The punk artists of Mount Kinabalu

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Left to right: Freddy, Bam and Rizo Leong pose in front of one of the limited edition copies of the wall-prints they produce.

At the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, an artist collective mixes local issues with DIY art – the punk rock way.

About 100km away from Kota Kinabalu, I find myself standing inside a sunscorched country house, looking at a line of A3-sized posters hanging on the walls.About 100km away from Kota Kinabalu, I find myself standing inside a sunscorched country house, looking at a line of A3-sized posters hanging on the walls.

Karen Lai

Some of the collective's artworks use global concepts of punk rock anti-hegemonic protest to raise awareness against consumerist life.

Dozens of black figures have been printed on multi-coloured paper. A portrait of a Kadazan-Dusun woman in a conical paddy hat catches my attention. She is looking proudly ahead, with beaded earrings hanging from her ears and an intricate necklace from her neck. On top of her hat, the artist has penned “Beads Not Dead” in curling letters.

 

Karen Lai

An example of how Pangrok Sulap localises its grassroots protest using Sabahan countryside characters to discuss pressing Malaysian problems such as, in this case, ethnicity and religion.

“Here in Sabah, the tribal handicraft industry is still very much alive,” says Rizo Leong. We are in his home studio in the mountain village of Ranau. “I want people to know that local peasants are still producing art and that they need to sell them in order to stay alive,” he explains.

Sabah’s rural punks are a different breed; they are immersed in an environment that has a politically conscious art scene that examines the plight of local tribal peoples and endangered animal species. Leong himself is a Kadazan- Dusun, born and raised in Ranau. With long, black hair reaching down to his back, he looks more like a member of American 1970s southern-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd than a master of DIY punk rock art.

“I’m not an artist and don’t think of myself as a punk rocker,” Leong says shyly. “I’m just an orang kampung, a country boy.” Kampung boy or not, the work that Leong and his art collective, Pangrok Sulap – a cheeky combination of the local pronunciation of “punk rock” and the Kadazan-Dusun word for a tribal hut, have produced over the last couple of years has made waves, receiving the attention of The Star and securing exhibitions nationwide. They also earned a farflung representative in Tokyo.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Chiselling the woodcut panels, especially the biggest ones, is best if done together.

As far as influences and style go, Pangrok Sulap doesn’t look to America or Europe. Instead, it draws inspiration from across the southern border that divides Malaysia from Indonesian Kalimantan, and all the way down to Java. “Sure, I have grown up listening to American bands such as Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat, but what they sing about is very much different from Sabah’s situation,” explains Leong. “We decided to drop the music and concentrate on using art to show our dissent towards the specific problems that afflict our land. The reality here is completely different from the West’s.”

Karen Lai

Leong shows a piece he made in protest of the building of a new dam project near Ranau, where he lives.

Pangrok Sulap’s art is largely made using woodcut techniques. Leong and his friends work with pencil, pen and scalpel, chiselling wood panels to create the intricate stamps they use on different types of fabric and paper. Once a design has been sketched and carved into a wood panel, Ranau’s art punks smear it with black newspaper ink and place it on the surface they want to imprint. It’s not an easy job, especially since they must carve a negative image of their designs. “We take inspiration from punk’s DIY concepts, but we know we can do much more than just that. We prefer to do it together,” explains Leong as he places one of the carved wood panels over a white cloth, then covers it with newspaper. His friends, Freddy and Bam, walk over to the panel to help press the ink evenly onto the fabric. In the spirit of doing it together, they invite me to join them. We all stomp carefully over the edges of the stamp while the sounds of Indonesian punk rock blast out of a tiny stereo placed at a corner of Leong’s huge studio.

Leong first encountered punk rock thanks to friends from Kota Kinabalu. “We used to play in bands and organise shows here in Ranau and nearby Kundasang,” he explains, peeling layers of newspaper from the back of a newborn matrix. “When Jakarta’s band and punk collective Marjinal came to play here in 2013, I hosted one of their workshops right here in this room. They taught us the basics of woodcut printing, and I was blown away by the beauty and versatility of this style. That’s how we got Pangrok Sulap started, and we developed our own style and designs from there.”

Freddy, who thus far has been quietly at work rolling black ink over one of the wood matrixes, says, “Punk has more urgency. Foreign bands singing in English are, of course, influential because they invented the genre, but their lives and backgrounds are very far from ours.” That’s the reason why most of Pangrok Sulap’s artworks use Bahasa Malaysia to convey their messages.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Bam illustrates the "before" and "after" production of a punk gig poster in Tokyo. The group, in fact, has a Japanese representative who tries to bring out their art.

And Pangrok Sulap is not limited to the production and sale of slogans printed on posters and T-shirts; they travel around Sabah spreading revolutionary messages to as many people as possible through their art. Leong and Freddy tell me about a series focusing on the problem of illegal immigration from Indonesia. To earn quick cash, the immigrants sell cheap contraband cigarettes in Sabah. “We printed a series of posters to remind people how important it is to stop buying from illegal immigrants and support our locally produced cigars. Our tribal elders still roll them by hand as one of the main sources of their livelihoods,” Leong explains. Cigars are sold at Ranau Market, where the art punks plaster their posters. One depicts two old women in conical hats holding a round basket full of kirai asli, the original Kadazan-Dusun cigars. A sentence in Bahasa Malaysia translates: “If you want your own race to prosper, you must buy your cigars from these aunties.”

Karen Lai

Pangrok Sulap's artworks are printed on different media and come in all sizes.

Pangrok Sulap has also experimented with installations. Using metal wire, the punks hung school textbooks from the ceiling of one of Kota Kinabalu’s art galleries, placing them above life-sized cardboard children with outstretched, empty hands. “They represent the children of Filipino migrants without papers who, as they have no civil status and are invisible to Malaysia’s government, can’t go to school to get the most basic education,” Leong says. For Sabah, with its porous sea border, this is just one of the problems that migration has brought.

The existence of this small group in rural Borneo could very well represent one of Asia’s last bastions of punk-rock hope. If punk rock can influence young minds to think and act in ways that challenge real, local social issues rather than merely reproducing the music of global punk’s sub-cultural dupes, then punk really isn’t dead.

1 www.thestar.com.my/Lifestyle/Entertainment/ Arts/Frame-Up/2014/11/05/Sabahbased-artcollective- finds-audience-in-Tokyo/
Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His first novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.



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