By Brian Arnold
I was 22 the first time I went to Indonesia. I went simply on a college semester abroad. At the time, I was really interested in music, and went to study gamelan. The whole experience was eye opening, and the amount of personal and cultural discovery has lasted me a lifetime, or at least was enough to initiate a much longer study and interest in Indonesia. I was just there for about 6 months, but the impact on my creative and intellectual identity was enormous.
Just a few months before I left for Bali this first time, I discovered photography. I know it sounds like a cliché (though maybe less so in our current digital age), but the first time I saw a print come up in the developer, I was hooked. I immediately threw myself into photography with incredible enthusiasm and abandon. In just a few months, I did everything I could do to learn about photography, even landing my first professional experience as a photographer working at an important photographic archive in Colorado. Like my time in Indonesia, these first experiences with photography provided enough fuel to sustain a life long creative and intellectual curiosity.
When I discovered these things, it was an important time in my life, really a time with a strong emergence of identity. I think of it as no coincidence that I discovered photography for the first time just before departing for Bali. I still remember the feeling of engagement, creativity, and self-empowerment when I made my first photographs, really because I still feel the same when photographing today. I can say the same about my engagement with Indonesia; my time in Bali and Java always feels important, like an empowering time of creative and intellectual engagement.
For most of my adult life, I’ve pursued two distinct but parallel studies in the arts – as a photographer and artist of my own culture, and as a student and performer of Indonesian art and classical music. When I left college, I set off to begin my life as an artist. I moved to Denver, CO, to work with a group of musicians and artists devoted to studying and advocating for Balinese and Indonesian arts. I worked with a nonprofit organization called Tunas Mekar, both a gamelan orchestra and an educational foundation dedicated to the advancement of Indonesian arts. I made this group my primary focus, and worked with the foundation for several years out of college.
While I was working with Tunas Mekar, I initiated my own study of photography. I set up a small studio, and worked during all my free time pursuing my creative initiatives with photography. I did this for years, and eventually reached a point when I recognized it was time to my make my primary commitment to photography, and an engagement with arts of my own culture. Thus, I enrolled in an MFA program in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.
After completing my graduate degree, I began a teaching career, working in a well-known school for art education. Here, I taught photography and new media arts to graduate and undergraduate students from all over the world. This proved a wonderful opportunity to develop my own philosophies of art and creativity, and specifically their relationship to a greater cultural experience.
As my own identity as an artist and photographer became more concrete, I became increasingly interested in reconnecting with gamelan and Indonesia. I traveled back to Bali and Java a number of times, and began studying and performing with the Cornell University Gamelan Ensemble.
Over several years, my connection with Cornell grew into a research position, and I eventually had the idea to try and merge my interests in photography and Indonesian art. I used the incredible resources at Cornell to initiate a study of the history of photography in Indonesia. This began as a textual study, but over several years, I found funding to return to Indonesia, really with the intention of trying to learn about contemporary art photography on the islands.
These first discussions proved to be remarkably successful. While just spending a couple of months in Bali and Java, I visited a number of different universities and art academies, and met with a variety of curators, educators, critics, collectors and artists interested in photography. I spent the bulk of my time in Denpasar, Ubud, Yogyakarta and Jakarta, but made some important connections at that time, specifically in Java.
In Yogya, I spent an afternoon at Mes56, an artists’ collaborative situated then just outside the kraton. Long known as a center for dance and painting, Yogyakarta is also home to the Cemeti Art House, an influential gallery for the development of contemporary art in Java. Mes56 was developed by a group of artists interested in photography and new media. At the time when the collective came together, it was difficult for artists interested in these types of media to find exhibition opportunities, so they created their own. Amongst the original members of the collective are Wimo Ambala Bayang, Jim Allen Abel, and Angki Purbandono, all graduates of the state art academy in Yogya, and all part of the first generation of Indonesian artists interested in exploring photography and related media. Today, Mes56 remains an important part of the Yogyakarta art scene, hosting exhibitions and residencies for artists from Indonesia, Australia, and The Netherlands working in photography and related disciplines.
