Ipeh Nur's 'Borderless,' a two-panel acrylic paintings on goat skin depicting how Javanese wedding attire has been revolutionized by hijab wearers. (JG Photo/Dhania Sarahtika)

The Meaning of Hijab According to Six Female Artists


OCTOBER 18, 2018

Jakarta. The Jakarta Arts Council's new "Yang Tersingkap Di Balik Jilbab," or "What Lies Beneath the Hijab," exhibition shows the works of six female artists who try to gleam meanings out of the wearing of hijab, the Muslim headscarf, in contemporary Indonesian society.

The Arts Council is hosting the exhibition as part of its annual Female Artists Art Project at Galeri Cipta II in Taman Ismail Marzuki, the old arts center in Cikini, Central Jakarta.

The exhibition had its opening on Wednesday (18/10) and will run until Oct. 30.

The artists' interpretations of the headgear varied, from showing it as having become part of a Muslim woman's personal space to exposing its commodification in the fashion industry.

Curator Angga Wijaya said on the opening night that the Arts Council decided on hijab as the theme for their annual exhibition this year after seeing that the trend to wear the headscarf among Indonesian Muslim women shows no sign of abating.

Hijab, or jilbab as it is known here, has a long, storied history in Indonesia.

For a long time during Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998), jilbab was actually banned in schools, and wearing it became a sign of rebellion, even resistance to the state.

The rockumentary Kantata Takwa – made in 1991 but only released in 2018 – featured the ghostly images of a young woman wearing a jilbab, a symbol that could easily be interpreted now as a sign of Muslim dominance but was actually meant at that time to show how revolutionary forces against the New Order regime had used Islam as an ideological bulwark.

Now Muslim women in Indonesia are free to wear the hijab, but the subject still becomes a source of arguments for many.

International critics have interpreted the popularity of the hijab as a sign of rising conservatism in Indonesia and lambasted the wearing of it as a sign of oppression or extremism.

Meanwhile domestically, many Muslim women – who see the government taking their hands off what women choose to wear as a form of liberation – choose to focus on the finer rules of wearing the headscarf, from how long the scarf should be to whether or not it's permissible to wear the scarf in combination with tight clothing.

The six artists in the exhibition started working on their individual piece by researching the subject in July this year.

Writer and illustrator Lala Bohang said she found the process of creating her piece very "thrilling, because of the conflicts that may rise out of it."

Her interactive work, "Unbothered," is a little room with walls of curtains that visitors can enter.

When empty, the cordoned off room is kept dark, but once you go inside, a single lightbulb hanging on a wire will switch on by itself.

Lala said there is a sensor on the ceiling that detects movements and trigger the light switch when it does.

The floor of the room is made of soft sand. We leave the room with the sure knowledge that our footprints will be replaced by others.

Right, Lala Bohang's 'Unbothered.' (Photo courtesy of Jakarta Arts Council)

Lala said her work suggests that the decision to wear the hijab or not is a very personal one, and unique to each woman.

Outsiders can never know exactly why a woman chooses to wear or not wear the headscarf, or if she decides to wear it only on certain occasions.

The reasons could be many and may change overtime.

"If we get into fights just because we think about hijab different, that would be a total waste of time, since hijab itself, and the people who wear it, will keep evolving," Lala said.

One of the most striking works in the exhibition – also a very personal take on the hijab – is Ratu Rizkitasari Saraswati's "Kami Mendengar dan Kami Taat" ("We Listen and We Obey"), a set of floating paintings on canvasses made of fabric that visitors can walk under and take photos of.

The choice of colors the artist used to paint the fabric is based on her interviews with women who wear the syar’i hijab, the longer version of the Muslim modest wear that covers the whole upper body, and women who wear the niqab, or face veil.

Syar'i hijab and niqab are usually only available in one colorway: black.

Ratu asked women who wear them what color they actually like the most and why.

Ferial Affif’s "Kaffah," meanwhile, is a piece about spiritual journey.

The work is made up of giant candles carved with song lyrics and sayings of prominent figures, including those of Indonesia’s fourth president, the late Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, who is idolized as the quintessential Indonesian moderate Muslim.

The candles are connected to each other by black threads.

The candles symbolize one's struggle to stay determined during a spiritual journey.

The black threads represent the tension that a person may feel within or pressure from outsiders.

The melted candles are meant to suggest that as we go further in our spiritual journey, we should become more humble.

Ferial, who's been wearing hijab for two years, said her own experience taught her that learning about religion is a lifelong journey filled with questions.

"People often copy and paste a verse they'd just read and force it down your throat. But the Koran tells us to read the verses slowly, for ourselves, and to really think about what we're reading," she said.

Other artists chose to look at hijab beyond the personal. 

Dian Suci Rahmawati's "Ageming Ati" ("The Heart's Amulet") is a series of paintings on hijab fabrics that depict ibu-ibu (housewives) who often wear their hijab with short-sleeve shirts while doing chores at home.

Dian said she wants to show how versatile hijab is as a piece of clothing.

Also, she thinks that Muslim women often retreat inside the home because they find it's become the only safe space for them, where they are free to wear their hijab any way they want without getting criticized for it.

In "Borderless," a diptych of acrylic paintings on goat skin, Ipeh Nur shows that hijab can also be a catalyst for change in traditions.

Ipeh has seen how hijab has made its way into Javanese female wedding attire, which has many of its own pakem (traditional rules).

But many Muslim brides now forego the once customary sanggul (hair bun) and wears the simpler hijab instead.

Some brides still insist on keeping the paes (curved black patterns drawn on the forehead), but others have abandoned it altogether.

The last piece in the exhibition, Dyantini Adeline's "Religious Marketing," is a two-minute video installation mostly filled with the artist's interviews with the owners of the hijab brand Zoya.

The brand gained notoriety two years ago when they released a TV commercial claiming that all of their hijabs carried a halal certification.

The company later apologized for the heavily criticized advertisement, but not before it sparked a public debate on the commodification of hijab.

"Some people think when you buy a hijab, you're getting piety with it as a bonus. But we all know piety doesn't work that way," Dyantini said.

The voiceover in the video never actually mentioned the brand by name, but we can see the Zoya label on the products featured in it.

Yang Tersingkap Di Balik Jilbab kickstarted DKJ Fest, the Jakarta Arts Council's end-of-year festival that runs until Dec. 4.

The festival will also feature concerts, stage plays and film screenings.