Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Karya-Karya Arahmaiani

Last night I attended a talk by Bandung-born artist Arahamaiani at Bentara Budaya, a small gallery attached to the Yogyakarta branch of the Kompas newspaper office. There were perhaps 50 people in attendance in all - including someone I knew via London's Kalimantan Creations - and the question-and-answer session was lively and well-informed. I had met Mbak Yani, as she is called here, at the PSi conference in Singapore (she gets around) and was looking forward to hearing more about her work.

Yani handed out a text she wrote outlining the political philosophy behind her work and spoke (also using a prepared text) about 3 projects that have been occupying her in recent years.

The first are a series of graphic images using familiar American cartoon figures like Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse for political humour. One image, for example, shows Mickey Mouse falling from a Wall Street skyscraper in an attempt to grasp a box with a $ on it.

A second project is a series of community-based performances called bendera (flag) in which key words (kata kunci) of significance to local communities are inscribed on flags in the font of multinational corporations and waved about in public spaces with important resonances. This work started with one flag of Yani's design, with the Arabic-derived Indonesian work akal - meaning 'sense' or 'cunning.' Working with community groups in Australia, Europe and Asia she has created dozens of flags. Spaces include Sydney's Hyde Park and a park next to Borobudur.

A third current project is related to the Lapindo disaster. Yani and a friend-collaborator pose in front of a backdrop showing a town overflowing with mud - in the style of a movie poster. Yani is dressed in traditional Javanese garb with a kebaya and traditional head covering and her friend is dressed in the Middle-Eastern garb of a traditional Islamic leader. Posing with them in a series of photographs are a number of visitors of different ethnicities. The attitudes shown are light, even flippant, a contrast with the sobering realities of the mud flow.

The question and answer session allowed Yani to expand on her motives for creating this work. She views her projects as work in progress - and if the aesthetic results are not always pleasing, she says that work that is instantly beautiful is forgery, and that all art needs to undergo a process of growth and development before achieving fixed form. She sees herself as a learner always, not a maestro.

Meaning is also not to be fixed. She does not propose an answer to what should be done about Lapindo, but rather asks questions - for example about the possible complicity of Islamic conservatives in ignoring (or even causing) this pressing ecological issue.

Yani is highly critical of corporate culture (that is part of the reason she 'steals' cartoon icons), and sees art as a way of making relations with people and forging communities. She claims not to be interested in selling art work but in developing alternate channels for the social -and says that in the globalized world artists must necessarily ask uncomfortable questions about the purpose of making art.

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