As participating artists in the exhibition Escape from the SEA organised by Japan Foundation Asia Center, we oppose the removal of Pangrok Sulap’s large-scale woodcut print Sabah Tanah Air-Ku at Art Printing Works (APW) Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur on 26 February 2017.
The work at APW forms one-half of a larger piece – the other half, bearing the same title, Sabah Tanah Air-Ku, remains hanging in the National Visual Arts Gallery, the other venue and a co-organiser for the exhibition. From our perspectives, the two works can be read as twins, mirrors or even sharing one body – depicting and reflecting powerfully the palpable and painful histories, contradictions, and relationship of Sabah with and within Malaysia. That the two pieces, bearing the same title, are sited in two different spaces suggest to audiences that viewing only one-half is to see an incomplete picture – implicit in the work is an encouragement to make the physical journey to the other site, to make further connections and interpretations.
When the work was taken down two days after the opening, we were informed to wait for a public statement by Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL) to clarify and explain the decision. It has since been communicated to us on 10 March 2017 that JFKL will not be releasing a statement, and that any enquiries should be directed to their office. In their communication with us, JFKL mentioned that a ‘misreading’ of Sabah Tanah Air-Ku at APW was behind the decision to remove the work and replace it with Sabah Tanah Air-Ku (The Making Of).
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. What was ‘misread’? How exactly was Sabah Tanah Air-Ku at APW ‘misread’, and what was the rationale or motivation behind this? And most importantly, who ‘misread’ the work, and following that, seemingly lodged a complain to the exhibition organisers and/or other authorities, which led to the decision to take down the work?
During the two days that the now-removed Sabah Tanah Air-Ku was displayed at APW, we observed that the work drew many positive responses from audiences – simply put, it was the most photographed and selfie-d work in APW. It goes without saying that there are many, multiple ways to ‘read’ a work of art, and debate and dialogue about the merits and content of any work, as well as the artists’ right to express their positions, must be defended. To insist on only one reading of the work, and to take action based on this narrow reading closes off many other ways of interpretation, thinking, expression and dialogue.
Within a larger Malaysian context, this also continues a toxic tradition where yet again, an invisible individual(s) and private opinion expressed to the powers that be is responsible for censoring an art work. This should not be tolerated – 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 organisations such as JFKL and Japan Foundation Asia Center.