On January 20, Indonesian artist FX Harsono was announced as the inaugural recipient of the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art in recognition of his contribution to the Indonesian art scene.
Jointly presented by Art Stage Singapore and the US Embassy Singapore, the award will annually honor a practicing “artist or curator from the Southeast Asian region who is actively committed to the ideals of freedom and liberty, and through his work, continually seeks to express these ideals.” The award is named after Joseph Balestier (1788–1858), the first consul general of the United States to Singapore.
Kirk Wagar, US ambassador to Singapore noted that: “Over his long and distinguished career FX Harsono has been a leader and a pioneer in using his art to push for free speech and democracy.”
Commenting on the win, Harsono said to AAP in an email: “I am happy to receive the award but to me, it just means that I must work harder to produce art for the people. I have realized that people see my work as part of a larger struggle for humanity and voicing these concerns must appear in my work—they are issues that are attached to me.”
When asked if the Freedom of Art award will have any impact in countries still plagued by censorship and freedom of speech, Harsono responded, “Art alone will not be able to change anything and will not make other people realize that human values need to be appreciated. When artists realize the importance of human values, then they can come together with others who have the same vision—they can fight together.”
Breaking into the contemporary arts scene in the early 1970’s, Harsono has used his artistic language to actively criticize Indonesian politics, society and culture. Cementing his position as a seminal Indonesian figure, his recent artworks present an intersection between the personal and political. In 2014, Harsono was also honored with the Prince Claus Fund Laureate award and the Anugerah Adhikarya Rupa, the Indonesia Art Award, from the country’s Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy.
As the Freedom of Art awardee, Harsono received a trophy, a winner’s certificate and a grant of USD 5,000 to encourage the continuation of his oeuvre.
Alongside Harsono, six other artists were nominated this year, including Aye Ko (Myanmar), Lee Wen (Singapore), Manit Sriwanichpoom (Thailand), Nadiah Bamadhaj (Malaysia), Pablo Baen Santos (Philippines) and Svay Sareth (Cambodia).