It was also in 2011 that I made my first successful contact with the ISI Yogya (Institut Seni Indonesia – the Indonesian Institute of Art), developing an ongoing relationship with Dr. Suawastiwi Triatmodjo, Dean of the Fine Arts Program. In connecting with the art academy and Ibu Suawastiwi, I got my first introduction to art education in Java. She provided me with the wonderful opportunity to meet with students and faculty from the program, to learn how photography is included in their education.
In subsequent visits, I was able to build on these first relationships, meeting more artists and curators across Java. With help from the American Institute for Indonesian Studies, I was able to connect with a variety of academic programs around Central and Western Java, and lectured and taught workshops in schools of architecture, communication, Muslim broadcasting, and art. I was also able to meet different curators and educators, and see photographic exhibitions both professional and amateur. Each of these experiences helped give me a broader understanding of photography in Java today.
As conceived as fine art, photography is still a very new thing in Indonesia, as it is in most of Southeast Asia. There are a couple of threads within larger, global history of photography that are essential in understanding the development of photographic art in the region.
In the beginning, photography represented tremendous privilege. It took education, leisure time, and most importantly, money to pursue. And thus in the early years of its invention, photography was really only practiced by the Western powers in Europe and North America (with some important exception in Japan and China – both relevant in looking at the medium in Indonesia). Immediately, these cultures recognized the power this new invention had for their economic and political adventures abroad, and thus photography became a primary tool for their colonial endeavors, really from the get-go.
Often with more romantic or altruistic intentions – to educate their populations at home about these foreign cultures and the wonderful work and civilization brought from the outside – the colonial powers sent photographers abroad to start recording the government work in these developing nations. Immediately, the social power of photography was in place, as photography quickly became an essential tool in defining the “other,” helping to facilitate economic and political supremacy. Among other things, photography provided an opportunity to further objectify the native population, and gave visual evidence to compare the differences of culture and civilization. As an economic privilege, it provided authority that wasn’t easily shared or translated, and that economic privilege quickly became an intellectual and cultural privilege.
The second thread within this greater global history of photography is photography’s relentless march towards democratization. Perhaps first manifested with the inventions of George Eastman and Eastman Kodak, the goal for the last hundred years has been to make everyone a photographer. The current digital age is perhaps the completion of this goal. There aren’t many adults today without a camera; or better put, anyone with a phone today also holds a camera. And they say there are more Facebook users per capita in Indonesia than any other country in the world. In her wonderful book, Indonesia Etc., Elizabeth Pisani observes the presence of digital and social media on the outer island of Flores:
The boy, bright, smiley and fond of geography, would climb a tree, pick a mango, throw it half-eaten to the ground because he needed his hands for catapulting. When he got peckish again, he would just climb another tree. The girl, with whom I had been sharing a bed, was in her monosyllabic post-pubescent phase; her purpose was to get high enough up the mountain to get a signal on her cell phone so that she could check Facebook.
While originally discarded as a tool of the colonizer, Indonesians largely ignored photography for much of the second half of the 20th century. It was certainly part of family and village rituals, as well as an essential part of the press, but its dissemination across the culture was limited. That said, photography continued to spread rampantly in the build up to the digital era – one hour photo processors emerging globally – and photography proved an essential tool in reformasi, the revolt that led to the fall of Suharto. When control of photography was lost, Suharto lost control of the cultural. With the emergence of digital imaging, all that has changed. In Indonesia, as throughout much of Southeast Asia, photography is now fully emerging as a fine art medium, and this is largely the result of digital photography, the complete democratization of the medium.
Before fully addressing this new history, there is a bit more to say about the presence of photography in the colonized nation. There are two passages in particular. The first is from the great African American folklorist and novelist, Zora Neale Hurston, from Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old. Wouldn’t have found out then, but a man come long takin’ pictures and without askin’ anybody, Shelby, dat was the oldest boy, he told him to take us. Round a week later de man brought de picture for Mis’ Washburn to see and pay him which she did, then give us all a good lickin’.
So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
Dey used to call me Alphabet ‘cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at the picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so
Ah said: ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’
Den dey all laughed real hard. But before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest.
There is a lot to unpack here, but before taking a closer look, I’d like to look at another quote from famed Javanese novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his great work This Earth of Mankind:
“You are fortunate indeed, my students,” he said, “to be able to witness the beginning of the modern era here in the Indies.
