Photo & Text: Stefano Romano
“Talking about Contemporary Art in Indonesia with Naima Morelli and her book”
1 – Introduce yourself to our readers
My name is Naima Morelli and I am an arts writer and curator with a particular interest in contemporary art from the Asia-Pacific region and intercultural art. As a journalist, I regularly contribute to ArtsHub, Middle East Monitor, Art a Part of Cult(ure), Global Comment and The Times of Malta. Through my writing and curatorial practice I tell stories around and about contemporary art, trying to bridge gaps in knowledge for a better understanding. My aim is to create meaningful connections between east and west, north and south – always focusing of the interestingness and beauty in people’s lives.
2 – Tell us what inspired the idea for the book. When and why a book on Indonesian Contemporary Art?
I first encountered Indonesian contemporary art thanks to a show at Macro Testaccio, Rome, in 2012, called “Beyond the East”, curated by Dominique Lora. The show featured all the leading Indonesian artists, and sparked a deep curiosity in me. I guess the show just came at the right time for me. It matched my natural interest for Asian cultures with my need for meaning in the ephemeral contemporary art world. I had already been an arts writer since 2008, but at the time, hopping from a pointless vernissage to another, I was quite cynical towards contemporary art. My writing was consequentially starkly ironic. But that show gave me a glimpse of a different reality, a world where art meant something different to what I had experienced so far. Few weeks later I proposed a reportage on contemporary art in Indonesia to my editor at Art a Part of Cult(ure). Next thing I knew, I was on a plane. When I got back to Italy after two months of research and interviews, I was totally passionate with what I had found. I figured a reportage won’t be enough to explain what contemporary art in Indonesia was. What was really useful for an uninformed reader, would be an introductory book explaining the nitty-gritty of the development of contemporary art in Indonesia and its cultural significance. That’s how it all started.
3 – Can you define the main trends in Indonesian Art? Styles that enclose specific artists, as say, Surrealism, Cubism, Land Art in the West? If so, what are they?
Nowadays in contemporary art is really hard to talk about coherent styles or artistic currents the way we did in the past centuries. So much so in a country like Indonesia which arrives to contemporary art with a radical different perspective compared to Western countries. The West have experienced modernism and created the art history narrative as we study it. Said that, we can still indentify some trends in Indonesian art. Because of a strong influence of the market, painting is really big at the moment. Several artists draw from street art and cartoons, which are a great influence for the new generation – but also for older artists like Heri Dono and Eddie Hara. At the same time there are many other artists working with installation, new media such as video art – Krisna Murti has been the pioneer for that – and a few performers. Many older artists complain that the younger generation is not as militant as the older one. However I see a lot of work who address important issues in society, perhaps in a subtler and more personal way compared to the senior artists.
4 – The first critical point we come across in your book is about the risks of the exotic, related to Indonesian Art. You quote artist Nindityo Adipurnomo: “They try to evaluate what is Indonesian, so they’re looking for something exotic” referring to the approach of certain curators. Tell us about this risk and how you see it.
Exoticism is an endlessly fascinating topic and an ongoing subject of exploration for me. On one hand exoticism is a necessary tool for curiosity. It has something of the infatuation in a way. When you fall in love with someone, you project your fantasies on them – which of course have nothing to do with the actual person and everything to with those damn adventures of Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee in Madripoor – which totally screwed up your brain as a teenager. Anyway, that confused exotic approach is necessary in order to take the next step to get closer to your subject and learn. Exoticism becomes dangerous when it’s taken at face value. When it is not the starting point for further explorations, but becomes a stereotype to pigeonhole people and cultures. Not surprisingly many Indonesian artists and artists with a non-western background play a lot around this concept. They reverse roles, make fun of stereotypes and show potential dangers connected them.
5 – In another passage of the book you say: “In Indonesia as soon as you leave the big cities, tradition is more alive and it merges with the contemporary practice”. Also I have noticed that a big city like Jakarta everything is driven by progress, erasing the historical characteristic features (I think of the elimination of many kampung to build modern and anonymous residences), while the small provincial towns still have a strong bond with traditions. Does this also applies to the art in your opinion?
I think in contemporary art future and tradition coexist. Indonesian artists acknowledge the importance of their heritage and traditional culture, while also interrogating themselves about their role in the modern world. It has been like that since the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru, which is considered the first contemporary art movement in Indonesia. How to enter the global world while preserving a peculiar identity has always been a motivating challenge for Indonesian artists. Then if you want to talk about progress, I guess the concept itself is up for debate. If we conceive progress to be abreast with global developments in science, ideas and culture, definitely Indonesian artists are at the forefront of it. In terms of government support though, contemporary art is ignored and what it is promoted as image of Indonesia abroad are the traditions. So it’s quite the opposite direction compared to urbanism.
