'Room Screen for Margio bin Suyeb' by Adam de Boer at the 'Legacies: Real and Imagined' exhibition at World Trade Center 2, Setiabudi, South Jakarta. (JG Photo/Dhania Sarahtika)

(Not) Mooi Indie: American, Indonesian Artists Trade Perspectives on Exotic Images of the Past


FEBRUARY 12, 2018

Jakarta. Newly opened exhibition "Legacies: Real and Imagined," held at the lobby of the World Trade Center 2 building in South Jakarta, features American artist Adam de Boer and Jumaldi Alfi from Indonesia, who both offer interesting perspectives on cultural legacy, identity and the unfortunate tradition of exploiting "exotic" images of Indonesia.

De Boer and Alfi got to know each other in Yogyakarta. The American is a Fulbright scholar who held a residency at Yogyakarta Arts Institute (ISI), and Alfi — who is of Minangkabau descent — is a student at the same art school.


Deborah Iskandar, an art consultant from ISA Art Advisory and the exhibition’s curator, said though De Boer (born in 1984) and Alfi (born in 1973) come from different generations, their works speak to each other.

(Not) Mooi Indie

In this exhibition, both artists have created pieces that offer a response to the local 19th century Mooi Indie school.

Mooi Indie (Beautiful Indies — back then what is now Indonesia was a Dutch colony called the Dutch East Indies) came out of the European tendency to romanticize Indonesia in "mooi" landscape paintings.

Legendary painter S. Sudjojono — one of Indonesia's "Old Masters" — said Mooi Indie's holy trinity were mountain, palm tree and rice field.

Indonesian painters who were part of the school included Wakidi, Mas Pirngadie and Basuki Abdullah.

'Melting Memories: Rereading Landscapes, Mooi Indies #3' by Jumaldi Alfi. (JG Photo/Dhania Sarahtika)

Alfi’s "Melting Memories: Rereading Landscapes, Mooi Indies #3" tapes a copy of a Basuki Abdullah mooi indie painting to a blackboard.

The artist said he found a lot of ironies in the Mooi Indie ideology, not the least of which was the fact it was started out by Europeans who were colonizing Indonesia but who drew romantic, feel-good pastoral landscapes of the country.

"I don't just talk about Basuki’s painting but also our mentality, how artists at that time were proud that they could copy Western paintings. And that now 80 years later, we still have that Mooi Indie mentality… our 'slavish' culture hasn’t changed. We don’t have the confidence to steer the direction of our own culture," Alfi told reporters on Tuesday (06/02).

The blackboard symbolizes the fact that no matter how hard someone tries to erase history, they can’t, Alfi said.

Meanwhile, de Boer created two pieces commenting on the Mooi Indie tradition: "Jendela Pagi" (Morning Window) and "Jendela Malam" (Night Window) — both oil paintings of pastoral Yogyakarta countryside landscapes, one set in the morning, the other at night. Surrounding each of them is a painting of laid stone, framed with woven bamboo.

"The stones are about the built environment of Yogyakarta, and also a metaphor for the archipelago. The Dutch had their trading company [VOC] and built a little frame around it and say, "This is Indonesia." It uses ordinary [building] materials, and relates to that history too," de Boer said.

Katherine Bruhn, another Fulbright scholar who wrote the exhibition's notes, said de Boer’s fusion of crude craft and high art could be his way of creating his own contemporary "beautiful Indies."

Complex Identities

But what really ties Alfi and de Boer together is the city of Yogyakarta, and their complex identities as individuals and artists.

Both men are heavily influenced by Yogyakarta, a Javanese court city which has been a den for many local and international artists, but they are also migrants.

Alfi has lived in Yogyakarta for nearly three decades, moving to the city when he was still in high school, continuing on to art school and since then has established several art communities in the city. But he is originally from Lintau in West Sumatra.

"We have a strong literary culture in West Sumatra, but nothing much in the way of visual art. We have so many poets who have written some of Indonesia's most famous pantuns, but visual art, we haven't got much of that," Alfi said.

De Boer hails from South California, but is of Dutch-Indonesian descent. He won his Fulbright scholarship in 2016, but had already been traveling to Java since 2010 to learn batik-making and wood-carving.

Alfi said his formal art education gives him a lot of Western references and techniques, but that his "works still feel very local, very Asian."

Legacies shows Alfi's works from 2005 to 2013.

Use It or Lose It

Alfi rarely makes use of traditional elements in his art. In fact, his "Renewal #8" (2010) criticizes the trend of using a skull or a skull motif in local art and fashion. It also challenges the Eastern belief that a skull represents death, and presents it instead as a symbol of renewal.

Jumaldi Alfi's 'Renewal #8.' (JG Photo/Dhania Sarahtika)

On the contrary, drawing on his travels around Java and extended stay in Yogyakarta, de Boer has tried to include as many traditional elements as possible in his art.

One of his signature styles is using batik as an underlayer. In "Perahu di Gerupuk," a mix of wax-resistant acrylic ink and oil on linen shows different levels of translucence. At a glance it's just a painting of a boat floating in the sea, but take a closer look and you'll see batik tile patterns.

"Room Screen for Margio Bin Suyeb" is inspired by de Boer’s grandfather’s resemblance to the character Margio in Eka Kurniawan’s novel "Man Tiger." It's a painting done on carved leather, and framed in carved teak and woven bamboo ornaments.

When the room is darkened except for a lamp placed in front of the work, you can see shadows of batik shapes formed by the carved leather.

Shadow play created by de Boer's 'Room Screen for Margio bin Suyeb.' (SP Photo/Dina Fitri Annisa)

Exoticize or Exploit?

Traditional elements dominate most of de Boer’s works, almost as if he exoticizes or exploits Javanese culture like his European predecessors did in the past.

"I want my work to show how much I love these materials and how much I respect them. It’s not like I came to Yogyakarta as a wealthy bule [Westerner] and paid people to make my artwork, which happens a lot. I came and I’ve been coming here regularly since 2010 to learn this stuff, sit with tukang [craftsmen], and learn from them,” he said.

De Boer also wanted his work to reignite conversations on multiculturalism.

"I think we need be more nuanced in the way we draw these lines about exoticizing and not exoticizing. So, I guess the point of this exhibition is to think about, does my work exoticize Indonesia since I'm a Westerner who paints landscapes? Can Alfi be accused of the same thing, does he exocitize painting traditions from New York City or Los Angeles?"

"Legacies: Real and Imagined" is held by the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation (AMINEF), ISA Art Advisory and Jakarta Land. It runs until March 9.