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Un Magazine 7.2

Cemeti Art House on turning twenty-five

Briony Galligan

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15/27

Article

FX Harsono opening the exhibition ‘Slot in the box’, performance on the Southern Square of The Kraton (Alun-alun Selatan) by FX Harsono, Qurban—Destruksi I/ Victim Destruksi I, 6 April 1997

Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo are artists and the Yogyakarta-based directors of Cemeti Art House, the art space they founded in 1988 in the front room of their house. Their aim for Cemeti was to exhibit new work and function as an information centre that promoted Indonesian artists over the longer term. Twenty-five years on, Cemeti is the longest-running privately owned artist-run initiative in South-East Asia.

Cemeti is a hive of activity—a place to meet artists and curators in a city where contemporary art has no state-supported venues. I remember a day in February: staff from the Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA) were scanning photos and slides from Cemeti’s archives and Mella was filtering works for a wall display. Ay Mey Lie and Vinita Ramani had recently arrived in Jogja from the Netherlands and Singapore for the art writers’ residency. Mella was meeting with House of Natural Fibre, Performance Klub and Heri Dono to talk through a one-night art party and how they might be involved. Her next-door neighbour was starting to build a raised bamboo stage that was also a bridge over the lane next door for the party. Hang out in Cemeti long enough and you’ll meet everyone involved in the Jogja scene.

BG
There are many Australian artists now engaging with Indonesia, and Yogyakarta in particular, such as Dylan Martorell and Nathan Gray, Danius Kesminas working with Punkasila, and Alex Cuffe and Joel Stern who have worked on sound and instrument-building projects. Yet, most Australians don’t know Indonesia is a democracy.1 What do Australian artists, curators and arts managers encounter in Yogyakarta that doesn’t translate into other areas of Australian public life?
MJ
In the art scene here everything is in private hands. New projects don’t stem from government policy, state-supported arts centres or galleries, and there are no subsidies. Only now is there any kind of government funding and it’s not directed towards individual artists. Until recently the government hasn’t been collecting Indonesian contemporary art, so there aren’t many important works available publicly in Indonesia. Many sit within private collections and internationally in Australia, Singapore and Europe. Spaces and initiatives pop up here because there’s a necessity for them. For example, Art Jog, the Yogyakarta Art Fair, is so successful because it started from young people who just did it; they created a market and an ongoing need. They have also found a way to push ambitious projects alongside their commercial model.
BG
Looking through your archive has been an education in Indonesian art, in particular the screen-printed posters and invitations that were handmade for every show until the mid-2000s. Can we revisit some of your history? What propelled Cemeti’s ­foundation?
MJ
When we started Cemeti in 1988 there were only four art spaces in Yogyakarta: a government-run space; the national newspaper, Kompas, had an art space; and then there were the Dutch and the French Indonesian cultural centres. The term ‘contemporary’ did not exist in Indonesia when we started. We used the term ‘modern art’ in contrast to how traditional Javanese art and batik were viewed. The way the terms modern art, traditional art and contemporary art are used in Indonesia is unusual and connects to colonial and post-colonial histories.2 In the 1980s there were art shops, but they would hang the space full of batik paintings displayed for tourists. In contrast, we wanted to show ‘modern’ art and our friends’ work from art school, like Eddie Hara and Heri Dono.
BG
You say Cemeti’s first decade fulfilled a need for spaces and provided support for artists making work about their social and political context. However, in the exhibition Cemeti: Realities Archived (curated by Farah Wardani and Pitra Hutomo with the IVAA, February 2013), your history was categorised by chronological developments in groupings of ‘the state’, ‘Yogyakarta city’ and ‘art’. Much of what is written about Indonesian art follows this pattern in linking developments in contemporary art with political history. Are there other prisms for viewing your work at Cemeti?
MJ
I think it’s interesting that people analyse things afterwards. When you are in the middle of the process you don’t categorise your approach. All those years, Cemeti was really alone as an art space in Yogyakarta. It wasn’t only the political or social focus that we were pushing; we were pushing as many things as possible. We wanted to show different visions, subjects and ideas, to show different ways to make and exhibit art, including looking at connections to life in the city, or in the village, to ritual, identity, the body, family and community, and how people work here. Or works related to tradition, or history, religion or different issues, or this idea of modern and contemporary art, colonial, post-colonial, regional networks and globalisation particular to Indonesia. I think people perhaps try to categorise or get a certain grip on what we have been doing that ‘fits’ historically. I don’t know if I totally agree with that approach.

