholders was nothing short of admirable, the fact remains that censorship, or even self-censorship, is not new in Malaysia.

So how should curators and artists move on from the incident and tackle censorship in the future? Several practitioners and observers told Malay Mail Online that the arts community must stand by each other and hold institutions accountable.

“We need to foster a culture that allows for critical debate to play out. This is our only guarantee that something like this would not happen again in the future,” said Universiti Malaya art historian Simon Soon.

Local photomedia artist Yee I-Lann said curators should explain to the complainer the repercussions and consequences of censorship, which has the potential to snowball beyond the arts community.

Yee said any news of censorship will only offer the artwork a greater audience, while the case itself will be chronicled by academics and extend beyond local shores, where Malaysia will be viewed as backwards and suppressing artists.

“The artwork will then be sought-after by important collections giving it an immortal life, the artists will be empowered and reach greater heights, and their voices will be strengthened.

“This is our insurance against people who are against freedom of expression... the complainer needs to understand that their complaint will be counterintuitive, and thus, naive,” Yee added.

The controversial ‘I is for Idiot’ painting by J. Anu/Anurendra Jegadeva.

A history of censorship

Soon, a researcher on South-east Asian arts and visual culture, explained that complaints against an artwork do not always come from the authorities, but rather a member of the public who may simply feel offended by it.

He gave the example of the removal of local contemporary artist J. Anu’s work in 2013 due to public complaint, where the work was not even reinstated by the organiser even when no charges were filed against the artist.

The painting, part of the “ABC For The Middle-Age Middle Classes” installation, was accused of “insulting Islam.” Both police and the Islamic authorities later cleared him of the allegation.

Soon also gave the example of the “Rock Kaka” exhibition at the Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery in 2009 that was closed early for featuring graphic designer Fahmi Reza’s mock billboard featuring the head of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak — after a politician who visited warned of potential repercussion.

“It would seem that self-censorship is rife in Malaysia, but one could also argue there is often indirect pressure exerted that resulted in these decisions,” Soon said.

“Complaints very often come from a place of dissatisfaction and a culture that encourages the translation of this resentment into a form of suppression or censorship,” the senior lecturer added.

“Very often this is a silencing mechanism that does not want to achieve any mutual understanding through a deliberative process.”

Moving on from Pangrok Sulap

The Pangrok Sulap piece titled Sabah Tanah Air-Ku was removed from the “Escape from the SEA” 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).

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.

Pangrok Sulap’s artwork which was shown at the ‘Escape from the SEA’ exhibition at Balai Seni Lukis Negara. A companion piece at APW, Bangsar was deemed too provocative and taken down. — Picture courtesy of Rizo Leong

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.

But the backlash from the arts community has been fierce, directed towards both the complainer and the organisers and curators for perceived complicity with the censorship.

After organiser JFKL decided to keep mum about its decision even after it was given adequate time to explain itself, several artists — including researcher Sze Ying Goh who was one of the co-curators, and later Yap Sau Bin, one of the lead curators — decided to break their silence.

Four artists who had participated in the exhibition — Ali Alasri, Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, Mark Teh, and Wong Tay Sy — also came out against moral and political policing by all stakeholders in the ecosystem.

“Within a larger Malaysian context, this also continues a toxic tradition where yet again, an invisible individual(s) and private opinion expressed to the powers that be is responsible for censoring an artwork.

“This should not be tolerated — we must hold these invisible individuals accountable for their positions as their actions have very serious negative public implications,” said the group in a statement last week.

Local artist Sharon Chin has since called upon the arts community to not be ashamed of being afraid — saying it is the “right response” against the State’s action against its citizens — but to show solidarity for each other in spite of the fear.

“Accepting fear is the first step towards building solidarity, which is our only real defence against the state. We need to understand that different people are in different positions, answerable in different ways.

“Solidarity means acting together despite these differences. Solidarity requires trust. Trust that you are acting together despite the differences,” Chin said.

The art collective is founded on the values of sharing, knowledge and friendship. — Picture by Julia Chan

Where to next?

As the first immediate step, Wong, Teh and fellow performing arts collective Five Arts Centre’s member June Tan, will host a closed-door roundtable today with the “Escape from the SEA” controversy as a case study.

According to the invitation, the roundtable aims to discuss several issues including identifying the stakeholders in a visual arts exhibition, and how curators can negotiate and mediate between the different interests of institutions, artists, and the public.

The discussion will also look at whether the stakeholders are in an equal relationship, and the ties that affect a response to a complaint against an artwork.

Soon said that the resulting public conversations from the controversy itself is a form of “collective curating”, with the public speaking up because it cares about art and the artists who make them.

He suggested that the public also has a role to play in the form of collective pressure that continues to hold all these institutions and individuals in power accountable, especially with the advent of social media.

“Such display of vigilance shows us that the art public cares enough. After all, ‘someone who cares’ is what the word ‘curator’ means originally in Latin. In this sense, displaying concern and making institutions answerable is an act of turning the table and return the very act of caring to the public,” said Soon.

As for Yee, she insisted again that censorship must never be tolerated, especially in visual arts, and it is important for everyone involved to nail home this point.

“The arts is the soul of the country. There must be space for honest expression, warts and all. The role of the artist is to reflect themselves, their community and the times,” Yee said, praising Pangrok Sulap for excelling in its role as artists.

“That is the artist’s burden, responsibility and job… Art is not just about pretty things. Art is suppose to reflect and be a conduit to truths.”