I distinctly remember watching Pangrok Sulap’s woodcut print reveal through the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018-19 Instagram live feed of the Biennale opening at Anand Warehouse. What seemed like a ritual in itself, something I was fascinated by, was, in fact, part the collective’s distinctive woodcut printmaking process. The artists play their traditional live music for the audience to dance barefoot on the giant woodcut board overlaid with the printing surface, enabling the engraved wood to transfer its inked impressions. After the music and dance dies down, one hears the collective gasp as the imprinted material is gently peeled off, and the print ceremony with all its glory and drama comes to an end. A work made by the collective in Kochi for this edition of the Biennale is exhibited alongside their previous woodcut prints, most of which are images of their homeland. In January when I visited Kochi, the engraved wood was lying on the floor beneath the final print, while the tune of their music still fresh, played in my memory.
Founded by Rizo Leong, Jerome and MC Feddy, Pangrok Sulap is a collective that was established in 2010 in the Ranau district of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah, consisting of indigenous Dusun and Murut artists, musicians and social activists who are dedicated to expressing the reality around and empowering rural and marginalised communities through art. “Pangrok” is the local pronunciation of “punk rock” and “Sulap” translates to a hut or resting place usually used by farmers in Sabah. The title of the collective reflects their subcultural punk ethos of building small scale community-driven infrastructure to host and facilitate programs and collaborations for artists. These also function as residences for rural Malaysians, as orphanages and homes for differently abled people, and as schools in the interiors of the villages. The group engages with issues that affect the land, livelihood and social well-being of each locale through the visual arts of various locales.
For the Biennale, the artists engaged with the lives of the people in Kerala, their stories, the nostalgia around the land (use of phrases that evoke emotions such as people’s own country), and the ritual and ceremonies that guide their lives (drawing inspiration from the boat race folk songs). The woodcut made at Kochi is in collaboration with the locals, through a workshop format of art-making that included conversations with the community. They learned the classic technique of woodcut print from Marjinal, a punk band and a pioneering woodcut collective from Indonesia, while they were touring in Malaysia in 2013. While the technique is unique requiring basic woodcut tools and an MDF woodcut board, it is also easy to share this knowledge with the community without them having to know the fundamentals of art. This leads to community building through woodcut workshops that the collective often hosts. This, combined with their folk music, the Sumazau folk dance culture, and a ‘Jangan Beli, Bikin Sendiri’ (Don’t buy, Do it you Self) philosophy towards life, leads to performative unveilings of their artwork, glimpses of which I got to see through the screen at the opening of the Biennale.
At the core, Pangrok Sulap’s work invigorates the idea of community through awareness, empowerment, and engagement- be it the collaborative conversations, workshopping through woodcut or the engagement of the body in the print ceremony, they make sure that through the dancing, or even the stamping with a foot (to print a small scale woodcut for instance), people go “all the way down to the heels” to make sure it prints well. In their earlier works pertaining to their homeland, there is a distinct narrative of a pastoral romance that takes off from the urban chaos and reunites the viewer with the pastoral simplicities – farming fields, agrarian lifestyles, children, the rural community and the village sky. The works at the same time are political since they also engage with immediate local, social and environmental causes. What ties the prints of their homeland and the work they made in Kerala is the sense of nostalgia that runs through both the narratives. Pangrok Sulap back in their country, often show their work around in local markets called Tamus – the heart of every rural community, where people gather to meet and share news, thus making it a great space for the collective to engage with the concerns of the local communities. The Tamus becomes a near accurate reflection of the community-based work that the collective is trying to achieve. However, through pastoral simplicity and a community approach, one may perceive their work as a constant reinvigoration of the idea.
Images: Kochi-Muziris Biennale