Yogyakarta. Indonesia has a rich and diverse tradition of terracotta culture dating back many centuries, and the opening on June 7 of the Terracotta Biennale 2015 Art On The River in Bantul, Yogyakarta, was a landmark occasion. Featuring sculptures and installations made from clay by 70 artists from Indonesia, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Serbia, Slovakia, Hungary, Japan and England, the event has the distinction of being the world’s first international terracotta biennale.
Set in beautiful natural surroundings on the Bedog River, Semungan, the river site was selected as the exhibition space because much of Indonesia’s history and culture grew from the riverbanks. The Biennale celebrates cultural history, along with art's inseparable, organic relationship with the earth. “The inspiration for the Biennale came from a meditation I had three years ago, and a vision from the time of my ancestors when terracotta played an essential role in daily life,” said local sculptor and Terracotta Biennale 2015 co-founder Noor Ibrahim.
Ibrahim credited the Biennale's success to the strong collective spirit and commitment of members of the local art community. “While engaging in discussions with friends, we developed the Biennale’s concept. We then invited other artists from around Indonesia, as well as international artists to contribute. The vision began to take shape along with massive organization.”
In April, the process of making the works for the Biennale began in the village of Kasongan, 6 kilometers south of the city of Yogyakarta. May 7 marked the soft opening of the Terracotta Biennale 2015 at Pintu Miring Art Space, located on Ibrahim’s nearby property at Gesik Village, Kasongan, which exhibits Indonesian terracotta artefacts.
Many ethnic groups from Indonesia have their own individual cultural accounts of terracotta. Terracotta was one of the very first technologies conceived by mankind, predating bronze and iron, and vessels, such as bowls, cups and pots, were an inseparable feature of ancient daily life. It was also an important building material for temples. Terracotta relics reveal data relating to technological, sociopolitical, economic, and cultural anthropology. In archaeology and art history, terracotta describes unglazed objects such as figurines, sculptures and building materials not made on a potter's wheel.
The idea of the Biennale, said Ibrahim, “is to go back to the cultural roots of Indonesia, along with the culture of terracotta from others countries, reviving the knowledge. This is not only important from a cultural/historical perspective, yet also from an artist perspective as well. Nowadays in Indonesian too many artists focus on working with new media and technology, and making work derived from Western art canons. We wish to educate people to learn more about their culture and identity, while inspiring new art derived from this cultural asset.”
Themed “The Potter and the Knight,” the event celebrates the unique history of the village of Kasongan, and the role villagers played in resisting Dutch colonialism. Nowadays, Kasongan is Indonesia’s largest producer of pottery and its products are well-known within the country and abroad. The villagers developed their own terracotta industries producing items that were sold and exchanged to the Dutch, substituting growing crops that the colonialists confiscated as tax. During the 1825-1830 Diponegoro War, to outwit the Dutch, the villagers camouflaged clandestine activity by burning fires typically used in the firing of terracotta. The smoke screens prevented the Dutch from penetrating into the area where Diponegoro, a prince from the central Javanese city of Semarang, and his army took refuge. “Indonesian modern culture is in need of a heroic leader and a moral figure like Diponegoro to inspire a sense of national pride and identity,” Ibrahim said.
The Biennale has so far featured a range of discussions and cultural performances. On June 8, the Biennale hosted Terra Yoga for an evening of yoga set within the terracotta installations. On June 9, a presentation by villagers from the Mentawai Islands in West Sumatra revealed details of their terracotta culture, as well as their renowned technique of traditional tattoos. A highlight on June 7 was a one-hour presentation tracing the history of terracotta in Indonesia from Indonesian archaeologist and cultural consultant Mitu M. Prie.
“I am very supportive, and honored to contribute,” Jakarta-based Mitu said. “Indonesia has a wealth of terracotta history, much of which has not been well documented so this event is important to stimulate interest in our cultural roots. The Batu Jaya temple complex in West Java, for example, dating from the 4th-5th century is a 5-squared-kilometer site revealing progressive terracotta technologies. Most probably long before that period terracotta was already well developed in Java,” Mitu continued. “Terracotta played important roles, both sacred and non-sacred, in many past civilizations and is an indicator of the progress of various aspects of life, especially in art and ritual objects.”
Unfortunately in Indonesia, terracotta relics are underappreciated by local antique collectors, and museums, while in Europe it is the opposite. An array of terracotta items from the 13th-16th centuries' Javanese Majapahit period is a feature of the Tropenmuseum in the Netherlands.
With about 120 events being held as part of June’s Jogja Art Weeks (JAW) — Indonesia’s largest ever constellation of art events — the Terracotta Biennale 2015 has provided a fascinating alternative. Some of the participating Indonesian artists are Djoko Pekik, Edhi Sunarso, Dicky Chandra, Hari Budiono, Teguh Ostenrik, Kondang Sugito, Nasirun and Entang Wiharso. The biennale was made possible with support from the Djarum Foundation and Galeri Nasional Indonesia.
While the geography of Indonesia is dotted with around 150 volcanoes, many archeological and anthropological treasures certainly remain buried. The recent exploration of Gunung Padang, a megalithic site in West Java, estimated to be from a period dating around 20,000 BC, there is indeed more important knowledge yet to be revealed in Indonesia.
“Understanding more about the roots and strengths of our past civilizations, along with the vision of our ancestors, has both national and global implications,” Mitu said. “Indonesians can be proud of this cultural heritage.”
Terracotta Biennale 2015 continues through 7 July 2015 and opens daily 9am-6pm, free entry.
Rumah Djoko Pekik Sembungan Village, Kasihan, Bantul, Yogyakarta Tele: +62 274 6461652 firstname.lastname@example.org