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Sacred Space and Rebellious Gardening: In Conversation with Monica Hapsari

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Monica Hapsari is a multidisciplinary artist, illustrator, and fashion lecturer based in Jakarta. Her hand-embroidered objects and revolving kinetic installations traverse time by bridging the forgotten wisdom of ancient mysticism with modern scientific inquiries. After returning from a short sabbatical in the hillside town of Dharamshala (home to the Dalai Lama), she has become a bit of a spiritual guide within the art community as well. Teaching Fashion Branding and Identity at several institutions throughout the city, Monica’s lectures are equal parts textile draping and philosophical contemplation of human existence.

Amidst self-isolation, we log into Zoom to chat about performance as sacred space, repentance, and rebellious gardening.

ANTARA, a work comprising hand embroidery on a rotating kinetic installation, on view at National Gallery, Jakarta, Indonesia. Video courtesy of the artist.

Admittedly, I enrolled in your Fashion Branding & Identity course after I had seen a performance of yourswhich is still incredibly vivid in my memory. You were swaddled beneath lustrous white fabric and illuminated by the subtle glow of a UV lamp. The pitch-black auditorium enveloped spectators like a starless night as we congregated to witness your moonlit body move through a process of rebirth. What drove you to create this experience?

For starters, the idea for this production emerged from a series of residencies years ago where several advisors encouraged me to experiment with performance. Later on I joined Gudskul’s Performance Art short course, mentored by Jakarta-based performance artist, Reza Afisina. RAHIM would become my final assignment for that course.

Video excerpt of Monica’s performance RAHIM, Gudskul Auditoriam 2019, Jakarta . Video and audio courtesy of Monica Hapsari.

Rahim?

The title of my production is the Indonesian word rahim (womb), which in turn is derived from the Arabic word for kasih/sayang (compassion). I’ve always been curious about the relationship between rahim and the physical womb within my own culture. I came to understand that the act of gestation is an act of selfless compassion. This curiosity manifests itself in my lifelong search for love after being forced from my own mother’s womb. The performance is a story of how to find pure and selfless love by giving love to all other beings. It’s a journey from infancy to a childhood painted with ego and suffering, and later maturation, surrender, and repentance.

Afterwards, you broke through the crowd in tears, generously delivering white roses, and pleading for forgiveness from audience members. Both heartbreaking and uplifting, it resonated with me in ways I cant explain in words.

That part was unplanned. In that moment I realised that performance provided a sacred place for me to let go, and to cry within a context that would be accepted by public audiences. The stage became my sanctuary. It was purely an act of love and spontaneity.

At the end, four women joined you at the centre of your sanctuary to bathe us in harmonious a cappella ballads.

The song was written by a dear friend and former bandmate, Budi Candra Marcukundha. The four women who joined me on stage that night each embody one direction of the wind—Barat (West), Laut (Sea), Selatan (South), Utara (North). According to Javanese culture, these protective entities accompany us throughout our life. Though we may find ourselves in solemn solitude at times, we are never truly alone.

Breaking into a cappella on my Zoom screen, Monica sings:

“Here’s to the grain of sand beneath my feet.
Here’s to the grace of the sun that burns my skin.

And let them cleanse, oh,

And let them cleanse, my soul.
In solemn solitude shall I venture.”

I have a natural inclination towards entertaining people, but I’ve never considered myself to be a performance artist by the standard definition—at least not right now. I also can’t say that RAHIM was a success, but it was a very personal experience for me.

So, you dont consider yourself to be a performance artist, but you are an illustrator by trade. You also paint, build installations, compose music and sing. Finally, you teach fashion and branding to a wide spectrum of students. Which came first, and how did you arrive to your studio practice today?

Singing is my first passion, but I studied design craft at university (because I’m an ibu-ibu at heart). I love working with my hands. Upon graduation I landed my dream job at one of Indonesia’s top fashion magazines, A+. And, quite unexpectedly, I became their illustrator. After some time in the industry I was in dire need of a transition — I needed to play again, to relieve my anxiety and channel the clamorous and uncontrollable energy that I had. I suppose I left the magazine to restore my sanity, and turned towards art and sound.

Multimedia performance, Coffeewar Creative Space, 2019, South Jakarta. Image courtesy of the artist.

Describe your most memorable breakthrough moment.

I had returned from the Himalayas, where I finally learned to govern my own Qi through meditation. It’s something that I desperately needed which has become an integral part of my daily routine. It’s put an end to my insomnia. Magical. When I arrived back to Jakarta, I created KARMAWIBHANGGAa large scale hand-stitched embroidery piece. Every stitch was an act of asking for forgiveness. I engaged with local community members, who took part in what became a collective ritual. In the end it was a shared offering of repentance.

This was a huge breakthrough for me on a personal level, even if it has yet to receive wider recognition in the contemporary art world. I’m not driven to become an acclaimed artist – I’d rather devote myself to the greater good of society.

Monica Hapsari, KARMAWIBHANGGA, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.
Detail of KARMAWIBHANGGA, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Speaking of which, you have been advocating for a wide array of organizations working to uplift communities in times of crisis. You helped initiate the campaign for charity organisation Tree of Heart as a concerted effort to respond to environmental degradation. Youve co-organised Jahit Bersama, a sewing collective that works alongside @lifeshield_facemask to distribute APD medical grade suits and masks to clinics and hospitals all over Indonesia. You are a natural mover, activist, and educator. Most recently, you created an online drawing and animation class for kids and parents who are under #stayathome orders during these strange times.

Is there any time left for your own studio practice? What personal projects are you up to right now?

First of all, the feeling of unity during this pandemic is mind-blowing. It’s about time. Interdependence is what we need. Secondly, I personally need art to heal, so I’ve created the children’s drawing class as a way for families to self-heal, unite, combat depression, and connect.

One of Monica’s students prepares characters for her animation during the Kids & Parents Stop Motion Drawing Class she conducted via Zoom. Image courtesy of the artist.

I’m currently involved in several musical collaborations and trying to find time for my next embroidery series, Sunset Sunrise. As the sun either falls below or rises above the horizon, its image can evoke polarities of primal emotion such as fear or hope; conflict or creativity, respectively. With regard to the advancement of society, I’m interested in exploring how we respond to hardship. Is our species solely conditioned to perceive an obstacle as something fearful and destructive in order to safeguard our survival? Or do we, perhaps, have the innate ability to recognize catastrophe as a potential stepping-stone for collective creative change? Is it fear or hope which fuels human evolution?

A sketch of Monica’s ongoing Sunset Sunrise series. Image courtesy of the artist.

I suppose the pandemic has provided us with a critical moment to reflect upon exactly that fear, hope, and potential stepping-stones. During your evening lectures on fashion, the conversation always pivoted towards speculating about the survival of our species and the importance of community and collective mutual aid. (I know youve recently abandoned the idea of installing a bunker, haha!)

What other things are you preparing or learning as the world begins to reimagine itself?

(laughs) Yes – I’ve moved on to gardening! It is the most rebellious act we can do. I strongly believe that everyone should be gardening right now and growing their own food.

Agreed. As we wrap up our conversation, are there any final thoughts you would like to reflect upon?

(breaking into a cappella once again)

“In solemn solitude shall I venture.

In solemn solitude shall I drown the past,

And start it all anew.”

Monica Hapsari, ANTARA, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Keep up with Monica’s journey and projects, and perhaps she’ll become your spiritual guide too.

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