Art Radar speaks with Sooji Kim, Co-founder of the WANITA: Women’s Art Network Indonesia to Australia. 

As Melbourne’s Footscray Community Arts Centre presents WANITA’s latest project, Sooji Kim shares her thoughts on the potential of women artists and the importance of creating a space for conversation.

Left to right: Sooji Kim with her Empat Lima band mates Carla Ori and Steph Brett. Image courtesy Sooji Kim.

Left to right: Sooji Kim with her Empat Lima band mates Carla Ori and Steph Brett. Image courtesy Sooji Kim.

In 2014, Australian-Korean artist Sooji Kim set out on a tour to Indonesia with her band Empat Lima. However, she wanted to do more than just perform around the country; she wanted to make the most of their time there by connecting with local artists. That’s when an idea struck her: she would form a network of women artists, WANITA: Women’s Art Network Indonesia to Australia.

After the tour, Sooji Kim brought the network back home, introducing WANITA to Australian audiences with a launch event on 29 March 2015 at Copacabana. They invited Indonesian band White Shoes and the Couples Company to perform with them and opened up the event for market stalls and a fashion show, as well as releasing a zine and mixed tape with Indonesian artists they’d met in 2014.

Sooji Kim with her Empat Lima band mates Carla Ori and Steph Brett. Image courtesy Sooji Kim.

Sooji Kim with her Empat Lima band mates Carla Ori and Steph Brett. Image courtesy Sooji Kim.

This month, the second WANITA event kicks off in Melbourne. Footscray Community Arts Centre will host the exhibition WANITA: Female Artivism – Jakarta (1 October – 8 November), a workshop and conversation curated by Indonesian collective ruangrupa, who helped run the WANITA workshops in 2014 in Jakarta.

The theme of the exhibition is ‘works by women’ and features 13 contemporary women artists from Jakarta: Nastasha Abigail, Diela Maharanie, Monica Hapsari, Nengiren, Ruth Marbun, Sanchia Hamidjaja, Aprilia Apsari, Sarita Ibnoe, Yaya Sung, Keke Tumbuan, Ayu Dila Martina, Ika Vantiani and Marishka Soekarna. The artwork ranges from music video clips and collages to zines, prints and illustrations.

Continuing the close collaboration with ruangrupa, WANITA invited three of the participating artists to Melbourne to run a workshop and discussion about their work and life as women artists in Jakarta. Marishka Soekarna, Ayu Dila Martina and Ika Vantiani are at the forefront of female DIY arts and crafts communities in Jakarta. Talking about their work in the Indonesian context in an interview on Footscray’s site, Marishka comments:

…public interest in fine arts in Jakarta has grown exponentially. This is evident in how many workshops and independent arts discussions have been open to the public, the growth of alternative spaces for exhibitions, opportunities for artists to take up residencies overseas and public education for fine arts, as delivered by the artistic communities themselves. Apart from public appreciation, many of the younger generation also seem to want to be involved with artistic communities.

Art Radar speaks with Sooji Kim about the WANITA network and how it all came to be.

Marishka Soekarma, ‘Housewifi’, 2015, Video looping. Image courtesy the artist.

Marishka Soekarma, ‘Housewifi’, 2015, video looping. Image courtesy the artist.

Could you explain how WANITA: Women Arts Network Indonesia to Australia came about and your motivations for co-founding the network?

It started because of our band Empat Lima that went on tour in Indonesia in mid-2014. We had this tour planned, and I guess I was wanting to find a way to engage with the local community as much as possible to make the most of the tour and to make the most of the opportunity to use the band as the vehicle. The group called WANITA then became a meeting ground for us to make contact with women in the community, mainly female artists. With the band as a vehicle and this extra component of having the WANITA network, we set up some workshops in five or six different cities with different women artists. It gave us the opportunity to meet people we would never usually meet.

Why did you choose Australia and Indonesia specifically for the network?

I had a personal interest in exploring Asia in general, having grown up in Australia, being second generation Australian and wanting to connect a bit more with Asian cultures. Korea not being that convenient or close by, I guess I just turned to the nearest neighbours. I had been to Indonesia before, so I had some familiarity already. I went over there to live to explore my ‘Asian-ness’ really, the sorts of values that were not being expressed here in this Western culture [in Australia].

Marishka Soekarma, ‘Self –portrait’, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 160 x  80 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Marishka Soekarma, ‘Self –portrait’, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 80 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Creating a space for women artists to communicate seems to be a fundamental aspect of the network, could you explain why creating this space is so necessary?

