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Infusions Into Contemporary Art: Unravelling the world with Indonesian Women Artists
Lee Wan, Venice Biennale
The sun shone brightly on the white facades of the colonial building now known as the National Gallery of Indonesia, which has hosted some of the country's most prominent artworks, exhibitions, and cultural activities since 1999. Formerly a Dutch East Indies educational complex, today, two of its main structures (Buildings A and B) host 10 established women artists in an exhibition entitled Indonesian Women Artists #3: Infusions Into Contemporary Art. Lining up with a number of visitors to get our online bookings verified, I was eager to finally see a National Gallery show since its reopening in February 2022.

My excitement was fortified by the fact that the exhibition features not only artists whose works I have encountered in past local and international exhibitions — such as Arahmaiani, Dolorosa Sinaga, Melati Suryodarmo, Mella Jaarsma, Sri Astari Rasyid, and Titarubi — but also artists whose creations I have not had the chance to cross paths with before, namely Bibiana Lee, Dyan Anggraini, Indah Arsyad, and Nunung W.S..

Reading into the title, the word "infusion" seems to fit the artist selection perfectly, as these women, who were born between 1948–1969, have undoubtedly brought fresh outlooks to the contemporary Indonesian art scene with their active, often provocative artistic endeavours.

The featured artworks strongly reflect this curatorial premise, as they do not seek to represent these artists' womanhood. Instead, the works unveil the artists' criticisms of global issues — be it historical, political, or environmental — which affect them and their local and international communities. In fact, visiting the show felt like a journey through the multiple realities that make up our present world.

Transdisciplinary approaches Each zone is dedicated to one artist and evokes unique aspects of their practice, be it their intelligent commentary and transdisciplinary approaches. One of the first works to welcome visitors, A Taste of Behind (2018) sees Jaarsma hand-stitch 'clothes' using natural materials such as barkcloth and bamboo to explore human behaviours and social conditioning. These clothes alter the natural shape of the body, and play with the perceptions of which body parts should be covered to challenge beauty standards. On this, she states, "I seek to start a new trend by displaying a part of the human body that is still typically covered: the butt."
In another corner, traces of Suryodarmo's 5-hour long durational live performance Amnesia (2022) leaves an uncanny feeling. First performed in the largest-ever exhibition of Southeast Asian contemporary art to be held in Japan, the artist imagines entering a room of the past, followed by sewing, counting, and marking, as a recollection of fragmented memories, past events and histories that define our identities.

Examining gender and community While some of these women artists have notably contributed to the discourse surrounding gender, I appreciate how the exhibition chooses to emphasise how they engage with and seize our attention towards today's conditions, rather than any feminist perspective.

For example, Arahmaiani, who is considered one of the early pioneers of performance art in Southeast Asia, was first recognised for her advocacy for gender equality. However, over time her works extended beyond feminist discourse. Displayed in this exhibition is one of her early paintings Lingga-Yoni (1994), which suggests the balance between two equal forces to achieve peace and wisdom through two forms that represent the male and female genitalia.
Here, the artist places the feminine symbol Yoni on top of the masculine symbol Lingga to challenge the standard representation of these symbols in Hindu and Javanese cultures, whereby the Yoni is always below placed Lingga, serving as a support. The architecture of Hindu temples largely reflects these depictions of Lingga and Yoni, which has encouraged the artist to visit different sacred sites in Java for research.

One of the temples, Candi Sukuh, took her by surprise, as the structures of Lingga and Yoni were placed next to each other by the main gate. This meant that whichever symbol you saw first depended on whether you entered or exited the temple, allowing of different perspectives.

As the artist concluded,

"The work isn't about suggesting the position of one gender above the other. As inspired by my experience at Candi Sukuh, I meant to open up our perspectives regarding how we see gender, and take us back to the principle of balance."

This is also reflected by the Arabic and Sanskrit characters that equally fill up the painting.

Brought up with a syncretic culture in Java, Arahmaiani grew up exposed to cultural and religious diversity. This principle became the root of her following works, including the ongoing Flag Project. The series elevates community-based practice into a powerful tool to advocate for peace, amidst a world filled with opposing forces. Through this project, she has worked with different communities around the world to spark discussions and facilitate impactful activities responding to global warming, such as recycling and developing water systems.

She also created a series of flags as an aesthetic expression, as well as an instrument to unite different individuals in the community together. In the project's Nusantara Series, words from various Indonesian dialects – that mean "love," "justice," "wisdom," "earth," just to name a few – are stitched onto colourful, large-scale flags, addressing the values we need today. Suspended one after another, the installation leads visitors to watch a documentary of one of several performances she had conducted using these flags — particularly one that took place in Tibet.

What I appreciate the most from this exhibition is a curatorial perspective that situates each artist individually, without attempting to stitch their works together in a specific narrative; giving room for plurality rather than narrowing it to a common vision.

To me, this lays bare each artist's viewpoint for audiences to see and makes us aware of their voices. This show proves how these artists persevered in their practices, unfettered by the lack of representation, dialogue and scholarship on women artists in Indonesian art history. Regardless of the patriarchal social structures both in our society and within the art world itself, these artists remain unwavering in their journey of research and art-making to challenge our views and systems.

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