Running a gallery in the Suharto era (1988–1998) was necessarily political because it encouraged independent dialogue. Indonesian contemporary art, in particular, really began with these political actions and revolutionary ways of making.

Agus Suwage, <em>Perjalanan tamat / The final journey</em>, 2001, pigskull, leather, rollerskate, wood (detail)

BG
How did the gallery and your networks present exhibitions that were questioning Suharto and the New Order? In 2003, Nindityo mentioned that artists during the New Order period (Suharto’s authoritarian regime, 1965–1998) faced two kinds of censorship: from the regime and from ‘ourselves, from our own fear’.3
MJ
Normally when presenting an exhibition at a gallery, you asked permission from the government. You sent in some works and government censors would say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the exhibition. When we founded Cemeti, we called it a shop and had it registered as an usaha, a small company. In doing so we avoided all the permission processes. Although we held openings, it looked like a low profile, simple space. It was just the front room of our house! We never had to go through the permissions processes or define what we were doing officially. We knew that government spies came to look in at the work, but of course the meaning of art is always hard to pin down.

Some artists were really playing with censorship. Agung Kurniawan’s 1997 portrait Memperingati 30 Tahun Berkuasanya Keluarga Suci (Commemorating Thirty Years of the Holy Family) was clearly a parody of the Suharto family, but you don’t see representational faces of the family—just their gestures and their poses. It explores the way Suharto was authoritarian but always portrayed as a benevolent figure. Everyone knew that it was about the Suharto family but when someone came in and asked directly we threw it back on them, ‘Why do you think this is the Suharto family? What makes you say that?’

BG
I think this is important: that running an art space is political, but that was not your only driving force. What other kinds of work were you doing in the 1990s?
MJ
We were also part of an arts scene actively representing Indonesian art internationally—not just Indonesian art. I think we were also engaged with this idea that South East Asian or even Asian art was not really considered globally. We worked closely with Project 304 in Thailand and Plastique Kinetic Worms in Singapore,4 neither of which exist as physical spaces anymore, but they were alternative art spaces. We had our own independent exchange network, where we would send projects and artists from one space to another. We weren’t confined to just a ‘national’ context or waiting for larger institutions to pick up what we were doing. We could experiment and just do it ourselves.
BG
And how has your focus changed?
MJ
During the Reformation Period (1998–2006) it became important to revisit histories that had been completely repressed under the regime. One of my favourite exhibitions is still Masa Lalu Masa Lupa (The Past—The Forgotten Times) from 2006 which toured to the Netherlands, Singapore, Shanghai and Jakarta. I curated it with Alia Swastika and people were really enthusiastic about its scope. The project focused on the time 1930 to 1960, and on three eras in Indonesian history; the colonial period under the Dutch; WWII and Japanese occupation; and Indonesian nationalism and independence. The project also did something for the artists: it provided a framework for artists to engage with historical research.

This time also coincided with the development of the Indonesian art market and concerns about how to stay critical and relevant when the market boomed. You couldn’t study curatorship or arts management in Indonesia, there is no practice-based training, so we wanted to implement some sort of program. At the Institute of Technology, Bandung, they have started an Art Theory course related to curatorial practice, but this has only started in the last couple of years. We thought it was important for people to set up their own hub or art space but learn something with us first. We applied for a scholarship through Prince Claus Fund to get arts management staff; for example, that’s how we had Alia (Swastika) with us during that time who has gone onto curate the Yogyakarta Biennale in 2011 and co-curated the Gwangju Biennale in 2012.

Over time we have responded to necessity, not just gaps in infrastructure or dialogue. When we conceived the residency programs and obtained funding in 2006, our main priority was to focus on art practice again, much as we did in the 1990s. When we started Cemeti the whole rise of curatorship hadn’t occurred. In the 1980s and 1990s, artists were more in control of their own development, they defined what they wanted to express and exhibited from their body of work. Now, curators really shape new developments and projects. We have seen young artists struggling to push their work beyond responding to curators’ demands.5 It’s very hard now to challenge something and often, when there is a challenge, it can be superficial and pass quickly. That’s why I still like the residency model, because it’s really intensive.