Within the last few years there’s been an escalation of expressions of racism, which seems to be more accepted. It started with the Indian students being targeted, and then the anti-Muslim sentiment that started to be more and more noticeable with public display. And it really concerned me and started to feel like a personal issue, something that I felt like I wanted to do something about within the communities that I could express it within…

I feel like if we develop more communication and connection with women in our neighbouring countries and we do it at a level where we can implement some sort of change, even though it seems like it’s in a very tiny way, I feel like there’s nothing negative about it – it has some potential to make a start. One of the reasons that I really wanted to connect with women, apart from always wanting to see more presence of women in the world generally, is because when I was living in Yogyakarta, there was a real lack of women that I was meeting on the streets, in the galleries… and I was just sick of talking to men all the time and the really blokey presence.

Nengiren, ‘...’, 2015, Hand embroidery on fabric, 26cm ( diameter ). Image courtesy the artist.

Nengiren, ‘…’, 2015, hand embroidery on fabric, 26 cm diameter. Image courtesy the artist.

The women that I met were so interesting and so strong and internally confident and grounded and I wanted to meet more of them; I was really curious. I’m not particularly a feminist, but at the same time I do think that women have so much to offer the world in terms of balancing varying sentiments in different communities.

What inspired me to make the WANITA project was that I did see a lot of female artists in Jakarta who were expressing their presence, expressing themselves mostly online and in groups, and I saw this sense of power and excitement and real community that was being created through the arts. And to me, considering all the other areas in which women seemed to be stepping back from the limelight and not as available, the arts seemed to be one area where they were really starting to shine and gather a lot of momentum. That was quite exciting and I wanted to see more of that.

Ika Vantiani. Image courtesy the artist.

Ika Vantiani. Image courtesy the artist.

WANITA is a network for visual artists, performing artists and musicians. What was the reason for working with artists from different disciplines?

I wanted it to access as many people as possible, for it to be as broad a community as possible. I didn’t want to exclude anyone. Also in Indonesia so many of the artists use different things. It’s probably a matter of pragmatism as much as anything else, in terms of the fact that they probably have to juggle a lot of pies in order to make a living. But also there’s so much adaptability and flexibility from what I noticed of Indonesian culture, so I guess that is expressed through the variety of media they work with.

FCAC Riverside Lawn, Wominjeka Festival, 2012. Image courtesy Maribyrnong City Council.

FCAC Riverside Lawn, Wominjeka Festival, 2012. Image courtesy Maribyrnong City Council.

How do you promote the network and get people interested in it as a network that’s useful for them?

It’s generally tricky to get people to make that first engagement, even just that physical thing of getting on the computer and joining up. It’s quite hard for people to do that. Having these events is something that will feed the ongoing presence and let people know about the opportunity for the network. In terms of Indonesia, it’s all about getting the word out on the ground. So being there actually in the country and continuing to do events and workshops and also spreading the word through people that we are already in touch with and getting them to tell the word to their friends, that’s the best way. My job is just to let people know about it. It’s something that I wanted to create so that it exists should people need it.

Because of the way that people seem to operate in Indonesia, you don’t have that more personal connection, they can be quite shy in reaching out. So I feel that the network is putting a friendly face on an online platform. It’s something where you already have an initial point of introduction. It’s not like people don’t know each other, we do, we’re all artists, we’re all women working within the same community. So hopefully it makes it easier for people to get in there and join.

Marishka Soekarma, ‘Genit Bersama’, 2015, fabric prints, 90 x 130 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Marishka Soekarma, ‘Genit Bersama’, 2015, fabric prints, 90 x 130 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

What do you hope to achieve with the network in the future?

Ultimately, I’d be really happy if I start to see people expressing some curiosity. Even perhaps having online collaborations, or even perhaps starting relationships, talking and meeting each other overseas and putting on exhibitions or events. It’s so possible in Indonesia, that’s why it’s quite exciting as well. You can do anything just by reaching out to people. Stuff happens there all the time and without so much of all of the background effort and bureaucracies that are necessary here [in Australia]. So it’s a really exciting place to make things happen. Also I think it’s a good vehicle to reach out to other countries, other Asian countries and expand this female artist network… and having a point of contact within the arts community when you go to those countries.

Claire Wilson


Related topics: Indonesian artists, Australian artists, gallery shows, interviews with artists, lectures and talks, video art, printmaking, feminist art, events in Melbourne

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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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