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Infusions Into Contemporary Art: Unravelling the world with Indonesian Women Artists

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The sun shone brightly on the white facades of the colonial building now known as the National Gallery of Indonesia, which has hosted some of the country’s most prominent artworks, exhibitions, and cultural activities since 1999. Formerly a Dutch East Indies educational complex, today, two of its main structures (Buildings A and B) host 10 established women artists in an exhibition entitled Indonesian Women Artists #3: Infusions Into Contemporary Art. Lining up with a number of visitors to get our online bookings verified, I was eager to finally see a National Gallery show since its reopening in February 2022. 

My excitement was fortified by the fact that the exhibition features not only artists whose works I have encountered in past local and international exhibitions such as Arahmaiani, Dolorosa Sinaga, Melati Suryodarmo, Mella Jaarsma, Sri Astari Rasyid, and Titarubi but also artists whose creations I have not had the chance to cross paths with before, namely Bibiana Lee, Dyan Anggraini, Indah Arsyad, and Nunung W.S.

Reading into the title, the word “infusion” seems to fit the artist selection perfectly, as these women, who were born between 1948–1969, have undoubtedly brought fresh outlooks to the contemporary Indonesian art scene with their active, often provocative artistic endeavours. 

Notable contemporary art writer Carla Bianpoen, one of three female curators of the exhibition, claimed that:

“These artists’ creations adhere to what is beyond aesthetics or flash of the moment, and refer deeply to humanity and the meaning of life.”

The featured artworks strongly reflect this curatorial premise, as they do not seek to represent these artists’ womanhood. Instead, the works unveil the artists’ criticisms of global issues  be it historical, political, or environmental which affect them and their local and international communities. In fact, visiting the show felt like a journey through the multiple realities that make up our present world. 

Transdisciplinary approaches

Each zone is dedicated to one artist and evokes unique aspects of their practice, be it their intelligent commentary and transdisciplinary approaches. One of the first works to welcome visitors, A Taste of Behind (2018) sees Jaarsma hand-stitch ‘clothes’ using natural materials such as barkcloth and bamboo to explore human behaviours and social conditioning. These clothes alter the natural shape of the body, and play with the perceptions of which body parts should be covered to challenge beauty standards. On this, she states,I seek to start a new trend by displaying a part of the human body that is still typically covered: the butt.” 

In another corner, traces of Suryodarmo’s 5-hour long durational live performance Amnesia (2022) leaves an uncanny feeling. First performed in the largest-ever exhibition of Southeast Asian contemporary art to be held in Japan, the artist imagines entering a room of the past, followed by sewing, counting, and marking, as a recollection of fragmented memories, past events and histories that define our identities.

In the next room, a breathtaking installation by Titarubi awaits, consisting of three copper and nickel-plated wooden boats, over which float mysterious robes made of gold-plated nutmegs. Debuted at the 2016 Singapore Biennale, History Repeats Itself (2016) seeks to question the history of power by highlighting the legacies of colonial conquest in Indonesia. 

Examining gender and community 

While some of these women artists have notably contributed to the discourse surrounding gender, I appreciate how the exhibition chooses to emphasise how they engage with and seize our attention towards today’s conditions, rather than any feminist perspective. 

For example, Arahmaiani, who is considered one of the early pioneers of performance art in Southeast Asia, was first recognised for her advocacy for gender equality. However, over time her works extended beyond feminist discourse. Displayed in this exhibition is one of her early paintings Lingga-Yoni (1994), which suggests the balance between two equal forces to achieve peace and wisdom through two forms that represent the male and female genitalia.

Here, the artist places the feminine symbol Yoni on top of the masculine symbol Lingga to challenge the standard representation of these symbols in Hindu and Javanese cultures, whereby the Yoni is always below placed Lingga, serving as a support. The architecture of Hindu temples largely reflects these depictions of Lingga and Yoni, which has encouraged the artist to visit different sacred sites in Java for research.

One of the temples, Candi Sukuh, took her by surprise, as the structures of Lingga and Yoni were placed next to each other by the main gate. This meant that whichever symbol you saw first depended on whether you entered or exited the temple, allowing of different perspectives. 

As the artist concluded,

“The work isn’t about suggesting the position of one gender above the other. As inspired by my experience at Candi Sukuh, I meant to open up our perspectives regarding how we see gender, and take us back to the principle of balance.”

