In 1971, the American art historian Linda Nochlin wrote the groundbreaking text asking the un-askable: “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?”.
Nochlin’s question wasn’t actually a question at all. Rather, it served as an indictment of systemic injustice in the arts and the natural tendency to prematurely dismiss women, on account of their gender. Not just greatness, but any place within the hierarchy, was (and possibly still is) a gendered prerogative. She turned the question around, declaring:
“The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”
Chronicling the stains of history à la Nochlin, Medium at Play at Gajah Gallery’s Yogyakarta outpost Yogya Art Lab is a multi-layered entirely female exposition on the potential of the art medium. It is curated by Dr Wulan Dirgantoro, a researcher on transnational feminisms, and the performance artist Jason Lim. While the primary goal is an exploration of material interface, I found it an especially refreshing way to approach gender politics, and the feminist display far from reductive.
In Indonesia where Javanese societal conventions exist alongside Islam which determines the patriarchal family, incidentally also the institutionalised basis of the state, the implicit bias couldn’t be more rife. In the mid-70s, the term ‘gender” had still not yet surfaced in art. Women were labelled “Sunday painters” which implied they were trivial hobbyists.
Equally damningly, the late Indonesian art critic Sanento Yuliman had suggested that craft practices (otherwise known as “low art”) such as batik-making, pottery and embroidery were more distinctively female, relegating them to a woman’s domain. This tendency to suggest that the medium has the potential to signify gender identity in the exhibition has politicised the otherwise wholly functional medium. The curatorial imperative at Yogya Art Lab was hence to invite artists to reflect on these questions:
“What does it mean to give agency to the material, to follow the material, and to act with the material?”
It is thus interesting that few works in the show made use of such “diminutive” materials in their commentary and representation of their female identity. Spanning 2 floors, the diversity of work ranges from Loli Rusman’s expansive canvases to Ayu Arista Murti’s very pink “boxes of love” girlish dioramas:
Upstairs, the female giants of Indonesian art, IGAK Murniasih and Arahmaiani Feisal are pitted against each other with their works flanking the room. The terrific inclusion of the XXLab, an all-female collective whose creative practice intersects with science and technology (a far cry from batik-making!), further pushes the idea of materiality outside of the white cube walls entirely. Their work Soya C(O)U(L)TURE sought to eliminate waste and water pollution by transforming wastewater into an alternative form of tanned leather:
No shout-out to girl power would be complete without Arahmaiani.
One of Indonesia’s most significant contemporary artists, Arahmaiani is known for her powerful and provocative performances that comment on sociopolitical issues. A prime example of her criticism and activism, Burning Country is an installation that was first exhibited in 1999 as a memorial to the May 1998 riots which claimed the lives of many Chinese Indonesians and saw the mass rape of Chinese Indonesian women. A lone white dress hangs from above, while a trail of matchsticks lies on the ground below:
A collaborative work between the artist and Islamic high school students in Yogyakarta, her installation Concept Trap features a mass of pillows embroidered with Indonesian words and Jawi scripts relaying different emotional states such as “Love”, “Compassion” and “Hate:”
While her works here are tangible in form, the collaborative nature of Concept Trap recalls her controversial performance practice which usually involves the audience, and which has also frequently put her at odds with the authoritarian New Order regime in Indonesia. In her explicitly political performances, the artist’s body has become both a crucial site and vessel for protests and political statements, destabilising the conventional notion of women in Javanese society. An affront even to the binary of high and low art, the performance medium complicates one’s understanding of the art object in its final form as its multiplicity and transience are underscored. To further explore this tension between the material and ephemeral, Medium at Play also consists of a curated performance programme featuring 4 artists.
Conversely, IGAK Murniasih’s works are cheerfully irreverent. Bold, colourful and nightmarish, Murni’s radical vision of sexuality seeks to emancipate her femininity from the male gaze:
In her characteristically fictive style, she places her stylised figures into the realm of the gothic where they are enmeshed in bizarre scenarios and caught in disturbing, contorted positions. Her painting Jangan Sampai Terjadi Lagi Padaku (Don’t Let It Happen to Me Again) (see above) has a coil wound impossibly tightly around a midriff to the point of strangulation while the figure’s navel is replaced by an eye.
More sinister still, is Murni’s life-size cloth figure that looms over me:
An excessively long umbilical cord dangles while the black lines that adorn the elongated doll resemble sutures or scales. Its mouth inexplicably reminds me of a Venus flytrap at first glance – something I attribute to its generally threatening nature. Its looped arms and legs end in pointy little high-heeled boots with an upturned curl at the toe that mirrors its hairstyle. The dainty heel is the ultimate feminine gesture – petite, but also perfectly intentional and unapologetically female.
The independent, turbulent streak stems from Murni’s personal trauma. By inventing bizarre portrayals that are unable to be made sense of, Murni’s images are akin to a record of violence and sexism she has suffered, both of which follow their own logic. While Arahmaiani’s referential work serves as relic-like testimony to the invisible figures who anchor her art, Murni seems to continuously reclaim and reinvent the female body on her own terms. Through this act, she attempts to escape the delineated fate of the female gender — not just in Indonesia, but also in the misogynistic tropes of art history in which women are prostitutes, the fallen women and often, nothing more than pure spectacle.
Can contemporary Indonesian art be viewed as a distinctive kind of anticipatory politics in undoing sexist categories of knowledge? Militant activism or not, the defiant images, conceptual underpinnings and variety of media deployed in the exhibition, are shining signs of individualism.
Perhaps art itself is the most radical medium of expression there is.