Whenever members of the Sabah art collective Pangrok Sulap complete one of their prints, they perform the sumazau, a traditional Kadazan-Dusun dance, on top of the carving blocks. This, they say, is to involve the community in all their works.
“We start carving on wood-board, rolling ink out onto the board and printing all together, followed by the process of printing, which has us stepping and dancing, to music that we play, on the cloth that we place on top of the board,” says Pangrok Sulap. (The artists chose to do their interview as a collective.)
Togetherness has always been a priority for the group. Their purpose, after all, is to empower communities through art and music.
Formed in 2010 in Ranau, Pangrok Sulap works in woodcut printmaking and performs music for entertainment, to encourage people to get to know each other. The group has consistently fought against censorship, worked to spread awareness of Sabah’s endangered rainforests, and promoted the power of the arts to empower.
Pangrok Sulap has no permanent members as it is “willing to welcome anyone who wants to contribute”. For Lopung Is Dead!, their first solo exhibition in Malaysia, the artists involved are Rizo Leong, Jerome Manjat, Bam, Awang, Gery, Iyla, Memeto and McFeddy.
In Nov 2014, Pangrok Sulap exhibited its first, albeit low-key exhibition at Irregular Rhythm Asylum, an arts space in Tokyo.
There has been an avid audience for the group in Japan, especially with 2017’s showing at the exhibition Sunshower: Contemporary Art From South-East Asia 1980s To Now. The collective’s work was prominently on display at the National Art Centre Tokyo then.
“For us, each person has their own importance and role in the collective’s work. At the beginning, all of us met in the music scene, around the year 2010. At that time, we organised music gigs together, something we continue to do so today, in addition to community events,” they say.
So who is Lopung and why is he dead? “Lopung” in Dusun language means “python”, sarcastically referring to lazy people who sleep on the job. For the group, the word has a deeper political meaning.
“In this exhibition, ‘Lopung’ refers to politicians who have for a long time caused hardship to the people of Malaysia. Corruption, as well as internal political issues that arise from the actions and transactions of those higher up, have all caused our people to bear such tremendous problems,” they say.
“With the new wave of government changes recently, there has been the unravelling of top secrets and arrests of troubled politicians. This exhibition is the collective’s response of those recent events.”
The group is due to be featured in several exhibitions, including the 9th Art Asia Pacific Triennial Of Contemporary Art in Australia, and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. Pangrok Sulap is also helping to build handcrafted houses in Kampung Keiyep, Ranau.
Lopung Is Dead! contains nine works. According to Kota Kinabalu-based curator Harold Reagan Eswar (popularly known as “Egn”), the appeal of their art is how it touches on current issues in a relevant, fresh manner.
“Aside from their subject matter, I also like their methodology, from delegating duties in the collective, finances, and their approach toward their audience,” says Egn.
“How they interact with art is amazing. This is a collective that speaks very little English or any foreign language, but yet have touched the hearts of many during their travels, even in places like China and Europe.”
“The issues they present are close to home, and because of that everyone around the world can relate to them,” he adds.
One work is Ma=Fil=Indo, which explores the plan to create a country from the combination of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. It includes five elements that the group thinks makes up a peaceful nation – culture, sharing, identity, religion and unity.
Another work is the Ular Lari Lurus series, their satirical take on the “Snakes and Ladders” board game. The artwork, at the moment, is presented in three versions.
Ular Lari Lurus I (2014) captures the existing political scene in Sabah, while Ular Lari Lurus II (2016) talks about the state of national politics pre-GE14 and Ular Lari Lurus III (2018) spills over with post-GE14 issues, focusing on how difficult it is to forge ahead.
“In our version, what you see is that the politicians are the gamers who have the responsibility to win, and the issues of those politicians are the vices that they come across,” they say.
“As for the title, Ular Lari Lurus is ironic as snakes typically move in a zig-zag manner. As complicated as our political system is, so is our title,” they add.
Also on display is Sabah Tanah Airku, a two-piece work that caused controversy when it was removed from an exhibition in KL (Escape From The SEA) in 2017 when there was a public complaint that it was “too provocative”.
This is the first time the artwork is on display after that incident, and it matters a lot to the collective, which has always been vocal about censorship.
“Censorship removes the freedom of speech that people need to voice out their opinions. In a democratic country, freedom to express yourself, to voice your opinions, and to criticise openly need to be prioritised,” they say.
“We believe that art is a medium of expression that has impact and is not supposed to be blocked. We will always fight with art as a voice of marginalised people.”
Apart from Lopung Is Dead!, Pangrok Sulap’s other works – including the epic community-assisted Bongkud Namaus (2016) woodcut piece, and six solo works from Rizo Leong, Jerome Manjat and McFeddy – can be seen at Seni Cetakan: Seni Sepanjang Zaman, currently on exhibit at Bank Negara Malaysia Museum And Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.