BG
You talk about Cemeti as a kitchen, a space that protects artists from the market for practice-led discoveries. Yet, how do you consider Cemeti’s relationship to the art market?
MJ
From one end, you want an artist to develop. We do not only want to be shown as an experimental hub, we have to be responsible to the artist and build that connection in educating the public. In the beginning, collectors never wanted drawings and now, slowly, they are purchasing works on paper, photography, video and so on.

In 2008, Indonesian collectors jumped on our stockroom and artists. That actually created difficulties for us: we had supported some artists through their development but they became popular and were taken by commercial galleries. We did not have any further access to the artists or their work. Before the Indonesian art market boom in 2007 we developed alongside the artists. Then, suddenly, we were in a position as ‘the owners of the gallery’ who had to protect our knowledge and the way we worked. We had to find a balance because we didn’t want to fight about money or commercial concerns. For example, we never make exclusive contracts with artists, while commercial galleries in Jakarta demand exclusivity. We had to redefine ourselves, to work out what we needed to keep the doors open and to really try to offer something that exists in contrast to commercial galleries. We still sell from the stockroom to cover operational costs but Cemeti has never functioned as a dealer and our relationship with the artists has never solely been in this capacity.

With Turning Targets, our program to celebrate this 25th anniversary, we have art management forums; intensives for young curators from Jakarta, Bandung and Jogja; the residency program still; we continue with exhibitions teaming artists with anthropologists; our one-night art party; and exhibitions of our archives and our collection. We want to shake up and revitalise the discourse; we want that intensity for Cemeti.

Briony Galligan is an artist and completed an internship with Cemeti Art House in February 2013.


  1. Alex Olive, The Lowy Institute Poll 2013: Australia and the World: Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, 2013: Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, p. 12: ‘More than a decade after the transition to democratic rule in Indonesia, only 33% of Australians agree that “Indonesia is a democracy”. 54% agree that “Indonesia acts as a good neighbour to Australia”, while 84% think that “Australia acts as a good neighbour to Indonesia”.’ 

  2. Sumartono, an Indonesian art writer, has written about contemporary art in an Indonesian context that deals with anti-Modernist tendencies and installations, happenings and performance art that involves ‘criticism, allusion, parody and social concerns’. Sumartono addresses the Black December manifesto written in Yogyakarta in 1973 and the New Art Movement in Bandung, in which artists were challenging the structures of art school. He outlines the way student dissatisfaction with the art institute’s authority was based on grievances that extended to the central government. ‘The Role of Power in Contemporary Yogyakartan Contemporary Art’ in Outlet: Yogyakarta within the contemporary Indonesian Are Scene, 2001, Cemeti Art Foundation, Yogyakarta, pp. 21–26. 

  3. Nindityo Adipurnomo in an interview with Rick Karr, 12 November 2003. ‘A Renaissance of Indonesian Art: With Censorship Lifted, an Explosion of Expression’. National Public Radio Morning Edition http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=1502080&m=1503113, accessed 4 September 2013. 

  4. Project 304’s Facebook page contains archival photos from the 2002 Gwangju Biennale, community and education programs, some short artists’ statements from Song wit Pumpkin, Prapon Kumjim, and photographs of installations from Mareeya Damrongphol, accessed 20 September 2013. 

  5. See also comments by Jaarsma and Adipurnomo, http://25years.cemetiarthouse.com/about-25-years-2/, accessed 19 September 2013. Jaarsma also outlines the establishment of the Indonesian Art Coalition (Koalisi Seni Indonesia), a group of 20 arts organisations from across disciplines who aim to form a peak body that advocates for critically informed art and ways to support it. ‘I share my concerns with Ade Dermawan from Ruangrupa and Agung Kurniawan from Kedai Kebun Forum (both directors of alternative art spaces) that it is harder to get artists interested in experimental, laboratory-based projects. We have to work harder to encourage a critical discourse, finding different ways to challenge young artists to advance.’ Mella Jaarsma, ‘Indonesian art today: Navigating between idealism and commodity’ Art Monthly Australia, No. 244, Oct 2011, p. 19.