Photo for Engaging with modern Indonesian art

Katherine Bruhn (left) and Adam de Boer (right)

Katherine Bruhn (UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate) and contemporary artist Adam de Boer reflect on the history of Indonesian visual art and the integration of classic elements into hybrid forms.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)

A Reclamation of Indonesian Contemporary Art

"The realities of colonialism, the difficulty of labor and planting the rice fields…none of that was evident in Mooi Indie paintings," said Katherine Bruhn, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the third installment of the summer speaker series hosted by UCLA Association of Indonesian Americans, Bruhn and Adam de Boer, a contemporary American artist, discuss the history of Indonesian modern art and the exploration of culture and identity through art.

"This history of Indonesia is significant because its legacies appear in Adam’s work. I want to focus on a key debate that has come to represent the foundations for building an independent art history," explained Bruhn. "The debate pitted east against west and called for a rejection of art that was seen as nothing more than a beautiful depiction of the Indies."

The "Mooi Indie" aesthetic, which means "Beautiful Indies" in Dutch, depicts Indonesian landscapes in a naturalistic way that romanticizes the land without recognizing any of the histories of colonialism and lives of the people. In the 1980s, a wave of nationalist painters rose to redefine modern Indonesian art and challenge this simplification of Indonesia. 

"In other words, it is a history of art production in Indonesia by Indonesian artists that was separate by influence of the Dutch or foreign powers," added Bruhn.

Navigating East Versus West

One nationalist painter, Sindudarsono Sudjojono, created paintings about revolution and the everyday hardships that individuals face. He recognized that "a new kind of art needed to be produced to represent the realities of the Indonesian people," said Bruhn.

Indonesian artists today continue to engage with the debate of east versus west and must be mindful of the traditions they choose to weave into their works. Who has the right to depict a certain community in art? 

Adam de Boer, who identifies as an American with Dutch-Indonesian ancestry, comes from a family that left central Java and was repatriated to the Netherlands, resulting in a decade-long search for home. Eventually, they made their way to southern California. 

"That history wasn’t really told to me as a kid," said de Boer. "After college, I went on a surf trip to Bali and there, I began to engage with this Dutch-Indonesian identity."

As de Boer learned more about his personal connections to Indonesia, he started to bring parts of this identity into his art. He learned about batik, a Javanese wax-resistant dying technique that is often used to create unique patterns on cloth.

"At the time, I was painting lots of watercolors," reminisced de Boer. "Is it possible for me to translate these watercolor drawings on paper into larger, more finished batik paintings? That’s been an investigation that I’ve been struggling with for the past five years."

Engaging a Global Art World

In 2017, de Boer received a Fulbright fellowship to Indonesia, which gave him more time to explore the materials in batik and wayang, a classic Javanese tradition of shadow puppetry. Intrigued by the textures, he learned how to carve traditional watercolor buffalo hide, a process that involves preparing parchment, puncturing and drying before applying designs. As de Boer shared, this was a way for him to interact with his history and imagine what his ancestors would have made or how they would have approached the materials.

"I think it’s very rare that a foreign artist comes to Jogja and commits so much time to learning how to produce these kinds of materials," said Bruhn. "Or maybe they know how, but they don’t want to engage with these traditions in their artwork in a global contemporary art world."

In his journey, de Boer has been teased for working with batik, which can be considered old fashioned, but he personally sees time and traditions as cyclical. With his multicultural background, he feels simultaneously foreign and native working with Indonesian art forms. Currently, he is navigating the hybrid art space in Los Angeles and observing life in the city, but still incorporating practices of batik.

"Where does ownership lay? Who can tell you where you belong and where you don’t belong?" asked de Boer. "That slipperiness is where my art sits."


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Published: Friday, August 21, 2020