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Mella Jaarsma’s latest solo re-explores colonial histories through tea, costumes, and artefacts

Performing Artifacts: Objects in Question is the most extensive selection of Mella Jaarsma’s recent works to date. Curated by Alia Swastika, the show occupies ROH Projects’ new space in an organic and playful manner.

Launched in April 2022, the space transformed a house originally built in the 1950s into a contemporary warehouse-style gallery. In this solo exhibition, monumental installations made between 2010 – 2022 by the Dutch-born, Indonesia-based artist are elegantly suspended from the ceiling, posed on the ground, or hung on the wall. This provides different entry points to connect her works with our bodies’ presence.

As Jun Tirtadji, Founder and Director of ROH Projects stated,

“The intention of the exhibition is to present to the audience a more comprehensive understanding pertaining to the structure and methodology behind how Mella Jaarsma works as an artist, building ways in which to see her work through many points of view.”

The experience of navigating oneself in the show thus feels like a pilgrimage, as each work arrests your attention, makes you ponder, and leads you to another. This sends you on a journey to unveil the multilayered aspects of Jaarsma’s transdisciplinary practice, which constantly shifts between research, making, and performance.

Artefacts as Points of Departure

As its title suggests, artefacts serve as points of departure in many of the works in the exhibition. Jaarsma took her inquiry further by investigating their historical, cultural, and social aspects. To Jaarsma, artefacts can be interpreted as historical objects, images, facts and findings; such as the Mooi Indie paintings and tea-drinking culture in A Blinkered View – High Tea Low Tea (2013) or the museum archives on barkcloth that inspired her to develop the I Owe You (2017 – 2022) series. 

Jaarsma also added that as makers, artists contribute to the production of artefacts. A critical position in how she creates her “artefacts” is therefore crucial and needs to be well thought out. Each work in the show sees Jaarsma’s artistic practice further challenge and negotiate the meanings and political baggage embedded into the artefacts through a decolonial lens. The resultant works provide alternative narratives that go beyond what we already know, that is, history as “written by the victors”. 

Thinking about Tea

At a talk held in conjunction with the exhibition, Jaarsma explained her 2013 work A Blinkered View – High Tea Low Tea, which makes its appearance in this solo exhibition. The work consists of pairs of tables covered with printed leather tablecloths, each accompanied by a teapot, a server’s uniform and an apron.

The photos printed on the tablecloths portray the recent condition of tea plantations in Indonesia. Meanwhile, the teapots feature images resembling the Mooi Indie (Beautiful Indies) style, to direct our attention to the tea plantations developed by the Dutch in the 19th century.

Representations of tea plantations from Indonesia’s colonial era and present day are put side by side to question the continuous relationship between the “dominant” (referring to both the Dutch colonisers of the past and today’s tea investors) and the “oppressed” (the owners of the land as well as past and present tea workers). 

Jaarsma recounted that this work was inspired by the culture of tea drinking, which prompted questions concerning the reality of the Indonesian tea industry today. She noticed a gap between the idea of Indonesia as a tea-producing country and Indonesians’ tendency to have limited access to high-quality tea as most of it is exported to foreign countries.

When activated as a performance, performers use these costumes as they serve both “high-quality” (imported) and “low-quality” (local) tea on tables that have significant height differences, once again emphasising the “high” and “low.” Often, Jaarsma would switch the positions around, having the performers serve local tea on a high table and imported tea on a low table instead, to spark the audience’s reflection on the notions of hierarchy and power. 

This work was created for the exhibition Suspended Histories at the Van Loon Museum in Amsterdam in 2013. As Jaarsma added, the museum itself was founded by one of 17 founding members of the Dutch East India Company, which, to her, adds another meaningful layer to the work. 

Recreating Traditions

While A Blinkered View – High Tea Low Tea presents a strong inquiry into past and present power structures, the series I Owe You (2017-2022) sheds light on how Western notions of modernism permanently transformed the indigenous communities’ way of being. 

As Swastika explained in an essay titled Experiencing the body and history, heeding feelings and senses — which is part of the artist’s newly launched book I Owe You (2022) — that during Jaarsma’s residency at the Weltmuseum in Vienna, she was interested in the archives of a community in Central Sulawesi that embraced a tradition of making clothing from tree bark. On this interest, Swastika wrote,

“When European missionaries and colonialists arrived in this region in Central Sulawesi, they forced the indigenous people to replace their traditional clothing that was considered to be old and indecent with a more ‘modern’ way of dressing.” 

This discovery evoked curiosity in Jaarsma, who considers clothing and costume crucial elements in her work. Following the residency, she embarked on a journey to learn how to create her own tree bark costumes. She went to Lemba Bada in Sulawesi to further understand this particular history and culture through interviews and documenting the costumes in their original settings. 

One of the sites of documentation was Lore Lindu, where early field researchers, missionaries and ethnographers like Albertus Christiaan Kruyt and Nicolaas Andriani collected data and wrote about barkcloth at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her adventurous probe into the use of tree bark as clothing continued with a collaborative work with Papuan artist Agus Ongge.

This resulted in an installation of costumes titled Pertama Ada Hitam (At First There is Black) (2021), which can also be seen in the exhibition. The work refers to the tradition of painting on Papuan tree bark, and how these paintings end up being souvenirs, rather than clothing. 

In the work, Mella revives the idea of the painted tree bark as a material to wrap the body. Ongge painted various fish-based ornaments on the tree bark, which was later used as material for Mella’s costumes. One of the ornaments led Jaarsma towards the story of the largetooth sawfish, which is critically endangered.

As Swastika wrote in the curatorial essay Performing Artifacts: Contesting the Gaze, Mella explained that “this activity of hunting (the largetooth sawfish) became in and of itself an artefact, an object of collection that we can find in a number of ethnographic museums around the world.”

Final Thoughts

All in all, Performing Artifacts: Objects in Question offers a passage to discover Jaarsma’s complex yet witty works whereby the notions of image, materiality, and the body serve as important vehicles to understand each work’s multilayered and multi-temporal contexts.

Furthermore, the re-framing of history through a decolonial lens using costumes is also expressed by performances that take place during the exhibition, allowing the audience to grasp the narratives on a much more personal level.

Overall, it is a comprehensive exhibition that pinpoints Jaarsma’s unwavering journey of art-making and her dedicated interest in re-exploring colonial histories through costume-making.


Performing Artifacts: Objects in Question runs until 20 November 2022 at ROH Projects, in Jakarta, Indonesia. Click here to find out more.

Feature Image: Mella Jaarsma, I Owe You III (2017). Digital print on coconut shells, leather, and stainless steel. Courtesy of the artist and ROH.

A previous version of this article contained references to Jun Triadi being the Founder and Director of ROH Projects and the exhibition at Van Loon Museum being named London Histories. These references have since been removed.

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