Art can change the mindset of society: Indonesian curator Alia Swastika – interview

Indonesian curator Alia Swastika was recently celebrated by Apollo International Art Magazine as a young arts professional to watch.

Art Radar had a chat with her about her career and the arts scene in Indonesia.

Exhibition View of TANAH AIR by Setu Legi, Ark Galerie, 2015, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

Exhibition View of “TANAH AIR” by Setu Legi, Ark Galerie, 2015, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

Alia Swastika has worn many hats, working as a curator, project manager and writer. Her work has been widely recognised and she has been invited to collaborate on many international exhibitions. She was co-curator of the Jogja Biennale XI in 2011 with Suman Gopinath and the Director of the Jogja Biennale 2015, she was one of the co-artistic directors for the Gwangju Biennale IX in 2012 and she was the curator of the special exhibition of Indonesian artists in the 2012 edition of Art Dubai. Throughout her varied career, Swastika has worked with many Indonesian artists and has often collaborated with Tintin Wulia, an Indonesian artist based in Australia, and with Jompet Kuswidananto, Agung Kurniawan and Melati Suryodarmo, to name just a few.

"MELUPA", Ugo Untoro Solo Exhibition, Ark Galerie, 2013, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

“MELUPA”, Ugo Untoro Solo Exhibition, Ark Galerie, 2013, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

Currently Swastika is the Programme Director for Ark Galerie in Yogyakarta, a position she has held since 2008. She has recently founded Study on Art Practices (SOAP), a platform for research on Indonesian contemporary art. In an interview with Apollo she explained that there was not a strong academic context to critically discuss and research art in Indonesia. The SOAP platform would encourage longer articles as well as contributions from a number of areas including from architects, urban planning experts, sociologists and philosophers. She comments that “it’s more like a cultural studies approach, but focusing on what’s happening in the art world.”

Art Radar had a chat with Alia Swastika about her diverse career as well as her views on the art context in Indonesia.

Bara Nyala Mama Mama, solo exhibition by Moelyono, Ark Galerie, 2016, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

“Bara Nyala Mama Mama”, solo exhibition by Moelyono, Ark Galerie, 2016, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

How did you first become interested in working in the arts? 

I spent my childhood watching traditional performances, reading literature, and when I was a teenager my school was just in front of the most famous art spaces in Yogyakarta. So yes, I felt already I had fallen in love with arts. Somehow, without realising how to articulate the feeling of joy, I could tell art manifested my idea of a life during my youth. Then I volunteered in some art events and decided to work at Cemeti Art House after I graduated from university. And from there I started to catch up on ideas on curatorial works and practices.

Can you explain a bit about how your career developed? 

As I mentioned, I knew already I wanted to work in art when I was student in university, so I tried to learn the scene and figure out how I could fit in the scene. I did not realise in the beginning how curators played an important role in the recent development of contemporary art. I learned from scratch how to organise exhibitions, develop ideas with artists, form the direction of a space, distributing discourses, and others. So mostly I learned from my seniors, from artists, and fellow curators during that period. I think it was in 2006, when I told myself, yes, I want to pursue this path, working as a curator.

EV Outside Inside the Skin Beyond Masculinity, Ark Galerie, 2016, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

“EV Outside Inside the Skin Beyond Masculinity”, Ark Galerie, 2016, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

Has the professionalisation of the arts changed in Indonesia? Has the infrastructure improved? 

I don’t think the words professionalism and also infrastructure can be translated in the same meaning as we refer to in the western art system. It is a totally different way of thinking and doing things. In a way, there is new sense of professionalism that is represented by the growing number of art institutions in Indonesia, particularly in cities like Yogyakarta, Bandung or Jakarta. There are bigger events organised regularly, but the spirit is still based on idea of communality and collective. So this is very different from the western world.

The institutions grow in a more organic way, responding to the shifting of cultural contexts and dynamics in the community themselves, including also the way they fund themselves, or how they create programmes and curatorial frameworks. Recently, the government has started to pay attention to the arts and cultural sector, but their movements cannot provide an ideal platform due to the complexity of bureaucracy, and therefore most of the main events are still supported and organised by the community themselves.

Exhibition View, The Wall Structure Construction Border Memory, Ark Galerie, March 2014, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

Exhibition View, “The Wall Structure Construction Border Memory”, Ark Galerie, March 2014, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

You have been involved in a number of biennales, including Jogja Biennale. With so many biennales across the globe, what role do you think they have to play in the contemporary art scene?

I think there is no general formula for biennale’s roles that can be applied in the whole universe. Some of the biennales respond to very specific needs of the region, or are raised from a very political ideology as their standpoint. While some others come up as part of the branding strategy of local governments in using the cultural sector to gain more support from locals, rather than to create a biennale as a platform form critical ideas. While some specific cultural contexts bring up the historical background to relate the event with local collective identity, some tend to just put big ideas of international exhibitions without really putting efforts in bridging cosmopolitan art practices with the local. I think what happens in Yogyakarta, the biennale seems to represent the idea of institutionalisation, so in a way, it is a platform for creating common ideas, of discussing our very own situation and to write our own history. It is not so much about the aesthetic or achievement in the art world, it is more a political position and to understand the history [of Yogyakarta].

Jompet Kuswidananto solo exhibition, "Order and After", Ark Galerie, December 2013, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

Jompet Kuswidananto solo exhibition, “Order and After”, Ark Galerie, December 2013, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

Has your curatorial approach changed over the years? Are there themes or threads you find yourself returning to? 

I think I don’t really have a particular approach or styles that I always apply or become my signature. Ark Galerie, and also the biennale, I guess become the living archive of my ideas and how I believe art could change the mindset of society. I always believe in this role of art, whether in a direct or indirect way, and I think that is the most basic foundation for my curatorial thinking. I also think the curatorial is a practice of sharing so for me, it is really about provoking ideas, debates and possibilities.

Through your work on the platform Study on Art Practices (SOAP, an organisation that encourages research on Indonesian contemporary art and that connects with younger generations who want to write), do you see yourself as a mentor for a younger generation?

I don’t think that I am doing mentoring work. I also learn a lot with my encounters with younger generations since they always propose you something different, and fresh. It is not that mentoring means that you have more knowledge that you want to distribute to young people, instead, I just create a platform where they can develop it as they want, according to their own needs and interests.

"Lost and Found" exhibition, K Space, Seoul, Korea, 2013, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

“Lost and Found” exhibition, K Space, Seoul, Korea, 2013, curated by Alia Swastika. Image courtesy Ark Galerie.

What’s the favourite part of your work?

Visiting artists’ studios.

How has Indonesia’s art scene changed in the past ten years? 

I think as I mentioned before, there are growing numbers of art institutions, events and other support systems in the art world. There are some research centres, discussion clubs, alternative schools, and others, and those become important agencies that support all the different practices in the art world. I think the raising of this awareness, of building our own system that is relevant to our own situation based on our unique resources and experiences, are most valuable achievements in the last decade. I found it very organic, but at the same time humbling and encouraging, and also challenging.

Can you describe some of your upcoming projects? 

Since last year, I wanted to reduce my activities so I can focus on developing Ark Galerie’s programmes, and to write more and doing research inside SOAP.

Claire Wilson

1510

Related topics: Indonesian artists, Indonesian art, interviews, curators, news, Southeast Asian artists

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