Trouble in Paradise: How the removal of Pangrok Sulap’s “Sabah Tanah Air-ku” points to a weakened state of artistic expression in Malaysia (revised)

When news of Pangrok Sulap’s mammoth woodcut print artwork “Sabah Tanah Air-ku” (Sabah, My homeland) was removed from the “ESCAPE from the SEA” exhibition just two days after it’s opening; I was shocked.

Luckily I had the chance to view the artwork during the opening and to me; it stood as a masterpiece. I was bewildered as to why it was taken down and also the lack of information about it; something I would not of expected from reputable organizers like Japan Foundation Asia Center, National Visual Art Gallery and Art Printing Works Sdn. Bhd.

“Sabah,Tanah Air-ku” that was removed from the exhibition. Photo credit: Ng Seksan

“ESCAPE from the SEA” exhibition is part of a larger project called “Condition Report”

Moreover, “ESCAPE from the SEA” exhibition is part of a greater project called “Condition Report” organized by Japan Foundation Asia Center that spans 9 countries and 21 curators. This project started in 2015 and will extend well beyond 2018 with a publication. I looked forward to this project for years since knowing about its open call in 2015 and have loosely followed the development of the project through conversations with the various friends involved. I imagined this to be another large-scale curatorial experiment lead by Yasuko Furuichi, Art Coordinator for Japan Foundation Asia Center, who also lead (and the lady we all answered to) the Media/Art Kitchen exhibition (2012-2013) where I was a co-curator. I learned a lot from her, so naturally, I looked forward to her curatorial experimentation productions.

A (singular) complaint from “higher management”

 After the opening on 24, February, 2017, JFKL received a complaint from “higher management” and quickly informed the curators Hiroyuki Hattori and Saubin.

The following day, the CEO of APW was informed and meetings were held between Japan Foundation Asia Center representative, JFKL, lead curators Hattori, Sau Bin, had an informal meeting with Pangrok Sulap at APW. Possible scenarios were discussed in response to the situation were shared to Pangrok Sulap. Here, if the scenerio called for their work to be taken down, they would agree to it. They also discussed with Pangrok Sulap as to what they could replace it with. That night, another meeting with lead curators, the curatorial team, JF Asia Center representative and Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur met to draft a curatorial statement in response to the situation. They decided to wait for a formal letter from National Art Gallery before responding to the complaint.

 JFKL initiated the removal of Sabah Tanah Air-Ku to avoid unwanted scenerios

The next day, 26 Feb.(Sunday), JFKL announced for the artwork to be removed and to avoid any unwanted scenarios especially to sour diplomatic ties between Malaysia and Japan. They didn’t want to get the artists in trouble or the co-organizers in trouble either. They replaced the artwork with the video documentation.

Lack of transparency and communication sparks artists and cultural workers to mobilize own investigation

 Largely thanks to I-Lann’s active Twitter feeds and Simon Soon’s Facebook feeds, I managed to piece together a logical chronology. One of the co-curators, Goh Sze Ying has put together a timeline. Upon investigation by I-Lann, there were allegation claims of an individual who alerted someone in the Prime Minister’s Office and TV3 after visiting the exhibition at APW. However, these are allegations that lack evidence since there seems to be restraint from  the organizers from divulging the source of the “complaint”. I-Lann, together with some close friends, met with the Director General, Najib Dawa where he said BSVN did not order for its removal. In fact, he doesn’t know who did. An objection letter from Balai Seni Visual Negara was received by JFKL on March 1st.

*A SCREEN CAP IMAGE OF YEE I-LANN’S TWITTER FEED HAS BEEN REMOVED* (Kindly refer to the end of this blog for my notes.)

Pangrok Sulap ‘s willingness to cooperate with JFKL’s decision to remove their artworks, but must take responsibility to public’s questions.

