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KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 — When Sabah art collective Pangrok Sulap’s artwork was suddenly removed from the Escape from the SEA exhibition here just two days after its opening, many in the arts scene gave the organiser a chance to explain themselves.
Some broke the silence after 10 days when it looked like there would not be any explanation forthcoming from the Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL), amid allegations that a complaint from high-up was lodged against the group’s piece depicting issues dear to Sabahans.
With the continued silence nearly a month after the controversial incident, several artists and scene observers have since come forward to criticise JFKL for what they see as the organiser’s poor handling of the situation. And more importantly, for failing to stand by Pangrok Sulap.
“Japan Foundation has shown itself to be completely insincere about what they try to achieve with their numerous cultural projects in Malaysia.
“The way they behave suggests that these are just key performance indicators to fulfill,” Simon Soon, an art historian with the University of Malaya, told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.
“There is no real interest in creating lasting forms of cultural engagement beyond throwing some money at developing countries so that goodwill exhibitions can be mounted,” the senior lecturer added.
Meanwhile, Kota Kinabalu-born photomedia artist Yee I-Lann, who has been among the most vocal critics of the artwork’s removal, lamented JFKL’s silence for breeding rumours among the public.
“The recent Pangrok Sulap controversy has been handled badly by organisers because they did not immediately officially inform the public, especially the local arts community, on what happened to Pangrok Sulap’s work,” Yee said.
Last week, four artists who participated in the exhibition — Ali Alasri, Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, Mark Teh, and Wong Tay Sy — had condemned JFKL for keeping mum.
“[We are] disappointed with the lack of communication and transparency about the situation, which has fuelled much confusion, frustration and speculation,” they said.
When silence may not be golden
The Pangrok Sulap piece titled “Sabah Tanah Air-Ku” was removed from the exhibition on February 26, only to be replaced with a making-of video of the artwork.
It was one of two large pieces simultaneously on display at the National Visual Arts Gallery and the Art Printing Works space.
The eight-by-12 feet piece depicted several issues which the people in Sabah are concerned about: floods, bad roads, land issues, illegal logging, corruption, and poverty.
The group pulled out of the exhibition over the weekend to protest the censorship of their artwork, saying that it was “demotivational” to their craft. Their second piece was taken down from the National Visual Arts Gallery on Monday morning.
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. It did not specify who lodged the complaints.
Pangrok Sulap claimed its work was labelled “too provocative”, and the complaint had been taken all the way up to the Prime Minister’s Office. Malay Mail Online could not verify this claim.
The foundation’s director Koichi Horikawa even 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.
Yee said JFKL has had a long relationship with many in the art community and is highly respected, and many would have understood and have empathy for its difficult position as a semi-government diplomatic body between Japan and Malaysia.
“The issue of censorship in the arts is an ongoing and very sensitive one, beyond this one exhibition and its organiser. I am sure the organiser of this exhibition understands that,” she said.
Soon, who was a recipient of a JFKL programme, however was more critical of the foundation and described their action as “terribly unfair.” He suggested that JFKL listen to its local partners and collaborators rather than impose a top-down decision.
“More so that JFKL is an agency that is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As it is, the relationship is beginning to look like neo-colonialism,” Soon said, citing that this year is the 75th anniversary of the 1942 Japanese Occupation.
Were the curators complicit?
Local visual artist Yap Sau Bin and Japanese architectural artist Hiroyuki Hattori are the exhibition’s lead curators. According to Yap, JFKL removed the artwork even before any formal letter of complaint was made.
In an unofficial statement the curators made on February 25, they insisted that Pangrok Sulap was invited to join as early as May last year, and they had pledged to “facilitate the realisation of their artistic vision with no reservation and interference.”
I was w Pangrok Sulap when they made the twin work now showing at Balai Seni Negara. This was community effort at Tamu Ranau in Sabah pic.twitter.com/gOpeg94hW4— Yee I-Lann (@YeeILann) March 8, 2017
However, Soon said the informal statement did not specify their position on the removal, suggesting that the curators may had been afraid they would be excluded from JFKL’s cultural largesse in the future.
Yap admitted he was not comfortable with the removal but the gruelling few weeks of production and the exhausting opening days of the exhibition may have led him to yield to the situation.
This, he said, was in stark contrast to the four co-curators which included National Gallery Singapore’s assistant curator Sze Ying Goh, who have been more proactive and vocal in discussions regarding the issue.
“I do think us, the lead curators do not agree with censuring of the work, and are disappointed,” the Multimedia University lecturer told Malay Mail Online.
“Even though I understand there is much bureaucracy involved in inter-agency negotiation and decision making, and appreciate the organiser’s attempt to achieve a more favourable statement, it is unfortunate that it did not take the opportunity to clarify with the participating artists and larger art audience what really transpired in this case in a direct manner.”
Goh also pointed to the complexity resulting from the multiple agendas and the implied hierarchy between the many disparate stakeholders — from JFKL, to the venue providers, to the lead curators, co-curators, and lastly the artists themselves.
This is in addition to the fact that the exhibition is held commemorating the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relationship between Malaysia and Japan, the researcher said.
She said the curators had deferred their response to the situation not to purposely avoid issuing one, as discussions were still ongoing among the different stakeholders.
“Silence can be enacted out of convenience or to obfuscate attempts to uncover facts, but silence should also not be misconstrued as inaction,” Goh said.
Escape from the SEA is a group exhibition featuring (now) 13 artists from the region, highlighting issues of identity, belonging, and history through the politics of borders.
The exhibition’s sophomore edition this year will run until April 24, and is an extension of Condition Report, a curatorial development programme initiated by the Japan Foundation Asia Centre.