Seven kittens occupy my shoes, left by the door of Pangrok Sulap's art studio, on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo. They're curled up inside or lounging on the toe.

"I didn't want a cat," says Rizo Leong, a co-founder of the art collective, who lives at the studio with his wife, Mamet. "But one day I saw a kitten on the road and felt sorry for it." They now have 20 cats, sleeping in between paint pots and poking their heads out from behind sketchbooks in the converted primary school, on the edge of Ranau town. "When you save one, you have to save them all," he says.

Pangrok Sulap (" pangrok" is the local pronunciation of "punk rock" and " sulap" is the name of a hut used by the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun people) is into saving things. Since the art collective was founded, in 2010, it has developed a distinctive style and worshipped at the altar of DIY punk, taking its radical message to the front line of the fight to protect Borneo's depleted forests, animals and native people.

The secret world of punk on the Singapore-Johor highway

The members met through a shared love of punk rock.

"When there is a punk gig in Sabah [their Malaysian home state], everyone gathers," says Jerome Manjat, a 32-year-old founding member. "So it's a good way to meet like-minded people."

Some members used to play music together but, once they learned woodcut printing at a workshop given by Indonesian band Marjinal, that art form became their sole focus.

In Borneo jungle, natives stand up against Malaysian dams

The workshop was part of Marjinal's 2013 tour of Borneo.

"We often do [woodcuts] at gigs before we perform," the band has posted on Facebook. "It's intended as a language of communication and outreach to the public … Learning together [and] working … to build change together."

Indonesian tattooists revive tribal traditions by tapping into the past

Woodcut printing is used by several radical groups in Southeast Asia to spread their message to indigenous and working populations. The technique was trailblazed by Yogyakarta-based Indonesian collective Taring Padi, which produced controversial political designs following the fall of president Suharto, in 1998.

"I was amazed by the beautiful designs," says Leong. "We kept experimenting and began to develop our own style."

Despite posting their designs in public places without permission "when the [authorities] see them they don't come and catch us", says Manjat. "I think they know what we're saying is true and they agree with our message." The posters eventually get taken down but not before plenty of people have had "their eyes peeled".

The collective has grown from six core members to incorporate a range of artistic skills. Pangrok now also works with beads (a traditional Dusun art form used on ceremonial costumes) and silkscreen prints, and has a carpenter on hand. Some of the members prefer to go by English pseudonyms. Reynor, a spindly man in a cowboy hat, designs tattoos. As Freddy strums riffs in a corner, Reynor points out some of his designs on a laptop. Tattooed on the back of his hand is the Anonymous Guy Fawkes face.

I don't think the government cares about the people. But the art makes them listen
Rizo Leong

 

 

Leong unfurls a banner and pegs it to a washing line that runs the width of the studio. It resembles a medieval tapestry with several stories told in a canopy of images. He says it took six people a week to make. Like most of their prints, it began with a sheet of medium-density fibreboard. Leong, Manjat and others sketched out an image in negative, then scratched and gouged it out. Using a roller, they applied a film of newspaper ink over the surface before pressing the banner against it.

There's a butchered water buffalo face in the centre of the image; its eyes, ears, tongue and nose plastered onto a tree stump.

"This was a traditional way of making an agreement," explains Manjat. "The parts of the buffalo represent the senses that bear witness to the agreement." He's referring specifically to a deal that allowed the Dusun tribe to relocate after its paddy fields had been poisoned by slurry leaked by the Mamut Copper Mine, in 1975, just one of several totemic tales portrayed. The miners, depicted with dollar signs in their eyes, approach placard-waving farmers while poisonous waste oozes down the hills.

News of the collective and its confrontational art soon spread from Ranau over Borneo's hills and beyond.

"I don't know how we got famous," says Manjat. "It happened spontaneously."

Pangrok has now exhibited in major galleries all over Malaysia and is planning a third exhibition in Tokyo this year, following last year's show, "From the foot of Mt Kinabalu to the foot of Mt Fuji."

Its growing popularity caught the eye of Malaysian oil firm Petronas, which asked the group to paint a mural in the state capital, Kota Kinabalu, as part of the corporate giant's sponsorship of Malaysia Day, last year.

From the beginning, we were all about spreading the message. We needed to because we don't have media for local people here
Jerome Manjat

 

 

"They wanted us because we have a name and people know who we are," says Manjat. Petronas told Pangrok to name its price but the collective declined.

"They wanted us to remove our message [and not be political]," says Manjat. "Which is the whole reason we do the art. From the beginning, we were all about spreading the message. We needed to because we don't have media for local people here."

He points to a large poster of a raging orangutan surrounded by tree stumps. "This land is mine!" it says. The irony here is that the orangutan's rage has come too late, the surrounding trees having all been reduced to stumps. Has Pangrok come too late?

"Sure," says Manjat, "they've cut down most of the forest and turned it into palm oil plantations." But as long as there is forest left to protect, he says, Pangrok will attempt to do so.

"It's still going on right now," he says. "The big companies try to trick the villagers into [letting them use] their land to plant palm trees; that's why Malaysia is one of the biggest palm oil exporters in the world.

"We are interested in showing the real situation in Borneo," Manjat continues. He searches for an example. "Like the people losing land to the Kaiduan Dam."

The dam, which the local government says is needed to secure water supplies up to 2030, is set to inundate several Dusun villages, displacing 2,000 people. Pangrok has stood with the rice farmers in the fields their ancestors regarded as holy and marched against the plan. Whether in English or Bahasa Malaysia their prints are emphatic: "No dam!"

"They have not even offered compensation to the people," says Leong.

He yawns. It's evening and time to coax the kittens out of my shoes. The rest of the gang, mottled with tattoos and black band T-shirts, are gathered in the front porch playing guitar and singing. Empty soy milk cans litter a table.

"I don't think the government cares about the people," says Leong. "But the art makes them listen."