Pangrok Sulap: Lopung Is Dead!
by Harold Egn
Pangrok Sulap’s first solo exhibition is one of the Sabahan and Malaysian art scene’s much awaited shows. As far back as art collective movements have been documented throughout the local narrative of our history, there hasn’t been a collective as unique as Pangrok Sulap. It would be appropriate to state that they have found their own, special place in the artistic arena, making their mark and standing their ground not only locally, but also internationally.
This exhibition will be another attempt at “the East going to the West”, bringing forward stories from the rural areas of Borneo, of Sabah. Sabahans presenting their works to the audiences in Western Malaysia may not be a new thing, but what makes this exhibition significant is that the works displayed have already been in conversation with foreign or international platforms. The works have been relevant to the movement and progression of the Sabahan art narrative, but they also participate in the Malaysian debate of searching for a larger national art identity. Because without their counterparts from the East, most academics and analysts should only call the work they discuss “West Malaysian Art”.
Having said all of this, while it might feel that this exhibition will discuss very serious issues, when you enter into Pangrok Sulap’s show, it will not feel so intense; in fact, it will not feel intense at all, because their work is fun. Singing, dancing and laughing all the way; this is the Sabahan way of entertaining their guests. Even in times of turmoil or during problematic situations, Sabahans will always find something to be happy about, and there is always something that they are thankful for. This might seem somewhat strange to audiences who are foreign to Sabahan culture, but this is the Sabahan way and, this is Pangrok Sulap. They are an array of young native rural dwellers from the foot of Mount Kinabalu, who are descendants of warriors, headhunters and soldiers. They disguise their artworks in the way of straightforward documentation of daily observations, but beneath the happy, joyful facade, lies the truth about the deeper and more complex sides of Sabahan life.
There have been many opinions from individuals outside of the artworld and the creative industry, that this is the best time for collectives like Pangrok Sulap to show their politically inclined artworks as it is the dawn of a new Malaysia. The government has changed to a new one in many aspects — to one with a promising more “rakyat” approach. However, it is actually too late. It is probably time for a new type of art that should be showcased, but Pangrok Sulap being Pangrok Sulap, they prove that no matter what becomes of the nation, there will always be cries for help where there is room for artists like them to step in and assist, in any way their art can help.
Pangrok Sulap has always been linked to the political situation in Sabah, especially by being very vocal in their works which regularly depict their observations of “orang atas”, or high ranking people. There are commentators and even some politicians who have voiced opinions about the collective, but whatever political role Pangrok Sulap plays is entirely unintentional. The collective, in their own unique way, have a slightly different method of storytelling than what is conventional. They speak, but not verbally, documenting their experiences and perspectives, so that they can be remembered for a very long time, maybe even forever. They show the power of visual art in Sabah and, safe to say, the whole of the country.
Most of Pangrok Sulap’s works are prints. But they also use other media, such as painting, and murals; they also write their own folk songs. One can experience this when the collective prepares the blocks for printing: they dance the sumazau (a traditional Kadazan-Dusun dance) on top of the printing blocks to transfer the ink from the block to cloth or paper. The process that is otherwise very technical becomes a “ritualistic” experience to the visitor or anyone who participates. Why woodcut printing? Pangrok Sulap uses that technique because it is not very well known in rural areas and so villagers find the method interesting.
It is a known fact that art supplies in Sabah are, unfortunately, very hard to find, and the quality of these supplies are also questionable. And at first, when the collective started, due to the difficulties of finding supplies, they had to go asking for leftover ink from newspaper printing presses, and were essentially at their mercy, because without ink, no artwork could be produced. However, as Pangrok made connections, things changed and materials became less hard to find.
We are now in a “new” Malaysia. Pangrok Sulap will continue documenting their experiences onto cloth and share the truth of their homes with the world. It seems they won’t be slowing down any time soon and as long as they keep inspiring the people of Sabah with their art, people of Sabah will provide the collective with their inspiring tales. Just like how they depicted the villagers in one of their artworks: “di belakangku ada orang kampong, dan di belakang orang kampong ada saya”.
Orang Kampung — Pangrok Sulap
Bercucuk tanam hidup sederhana bersaudara dengan alam
Makan pinang hisap sigup kirai tangkap ikan dan kejar ayam
Ohhh orang kampung 2x
Pucuk pakis sayur pucuk ubi tiada garam ada telur masin
Manis senyum mesra tutur kata bagai tebu dipinggir bibir
Ohhh orang kampung 2x
Panas terik jadi teman karib hujan datang itu tanda baik
Basah sudah sayur-sayur kebun tumbuh lagi makanan hutan
Ohhh orang kampung 2x
Kita semua bangsa manusia kita tercipta istimewa
Tidak kira miskin atau kaya sedarah berkongsi udara
Ohhh orang kampung 4x
Ular Lari Lurus
The artwork Ular Lari Lurus got its name from a Malay tongue twister; the woodcut print is of a modified snake and ladder board game, with its details depicting satirical local political culture. Just like the popular board game, this particular game of “Ular Lari Lurus” has its beginning and end — the “goal”. You start as a nobody in the political hierarchy, the intention is to move upward, and if you are not swallowed by the snake, you rise to the top of the game, where you receive absolute power and win the game. This artwork, at present, has three different versions; the first is Ular Lari Lurus 1, it depicts the existing nature of the political scene in Sabah. Despite the particularly Sabahan perspective, the piece explores issues that happen all over the world, proving that although the amount of money and names mentioned may differ, corruption is still prevalent everywhere. The second is Ular Lari Lurus 2, a piece that talks about the state of politics just before PRU14, the election that changed Malaysia’s socio-political landscape. It goes so far as to expose the unimaginable level of corruption practiced in our political systems, that still were supported by the people. The latest of the body of work, Ular Lari Lurus 3, lays out the events following PRU14, where those who abused their power and authority are brought to the attention of the law and judged at court; where poetic justice is served.
Despite the serious tone of their descriptions, and the severity of the issues mentioned, the three works of Ular Lari Lurus still maintain Pangrok Sulap’s humourous nature and light-hearted perspective, by remaining hopeful in spite of past dark events.
This series tells a tale of a nation built on the idea of “Maphilindo”, a concept that, as fast as it was introduced, was rejected by most of the stakeholders. It shows Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia working together as one, in dealing with their daily struggles and solving them together, strengthening themselves as a single combined nation. Although it is far from actuality, the ideal lingers, as we struggle with the reality of our situation, in regards to issues like migration and education, which would be less of a problem if these three countries could come together to safeguard our various systems. Then again, “Maphilindo” is just a made up dream.
Sabah Tanah Airku
One of Pangrok Sulap’s most well-known pieces, Sabah Tanah Airku, comments on the portrayal of Sabah in the media and what really is the case on the ground. For instance, our government-run television, the growing tourism industry and our politicians, all paint a pretty picture of what Sabah is, what with our biodiversity, landscape, animals and people. However, what happens in reality is very much the opposite story. The chaotic politics, racism, the deterioration of our environment, and so many more problematic issues about Sabah that need urgent fixing, seem to be swept under the rug.