Biennale Jogja shows Indonesian and Nigerian art as activism

Indonesia’s most important contemporary art event presents a host of stories in a post-colonial framework

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 6:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 4:46pm

From its beginnings in 1988, the Biennale Jogja in Yogyakarta has punched above its weight to become Indonesia’s most international contemporary art event. And for the past three editions, as well as showcasing a range of Indonesian visual artists, musicians, writers, speakers and community activities, the biennial has taken a sub-theme of linking Yogyakarta with a country that also skirts the equator: in this instance, Nigeria.

Nine Nigerian artists have spent a month residency in Yogyakarta this year, and a group of Indonesian artists will head to the west African country in 2016.

This equatorial connection gives the biennial special depth, allowing it to introduce other cultural stories, particularly within a post-colonial framework. The biennial will continue its relationship with other equatorial countries until 2021, with the next edition highlighting artists from the Pacific.

The Biennale Jogja’s intellectual tone is immediately established with an introductory display about Nigeria, taking a comparative approach pinpointing cultural, political and historic rhythms with Indonesia.

In 1998, both Indonesia and Nigeria were freed of dictatorial governments and entered a new era of freedom

In a library-styled room is an installation of tables, reading chairs and shelves holding a selection of books written by post-colonial contemporary Nigerian and Indonesian writers.

Hand-painted portraits of these writers line the walls and beneath each portrait is a quotation. Playwright, activist, political prisoner and Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, Wole Soyinka is quoted saying: “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”

The highly influential novelist and critic Chinua Achebe reminds visitors that “One of the true tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.”

A summary of both countries’ recent past is seen in Lagos writer and artist Victor Ehikhamenor’s The Wealth of Nations. His display of painted drums and a pool of oily (blood mimicking) water is powerful.

In 1998, both Indonesia and Nigeria were freed of dictatorial governments and entered a new era of freedom. Ehikhamenor uses oil and the oil drum as a metaphor, as both countries are oil producers whose production largely determines each country’s economic position on the world’s markets.

During the Nigerian Civil War or Biafran War (1967-70), it was the drum that political prisoners were tied to and executed. Ehikhamenor’s installation challenges us, as Soyinka requests, to be historically “critical”.

Art as activism also runs throughout the biennale.

Curated by the energetic artist and musician Wok the Rock, each piece of the displayed art contains an element of political commentary, environmental protest, historical reassessment, community participation or economic analysis. It is a fascinating, multilayered display and densely thought-provoking with a concentration on local Indonesian issues.

Biennale director Alia Swastika believes that the latest edition follows recent international trends: “Many of our artists have travelled overseas, have seen what artists are doing and been influenced themselves to do community and art projects highlighting social issues.”

However, while artists bring up and protest against sensitive issues in their works, change is often achieved by political and social activists who have a longer-term commitment to action. The biennial has a similar dilemma – a fascinating array of social issues is presented, but determined political lobbying is missing.

Indonesian artist and community activist Elia Nurvista says, “I am an artist, not a political activist.” But her elaborate collaboration with Fajar Riyanto and women of nearby villages to display Hunger, Inc – which includes a video and installation highlighting corruption in the distribution of rice to Indonesia’s poor – could have evolved into a stronger action for change.

The distributed rice is often “skimmed” beforehand and adulterated with bad-quality kernels or small stones to give bulk to rice bags.

Nurvista highlights this corruption, but as her video depicts, the poor themselves did demand improvements in supplied rice through media attention and direct protests.

After the resignation of former President Suharto in 1998 and the liberalisation of the country’s media, corruption and maladministration is not so easily tolerated. The real challenge is to unroll real change – visual artists depicting social issues could also strategise for that change.

Nurvista’s installation is joined by Nigerian artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi’s Created Just for You – a witty presentation of SMS messages and fast food packaging using romantic themes, but presented on printed paper mats usually seen atop fast food restaurant trays.

Nearby, Ndidi Dike’s large-scale photographs of Lagos street markets successfully link the colonial trading of Indonesian spices with the politics of present-day food commodification and consumption in both countries.

Questioning art itself, the Ace House Collective has set up an elaborate interactive installation at the entrance to the Biennale’s main pavilion, stating that “art becomes a tool for explaining and ‘cleansing’ many complex issues that society faces today … but art methods also need to be politically reviewed”.

So the Collective’s fictional National Committee for Art Purification detoxifies visitors coming to the biennial. After this “cleansing”, visitors are given a pair of cardboard “glasses” to view the exhibition.

Indonesia is slowly researching its recent history following Suharto’s coup against Sukarno that began in 1965. It was a different, challenging, violent time – and art, if not always able to influence real change, is at its critical best with its “blunt refusal to be compromised”.

This biennial, which ends on December 10, does that well.