Ecological Futures and Unjuk Rasa in Contemporary Indonesian Art 

Written by Kathryn Rae

Unjuk rasa’ is a traditional Indonesian term meaning a cooperative and creative social movement within a public place (Brigitta 2018). This discussion paper will give a deep analysis of ecological and artistic acts of unjuk rasa through the lens of three contemporary Indonesian artists. Arahmaiani (Arahmayani Feisal, b. 1961) is an overtly political artist who practices primarily through performance art and addresses ecological futures whilst interweaving related issues such as class, social, religion, gender and culture (Wright 2016). The Memory of Nature project she has worked on since 2013 exemplifies her ecological and artistic unjuk rasa practice. Made Muliana Bayak (b. 1980) explores Bali's ecological problems and how they relate to social, political and cultural issues through ‘Plasticology’, his ongoing unjuk rasa and creative educational project (Bayak 2021). Tita Salina (b. 1973) creates provocative community-based art projects which relate to Indonesia’s ecological future. Her artwork 1001st Island – the most sustainable island in the archipelago 2015 is a physical trace of collaborative research work with an unjuk rasa ethos (Kent 2020). To begin, this paper will discuss the ecological situation in Indonesia. Next, the historical, cultural and social factors relating to how Indonesian art has depicted the environment will be explored. Stemming from this, the concept of unjuk rasa will be introduced and used as a unifying model to analyse the work of Arahmaiani, Bayak and Salina, their shared artistic experiences and interlocking ideas. 

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago; its lush natural environment is home to the world’s richest biological diversity of plant and animal life on the planet (USAID 2008). Indonesia’s ecological problems originated from Dutch colonisation. After World War Two and the rise of Indonesia’s nationalist power, environmental impacts were compounded through subsequent rapid urbanisation without adequate policies and governance approaches (Glaeser & Glaeser 2010). Today, environmental issues are given low priority due to poverty and under-resourcing, resulting in many problems. The greatest problem is large-scale, and often illegal, deforestation and the related clearance fires (Measey 2010). These create heavy smog, threaten critically endangered animals, and result in Indonesia being the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (World Bank 2010). 

Climate change is already experienced in Indonesia (World Bank 2010). Indonesia has been identified as one of the most vulnerable Asian countries facing climate change given its environment, economy and population (Measey 2010). Whilst the poorest are most severely affected, all Indonesians have witnessed temperature increase, intense rainfall, rising sea level, floods, droughts, landslides, related health problems and food scarcity (Measey 2010). Despite Indonesia signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 and ratifying the doctrine in 2004, there is still action the Indonesian government must take (World Bank 2010).

Historically Indonesian art has not accurately represented the impact of humans on the environment. In the mid-century, the term ‘Mooi Indië’ was popularised by the Indonesian artist Sindudarsono Sudjojono (Cox 2016). His term condemned the absence of exploitative human costs and environmental impacts in the ‘Beautiful Indies’ colonial landscape paintings (Kent 2020). Even before Indonesian independence, Sudjojono propagated a new brand of Indonesian art with an emphasis on Jiwo Ketok (Spielmann 2017). This concept emphasised an indigenous soul in art through depicting realistic social issues (Spielmann 2017). However, it was not until the collapse of President Suharto’s oppressive New Order regime in 1998 that greater freedom of self-expression in the arts was realised (Dirgantoro 2012).

The artistic backlash, or Reformasi, explored subjects previously considered taboo. The truth about Indonesia’s ecological future began to be artistically conveyed through new and diverse practices. For example, Reformasi hastened Indonesia’s entry into multimedia artistic practices (Spielmann 2017). Previously, artists had primarily used low-tech approaches involving everyday materials, influenced by traditional art forms such as wayang puppet theatre, dance performance, woodcarving, batik, and stonemasonry. Reformasi saw contemporary Indonesian artists increasingly combine traditional practices with hallmarks of contemporary culture and mixed media (Spielmann 2017). Arahmaiani, Bayak and Salina’s work with contemporary materials, their referencing of Indonesia cultural heritage and their engagement with ecological futures, are excellent examples of this phenomenon.

