Indonesian contemporary art in Italy: A “faraway world” brought closer to Rome


The West has a current craving for what is coming out of the Indonesian creative community, and the Italian art world is no exception, with an exhibition at the MACRO in Rome signaling a significant European breakthrough for artists from the world’s largest archipelago.

Budi Kustarto, flying with calixte dakpogan, 2009, oil on canvas

Budi Kustarto, 'Flying with calixte dakpogan', 2009, oil on canvas.

2011: the year Indonesian art shone

Last year, 2011, was a stand-out year for Indonesian contemporary art. Work from the country shone in the Christie’s Hong Kong autumn sales amidst a soberer Asian art performance, and it reportedly accounts for about 68 percent of Christie’s and Sotheby’s turnover. Indonesian artists also filled the walls and floors of exhibition spaces at art institutions and commercial galleries across the world: in Australia, Melbourne gallery MiFA showcased, in March 2011, the survey “Closing the Gap” in an effort to bring the neighbouring countries and cultures closer together; in June 2011, a major survey called “Trans-Figurations” opened at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris, France; in September 2011, “Indonesian Eye: Fantasies and Realities”, was the first large-scale presentation of Indonesian contemporary art in the UK, bringing artists and their work from Ciputra Artpreneur Center in Jakarta to the prestigious Saatchi Gallery in London.

Faraway world brought closer

In the Italian art world to date, a reference to “Asian art” has mostly meant contemporary art from China and India. Recently, on the back of international recognition for contemporary art from Southeast Asia, Italian curators are becoming interested in a wider geographical definition. Primo Marella Gallery in Milan exhibited, in February 2011, “The Alleys of a City Named Jogja”, a show entirely dedicated to work from Jogja’s effervescent art community and the first of exhibition of its kind to be held in Italy. The month of May 2011 saw the Jakarta-based video collective, ruangrupa, arrive in the town of Fabriano for a show and the Gervasuti Foundation in Venice invited 
artist Jompet Kuswidananto to hold a solo exhibition during the 54th Venice Biennale.

In Rome, at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma (MACRO), a contemporary art museum located in a reformed abattoir in a young and up-and-coming neighborhood of Testaccio, the survey exhibition “Beyond The East” attempts to take Italian audiences beyond those limiting definitions of what makes art “Asian”, as Italian curator and art historian Dominique Lora, who put the show together, explains:

“Beyond the East” represents, for me, the urgent need to redefine the way in which we interpret the idea of ‘Asia’ by applying logics that are alien to the comprehension and translation of those worlds. Of course, the same process must be applied on the other side. The definitions of ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’ are truthfully obsolete…

“Beyond the East” includes works by fifteen established and emerging artists from different parts of the Indonesian archipelago, including Bandung, Yoyacarta, Jakarta and Bali. The artists exhibiting at MACRO are Agus SuwageFX Harsono, Yuli Prayitno, Melati Suryodarmo, Mella Jaarsma, Heri Dono, Made Wianta, Eko Nugroho, Entang Wiharso, Ugo Untoro, Titarubi, Astari Rasyid, Arya Pandjalu, S. Teddy Darmawan and Budi Kustarto.

 S. Teddy Darmawan, Seeds Of Violence, 2011, Installation, Aluminium

S. Teddy Darmawan, 'Seeds Of Violence', 2011, installation: aluminium.

According to Dominique Lora, the show took shape during four years of cultural exchange between Europe and Bali and Java in Indonesia. “Since 2008, I have collaborated with Susanna Perini, owner of the gallery Biasa Artspace in Seminyak, Bali,” she explains. “Together, we came up with a long-term project aimed at creating a cultural bridge between Indonesian and Italian visual culture.”

Initially, Professor Achille Bonito Oliva was invited to Indonesia by Lora to curate an exhibition of work by Italian artist Matteo Basilé, who lives and works in Bali and Rome. He was invited again in 2009 to present a retrospective of great European masters of the twentieth century in Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta. Meanwhile, back in Italy, Lora curated a number of small shows, including exhibitions of work by Untoro, Kustarto and Dono, in conjunction with art fairs in Rome and Bologna, all taking place between 2009 and 2010.

Shortly after, Lora was commissioned by MACRO to put together a series of exhibitions of work by Asian artists, and “Beyond the East” was born. “The Ciputra Artpreneurship Center sponsored the exhibition from Indonesia and Biasa Artspace contributed extensively to the production and organisation of the exhibition in Italy,” she says of the funding sources for the show.

Astari Rasyid, "very Wall", 2011, Installation, mixed media

Astari Rasyid, 'Very Wall', 2011, installation: mixed media.

Indonesian artists as shamans

From Astari Rasyid’s 2011 installation Very Wall, which consists of a mannequin dressed in a traditional Indonesian attire and carrying a handbag with the word “CHANGE” printed on it, to Agus Swage’s Pop art-like painting entitled Yin Yang (2003), two headless figures, one black and one white, that are mechanically driven to dispute over the possession of a single head, to F.X.Harsono’s emotional The Bone Cemetery Monument (2011), a seemingly minimalist funerary monument created in memory of Chinese citizens persecuted in Indonesia, the artworks at MACRO blend contemporary aesthetics and social concerns with references to Indonesian visual culture and tradition. “Instead of only documenting the horrors of the past or, on the contrary, celebrating them”, explains Lora, “these artists become less political and more social.” She continues,

All the artists presented in the show deal with issues that relate to their individual experience of social transformation and political change. Melati [Suryodarmo] represented in dusk her idea of ‘exoticism’, clearly responding to the way in which the Western word defines such a term. [Entang] Wiharso … recalls Western iconographies such Yeronimus Bosh, Goya and certain aspect of Futurism, but his style and language remain peculiar to his background. … “Beyond the East” is a visual discourse in which each artist embodies a traditional healer, a shaman who is responsible for handing down social customs, religious traditions and visual alphabets.

“Indie generation”

Now an increasingly affluent republic with 32 years of autocratic rule under Suharto now behind it, Indonesia continues to be troubled by right-wing fundamentalism. Artists are faced with the challenges of abiding to censorship laws enforced by conservative Muslim parties, such as the anti-pornography bill passed in 2008, which prohibits the display of depictions of nudity in public places. Exhibiting abroad offers Indonesian artists the opportunity to circumvent this censorship. Most of the artists on show at MACRO belong to the post-Suharto generation, to which the curator refers to as the “indie generation”, “those artists who started to open up to the world, using visual art and gestures to communicate their need to be part of a bigger world.” This idea fed directly into her artwork selection for the show. “I chose works that would [create] a ‘memory theater’, a site and a laboratory where Indonesian artists could freely express their disagreements and aspirations.”

FX Harsono, 'Monumen bong belong (The Bone Cemetary Monument)', 2011, installation: mixed media and multiplex wood.

FX Harsono, 'Monumen bong belong (The Bone Cemetary Monument)', 2011, installation: mixed media and multiplex wood.

How did the public respond?

“Beyond the East” is close to closing, it officially wraps up on 15 January 2012, and so far the show has been well received by the public and local and international press. As Dominique Lora states, “The … response … was truly unexpected. … As far as I am concerned, the exhibition challenged and simultaneously developed a specific narrative that has somehow shaken prejudicial ideas over that faraway world….”


Related Topics: Indonesian contemporary artists, museum shows, Italian art happeningscurators

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