Modern! How quickly that word had surged forward and multiplied itself like a bacteria throughout the world. (At least, that is what people were saying.) So allow me to use the word, though I still don’t fully understand its meaning.
In short, in this modern era tens of thousands of copies of a photo could be reproduced each day.
The main character in both these novels – Janie and Minke – is struggling to assert his or her identity, working against the confines of a dominating white or European culture. The passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God is both dense and beautiful, and has long attracted the attention of literary and cultural critics alike. Essentially, Hurston suggests that the photograph creates difference, and that the power of racial hegemony is solidified with the camera.
This Earth of Mankind tells the story of a young Javanese man caught between tradition, colonialism, and the expanding modern world. Minke tries to reconcile these disparate motivations to discover a true Indonesian identity, one that is both self-reliant and modern. Photography, in this quoted passage, functions as a metaphor for the magnitude, pace, and power of the developing modern world, at odds with Indonesian culture and traditions, but essential for Indonesia to understand as it moved towards independence.
In western intellectual and creative history, photography holds a history and presence independent of – indeed preceding – film, video, installation, and performing arts. In contemporary Indonesia, however, photography developed as an art form because of an interest in film, video, installation, and performing arts. In many ways, photography moved into the scene as a tool to document other happenings, and simply as a way to provide visual information for artists interested in working across media. There are a number of people who led the way to some of these changes – multimedia artists like Nindityo Adipurnomo, Mella Jaarsma, FX Harsono, Heri Dono, and pioneering video artist Krisna Murti. Many of the first photographic artists coming out of Java – particularly Yogyakarta – used visual and conceptual strategies to lay the groundwork for their photographic projects. Many of these artists – Wimo Bayang, Jim Allen Abel, and Angki Purbandono – explored photography with incredible freedom, borrowing from visual languages already in place within the creative discourse of their time and place.
In West Java, the Institute of Technology in Bandung (ITB) provided a starting point for emerging discussions on photography. One of the oldest higher education institutions in Indonesia, ITB has long held a remarkable reputation in the arts. The institute was originally founded by the Dutch, and from the beginning allowed for more western models of education. Here I met photographers exploring the technical and visual vocabularies inherent to the medium, both in traditional and visual formats, including photographers and artists like Henrycus Napit Sungaro and Deden Durahman.
Jakarta has long been home to many of the intellectual and cultural resources of the archipelago, including the Galeri Jurnalistik Antara, a small collective dedicated to teaching, exhibiting, and publishing photojournalism. Many of these photographers – such as Rama Surya and Oscar Motuloh – blur the lines between journalism and art, and pursue their work with a great understanding of time and culture. A younger generation of artists like Tino Djumini, Amran Malik Hakim and Arum Tresnaningtyas Dayuputri are emerging. Some of them are educated in the art programs of the city. They work with an eye for documentary photography, using the simple and poetic possibilities of the medium to record important social layers and counter cultures.
My approach to formulating a perspective on the history of art in Indonesia is indebted to the work of Claire Holt and Astri Wright. Both women developed a great insight into their subjects by starting with a foundation of clear cultural patterns, symbols and metaphors.
Claire Holt is entirely unique, not only for the depth of her achievements, but also for the recognition that her work has found in both the States and Indonesia. She has always been characterized as a remarkably sensitive, thoughtful, and intelligent woman, and clearly warranted great respect from her colleagues in both countries. Reading through her manuscripts and research archives, her patience and love of Indonesia have been contagious, serving as tremendous inspiration.
Holt’s text concerns a broad chronology of Indonesian art. Her work begins with the medieval Hindu/Buddhist architecture of Java and Sumatra, but also includes thorough investigations of Javanese court dance and wayang (shadow puppet) traditions, modernist painting and sculpture from Bali, and concludes with the emerging nationalism and how it affected the arts and art education.
In introducing her work, Holt writes:
Art in Indonesia correspondingly reflects an enormous diversity. Both geographical and historical factors have always precluded the development of a homogeneous art with a single line of evolution. Today a multitude of cultural phenomena coexist in the archipelago at quite different stages of their life cycles. Some are ancient but still very vital; others are old but are apparently dying or undergoing radical transformations; still others were born recently and are growing vigorously.