Despite this, Arahmaiani, Bayak and Salina have often been at odds with the cultural impacts of Reformasi. Reformasi saw the rise of the art collector as patron, wealthy private sponsors, new contemporary art galleries, artistic institutions and academies (Spielmann 2017). These worked to elevate Indonesian art on a global stage. However, similar to the Western art scene, the awakening and formalisation of the Indonesian art community saw the elevation of mostly conventional and male artists. Arahmaiani, Bayak and Salina have sometimes been overlooked, ignored and even persecuted because they have challenged the status quo. Islamic fundamentalists jailed Arahmaiani for her 1993 painting Lingga-Yoni which challenged religious prejudice against Indonesian women (Arahmaiani 2013). Bayak and Salina’s political, ‘street’ and plastic-based art has not been appreciated by Indonesian art institutions.

Indonesia’s politically oppressive past, and the domestic institutional reactions to their work, have caused Arahmaiani, Bayak and Salina to engage with unjuk rasa, seeing art and activism as inseparable. They have also been influenced by ekofeminisme, the uniquely Indonesian branch of ecofeminism, which meshes archetypal female imagery with culturally local symbols (Jurriëns 2020). A prominent example of unjuk rasa and ekofeminisme was the environmental campaign from 2014 to 2017 against industrial cement mining in the ecologically crucial mountain range of Pegunungan Kendeng (Jurriëns 2020). Here women and other local groups staged public protests using creative forms of traditional and contemporary arts to protect the mountain range, referred to as Ibu, ‘Mother’ (Jurriëns 2020). The iconic and highly influential image of mostly female activists setting their feet in cement blocks, risking their health to protest the mining industry’s detrimental effect on women’s reproductive health, socio-economic position and cultural identity, epitomised creative and performative unjuk rasa (Walton 2021).

Arahmaiani’s The Memory of Nature engaged with unjuk rasa and ekofeminism discourse through its performative, collaborative and provocative approach. In 2013 she stated,

I implement an open art system in which art is defined as broadly as possible, breaking through rigid discourses and established values, engaging in democratic dialogue, and taking a critical approach when this is needed. During this process, outcomes, artworks and other forms (such as performance) are produced collectively, collaboratively or individually (Arahmaiani 2013).

She traversed Indonesian borders to address local environmental issues in Tibet. Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the highest and largest plateau on earth, is critical to Asia because it delivers water to two billion people in the subcontinent and China (Arahmaiani 2021). The Memory of Nature was a collaboration with Tibetan monks, local communities, farmers and nomads, intended to establish connections between place, art, Hindu-Buddhist beliefs and the environment. There were many parts of the performative community-based project, including participants sculpting a mandala out of earth, planting over one million trees and removing rubbish from the environment to prevent future decline and destruction (Supriyanto 2012).

Like Arahmaiani, Bayak’s artistic practice has a strong unjuk rasa quality. Bayak sees the need to atone Indonesia’s violently suppressed voices through political art (Lee 2013). Seeing himself as a quasi-conduit for the millions lost in the 1964-5 Suharto’s regime massacres, Bayak remedies the silencing of Indonesia's past activists and artists through his activist art practice (Bayak 2021). He says,

My art should be the vehicle of a strong message and directly come from the problems. I don't want to be just an observer but take part in the change. I believe art has the potential to go beyond art for art's sake (Bayak 2021). 

The unjuk rasa influence is seen in the symbolic performances of Bayak’s beach cleaning activities. Working with the materiality of plastic rubbish forces his audience to physically confront the polluted reality of their environment and work together to make a positive ecological statement through art.

Bayak, as well as Salina who will be discussed in more detail later, are part of a growing number of contemporary artists who engage with plastics in reaction to the ecological crisis (Boetzkes 2019). Bayak’s 2001 exhibition Plastiliticum posited that humankind had entered a new age of materiality and artists should reflect this in their work similar to how materials such as bronze were used by artists in historic eras. Bayak repurposes plastic detritus as canvas and sculptural material and meshes the works with symbols of place and culture through the visual imagery of Balinese Hinduism culture (Bayak 2021). He links plastic to themes of colonisation, political repression and socio-cultural marginalisation (Kent 2020). By depicting religious mythological imagery in a graffiti spray paint style, he references the environmental impacts of humans, especially through tourism, in Bali. Bayak suggests that the tourism industry has strong connections to Suharto regime where culture was massacred to facilitate a new Bali which was constructed for economic development (Jurriëns 2019). His work suggests that colonial and regime practices aimed at preserving ‘authentic’ Balinese practices have been exploited for artificial purposes, along with the natural environment (Jurriëns 2019).