6 – When we talk about Indonesian Art, Yogyakarta is always mentioned. What are the most active cultural centers in Indonesia and, in your opinion, why Yogyakarta is one of the Indonesian cultural artistic engines?
As you pointed out before, we have to acknowledge that there is a huge gap between the urban centres versus the small towns, and that’s also valid for the conception of art. What we now call contemporary art is mostly concentrated in the urban areas of Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bandung and Bali. In the rest of Indonesia and in smaller towns, art is mostly tied to traditions and craft. Yogyakarta has always been one of the centers for visual arts, along with Bandung. Historically Bandung was considered the city where the conceptual, western-influenced art was coming from. That was due to the teachings at the Institute of Technology. On the other hand Yogyakarta, already a stronghold for the independence of Indonesia, was considered the militant one, where all the social art was coming from. Today that this dichotomy doesn’t exist anymore, but the central role of the community is still what Yogya is all about. The city attracts art students from all over the country, has a number of international artist residencies, and thrives with independent initiatives.
7 – An important topic treated from you is the theme of censorship in art in Indonesia. How artists get around this strict control?
Censorship has changed throughout the years. During Suharto times, it wasn’t possible to express dissent. Even if artists were bombarded by stimuli from the newly opened country – in form of advertising, tv, radio and so on, they couldn’t express themselves freely. Harmless paintings to hang in hotels what everything that was allowed. But slowly artists started expressing dissent. In order to not being arrested, they had to be very subtle in their provocations – disguising rebellious stances in their installations. That made certainly the art more interesting and deep, and perhaps most importantly saved artists’ skin. Today artists are free to express dissent. Censorship has become a tool leveraged by religious extremists groups at their convenience to gain support from the masses.
8 – Another important issue is the corruption of the traditions, investigated by the artist Krisna Murti, who also wrote the foreword to your book. It’s undeniable the profound link between tradition and innovation in art: which are the artists that have struck you more working on the theme of “tradition”?
Krisna Murti is definitely a perfect paradigm of how tradition and innovation dialogue with each other. His work is a continuous experimenting of multiple levels. On a conceptual level, tackling traditions and their meaning in the modern world. On a visual level, experimenting with the body through his collaborations with performers and dancers who take part in his video, interacting with different contexts. And finally on a technological level, playing around the exhibiting space in a number of way, challenging the limits of the video and the spectator. This modus operandi is also shared by other artists and is what solicited global interest towards Indonesian artists.
9 – What was the role of Sukarno and Suharto in the evolution of art in Indonesia?
The attitude of these two political leaders was of course very different, and not just in the cultural realm. At the same time, they equally contributed to shape the art scene, for better or worse. Sukarno was a great patron for the arts and a collector. He believed that art was fundamental for building a collective national identity for the newborn nation and he was supporting it. Suharto had a completely different policy. As I mentioned earlier, under his dictatorship the only kind of art that was allowed was purely decorative, whereas militant artists were incarcerated and hampered. But history has shown that art resists everything, and that the most difficult moments are sometimes are also the most creative. This was certainly the case in Indonesia, and its tormented recent history, across colonialism, independence, dictatorship and reformism gave artists plenty of issues to deal with. In Indonesia and South East Asia in general, contemporary art and the socio-political realm has been gone hand in hand. That makes art the perfect way to explore the history of the nation – and for Indonesian it makes art a necessary tool investigate and rediscuss the recent past.
10 – To wrap up, who are the emerging artists to keep an eye on, in your opinion, and what are the peculiar themes presented in Indonesian art that might be of interest for an Italian public?
As young artists I would keep an eye, the first coming to mind is Eddy Susanto. A recipient of the Bandung International Arts Award, he currently has an exhibition at the National Gallery in Jakarta. His work is all about the connections between east and west. Then all the artists part of the collective Punkasila are great, with that punk rock attitude of theirs. Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett are doing interesting work, dealing in a playful way with the cities they are visiting. I also really like the surreal work of Dita Gambiro and the reflections on the body by Erika Ernawan. One of my all-time favourite is Aditya Novali – his investigation ranges to a variety of topics, from the art language to the Indonesian identity. Formally and conceptually his work is endlessly interesting. These are a just a few off the top of my head, but there is so much talent available! As for the themes that could interest an Italian public, I think the recent history of Indonesia is extremely compelling. As movies like “The Act of Killing” by Joshua Oppenheimer show, peculiar tragic events in Indonesian history spur everyone to ask questions on morality and responsibility. The thing with art is that it starts from a specificity. This is the one of the artist as an individual and of the country and society he lives in. But ultimately, it draws the viewer in by appealing at emotions and questions shared by whole humanity.