Sabah art collective withdraws from exhibition, says disappointed with artwork removal

By JULIA CHAN

KOTA KINABALU, March 14 ― The Sabah-based art collective whose work was removed from an international art exhibition has expressed their disappointment with the decision, calling it another example of the clampdown on freedom of expression.

Pangrok Sulap member Jerome Manjat, said that they were disappointed and disheartened by the outcome, especially when they kept silent for two weeks after the incident to allow time for the organisers of the Escape from the SEA exhibition to come up with a public statement.

“We were notified by the organisers that they had received a complaint about the artwork saying it was too ‘provocative’ and would take it down to avoid any action towards us from other parties, and we reluctantly agreed as we did not want to jeopardise the exhibition and the other artists’ work,” he said.

A Pangrok Sulap piece titled “Sabah Tanah Air-Ku” was removed on February 26 after two days from the ESCAPE from the SEA exhibition organised by Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL). It was one of a collection of two large pieces of work simultaneous on display at the Visual Arts Centre and the Art Printing Works space.

The eight-by-12 foot piece depicted several issues highly-talked about in Sabah, such as floods, bad roads, land issues, illegal logging, corruption and poverty.

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

“We were told that 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. The organisers wanted some time to solve the problem which we understood,”  Manjat told Malay Mail Online in an interview.

But after some time had passed, there was no public statement, although exhibition organisers answered inquiries to say that they had replaced the artwork with a video of the printing process of the said piece.

“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,” said Rizo Leong, another one of the collective’s founding members.

“In fact they initially sent us an email to say we had ‘misread’ the concept. But we had worked with our curator for about a year on the concept and they were well aware of what we were doing,” he said.

The collective came to the decision to withdraw from the exhibition to protest the censorship of their artwork and the artists’ integrity, saying that it was “demotivational” to their craft.

According to them, the second piece, exhibited at the National Visual Arts Centre, was taken down yesterday morning after they sent an email to register their protest over the weekend.

“Maybe its less controversial, and was more about the multi racial harmony, success and pride and icons of Sabah. But the two pieces go hand in hand, it cannot be one without the other,” said Jerome.

The Japan Foundation of Kuala Lumpur director Koichi Horikawa said that they respected the artist’s decision to withdraw from the exhibition.

“We understand their decision, and that only having one piece up does not deliver their message.

“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,” said Horikawa.

He also said that they decided against making a public statement in order to avoid displeasing any party.

“We have to be very careful because our role as a semi-government organisation is also to enhance relations,” he said.

Horikawa led a small delegation to Kota Kinabalu last week to meet Pangrok Sulap and return the artwork to them as well as discuss the incident personally.

Leong said he appreciated the gesture, and while they understood their predicament, it did not change their stand on the matter.

“Art should never be censored, it is a form of expression that needs to be defended. We do not have a political agenda, we are just giving a voice to the people,” he said.

“We learned a lot from this experience, but we won’t stop doing what we are doing,” said Manjat.