Arahmaiani, one of Indonesia’s foremost visual artists, reflected on her art practice in the 20 November 2020 Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) roundtable webinar ‘Politics of the Unseen: Visual practice, Spirituality and Resistance in Contemporary Indonesia’. The panel was organised by Edwin Jurriens (Asia Institute) and Wulan Dirgantoro (School of Culture and Communication) and sponsored by the Faculty of Arts’ Indonesia Strategy Engagement Group (ISEG). Below Dr Dirgantoro provides an introduction to Arahmaiani’s work and a translation of the artist’s reflections on her environmental art projects in Tibet.

Arahmaiani’s Second Life

Arahmaiani Feisal (b. 1961) art practice has represented Indonesian contemporary art on the global stage. Across nearly four decades of artmaking, art and activism are consistent themes in her body of work. From her time as an art student in the 1980s to the 1990s, the artist’s works have evolved from pushing the boundaries of her medium to global recognition and her contemporaries such as Nindityo Adipurnomo, Heri Dono, Mella Jaarsma and Agung Kurniawan.

Arahmaiani’s works could be seen as a connecting point between gender activism more broadly in Indonesia and the Indonesian art world more specifically. While Indonesian artists historically have worked alongside cultural and political activists in post-New Order Indonesian art, this partnership often just scratched the surface for what it means for visual artists and activists working together to enact change. With some notable exceptions of activist artists that rely on raising social consciousness through direct actions such as the Taring Padi collective, the late Semsar Siahaan, Moelyono, and Alit Ambara, among others, Arahmaiani’s recent projects seek an alternative way of making change through a more inclusive and empathic approach.

The following translation charts the recent trajectory of Arahmaiani’s artistic practice from Indonesia to Tibet. The artist’s projects in Lab village in the Yushu region, Tibet (2010-ongoing), are impactful for their focus on the environment and local communities. Yet, the seed for this idea came from a closer place. Following the devastating earthquake that shook the city of Yogyakarta in 2006, the artist worked together with an Islamic boarding school, Pondok Pesantren Amumarta, as a way to rebuild the traumatised community. The artist engaged the students at the boarding school in discussions to raise awareness of the importance of environmental issues, from replanting the land around the pesantren, which was destroyed by the earthquake, to the benefits of organic farming. According to the artist, the pesantren can now sustain their environmental curriculum by also producing eco-friendly products that supplement the pesantren’s income.1

Arahmaiani’s engagement with various local communities speaks of connectivity within the boundaries of the nation and now beyond the nation. Her projects in Tibet speak about the processes of belonging outside normative citizenship. Her previous nomadic trajectory has shaped her world view and art practice as mobile, mutable, and continuously making oneself at home through different collectivities.

The artist’s initiative in Tibet triggered a series of community projects. Together with the monks from Lab monastery and community members from sixteen villages, they initiated waste management, mass tree planting, clean water project and yak coop over the last ten years. Within this period, the artist focuses on participation and transversal dialogue to rebuild ecological awareness within the communities.2 The artworks that emerge during her period in Tibet, such as The Memory of Nature (2016), Shadow of the Past (2015 - ongoing), attested to the affective potential of art and creativity to affect social and environmental change.

  1. Conversation with the artist, 11 April 2019, Melbourne. For a more critical discussion on environmentalism and Islamic boarding school in Indonesia. See also Kristina Grossmann, “Green Islam: Islamic Environmentalism in Indonesia,” in New Mandala, 28 August 2019
  2. See interview with Arahmaiani and 15th Lab Kyab Gon Rinpoche about the project in Peter Hylands, “Arahmaiani in Tibet,” in Creative-i magazine, Creative Cowboy, April 2013, pp. 18-28

Read about Arahmaiani’s Second Life at the Roof of the World

Banner image: Annayu Maharani. Arahmaiani Flag Project (2006-2010) performance and installation taken at Arahmaiani’s exhibition ‘The Past Has Not Passed’ (2018), Museum MACAN, Jakarta (detail) Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International