KUALA LUMPUR, March 24 — When Sabah art collective Pangrok Sulap’s artwork was removed from an exhibition here two days after its opening, it caused quite a stir in the art community.
Although the person allegedly “responsible” — a complaint he allegedly made about the artwork apparently went all the way up to the prime minister’s office — was never named in news reports, many in the small community believed it was a particular art collector. And were vocal about it on social media.
Now Winston Peng — a consultant and art connoisseur — has come out to rubbish allegations that he instigated the brouhaha.
Peng said the accusation was fabricated by those who have a history of hostility towards him.
However, he does admit to raising some questions about Sabah Tanah Air-Ku with the director of the Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL), the organiser of the “Escape from the SEA” exhibition, but denied calling for its removal.
“There wasn’t any complaint,” Peng told Malay Mail Online recently.
“What happened was actually very simple. I went to the Japanese director and asked do you know what is this painting about.
“So he said that’s up to your interpretation. But then I asked but do you know the relevance to this exhibition? So I explained,” he added.
Peng said to him, the central figure in the painting — a bespectacled and moustached man in a suit — resembled the current Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman, who is also the older brother of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Datuk Seri Anifah Aman.
Considering that the event was meant to celebrate the friendship between the two countries, Peng asked if the organiser, an agency attached to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thought the work was “consistent with the objective of the exhibition.”
The artwork was one of two large pieces simultaneously on display at the Art Printing Works space and the National Visual Arts Gallery (BSVN).
Pangrok Sulap pulled out of the exhibition a few days after the removal of Sabah Tanah Air-Ku, saying the incident was “demotivational.”
According to the timeline of the incident provided by researcher Sze Ying Goh and Filipino academic Alice Sarmiento, two of the four co-curators of the exhibition, Pangrok Sulap agreed to take the work down after all stakeholders held an informal meeting on Saturday, February 25.
Citing what had transpired, Peng said the collective actually had the option to not remove their artwork, but decided to do it nevertheless and replaced it with a video of how the piece was made instead.
“If you wanted to make a statement, you should have stood your ground and stayed. Be ready to engage,” he said.
“If you were really forced to remove your art, then why did you even agree to replace it with the video? Why not leave the exhibition altogether?”
Peng believes the entire kerfuffle could have been intentionally blown out of proportion to gain attention and validate an otherwise “boring” work, which he described as “fringe art, to look important.”
“I don’t think PMO would have been bothered with this kind of fringe art. I don’t think anyone would bother sticking their neck out all the way to the PMO,” he added, using the acronym for the Prime Minister’s Office.
“And in fact I think the crux of this whole PMO (claim) is self-interest for cheap publicity to hype it all up,” he said, adding that he found the artwork not in the least provocative and “not intellectually challenging at all” to merit any complaints.
However, the incident infuriated several artists who took to social media to voice their protest against what they deemed to be censorship and a clampdown on free expression.
One prominent artist even went on a rant on Twitter and openly named Peng as the complainant.
Peng said he is now considering suing the artist for defamation as he was called several unsavoury names like “scumbag”, “a*******” and “jilat-er” (literally a licker, a derogatory description for a brownoser).
“Yes, I am considering legal action,” he said.
While the artist has since deleted the postings about Peng, he managed to print out all the tweets.
Responding to the uproar, 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.
The reasoning drew codemnation from the four artists who participated in the exhibition — Ali Alasri, Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, Mark Teh, and Wong Tay Sy.
Peng, a self-professed art activist who has organised several art events in the past, said he was also surprised that the artwork was taken down. “I just thought the work would have been awkward... perhaps they would have been advised or took the initiative to talk to BSVN but I wouldn’t know.
“What I’m saying is it’s all (the allegations about him and the complaint to PMO) hearsay,” he added.