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Brave New World : The Museum MACAN

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara or Museum MACAN, has been generating quite a buzz in the regional art scene. It’s been lauded by the New York Times as being “world-class” and showcases the private collection of  Indonesian businessman Haryanto Adikoesoemo. While we had already taken a first look at the Museum MACAN during a preview at Art Stage Jakarta 2017, we were nonetheless still excited to view the newly-opened museum in its full glory.

It’s a glossy, shiny new space and its inaugural exhibition Art Turns. World Turns. saw a healthy crowd on the day of our visit. Works by masters such as Raden Saleh, Dullah and Hendra Gunawan first greet visitors when they enter the premises.

Let’s take a look at some of these oldies (but goodies):

Raden Saleh, Self Portrait (1835)

This self-portrait of Raden Saleh was created when Saleh lived in the Hague. It depicts the artist’s penchant for dressing in the style of a typical middle-class European, with his untidy hair showing the influence of the “French bohemian lifestyle.” The wall text for adults (yes,  the museum offers separate wall texts for children) states rather prosaically that the painting shows the “complexity within Saleh’s identity,” as a Javanese man working in Western Europe.

Delightfully, the children’s wall text offers up far more philosophical questions, such as:  “..this is a painting that the artist made of himself, what do you think he is trying to tell us?”

Dullah, Bung Karno di Tengah Perang Revolusi (1966)

This painting by Dullah, Bung Karno di Tengah Perang Revolusi depicts Indonesia’s first President in the midst of revolutionary fighters. Soekarno, or Bung Karno as he was popularly known, fought to establish an independent Indonesia from the period of 1945- 1949 during the Indonesian National Revolution. While this painting is not based on real historical events, it appears to bear resemblance to a famous scene in 1945 where Soekarno had made a stirring speech in the Djarkarta Athletic Association Square. Dullah, the artist, was himself a great favourite of President Soekarno and was appointed in 1950 as the Presidential Painter and caretaker of the Presidential Collection.

The date of production of the painting bears noting: by 1966, Soekarno’s power had weakened in the aftermath of the 1965 coup and many of Soekarno’s supporters had distanced themselves from him and his supposed communist affiliations.  It is suggested that Dullah had attempted to glorify Soekarno, to show sympathy for him and remind citizens to “unite in times of great turmoil.”

Here’s a slightly different presentation on the Indonesian Revolution, again, viewed with the benefit of hindsight:

Sudjana Kerton, Akibat Pemboman di Lengkong Besar Bandung, 1945 (1979)

Sudjana Kerton’s painting shows the bombing of Lengkong Besar in Bandung in 1945 – he had personally travelled to the frontlines of conflict in the 1940s to document events through painting and drawing. In August 1945, after Indonesia had declared its independence, the Dutch military (assisted by the British) attempted to recapture Java and regain control of the former colony. In an attempt to occupy Bandung, the residential district of Lengkong Besar was bombed, resulting in many civilian deaths.

This painting shifts the focus of the independence struggle away from macho jingoism and towards a consideration of the extent of human suffering. The image shows “a city on fire, with craters forming from the explosion, victims trapped under fallen trees, and families fleeing with their children.” The artist’s “wild brushstrokes and exaggerated, anguished human forms” add to the drama and pathos of the scene.

Prior to our visit, we had heard murmurs that Museum MACAN was a little “unfocused,” and that works appeared to have been placed randomly all over the exhibition space. At first glance, one might certainly feel that the museum features a haphazard mishmash of Western and Asian modern and contemporary pieces.

It does get a little tiring listening to arguments about whether Western modern and contemporary art can ever usefully be displayed side-by-side with Asian works. For the uninitiated, the comments generally tend to go something like this:

“Art as a concept, was invented in the West, anything Asian can only be derivative and unoriginal.”

“Placing Western works next to Asian works based on purely aesthetic considerations, ignores the unique historical context(s) from which both types of works originate.”

We sometimes even veer into post-colonial territory:

“Why do Asians still need validation from the West? Is Asian work only considered good if it’s placed next to important Western art?”

