KOTA KINABALU, March 17 — The Sabah-based art collective Pangrok Sulap often gets asked what their name means. Quite simply, “pangrok” is a colloquial way of saying punk rock and “sulap” means hut in Dusun.
The name endears them to Sabahans immediately as they love the tribute to their local slang, and it is fitting, given how the art collective has been voicing out their fellow Sabahans’ frustrations for many years.
Recently, the collective made the news in Peninsular Malaysia when one of their artwork was taken down from the “Escape from the SEA” exhibition in Kuala Lumpur by organiser Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur.
The controversial removal — allegedly because of a complaint that the work was too provocative — incensed the art community.
In protest against this censorship, the collective withdrew a companion piece which was being exhibited at another venue.
The collective, which has “about 15 or so” members, is a keen observer of what has been happening in the state and presents the people’s struggles via their distinctive art.
“We want to be seen as more than just wild kids… gigging, fooling around, drawing stuff and drinking. We are not just punks, we want to meet and share ideas with like-minded people,” said Rizo Leong, one of Pangrok’s founders.
The individuals in the collective come from different backgrounds; for starters, Leong is a civil engineer by training while Kim Auri studied management. Jerome Manjat, the main spokesman of the group, studied digital animation while Mohd Hizal Rusinin, better known as Bam, is studying for his Masters in Psychology.
“Everything we do is based on our core values — sharing, knowledge and friendship. We want to share what we know and do, always continue to learn about our community, and make friends because without support, we cannot do what we love,” said Kim, one of several women in the group.
“We all have our specialties and own interests, but we like doing things together and support each other through the process,” she said.
The group is largely based in Ranau, at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, and get their inspiration from visiting far-flung villages, showing their art to local communities and getting to know people.
“In the process, we found a lot of things lacking — basic infrastructure — and we tried to find small ways we could make a positive impact on the community like teaching them to draw, paint murals... that kind of thing,” said Leong.
Their values are reflected in what they do… and wear: visits to villages and schools in poverty— or issue-ridden districts; the clothes they wear are often printed with their own designs and they wear local handmade beads and their artwork is made up of thought-provoking images of current issues.
In one image, an orang utan is thumping the ground with one limb, while another is raised in the air — the words behind it screams: “This land is mine!”
In another, a native woman holding a baby also has her arm raised — “Never surrender!” are the words boldly highlighted in red while her arm tells of the threat — the Kaiduan Dam.
They support the work of local communities and speak up against corruption, political greed, under developed infrastructure and fight for multi-racial unity.
To fund their work, the artists sell T-shirts, posters, bags, notebook emblazoned with their distinctive social messages.
“We get a lot of support from people who enjoy our work, and what we do. We like sharing what we know, what we learnt from speaking to villagers. It is the core of our work, we hear these stories and experience them for ourselves,” said Kim.
The collective’s social political messages are presented with their trademark style of woodcut printmaking. They work with a scalpel, painstakingly chiselling wood panels to create the intricate images which are used to stamp ink on different types of fabric and paper.
It is no easy task as the images must be carved in reverse in order to make a stamp on their surface. The process is old-school, but highly satisfactory and requires skill and talent.
“We were just doing it through trial and error at first using plywood but we learned so much from a pioneering woodcut collective from Indonesia called Marjinal who visited us here and really taught us the basics of woodcutting,” said Jerome.
Pangrok Sulap show their work in local markets called tamus around the state. Tamus are the heart of every rural community, where people meet and catch up and share news. Here, they share their knowledge, engage the local community, and get to know their concerns.
“We first realised the impact of our art at the KK Bundle Fest in 2012, when the response was very encouraging. Then we started joining more programmes and any kind of event where we could display our work,” said Leong.
“We have even crashed a fishermen’s festival and a cabbage festival, random events that are not art centric,” he laughed.
But they always try to bring a relevant message to the event, like a “Laut ialah kehidupan” banner for the fishing community and a banner of life in Kundasang at the cabbage festival.
Since then, they have had many public showings nationally, as well as internationally, e.g. Tokyo, Japan.
The group may have learned the technical aspects from Marjinal, but their overt socio-political messages are inspired by Taring Padi, a politically provocative art collective from Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Despite their outspoken view on people’s rights, the group is adamant that they have no political leanings and any kind of similarities with the opposition agenda is purely coincidental.
“We do not associate ourselves with any political parties. We are just artists, but you cannot run away from the fact that the people’s issues are almost always political,” said Kim.
“But our approach is to have a direct impact or action on people through our art. We want to affect change, but we want to do it in a positive way,” she added.
“We are also not as overt as Taring Padi, our main inspiration. But like most artists, we hope that our work may be an influence or give courage to others to stand up for what they believe in,” said Bam.
“Maybe it will help open the eyes of some people, and maybe inspire others to be even more courageous,” he added.
Since the group was formed in 2010, some of the artists have moved on to managing their own business while others relocated to Kota Kinabalu. They still meet up regularly, and their current favourite hangout is the Tamparuli Living Arts Centre which Jerome manages.
“Managing our time to get together for group projects has become challenging, but we have a strong foundation,” said Leong.
“There is a trend of censorship of art lately, but this is not a hindrance for us. We won’t stop becoming a voice for the people, we won’t stop using our art, in spite of the objections and occasional setbacks,” he said.