Oct 02 2013

Unmasked: Indonesian Artists in Singapore

by Marybeth Stock

Over the course of the last decade, Indonesia’s economic and social stability has transfigured the once-straightforward radical political stance of its contemporary artists to one that is not so easily defined. The defiant nature of artistic imagery during Suharto’s regime has become diluted, dispersed into more indefinable guises.

Indonesian artists today reflect a variety of ethnic, economic and aesthetic agendas and this trend has not gone unnoticed in Singapore’s market-driven art scene. This past January, Singapore’s Art Stage unveiled its unprecedented, and hugely successful Indonesian Pavilion and the upcoming Singapore Biennale will feature the works of over a dozen established and emerging Indonesian artists and collectives. This September, no less than four major galleries—including ARNDT Singapore and Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI)—put on shows demonstrating the scope of these artists’ practices.  

EKO NUGROHO, I Am An Animal Of My Own Destiny, 2013, konnyaku paper mask with wood block, screen print, cast paper, found object, and handmade paper, 168 × 69 × 18 cm. Copyright the artist and Singapore Tyler Print Institute. Courtesy Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

EKO NUGROHOLife is a Trick, 2013, Relief print, collage, coloured handmade paper, 168 × 131 cm. Copyright the artist and Singapore Tyler Print Institute. Courtesy Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

Eko Nugroho

“We Are What We Mask”

Singapore Tyler Print Institute

7 September–9 October, 2013

A mask can serve many purposes—disguise, restraint, identity, totem—but in the hands of Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho, it becomes something more: a wry avatar of the artist’s private mythos and an insightful rejoinder to sociopolitical absurdity. Since the 1990s, he has parodied the various economic and social issues that have emerged following the collapse of the Suharto regime. Nugroho’s solo exhibit at Singapore Tyler Print Institute, “We Are What We Mask,” includes over 70 handmade paper works, all produced during the artist’s five-week residency, including some 20 incarnations of outrage and dissent disguised as masks.

Playful and graphic, Nugroho’s graffiti-like scrawl morphs into a language of social criticism. Often using anachronistic mediums such as embroidery and traditional shadow puppetry, his works are rife with comic imagery and mask motifs. The faces of Nugroho’s figures don futuristic, often tortuous headgear: only their eyes remain visible. In this exhibition, for the first time, the artist has created actual masks—enigmatic, wearable concoctions that hover between craft and ritual.

The ten masks on display are simple, shaped from paper sheets, intended as weird abstractions of the niqab face-veil. Psychedelic and candy-colored, each is decorated with a mix of screen prints, metal foil, linen and flocking. The shamanistic Multi-Identity (all works 2013) is adorned with block-printed discs of imagery characteristic of Nugroho’s work. Some masks are also trimmed with locally-found objects, including tasseled Chinese knots, and gold coins or beads. The violet-hued Obey and Happy is embellished with letters of pale flocking below a distorted Merlion, Singapore’s ubiquitous half-fish, half-lion national icon (whose fishy scales appear in many of the works here). The innocent-seeming Please Donate Your Smile may connote mere pleasantry—or perhaps an insistence on complicity.

Accompanying the masks are nearly 40 works, all of which are rich in both color and content. The artist has built up heavy layers of paper pulp in garish colors, and used relief and screen prints to create pastiches of humor, fear and satire. Free to Speak, Free to Ignore and Life is a Trick are derisive commentaries on political hypocrisy, while Salty Tolerance depicts a figure shrouded by a dense, stifling helmet of Merlion scales,

Other works are more costume than mask. Using a traditional Japanese papermaking technique,  Nugroho’s paper was coated with konnyaku starch derived from a tuberous root. This imparts a flexible quality to the paper, and allowed the artist to sew it like fabric into fantastic organic forms. These 20-odd large, enveloping sculptures flaunt tentacles or red-tipped fingers, and are awash in whimsical prints, marbling, collage and fragments of Nugroho’s embroidery. The perky fringed ears of the huge raspberry-pink I Am An Animal of My Own Destiny belie the mask’s macabre invoked by the glaring mass of protruding eyeballs below. Patterned in wood grain, the structural Dream of Finger is the wearable manifestation of Nugroho’s houses, another recurring motif in the artist’s work. The tall pillar of three paper orbs titled Faith in Shopping is a precarious headdress of both power and subjugation.

As a postscript to the evolution of these works, the exhibit also includes photographs of STPI staff posing in their favorite Nugroho masks on the streets of Singapore. Through this performative dimension, Nugroho gives life to the masked, subjugated figures that have always populated his work and they emit shouts of warning against authoritarianism and complacency.

INDIEGUERILLAS, The Temple of Dismantled Thought Society, 2013, wood, paint, acrylic, steel and wheels, 100 × 153 × 20 cm. Courtesy ARNDT, Singapore. 

ARIN DWIHARTANTO SUNARYO, Burst #2, 2013, pigment resin, merapi volcanic ash mounted on wooden panel, 179 × 143 cm. Courtesy ARNDT, Singapore.

SIP! Indonesian Art Today No. 2”

ARNDT Singapore

14 September–13 October, 2013 


If one is interested in a broader look at Indonesia’s contemporary art scene, head over to “SIP! Indonesian Art Today No. 2,” at ARNDT Singapore, to see an eclectic array of works by 16 Indonesian artists, Nugroho among them. Excerpted from a larger exhibition the gallery mounted earlier this year at its Berlin location, “SIP!” includes painting, sculpture, installation and photography.

Culled from the Indonesian vernacular, sip means “good” or “great,” a sentiment worthy of this exuberant, if somewhat overcrowded show, which surveys artists whose practices date from the late 1970s to the present. Those being exhibited include: FX Harsono, member of the Indonesian New Art Movement founded in 1975; Agus Suwage, Agung Kurniawan and Mella Jaarsma, whose works reflect political upheavals of the late nineties; artists from the “post-Reformation” generation, including Rudi Mantofani, Entang Wiharso, Syagini Ratna Wulan, Handiwirman Saputra, Eko Nugroho and Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo; and more recent arrivals Wedhar Riyadi, J. Ariadhitya Pramuhendra and the art collectives Tromarama and Indieguerillas.

The works in “SIP!” reflect the complexities of Indonesian art today. FX Harsono’s powerful paintings with their direct political narratives contrast mightily with the alternative perspectives offered by Nugroho with his signature embroideries, as well as with Mella Jaarsma’s Low Tea I (2013), a prim leather garment colorfully patterned with politico-cultural icons. Indieguerillas offer up The Temple of Dismantled Thought Society (2013), an incongruous construction that translates traditional Indonesian shadow-puppets into pop icons. Less overtly arch are Agus Suwage’s introspective Self Portrait and Co #4 (2013), and the lovely Burst #2 (2013) by Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, an inky abstraction of volcanic ash from Mt. Merapi, suspended in resin.

Indonesia’s turbulent sociopolitical framework of the last three decades has informed the disparate, often contradictory approaches seen in “SIP!” These recent works confirm, however, that as the country’s relative stability continues, the vivid, often violent imagery spurred by political outrage that was once characterized much Indonesian art is undergoing transformation towards more nuanced narratives. 

Marybeth Stock is a writer, researcher and editor based in Singapore and Japan.