May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Review: Indonesia Calling 2020

Published: Feb 08, 2021

Ron Witton

All countries recall particular years that mark significant national events. For the US, there is 2001 when the World Trade Centre was attacked and destroyed. For Australia it is 1975, when the elected Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the governor-general. For Indonesia there is 1965 when General Suharto instituted military rule.

Every country of the world will remember 2020 as a year of national significance. The coronavirus has affected the life of every person on the globe. Wherever you are in the world, the immediate effects have been virtually identical for everyone, including the wearing of masks, social distancing and being 'locked down', not to mention the overriding fear of catching the virus. Globally, there has been a sudden feeling of precariousness, often stemming from a significant interruption to ways of earning one’s living.

Given particular local cultures and governmental responses, however, the ways in which this disruption of life has played out has differed greatly. These significant differences will soon be reflected in the cultural expressions of each society.

The documentation of this impact on Indonesians is already underway via an innovative project launched just a few months into the pandemic.

Calling 2020

Indonesia Calling 2020 invited some of Indonesia’s leading artists to create artworks, within just a matter of months, to express and reflect on the way COVID-19 had changed their lives and society more broadly. The stunning diversity of the artwork presented reflects the myriad ways the pandemic has affected daily and artistic life in Indonesia. A tight time frame was given to the artists due to their artworks needing to be physically available for the exhibition’s opening in Sydney on 31 October 2020.

The name of the project deliberately echoes Indonesia Calling, the 1946 Australian film directed by Joris Ivens and produced by the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia. The film was instrumental in alerting the world to Indonesia’s struggle for Independence and its determination to resist re-occupation by the Netherlands. 

The idea for the exhibition originated from the Australia Indonesia Art Forum, but it was John Cruthers, whose Sydney art gallery, 16albermarle Project Space, specialises in Southeast Asian art, who took the first concrete steps to bring it to reality. Indonesia Calling 2020 represents a partnership between 16albermarle, Project Eleven and Indo Art Link, three entities that have worked for several years to connect artists in Indonesia and Australia. It featured over 100 artworks.

The exhibition was held from 31 October until 12 December 2020 at the 16albermarle Project Space in Sydney, and was accompanied by an online presentation titled Pasar Seni. The artworks posit Covid-19 pandemic themes within the Indonesian context.

Thus, there is Surya Wirawan's 'Don't Forget to Wear a Mask':

Surya Wirawan (Yoyok)
Ojo Lali Nganggo Masker (Don’t forget to use mask) 2020
Pencil on paper. 21 x 15 cm

And Prihatmoko Moki's explicitly political images:

Prihatmoko Moki
ID Politics #14 2020
Silkscreen print, 4/4, 59.4 x 42 cm

Particularly striking are the mixed media contributions, such as that of Fitri DK, a feminist artist from Yogyakarta: 'Nandur Dulur (Plant Everyone)', a woodcut on calico with embroidery:

Fitri DK
Nandur Dulur 2020
Woodcut on calico with embroidery, edition 5/8, 120 x 80 cm

Though the physical exhibition has closed, it is possible to take a virtual visit of the exhibition via 16albermarle’s wonderful website. The site provides images and fascinating informative descriptions of the approximately 80 spectacular works. To enter this amazing artistic space, click on any of the artworks on the gallery website to get a short bio of the artist, together with a statement by the artist about the artwork.

On addition, the exhibition organisers created a video featuring curator John Cruthers inside the exhibition space, which is available to watch on YouTube. 

A major reason for holding the exhibition was to help artists in Indonesia, who, like artists throughout the world, have been struggling more than ever to survive economically in this most trying of times. In this respect the show was very successful, returning almost AUD$40,000 to artists in Indonesia. This included a painting by Citra Sasmita, which was sold to the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth.

Indonesia Calling 2020 is a commendable initiative that combines both intercultural understanding and appreciation with a humanitarian dimension that our current world desperately needs.

Ron Witton ( gained his BA and MA in Indonesian and Malayan Studies from the University of Sydney and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. He has worked as an academic in Australia and Indonesia and now practises as an Indonesia and Malay translator and interpreter. He is a regular contributor to Inside Indonesia.

*The exhibition organisers gave their permission for the use of the images of the artworks.

Inside Indonesia 143: Jan-Mar 2021

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