The section in which this East / West divide comes out most clearly is perhaps the Struggles Around Form and Content segment of the show.  In this section, works by the likes of Frank Stella hang alongside paintings by Ahmad SadaliZao Wou-kiMark Rothko, and Srihadi.

Before we launch into explanations, take a look at some of the works:

Srihadi Soedarsono, Lanskap (Landscape)(1962)
Mark Rothko, Untitled (1960 -1961)
Ahmad Sadali, Lelehan Emas Pada Relief Gunungan (Drips of Gold Upon the Relief of a Mountain) (1973)
Frank Stella Untitled (1968)

What did we think?

Well, for one, we don’t agree that the placement of Asian modern and contemporary works next to Western ones, automatically renders the former as inferior, or that such a framing is necessarily discordant. As we’ve probably mentioned ad nauseum on this website, Asian interpretations and adaptations of Western techniques are interesting because they operate in a context that’s different from where such techniques originated. This doesn’t make them derivative – far from it- as the works evolve to take on new and different qualities.

We’re reminded of this comment from the legendary Chinua Achebe who, when addressing British criticism of novels by African writers in his 1988 publication Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965 – 1987, observed that :

“The colonialist critic, unwilling to accept the validity of sensibilities other than his own, has made a particular point in dismissing the African novel. He has written lengthy articles to prove its non- existence largely on the grounds that the novel is a peculiarly Western genre, a fact which would interest us if our ambition was to write Western novels.”

Art – much like novels and poetry –  will necessarily be interpreted differently depending on the context in which it is produced and consumed. It is perhaps counter-productive to expect an Asian art museum to conform to (imagined or real) pre-existing Western ideals. Indonesian art historian Jim Supangkat, for example, made arguments in the 1990s in support of “various modernisms”  that have developed in the Third World in response to differing levels of exposure to Western culture, differences in socio-political and cultural background and the existence of multiculturalism within such societies. Taking a step further, Singapore’s T.K. Sabapathy has called for a new language, or “new premises and methodologies to comprehend (this) multi modernism.”

This is where we feel that MACAN stands out in its bravery for attempting to reconfigure art historical narratives, with the “backbone of the museum being that of Indonesian art.” While theoretical calls have long been made for the presentation of Southeast Asian art in more authentic ways, MACAN appears to have risen to the challenge, and attempted to actually execute the idea.

As Charles Esche and Agung Hujatnika comment in their curatorial essay to Art Turns. World Turns, the  exhibition “draws parallels between art and history as a dynamic relationship that is both internally driven and constantly aware of Western and international discourse at the same time.” For example, museum wall texts explain that the Rothko and Srihadi works above may be categorised together, as both are examples of “experimental and universalist values in abstract art.”

Also, let’s not forget that MACAN is a private museum and will therefore necessarily display works from a private collection, works that perhaps the founder simply enjoys. That alone could offer interesting insight, without the need for any other kinds of deep-diving.

Accessibility is also key.

From a rather more practical perspective, Museum MACAN offers local and regional viewers the chance to enjoy works by the likes of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, without having to jet off to New York or London.

Damien Hirst, Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain (2008) – the sculpture is of a flayed Catholic martyr, carrying his skin on his own arm

Even better, the museum situates these works in a firmament which includes such stars as Entang Wirhaso, Rudy Mantofani and Arahmaiani:

Arahmaiani, Lingga- Yoni (1994) – Asian art history students will certainly recognise this painting, depicting the Hindu symbols of creation, a red lingam and green yoni, presented with fragments of Arabic and old Javanese script. When the painting was first exhibited in Jakarta in 1994, it was so controversial that demands were made for the work to be removed, and for the entire exhibition to be closed down

Museum-goers are accordingly left with the sense that no one type of work is superior to the other pieces on display. Rather, MACAN’s  presentation simply is, with the viewer being left to draw his or her own conclusions.

All in all, the exhibition was a brave attempt at offering a more nuanced reading of Indonesian art history, placing well-known events and ideas together in an exciting new way.

For that, we salute it!


Art Turns. World Turns. is on display till 18 March 2018, at Museum MACAN, Jakarta.

See our video on the museum here.



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