Like Arahmaiani, Bayak’s work has been perceived as radical, and therefore he has struggled to have his practice acknowledged in Indonesia. Accepted as an important contemporary Indonesian artist abroad, however, his works were displayed at RMIT Gallery’s 2019 exhibition Bruised: Art Action and Ecology in Asia. One of the reasons Bayak works with Indonesian schools,particularly international schools, is because the domestic art institutions have not accepted his work. His children’s workshops and participation in Indonesian public art festivals are therefore both a public education campaign and a deliberate unjuk rasa to subvert the art institutions who shun him.

Salina’s controversial work 1001st – the most sustainable island in the archipelago was also not readily accepted in her homeland. It promoted international contemplation on environmental issues, however, through its addition in the 2019 Contemporary Worlds: Indonesia exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Highly controversial, her work rebukes Jakarta’s plan to reclaim sinking land by constructing 17 new islands over 30 years whilst refusing to fix the environmental causes (Street Art Museum, 2016). 1001st Island, arguably, will be one of the most indestructible islands of Jakarta because it consists of a tonne of imperishable plastic waste.

Influenced by unjuk rasa, Salina sees her work as collaboratively making ‘everyday acts of social disobedience…which intervene with the status quo through art’ (Caines 2019). Not only illuminating local political corruption, community disenfranchisement and environmental degradation in Jakarta Bay, the work also explores transnational ecological responsibility. Its mass represents the amount of rubbish a person creates in 50 years (Caines 2019). Working collaboratively with the population of Jakarta Bay, she and local fishers trawled the tonne of plastic from the bay and performatively used fishing nets to create the bulk of her artificial island. The plastic island was then towed around Jakarta Bay by a fishing boat, with Salina being filmed by a drone standing and resolutely lying on the isolated synthetic island.

Salina’s art reflects Indonesian environmental problems as an embodiment of international politics where wealthy nations dispose used plastics overseas. With the installed artwork in a gallery setting combined with video footage, Australian audiences view the work as not only layers of plastic, but also an object representing trace from a layering of actions. Trace from the users of the single use plastic, trace of the fishers, of the artist’s hand, and finally in its ‘performance’ as an island. Viewers can consider what will happen to the artwork next. If it is returned to Indonesia for disposal, where does the Australian audience belong in the chain?

The reality of Indonesia’s ecological situation and its experience of colonisation, oppressive regimes, unique cultures and diverse religions has given rise to a distinct unjuk rasa phenomenon. Combined with contemporary Indonesia art, unjuk rasa powerfully enhances concepts of a place-protest connection, acting as a unifying public and social-cultural movement. Significant individually, but more important collectively, Arahmaiani, Bayak and Salina are exemplar Indonesian artists who see their activism and art as inseparable. Often shunned by Indonesian institutions, and sometimes even persecuted, these three artists are in the words of leading Asian art curator Binghui Huangfu, ‘beacons for an expression of courage rare in contemporary art’ (Huangfu 2013). For those of us ‘smug in our comfortable cultures’ they carry a real message, ‘railing at collective dogma in a rapidly dividing world’ (Huangfu 2013).

Figure 1: Example of ekofeminisme unjuk rasa:
Kendeng farmers protest
, March 2017. Photo by Kate Walton. Source:

Figure 2: Arahmaiani,
The Memory of Nature
, 2013.

Figure 3: Arahmaiani,
The Memory of Nature,
Installation with earth, 2 013-20.

Figure 4: Made Muliana Bayak,
River clean-up
, 2013.

Figure 5: Made Muliana Bayak,
Beach clean-up
, 2014.

Figure 6: Made Muliana Bayak,
Legong the dance of bird seri rekonstruksi excotisme Bali
, 80x120cm, permanent ink, acrylic on plastic rubbish, 2013.
Figure 7: Made Muliana Bayak, 
Barong and keris dance 75x65cm spray paint on plastic rubbish
, 2013.

Figure 8: Made Muliana Bayak, 
The secret of legong 65x75cm spray paint on plastic rubbish
, 2013.

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