This is also reflected by the Arabic and Sanskrit characters that equally fill up the painting.

Brought up with a syncretic culture in Java, Arahmaiani grew up exposed to cultural and religious diversity. This principle became the root of her following works, including the ongoing Flag Project. The series elevates community-based practice into a powerful tool to advocate for peace, amidst a world filled with opposing forces. Through this project, she has worked with different communities around the world to spark discussions and facilitate impactful activities responding to global warming, such as recycling and developing water systems. 

She also created a series of flags as an aesthetic expression, as well as an instrument to unite different individuals in the community together. In the project’s Nusantara Series, words from various Indonesian dialects – that mean “love,” “justice,” “wisdom,” “earth,” just to name a few – are stitched onto colourful, large-scale flags, addressing the values we need today. Suspended one after another, the installation leads visitors to watch a documentary of one of several performances she had conducted using these flags — particularly one that took place in Tibet.

Across cultures

Respect for cultural differences also lies at the heart of Bibiana Lee’s new artworks. It is displayed in a dark room, which is intensified with red neon lights. The bright yellow that dominates her artworks also stands out — as if calling for our urgent attention. What caught my attention first was a pair of digital prints on aluminium, as each displayed an image of a beautiful Chinese-Peranakan style porcelain plate broken into pieces. These images refer to the original plates from Lee’s 2019 series I AM CHINA, which narrates the often-difficult conditions of individuals of Chinese heritage in Indonesia due to the historic prejudice, purging, and political violence towards the minority group. 

Although the work speaks for itself through embossed words that recount Lee’s personal experiences as a Chinese-Indonesian woman, she humbly elaborated it further when we met at the show. “I still remember the terrifying feeling of living abroad, yet worrying terribly over the safety of my own mother who was based in Indonesia during the 1998 riots,” she said, referring to one of the prints entitled Pieces of May (2022). 

One cannot miss Lee’s four synthetic leather punching bags hanging from metal chains, which make up I AM NOT A VIRUS (2021). The work successfully invites visitors to interact with it by punching. Each bag displayed stitched phrases extracted from newspaper reports and headlines echoing the anti-Asian racism that has widely spread along with the recent Covid-19 outbreak. The title itself derives from the protest slogan “Je ne suis pas un virus” (French for “I am not a virus”), which Asians in France used in response to the backlash against them. The work feels only complete once the audience participates, which I interpret to express a dual meaning: reaffirming the idea of hatred towards Asians while refusing these injustices. 

Uniting bacteria and mythology

Days have passed since my visit to the show, and yet the compelling visuals and sounds embedded in Indah Arsyad’s digital video installation The Ultimate Breath (2022) still linger in my mind. Arsyad sophisticatedly combines art, science, technology, and culture to identify the relationship between recurring environmental issues in Indonesia with Javanese principles of equilibrium between human beings and nature.

Her concern towards water pollution took her to various Indonesian regions from which she collected samples of water. She later sent the samples to local laboratories for further observation. Microscopic results from these samples showcased a dynamic composition of bacterial forms, which she then featured in her video projection alongside symbols derived from Javanese mythologies. 

The immersive quality of Arsyad’s work, which blurs the limits between two physical spaces — the artwork’s and that of the audience — is what makes it stand out. Effects materialised from placing glass vessels of water in between the projector and wall transform her exhibition space into a universe of its own. One that is enhanced by simultaneous sounds of mystifying Javanese chants and Gamelan melodies. Such an otherworldly experience places us in between the realms of knowledge and spirituality. 

What I appreciate the most from this exhibition is a curatorial perspective that situates each artist individually, without attempting to stitch their works together in a specific narrative; giving room for plurality rather than narrowing it to a common vision. 

To me, this lays bare each artist’s viewpoint for audiences to see and makes us aware of their voices. This show proves how these artists persevered in their practices, unfettered by the lack of representation, dialogue and scholarship on women artists in Indonesian art history. Regardless of the patriarchal social structures both in our society and within the art world itself, these artists remain unwavering in their journey of research and art-making to challenge our views and systems. 

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Indonesian Women Artists #3: Infusions Into Contemporary Art runs at the National Gallery of Indonesia until 24 April 2022. Click here to find out more. 

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