Indonesian artists bring history to life for Singapore Biennale

The Singapore Biennale returns this month with more than 60 artists taking part including seven from Indonesia, some of whom are bringing their country's history to life through contemporary art.

Affectionately known as Indonesia’s city of artists or Kota Seniman in Bahasa Indonesia, Yogyakarta is a creative hub of craft makers and contemporary artists who have come from all across the country to find their muse here.

From traditional batik, silver work and shadow puppets to something more current and experimental, their works often tell a deeper and rich history of the Javanese culture that is rich in myth and legend.

One example is the story of Panji – a legendary prince of East Java and his romance with his bride who was lost and then found. His story has been the source for literature and drama across Southeast Asia, dating back to the 13th century.

Now, it has been brought to life in Eddy Susanto’s massive artwork.

The 41-year-old artist has been doing research on the story for the past four years.

“I realised that tales of Panji were big during the golden Majapahit era,” he shared. “This was once well-known here, apart from the famous Borobudur, but mostly in literature. That’s why I would like to carry these tales and show it to Asia now.”

Translating Panji's story into art was a huge undertaking. Eddy, who is self-taught, uses script in several languages such as Thai, Jawi, Balinese, Khmer, Burmese and Baybayin - an ancient Philippine writing system - all of which are meticulously painted across the canvas.

But there's more.

Three hundred characters are carefully traced out and trimmed by hand each day to cover the five-metre base of the artwork.

Youths from Eddy's village who dropped out of school have also been roped in.

This act of "gotong royong", or helping each other out is a characteristic of the Indonesian way of life. For Eddy, it is also a way to groom and share knowledge with aspiring artists.

He hopes that the Panji story will garner more interest across Asia.

“I hope the Panji story will garner interest across Asia, as it has been recognised by UNESCO as (part of) world heritage, as well as national heritage in Indonesia. In fact, the story is still taught in schools in Thailand, but in Indonesia, many people do not know about it,” he added.


The studio of Titarubi, one of Indonesia’s pioneering female contemporary artists, resembles a scene out of a science lab. The base material for her work, titled History Repeats Itself, is the humble nutmeg.

First, the spices are sanded, dehydrated for three hours and attached to strings of copper. They then go through a coating process of epoxy and metal powder before they are electroplated. The result is a transformation of metal to copper, nickel, brass and gold.

Lastly, the items are put together into a life-sized robe.

The final installation will have three robes comprising 45,000 gold-plated nutmegs that will stand on sampans. It symbolises the importance of Southeast Asia as a trading hub during the colonial era.

Nutmegs are significant in Indonesia as they originally came from the Banda Islands – the world’s only source of nutmeg at one point in time. Back then, they were also considered to be the most desired luxury goods in Europe.

Titarubi wants to remind the region of its history and wealth.

“In the 16th century, Southeast Asia was considered a rich region; a place of spices and natural resources which were sought after by many nations around the world,” she said. “So this is a reminder to us Southeast Asians that we actually have great wealth.”


Works by Titarubi and Eddy Susanto contribute to the theme of this year’s Singapore Biennale "An Atlas of Mirrors". Siuli Tan, curatorial co-head at Singapore Art Museum - the event’s main organiser - said many Indonesian artists are taking a deep dive into history as it allows them to look at past forgotten issues through contemporary eyes and bring them back to life.

“They are bringing to the surface a lot of relationships with other parts of the region that have been submerged for a long time. They’ve been forgotten, with new political affiliations today, new issues, new kind of correlations. But all these older relationships, all the different kinds of connections that Indonesia has had with different parts of the world, are coming back through their research and through their projects that they’ve proposed for the Biennale,” she said.

The Biennale runs from Oct 27 to Feb 26, 2017 and will also include artists from Southeast Asia, as well as East and South Asia. It is expected to draw around 500,000 visitors, a similar turnout to the previous edition in 2013.

Tickets are available at SISTIC and Singapore Art Museum.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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