In the beginning, Pangrok Sulap didn’t want to cause a stir and allowed for the work to be taken down. At the same time, they requested that JFKL be responsible as to public questioning about the removal of their artwork and gave them time to solidify a public announcement as to the reasons for it being removed.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 3.22.53 PM
Screencap from Pangrok Sulap’s Facebook page.

“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,” Jerome Manjat, one of members of Pangrok Sulap said.

Two weeks passed and JFKL finally made an announcement that no public statement on the removal of Pangrok Sulap’s work will be made. Instead, any public queries regarding this situation can be made directly to their office.

Disappointed by the lack of transparency of how this was handled, Mark Teh, representing the other artists’ participating in the exhibition issued an official statement. On behalf of the participating artists:

“We reiterate again our opposition to these decisions by JFKL, and are disappointed with the lack of communication and transparency about the situation, which has fuelled much confusion, frustration and speculation.”

Making an ESCAPE for it: To withdraw entirely.

 Finally on March 12, three weeks after the removal, Pangrok Sulap officially announced their complete withdrawal from the “ESCAPE from the SEA” exhibition. This comes as a form of protest as to the poor handling of this situation especially from not defending the artists’ message and art.

“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.

Disappointed as Sabah Tanah Air-Ku’s misreading

As far as I know, this was a commission work, so the organizers and curators saw their message from a mile away.

“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,” mentioned Jerome Manjat.

I think when people (especially the art community) found out that JFKL would not be making any public announcement; that’s when all hell broke loose on social media. If there was a chance JFKL and the curatorial team to salvage some integrity; this would be the time. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

A big question on my mind is who is this person who filed the complaint that was “elevated to the Prime Minister’s office”? What sort of “political power” did he wield that his one personal“reading” of the artwork overthrew all the curators’ and organizers’ readings and rendered them worthless. And why is he deliberately being kept invisible by Balai Seni Visual Negara?

Holding the snitchers accountable

Everyone has a right to intrepreate the artwork as to how they see it, but the problem arises when they aren’t held responsible for their actions that greatly effect the public sphere.

Not only this insane self-censorship has prevented the Malaysian public from truly seeing a spectacular artwork; it has prevented from having any room for discussion and public dialouge to avoid such things from happening in the future.

“…we must hold these invisible individuals accountable for their positions as their actions have very serious negative public implications. Otherwise, this perpetuates an unhealthy and damaging environment of censorship and self-censorship, moral and political policing for all stakeholders in our shared ecosystem – audiences, artists, curators, cultural workers, producers, collectors, supporters, national institutions such as the National Visual Arts Gallery, and cultural organizations such as JFKL and Japan Foundation Asia Center”, quoted from Mark Teh’s statement.

Biting off more than I can chew.

Because I’m a small fry in this art scene, I often find myself taking on many roles. That of a curator, producer and artist. This juggling of roles stems primarily from my lack of financial resources so I have to take up a few roles to get through the project. Lately I’ve noticed the word “curator” used so flippantly and interchangeably that one is easily lulled into being complacent. I admit, I may of taken my role as a curator lightly and never considered the gravity of the position, especially when it comes to defending your artists’ artwork when its stuck out there. It takes a scenerio like this one, to remind myself of the big and heavy responsibilities a curator takes on a every project.

Challenges of being an Independent Curator

Seems to be a lot of strong comments directed to lead curators HH, Saubin and their curatorial team for their actions. However, I’d like to suspend judgement so we can step back and see the bigger picture.

“ESCAPE from the SEA” is part of a larger curatorial experiment project called “Condition Report”. It’s in its 1st stage and there’s a 2nd stage next year where members of the curatorial team will hold their own individual exhibitions. At the 1st stage, the emerging curators are doing a sort of apprenticeship with the lead curators they’ve been assigned to. So this “EFTS” exhibition is just the beginning of a series of exhibitions from this program.

A lot of my friends have expressed dissappointment from Hiroyuki Hattori and Saubin being too “quite” or “silent” over the issue and not “defend your artist”.(Just to note Saubin came with a statement dated 15 March on FB; as this essay was written; which I’ve included at the end).

