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For the first time in its history, the National Gallery of Victoria will be showcasing an exhibition of contemporary Indonesian art. The two artists at the centre of RALLY, Jompet Kuswidananto and Eko Nugroho, caught up with ACCLAIM to give us some insights into their artistic beginnings, what is currently influencing their work, the importance of community and what it’s like to be an artist in modern Indonesia.

Jompet, you come from a music background, is that right? Was it music and theatre?

J: Yeah. 

Playing in bands?

J: Yeah, I didn’t study art. I was playing music since I was very little. I was quite serious on music when I was in the university. So I was not a good student anyway at the time so I was playing music and then I also joined the university theatre clubs and then these two background…also because I learned communication at university. I took broadcasting programs, so I learned lot of video production. So music, theatre and video became my toys.

Did you ever think about going into something like film making or…

J: I did. I was doing lots of documentary films. It is common in Indonesia that if you study something, you finish it and then you do something else. Also because I was quite close with the art community, after I finished my university I was getting more involved in that scene and became an assistant of many famous artists at the time.

How did your background as a musician turn into becoming a sound artist?

J: When I was at the university I played guitar in a band; I made music for the theatre, for videos etc. I was really active in the music scene and the centre for the music scene in the city is the university campus. The campus was like a stage; that’s why I was not a good student, I was always looking at the campus as a stage and the students as the audience.

When I finished my university I felt like I had lost my stage, I lost my audience. So I was thinking about  making a new stage or new music—new music to get a new stage.  So I started to make music unconventionally, I started to make my own musical instruments, and mixing music with other different mediums. Yeah I started to learn, it was about in 1999 or 2000, I started to use computer as a part of the music production or the performance production.

What about you Eko, how did you start this path? As a kid, did you grow up drawing and painting?

E: I always really liked drawing but I don’t have an artist background family. But I decided to go to art high school, there is an art high school, so yeah I really like drawing and painting since I studied, then I continued to the Institute of Art as well, but I decided to painting just the wall after that. Since I graduated I do my own thing, I do a lot of projects. Some street things in Yogyakarta.

And what did you study at uni?

E: Painting.

Are you from a street background as well? Did you paint as a street artist?

Yep, I started in the street…painting the wall.

And how does that differ to what you’re doing now? Do you still work out in the street?

E: Uh ok, since 2002, there is a lot of happening in the street in Yogyakarta and now there is a new generation, it’s growing and changing a lot of the street and we don’t have so much people painting on the wall, and it’s every time, it’s almost everyday they’re changing, so it’s very quickly happening on the street.

And now that I have to change my idea about the street art thing, now I’m working on community projects so I do a lot of workshops, and then I working with the kind of ordinary job everywhere, like embroidery, like batik, like things that surround me and my culture, like shadow puppets.

And you also work in a lot of different mediums. So, sculpture, embroidery, painting, drawing…how important is for you to have all of those different skills? And why do you not choose to focus on one?

E: I focus on the idea, actually. But this is still the street idea. Outside, everything changes quickly and everything can be art you know what I mean. [Since university] I decided not to present my paintings on canvas; I started painting on the walls and I presented this to my teacher. But it was always denied by my teacher, because you had to paint on canvas. It was kinda like a rebellious thing for me.

So this kind of situation brought me to develop more and more different medium and I never stopped learning: how to make a sculpture, how to build an embroidery as a sculpture itself, my new project is a sculpture, but it’s embroidery. So for me the medium is not the final thing I have to decide. First it’s the communication, the second one is the idea, and then the third, how I can work with the community project, how I can work with the people.

So that idea of community is really important to you?

E: Yeah, especially after The Crisis, of course The Crisis was everywhere. This kind of community project is a big support for people who have lost their jobs.

In 2007, I started The Shop Project (an initiative called Fight For Rice) because a lot of of teenagers and students, stopped going to school because the parents cannot afford to pay. They decided “Ok, you go out on your own” and they would go looking for money on the streets. I asked them to join me in a short project, and we did a silkscreening workshop. And after that, we raised some capital and we produced a t-shirt, and bags and limited editions we made by hand.

And then I decided to open The Shop Project, I just rented some space, and the idea was to invite all the independent, young people who supported themselves, to do something creative. So I opened my shop and then, of course, they give the product and I try to sell it. Like a normal shop, I took a percentage as well and then that percentage would go towards new workshops. So community projects are kind of like my medium. I like this medium: it’s outside, it’s open minded and it’s about conversations.

Jompet, you said in an interview once that you felt you had lost your roots. What do you mean by that?

J: This is the common problem I guess between the knowledge gap between the generations. Let’s say as a very simple example, for the name of baby, we don’t have any family names and people are free to give any names to the baby. And so from the name of a man, of anyone, you cannot see the family…

…their heritage?

J: Yeah, their lineage, their genealogy. But you can see, from the name you can see only the religion mostly. Indonesia has no good system to share knowledge, to distribute the knowledge to the generations, especially. We don’t have the museum culture. We don’t have the really good education system. So every generation seems to find their own way to face their reality. The knowledge from the past is not really transferred from generation to generation.

In that kind of system, in that kind of situation, the community movement, or the community relationship then becomes very important because you understand that you live without the proper support from the government and you realize that there are people in the same situation with you. And then you will be connected and then try to work together. So the community is trying, through the community they are trying to find the way to face their own realities.

What about being an artist in Indonesia? Indonesia’s always been quite unstable politically. How difficult is for you to work over there? 

E: Yes, that has also become my core point of interest. My work’s actually about unstable culture, unstable position of culture. Yeah that’s why, I realise I live in this kind of unstable situation in Indonesia, and I really work with this theme but I try to see it in a wider context.

Like looking back on the history of Indonesia, there have been many different kinds of transitions, and it’s never settled in a fixed cultural statement. Indonesia is always in a state of transition; it’s not a negative thing, it’s a way of being.

I guess it’s interesting for us to see Indonesia from and Indonesian’s perspective as well because, you know, we’re all outsiders. We don’t really know what goes on…

E: The unstable situation, like I mentioned earlier, the problem for me is that it’s not become the consciousness of the government, or the consciousness of the state. So it’s never inspired the national statement. I mean, they don’t really understand that they have this kind of situation; they are trying to be fixed, like any other country. They are always, “Oh, we want to be a modern, we want to be global” something like that. But yeah, they don’t really have an awareness that they are always in this state of transition.

Yogyakarta—the town that you’re both from—why are artists drawn there? Why do you think this sort of community doesn’t exist somewhere like Jakarta or…

J: No, no, no, actually it happens, I’m sure, the whole Indonesia has this, the community relationship is binding in the traditional culture. I think all the Indonesian traditional cultures are communal. And even in the big city, the community is still quite strong. Exists. The network is still very strong and gets stronger when the states in not working well.

RALLY: Contemporary Indonesian Art
Jompet Kusidananto & Eko Nugroho
NGV International
St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Opens 18 October 2012
Until 01 April 2013