Malaysia: Art group withdraws from show after artwork was removed

19 June 2017
Two large pieces of art by art collective Pangrok Sulap were removed from the Escape from the SEA exhibition allegedly due to complaints over content.
Photo: Pangrok Sulap working on woodcut that was removed/Rizo Leong Facebook


Two large pieces of art by Borneo-based art collective Pangrok Sulap were removed from the Escape from the SEA exhibition organised by Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL) allegedly due to complaints over content, reported The Malay Mail Online in March 2016.

The first piece, entitled ‘Sabah Tanah Air-Ku’, was removed from the National Visual Arts Gallery on 26 February 2017, just two days after the opening of the exhibition.

The approximately 3.5-by-2.5-meter woodcut depicted several issues that local communities in the Sabah state of Borneo, where the collective is based, have faced, including floods, bad roads, illegal logging, land rights, corruption and poverty.

One of the collective’s members, Jerome Manjat, explained that they were told that JFKL had “received a complaint that the work was too provocative” and that the issue had been “elevated to the Prime Minister’s office”.

The collective had decided to replace the artwork with a video showing how they made the piece while they waited to hear more.

After no response was received after a lengthy wait, the group decided to pull out completely from the exhibition in protest to preserve their integrity, calling the experience “demotivational” to their art. As a result, the companion piece to the first removed work, on display at a second venue, was removed on 13 March 2017.

Organiser responds
JFKL Director Koichi Horikawa said they had to be “very careful” as they are a quasi-government organisation whose aim is partly to enhance relations between Japan and other countries, adding that they decided not to make any public statement on the matter.

“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.”

Rizo Leong, a founding member of the art collective, said: “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.”

The exhibition ran from 24 February to 23 April 2017 and featured 14 artists, before Pangrok Sulap’s withdrawal, whose works focused on identity, belonging and history through the politics of borders.

Four artists also featured at the exhibition issued a statement opposing the removal of the piece.

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