I can’t answer on behalf of Hiroyuki Hattori and Saubin but maybe I can provide some insight towards the challenges faced by independent curators in Malaysia. In any art scene, at the tip of the iceberg we can see the “artist”, but what supports the “artist” below the water; are countless professionals like curators, art managers, writers, art historians and cultural workers. These groups of people make up the art ecosystem. I guess because they don’t garner as much visibility as compared to the “artist”, they are often sidelined.

I was a participant of JFKL curatorial program “Media/Art Kitchen”

 As far as my limited knowledge goes, JFKL is one of the very few organizations in Malaysia that provides curatorial training. As an emerging independent curator, to get selected for Furuichi’s baptism-of-fire styled curatorial training is a once in a lifetime chance. You get access to an extraordinary amount of resources, either through international networking, connections with international institutions like Tokyo Metropoliton, Bangkok Art and Culture Center and most importantly for me, was to take part in international conversations about contemporary art with other like-minded independent curators in my region.

Because currently, there is no easily accessible curatorial training besides theirs. They are capable of socially excluding you to future projects can be damaging to young curator. I have personally received “strong reminders” (aka subliminal threats) of the responsibilities that comes with accepting the grant and the grave repercussions that comes with it if I failed to perform because I decided to take my daughter along with me on my research trip. Luckily, I am very clear about my priorities. (Come to think of it, maybe I have already been “socially excluded” but it’s fine, I’ll just continue to waddle in my blissful ignorance).

Strengthen our art ecosystem to better support (and defend) the voices of our artists

Just as much as our artists need our support, so do our curators, art managers, art historians, art critics and writers. This Pangrok Sulap situation shows how weak and fragmented our Malaysian art ecosystem that it becomes so easy for people to bully and exploit us. We need more Malaysian-driven resources and infrastructures in form of grants, programs and projects supported and lead by local art institutions and galleries targeted at developing curators, art managers and writers. Then, work out strategies to reinforce their opinions and protect their freedom of expression. Surely, from this move, the artists’ freedom of expression will also be expanded and protected by Malaysian independent curators whom are all highly trained scholars themselves.

If more local programs were made available for young Malaysians keen to persue careers in curatorship, art management, research and other more scholarly pursuits of contemporary art; the few of us stuck in this field; might not be desperately clinging on the foreign hand-outs like we are now and allowing ourselves to submit to their terms so easily. Obviously, these foreign organizations carry their own agendas which might not be in-line with what’s important to us, like creative expression and integrity.

If there’s one thing I learned from this; is to hold steadfast to your voice. Standing up for what you believe in and standing behind those you believe in is the true test of strength. Taking cues from I-Lann, her advice to curators and cultural workers to take a “complaint” as a “point to start a meaningful discussion on censorship and why it’s counterintuitive.” I agree that the principle of curation is to defend the artists’ message when the time arises as I-Lann shared on her twitter, “Defend your artist or you will look weak.”

*This post was published on 17th March and on it I had placed a screen capture of I-Lann’s twitter. The screen cap divulged the name of the alleged individual who raised the strong comment. The person contacted me on March 20th to explain his side of the story. I greatly appreciate his effort of wanting to clarify his stand to me and am aware of the complexities screen cap brought forth. So, out of respect for this person’s stand and in the spirit engaging with him for future constructive dialogue, I have decided to take it down.

Today, I am reminded again that we are still far from a resolution when it comes to the Pangrok Sulap situation. New information and persons will slowly but surely reveal itself. The art ecosystem, for better or for the worse, has attracted a lot more political complexities along with its egos and agendas. Again, I hope I can be true to my voice and yet be respectable and empathize with the voices of others.*




Participating artists’ statement of artwork removal:

Yap Sau Bin’s reply to queries from MalayMail reporter Zuraidi


I would like to extend my gratitude to Simon Soon, Lainie Yeoh and Goh Sze Ying for their invaluable input and discussions.


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