Art Indonesia

27 Dec Indonesian Contemporary art is……

Are Indonesian artists political, commercial, abstract, traditional, conservative, contemporary, provocative, local or global?

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), artists rebelled against the regime, creating satirical and ironic works.

The time under Suharto was explosive. Indonesia was vulnerable to instability and fragmentation. To his credit, states The New York Times, Suharto achieved stability and economic growth, but these gains were overshadowed by intense corruption and a repressive militaristic state,

Contemporary art is… abstract.

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. 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.

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.


Contemporary art is… local.

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. Bali is the most famous for its localized art and its use of Wayang traditional painting, which was seen as modern in the 1930s but is now seen as tourist art.

The difference between folk art and high art in the contemporary art scene could be labeled 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

Contemporary art is… not a man’s game.

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

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.

Contemporary art is… a private affair.

Lack of public institutions, collections and support is a large issue affecting artists in Indonesia. 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, many artworks disappear from view, only to be seen “reproduced in the expensive display books that private collectors sponsor.”


Contemporary art is… a sell-out?

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 benefited 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.

Contemporary art is… going global.

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

Punkasila’s founder, Australian Danius Kesminas frequently involves artisans, such as the painters of Jelekong, to create works for the group. The collectives 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.

In Punkasila, art is simultaneously localized 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.

By Adrian Vickers