In the continuum of cultural growth, old and new elements overlap, fuse, or exist side by side. Dates are only approximate dividers marking the introduction of new ideas or techniques without necessarily implying the disappearance of preceding beliefs and practices.
Published in 1967, Holt’s words ring true today. While it is easy to find someone in Java who has never seen a wayang play, many artists still say that the essential foundation for Javanese and Indonesian art lies in understanding wayang.
Fundamental to Holt’s work are the ideas of continuity and change. This is a wonderful and complicated idea, acknowledging what is essential and unchanging about a culture and its creative expressions (however elusive), but also attentive to the relentless march towards evolution and change, perhaps best epitomized by technology.
Astri Wright’s primary text on Indonesian art – Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters – stems from a similar foundation as Holt’s text, specifically the ideas of continuity and change. Influenced by Holt, Wright begins her study by asserting the foundational framework of soul, spirit, and mountain – recurring metaphors and symbols in Indonesian mythology and social constructions.
Also striking in Wright’s work is her perspective on an emerging Modernism, and the continued development of Indonesian culture and identity after the revolution and independence:
To ‘Indonesians’ of the early years of this century, modern experience was shaped by an accelerating influx of new ideas about education, language, history, and identity. With the introduction of new technologies, in part triggered by foreign occupation and war, an unprecedented self-consciousness about one’s place in relation to the past and a dramatically changing present began to develop.
This new awareness of other places, cultures, and histories, both past and in the making, created the need to question those structures and assumptions of one’s own world… Self-conscious reconstructions of the past have accompanied the search for a definition of the present. Fueled by an unprecedented urge to evaluate and compare weaknesses and strengths, Indonesians have attempted to create a better platform from which to meet the challenges of an increasingly complicated and anxiety-provoking future.
From my experience in Indonesia, thinking of the development of photography and new media, as well as the historic election of President Jokowi, Wright’s observations still ring true; ‘Indonesian’ identity is a work in progress, negotiating not only the past, present and future, but also confronting global economic, political, and religious forces. Wright did the fieldwork for her book Soul, Spirit, Mountain before reformasi and the fall of Suharto. However, in many ways, the questions and struggles that she raised are even more apparent today, as the nation struggles to become a democracy, delicately balanced between a progressive, global economy and a strong conservative movement, and marred by the scars of colonialism and an oppressive dictatorship.
In drawing upon the works of these women, my hope is to continue the thoughtful relationships they developed with their colleagues in Indonesia, but also to offer a similar perspective on photography. Whether practiced by the earlier colonial presence or the contemporary artists today, photography provides a visual vocabulary and record for understanding the historical and cultural trajectory of Indonesia. And while the intentions of the colonial photographers and those working today may be quite different, in the end a critical comparison demonstrates an evolving record of Indonesian culture and identity.
Trying to work as a photographer in Indonesia has proven a much greater challenge than I have anticipated. In pivotal and yet elusive ways, I know I’ve discovered important parts of my own identity through my engagements in Indonesia, but this hasn’t always readily translated into a clear visualization. I initially instigated this study as a way to find a photographic voice for myself. This has proven to be remarkably successful. Meeting photographers and artists working across Bali and Java has brought a great deal of clarity to me. To see other people using photography to wrestle with their own questions has opened my eyes. And the chance to see the evolution of the medium in Indonesia over time has broadened my understanding of the culture, in ways that have made it easier to think both objectively and subjectively with the camera.
My intention for this book is to help develop a conversation on a subject that is still being discovered and explored. Hence, this is in no way a definitive history. That said, I do hope that the documentation and observations recorded here will be of value for others interested in exploring Indonesia, photography, and the complex evolution of cultural exchange and self-visualization.
 Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia, Etc.
 Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston.
 This Earth of Mankind, part 1 of the Buru Quartet, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated from Indonesian by Max Lane.
 Claire Holt’s wonderful book, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change, provides some great insight into the establishment and pedagogy of the different art academies in Indonesia, and how the debates of independence and nationalism influenced discussions of art and art education.
 Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters.
Brian Arnold is a photographer, educator, and musician based in Ithaca, NY.