'Perempuan Gerabah' (The Crockery Woman'). (Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Indonesia)

Art Meets Poetry to Tell Stories of Borobudur Women


MARCH 02, 2018

Jakarta. "Perempuan (Di) Borobudur," or Borobudur Women, opened last Tuesday (20/02) at the National Gallery in Jakarta. The exhibition shows an interesting mix of art and poetry to celebrate Indonesian women and shed light on problems in their life caused by tourism.

Visual artist Dyan Anggraini and poet-cum-actor Landung Simatupang, both from Yogyakarta, are behind the project.

The idea for Borobudur Women came about in 2014. Initially, the project was going to be more interdisciplinary, involving performance artists, musicians and more artists from other disciplines.

But things didn't go as planned and in the end only Dyan and Landung were left to complete it.

Dyan ended up experimenting with painting batik on canvas, woodcuts, stitching embroidery on more canvas and sculpting.

Landung's job was to respond to Dyan's work with poetry, including English translations of his own poems.

Curator Suwarno Wisetrotomo added the tag "Gugat Senyap Karmawibhangga" (Karmawibhangga's Silent Protest) as the exhibition’s subtitle, to show that Dyan and Landung’s creations actually speak for socially and economically disadvantaged women.

Karmawibhangga is a collection of texts dealing with Karmic law. The Borobudur Temple contains 160 relief panels sourced from the texts.

Borobudur Women highlights two subjects: the women on the relief panels of Central Java’s most majestic temple, and the poor craftswomen living near it now.

Here are some key themes we found in the exhibition:

1. Strong Motherly Figures

Some of the works are about mothers, motherly figures or motherly qualities. "Perempuan Bunda" (Mother Woman) and "Lumbini" tell the story of Queen Maya when she gave birth to Siddharta.

"Siul Angin di Rekah Batu" (The Wind Whistling in Stone Crevices) glorifies Tara, the "mother of all Buddhas."

Here's a stanza from Landung's poetry accompanying the painting:

"The wind whistling in stone crevices Turns into rustles on the threshold of sleep Mother, the protecting goddess How powerful in her sweetness"

A visitor stands in front of the painting 'Siul Angin di Rekah Batu' (The Wind Whistling in Stone Crevices) by Dyan Anggraini and Landung Simatupang. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

The last line perfectly captures the mothers depicted in the paintings. These mothers aren’t just gentle, they're also tough.

"Bunda" (Mother) and "Bunda Perkasa" (Mighty Mother) also show mothers who will go through struggle to provide for their families.

2. Plight of Klipoh Women

"Close by, the nineteenth century monument Gaudily made up and dressed like a hooker Partying are the pimp and brokers crazily Trampling to pieces rustic crockery"

These are lines from Landung's "Perempuan Gerabah" (Earthen Woman), supposedly a criticism of the government's materialistic obsession.

The poem is placed on an oil painting portraying an old woman surrounded by paper planes made of money.

'Perempuan Gerabah' (Earthen Woman). (Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Indonesia)

Near the touristy Borobudur there is a village called Klipoh where female potters live in dire poverty.

The artists saw the tragic irony in this, especially considering the government has declared the temple as one of its "10 New Balis" and poured millions into promoting it to attract foreign tourists.

According to Antara, the Tourism Ministry expects 2 million tourists to visit Borobudur in 2019, putting more than $20 billion into the government's coffers.

According to local lore, Klipoh was the site where women used to cook meals for workers and slaves who built Borobudur, but now these contemporary women who live so close to the temple might just as well be worlds apart.

3. Hope for Klipoh Women

"Dyan and Landung aren’t always pessimistic about the plight of these Borobudur women, they also offer hope that speaks in silence," curator Suwarno told reporters.

In "Ziarah/Pilgrimage," for example, an installation of fiberglass legs with gashes covered by safety pins. The legs are arranged in a path and at the end of it stands a lantern with a mandala symbol. Suwarno said the work represents healing for the Klipoh women.

'Ziarah/Pilgrimage.' The path formed by the fiberglass legs represent hope for the Borobudur women. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Other works in the exhibition respond to stories from the relief panels at Mendut, another Buddhist temple three kilometers away from Borobudur. They depict stories of Tara, the love story between Princess Manohara and Prince Sudhana and the demoness-turned-goddess Hariti.

Borobudur Women runs until March 5.