Published: Jul 30, 2007

These young artists revolt against the political crisis with their own bodies

M Dwi Marianto

Young Indonesian artists have started using nudity in new and quite personal ways. One artist showed a video of he and his wife making love to climax on a wet canvas. Just as some segments of society are being drawn into more normative religion, and in the midst of a Javanese society that disapproves of frank personal expression, these artists are brazenly creating a space to make very private statements. This could be their personal revolt against a necrophilic mass media culture that revels in violence, chaos and death. Like so many Indonesians, they want to know what use it is to listen to the big ideas of an intellectual elite that seems so righteous yet is so powerless against the intrigues of that very same elite.

In June I visited the home of Laksmi Shitaresmi (born in Yogyakarta in 1974). She had just given birth to a baby girl. Her husband is also a painter. In their tiny living room I was shocked to see two large nude paintings of Laksmi. The breasts and pubic hair were quite naturalistic. I had seen the paintings before, but what shocked me was where she had hung them, precisely where every visitor could see. Amidst a society growing more puritan, Laksmi didn't care if anyone thought this was impolite. As I sat there snacking in her living room, my eyes were exactly on a level with her genitals. This was significant! Laksmi seemed to want to speak directly, without being bound by traditional norms that in practice stop people from saying anything personal or critical.

Erica (born in Yogyakarta in 1971) is a dropout from the Indonesian Institute of Art in Yogyakarta, and one of the few female painters making a living from her work. At present she is doing a 'bathing' series. Up till now she has been painting playful, nascenes from in and around her home, and she has become quite successful. But in 1999 she began to be more personal. Bathing in my favourite villa is a self-portrait in the bath. Only the pubic area is discreetly scattered with soap bubbles (see cover). She wants to depict bathing as a relaxing and refreshing activity, but also one in which she can shed her restrictive 'cultural' clothing, at least on canvas. That is something many Indonesians long for at a time when so many crises give them a headache.

Made love

Arahmaiani (born in Bandung in 1961) is different again. This artist, who once studied at the Bandung Institute of Technology, has long made critical statements through her art. She has occasionally made use of clearly depicted genitalia, which in her work symbolise domination and militarism in an Indonesian context. As one of the few critical Indonesian women artists her work might appear more radical because there is so little comparison. At a performance in the French Cultural Centre in Bandung in 1999 she took off her shirt (leaving a bra) and invited the audience to take a marker pen and draw or write anything they liked on her skin. This is the first time a Sundanese woman has done this. When Sundanese greet one another they only touch with the tip of their finger. Men and women do not touch at all - they just tip their hand to their own breast when they meet.

I thought Arahmaiani had been the most radical ever in terms of using the body as an artistic medium, until Nurkholis came to my home to show me a video. This artist, born in Jepara in 1969, is well known for his religiosity, and remains so to the present day. He hates pretence and has always acted just as he has spoken. His work could be called surrealist. The body painting on his VCD was truly radical. The first part showed him painting the canvas with his own naked body. That is already unusual for Indonesia, but it was nothing compared to the next part, which involved his wife. They made love, and let their natural movements imprint themselves on the wet canvas. He showed this VCD at the opening of an exhibition in the Dirix Gallery on 1 July 2000. The audience was stunned. Some reacted cynically, others looked embarrassed, while others again congratulated Nurkholis.

The technique came to him after a period of dryness, when conventional painting with the brush no longer satisfied. In frustration he kicked the wet canvas and it left an impression of his foot. He then developed this idea until his entire body was painting on a canvas already covered in wet paint. A simple idea, but it had a big impact especially among younger artists and collectors in Yogyakarta and beyond. I think Nurkholis' search for a new language to express himself is shared by many Indonesians, who are no longer satisfied with the 'true and correct Indonesian' (bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar) they were taught at school to understand their national crisis.

These four artists are looking for an answer to a personal problem, but their discoveries represent an open visual text and a symbolism with much wider relevance. They are working in the midst of a multi-dimensional crisis that directly or indirectly affects their personal lives. They speak visually in a language whose vocabulary is drawn from the body - a very private language.

When I still lived in Rawasari Kampung in Jakarta I often overheard the neighbourhood women bicker. A few times one of them would turn around, bend over and in her fury lift her skirts and say: 'Your face is just like my arse!' Maybe these four artists are like many other people who find themselves simply confused by all the very true but also very remote political analysis in the media. To all that big talk they want to say: 'Why don't you just shut up and learn to control your inner self first'.

M Dwi Marianto ( is a well-known art critic. He teaches at the Indonesian Institute of Art in Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000