Indonesia is an art scene often overlooked, historically buried in religious and political turmoil and overshadowed by India's emergence. Group shows or coherent surveys of artists from the world's most populous Muslim nation have been few and far between, so "Trans-Figurations", presenting 11 Yogyakarta-based contemporary artists at Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris, not only illuminates Indonesian art but elevates it beyond the expected, showing a seamless crossroads of traditional mythology, newly harnessed creative freedom, national unity and touches of global inspiration.
"What makes Yogyakarta special is the combination of intellectual and artistic aesthetics," says Heri Dono, a veteran of the capital's scene and, at age 51, something of an informal godfather to the exhibition, for which he presents a line-up of figures inspired by traditional wayang golek shadow puppets. The works bear a slight ressemblance to the Japanese manga cartoon "UFO Robot Grendizer," outfitted with little chest-transistors.
"From the outside, you only see Indonesian tradition, but inside, nothing is dictated by that," Dono told ARTINFO."The artists gain from exhibiting internationally, but keep the local issues and context - problems as basic as earthquakes and volcanos. The art, the culture and the people are all connected, art is never just for its own sake. Artists have become mediators."
Artistic freedom remains a recent blessing, with galleries, impromptu exhibition spaces and education options for creatives only blossoming since 1998, with fledgling democratization following decades of repression by General Suharto's military regime. Socio-political context has been a core — in 1992, Dono gathered gravediggers to dance in front of the Sultan's Jakarta palace in a brazen critique of the government. Still, "Trans-Figurations" is remarkably harmonious, showing artists who prefer larger questions of culture and tradition — in one instance, defusing and putting into context traditional myths of warfare bravery — to defining their post-authoritarian national identity.
Indonesia's artists have mostly remained clear of Western art movements and categorization, yet their work blends history and heritage — culled from across Indonesia's more than 13,000 islands — with smart international styles, from graffiti to arte povera. "There's philosophy in dance, which has been accompanied by graffiti and connected to architecture, litterature, music, and the wayang golek and batik textiles," says Dono, who uses a big cake as metaphor for the art world. "In modern art, if an artist invents a style, he takes it to his lawyer and no other artist can uses it. Every artists takes a slice of the cake, but a new cake is never made. In Indonesia, we don’t say that we discover, we say that we borrow. Nothing is ours. In contemporary art, we borrow everything that is already there and the fruit of this fusion becomes a new source of art and spirit. Art is like breathing together. It’s not just in some collection."
The different pieces of "Trans-Figurations" form a patchwork across very different themes and influences. One highlight of the exhibition is filmmaker Garin Nugroho's Gormley-like figure, suspended in a darkened room against videos exploring womanhood. Arie Dyanto portrays himself as a heavily tattooed, counter-culture gang boy in drawings reminiscent of Chicano tattoo art. Tintin Wulia tackles global questions of nation and identity with a landscape of colorful passports upon white pedestals, toppled into a disorderly pile in a performance to open the exhibition.
Bayu Widodo is a newcomer, still without gallery representation for his poetically psychological drawings channeling Jean-Michel Basquiat as much as Robert Crumb. Whether surfing, dancing or writhing in agony, the skeletal faces of Widodo's characters remain fixed in their sad stares; in the show, they come closest to referencing pain of the soul. "It's about life in the city and how you can get anything there," Widodo said of two large drawings, one showing a figure curled up in fetal position, with inner city highrises on his back, weighing him down. "I'm staying in Pantin (a Paris suburb) and everday I see many immigrants, Tunisian or Moroccan, in the parks. They seem confused and uncertain, they want to talk and find their identity. Jakarta is the same, the city is like a hope and a dream, but it depends how you use it. It can also be a city of nightmare."
Ariadhitya Pramuhendra leaves a church confession booth and pew blackened and burnt to cinders, a display that is oddly non-confrontational, even as discrimination against Catholics among the world's largest Muslim population remains. The relics are not real, but sculpted by the artists before the burning. Alongside the ashes hang charcoal paintings of the artist's younger sister, in a Jesus Christ pose, and Pramuhendra himself, in a priest's robe. He grew up in a Catholic family and insists his work is a critique of religion, but rather a reflection on hardships. "My family has been through some tough times, it's like we're living in the dark ages. It's like everyone is being crucified," says Pramuhendra of his statement that, if shown in his home country, will almost certainly resonate against church burnings by Muslim radicals and will be interpreted as more than a personal voice.
"Burning is not negative, to me," says the artist. "We burn the people who have died; it's purification to keep us aligned with nature and reset to zero. What if the church was also pure, free from politics and other burdens? The men of the church are only human."
Several artists on show have barely finished their education and only a handful are known on the Western gallery scene. Currently hyped are Eko Nugroho's colorful graphics on fabric and anonymous provocative figures, regulars at New York's Lombard-Freid Projects, where the artist is scheduled for a solo show in September. The show's artists were chosen the only way the curators could, in the absence of much documentation: with one artist recommending another, an organic process that permeates "Trans-Figurations." "Despite their history and the colonization, they have stayed very pure," says curator Hervé Mikaéloff, who along with Espace Culturel director Marie-Ange Moulonguet traveled to Indonesia for the discovery. "It seems there have been so many accidents of history in Indonesia that tradition and mythology have ingrained themselves into the generations. The cohabitation of the people is sometimes harmonious, sometimes not, but there is certainly a very strong identity. These artists have truly built this show with their guts."