Indonesian contemporary art is many things to many people.

Are Indonesian artists political, commercial, abstract, traditional, conservative, contemporary, provocative, local or global? Sydney-based researcher Adrian Vickers attempts to define contemporary Indonesian art in his Inside Indonesia article.

J. Ariadhitya Pramuhendra, 'Lost in New York', 2008, charcoal on canvas, 200 x 145 cm. Image courtesy Indonesia Contemporary.

J. Ariadhitya Pramuhendra, ‘Lost in New York’, 2008, charcoal on canvas, 200 x 145 cm. Image courtesy Indonesia Contemporary.

In the article “What is contemporary Indonesian art?” published in Inside Indonesia (112: April -June 2013), Sydney researcher Adrian Vickers breaks down Indonesia’s contemporary art trends into bite-size chunks.

Indonesian contemporary art is… changing.

Indonesian art of the twentieth century used to be political, but commercial factors are becoming increasingly important. During the repressive Suharto era (1965–1998), says Vickers, artists rebelled against the regime, creating satirical and ironic works.

The time under Suharto was explosive. Indonesia was vulnerable to instability and fragmentation, being a country of approximately 6,000 islands spread over a 3,500-mile archipelago with a population of 200 million people, which comprised 300 ethnic groups speaking 250 languages.  To his credit, states The New York Times, Suharto achieved stability and economic growth, but these gains were overshadowed by intense corruption, a repressive militaristic state, and “a convulsion of mass bloodletting.”

Despite the repression, many rebellious artists could be found working in a highly charged political and dangerous climate. Their anti-regime art should also be seen as following the modernist trajectory, where the avant-garde overthrows the art establishment, states Vickers.

In the 21st century, radical politics are not the only driving force for the country’s artists: religion, ethnic identity and economics are also helping to define today’s contemporary art scene.

Indonesian contemporary art is… abstract.

Vickers states that abstract art was quite mainstream during the latter part of the twentieth century, as seen in the Bandung school based around the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).  Abstract art was “promoted by the United States as part of the Cold War struggle against leftist realism, once a hallmark of Yogyakarta’s art school (now Institut Seni Indonesia, ISI).”

North America used abstract art and artists in a cultural Cold War as various news agencies have reported. Abstract expressionism was promoted to the world through its various American embassies to show that American artists had absolute freedom and creativity, and by extension, how the United States was a great cultural power, says arts and politics website, The Clyde Fitch Report. This led to abstract art gaining a firm hold in Indonesia.

The two artistic rival cities, Bandung and Yogyakarta, were notable for their abstract art. Although both worked with abstraction, the relative differences between the schools have today made Indonesia’s art scene vibrant, according to The Jakarta Globe:

Bandung art schools’ allegiance to formalism produces works that focus on forms, lines, shape, volume and color, … Art in Bandung,… is produced for art’s sake. While in schools in Yogyakarta, art explores ideology, politics and the social, grounded in a sense of realism.

Jumaldi Alfi 'Reborn', 2002, Mixed media on canvas, 140 x 120 cm. Image courtesy

Jumaldi Alfi, ‘Reborn’, 2002, mixed media on canvas, 140 x 120 cm. Image courtesy Indonesia Contemporary.

Indonesian contemporary art is… local.

Vickers goes on to explain that besides national art, anti-regime art and abstract expressionism, there is also regional art in locations such as Bali and Ubud, inspired by its local traditions. He claims Bali is the most famous for its localised art and its use of Wayang traditional painting, which was seen as modern in the 1930s but is now seen as tourist art.

Vickers also raises the issue of the difference between folk art and high art in the contemporary art scene. He claims West Javanese art could be labelled as touristy folk art, but it also plays an important role in the contemporary scene.

Indonesian traditional art includes performance, carving, weaving, batik, and the shadow puppets, which some claim as being ethnic art. Islamic imagery also plays a role in Indonesia’s art scene.

Nyoman Sani, 'Ladies in White', 2002, oil on canvas, 45 x 80 cm. Image courtesy

Nyoman Sani, ‘Ladies in White’, 2002, oil on canvas, 45 x 80 cm. Image courtesy


Indonesian contemporary art is… not just a man’s game.

In 1991, when British-born Mary Northmore, newly married to Indonesian painter Abdul Aziz and living in Bali, realised that the Indonesian art scene had no women in it she decided to establish the Seniwati Art Space, which showcases art by female artists.

Vickers points out that several women artists in Indonesia challenge male dominance of the arts. These female pioneers include Nyoman Sani, who runs Northmore’s Seniwati Art Collective, and ceramic artist Titirubi, who creates sculptures, installation, performance art, happenings, and paintings with themes of identity, gender, and colonialism.

I Nyoman Masriadi, 'Lidah Tak Bertulang', 2001, acrylic, 145 x 160 cm. Image courtesy

I Nyoman Masriadi, ‘Lidah Tak Bertulang’, 2001, acrylic, 145 x 160 cm. Image courtesy Indonesia Contemporary.

Indonesian contemporary art is… a private affair.

Lack of public institutions, collections and support is a large issue affecting artists in Indonesia, according to Vickers. With only a few art institutes, such as ITB (Bandung), ISI (Yogyakarta) and IKJ (Jakarta) focusing on training, artists need to seek financial support elsewhere.

Without a national art collection, it is up to the private collector to support Indonesia’s art. As a result, according to Vickers, many artworks disappear from view, only to be seen “reproduced in the expensive display books that private collectors sponsor.”

I Made Djirna, untitled, 2008, mixed media. Image courtesy

I Made Djirna, untitled, 2008, mixed media. Image courtesy

Indonesian contemporary art is… a sell-out?

Vickers states that due to lack of governmental support and the rise of private sponsorship, Indonesia’s contemporary art is becoming “highly-commercialised, where, with some notable exceptions, collectors act as a conservative force, steering the work of artists in the direction of paintings, particularly large and vibrantly coloured works.”

Many Indonesian artists have benefitted form this commercial upswing in the national art scene. The Telegraph notes that Nyoman Masriadi’s art is highly sought at auctions in Asia, and one of his paintings, valued at USD 13,000, sold for USD 130,000 in 2007.

Indonesian contemporary art is… going global.

Artist collective Punkasila is, says Vickers, an example of how artists producing local artisan work can easily catapult to the global stage of art biennials.

Punkasila at Cemeti Art, Sept. 2006. Image courtesy

Punkasila at Cemeti Art, September 2006. Image courtesy Darren Knight Gallery.

Punkasila’s founder, Australian Danius Kesminas frequently involves artisans, such as the painters of Jelekong, to create works for the group. The collective’s punk band includes members who studied at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta. Their hand-crafted mahogany guitars look like M-16s, AK-47s and other weapons while their outfits of hand-painted batik are also made to look like military camouflage fatigues.

Vickers concludes his article with:

In Punkasila, art is simultaneously localised and globalised […] projects such as Punkasila signal how easily artists move from village-based locales to international biennales and triennials. These movements are stimulated by the increasingly close collaborations between Indonesians and their Southeast Asian contemporaries. Indonesia’s contemporary art scene cannot be reduced to a single trend, but its current diversity reveals undiminished creativity.

Indonesian contemporary art is…. what do you think?

Did Adrian Vickers miss any key themes or trends? Let us know…

Susan Kendzulak


Related Topics: Indonesian artists, emerging artists, globalisation, overviewsabstract art, women power, local art, political, collectors

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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