Exploring Yogyakarta with Mella Jaarsma

Mella Jaarsma has become known for her complex costume installations and her focus on forms of cultural and racial diversity embedded within clothing, the body, and food. She was born in the Netherlands in 1960, studied visual art at Minerva Academy in Groningen (1978-1984), Art Institute of Jakarta (1984) and at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta (1985-1986). She has lived and worked in Indonesia ever since. In 1988, she co-founded Cemeti Art House, now called Cemeti Institute for Art & Society with Nindityo Adipurnomo, one of the first spaces for contemporary art in Indonesia, which to this day remains an important platform for young artists and art workers in the country and region.

Mella Jaarsma’s works have been presented widely in exhibitions and art events in Indonesia and abroad, including: ‘Dunia Dalam Berita’, Macan Museum, Jakarta (2019); the Thailand Biennale (2018); the 20th Sydney Biennale (2016); ‘The Roving Eye’, Arter, Istanbul(2014); ‘Singapore Biennale’, Singapore Art Museum (2011), and many others. Her work is part of the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, National Gallery of Australia and the Singapore Art Museum, amongst others.

Under what socio-cultural and socio-political conditions was Cemeti birthed? Are you still responding to those conditions to date, and have your motivations and vision for the space shifted or morphed since its establishment?

By the late 1980s, well over a decade after the founding of the New Art Movement, there were only a handful of artists who continued to challenge the political status quo in Indonesia. The newly opened Cemeti, however, provided space for experimental practices and diverse art forms, thereby becoming a playground that nurtured an emerging generation of artists who in the 1990sre-engaged with socially and politically focused works. Cemeti provided a place for artists to meet and to present their works free from state, institutional, or market regulations and conservatism. We went on to create diverse programmes and encourage audiences to become part of the art scene, participating in group discussions, artists’ talks, events, etc. When selecting artists to work with, we were not so much looking for the “new” in the sense of “avant-garde”, but rather for work that had something to say, raising questions and proposing different perspectives through its visual language.

We have been running Cemeti for ten years under the Suharto regime. The different eras since then are very much reflected throughout our programmes and projects, but the basic concept of providing space for diverse perspectives, discourses, and dialogues through the arts is still in place. Shifting social and political contexts, as well as the work and practice of different artists across generations, have also changed the form and focus of Cemeti. When we started in 1988, our goal was simple: to create a space for artists to meet and exhibit their work. As time went on, we engaged with the social and cultural climate, hoping to learn from it and develop projects that were relevant to the conditions in Indonesia at any given moment. Our main tactic for survival was to stay under the radar while connecting to local realities. Our exhibitions and projects were connected to the local public in a fast-changing society, while at the same time we tried to make the work of the Indonesian scene visible to the international art world.

What position does Cemeti occupy in the development of Indonesian contemporary art, and what existing positions or forces does it seek to challenge and problematise?

In the beginning, we had to fulfill the task of ‘promoting’, to get the Indonesian artists on the International map, when in the nineties slowly there started to be an interest of what was happening in South East Asia. So we started with documenting, creating artist’s files, publications and connecting the artists to curators, as well as trying to bring the artists further in career by seeking further studies, residencies, etc. The international exchange and the growing art infrastructure in Indonesia had brought many changes. The art scene is dynamic and nowadays it feels much more like we can work and collaborate on different issues with many partners, looking into different challenges like; government support, alternative education, the dominance of the art market, growing conservatism, public involvement, censorship, etc.  

The term “laboratory” or “laboratorium” is often used to describe art spaces, particularly artist-run ones, in Indonesia. What do you think is the allure or effectiveness of such a term? Would you describe Cemeti as a “laboratory”?

I think every space has their own vision and objectives. I think Cemeti is not a laboratory, because we care as much of communicating to our public as the development of artists and art workers. But anyhow, the work that we have been doing in Cemeti, I see it as being in a kitchen, experimenting, trying things out, with a focus on the process and discussion. We (the artists run spaces) are cooking, while the museums, commercial galleries, and art fairs can ‘eat the food that is ready’ to consume.    

How would you characterise the energy and spirit of collectivising in Indonesia, specifically in Yogyakarta, where collectives like MES 56 and Taring Padi were founded? Are there common urgencies that drive their approach, and how do they contrast or support art education in the country?

Yogyakarta is the melting pot of artists from different regions and cultures in Indonesia. Artists come from other islands and areas to study art in Yogyakarta, after which they often don’t return because there is no art infrastructure. I see the community-based art practices in Yogyakarta as a sort of alternative education system. With the character of the city in which it is easy to ‘go around’ and ‘hang around’, artists’ communities are sort of organically taking shape during or after official education.  Some of them arise from frustration, criticising the dated art education system, or from protests towards the government like Taring Padi, or because they share a passion in a specific discipline, like MES 56 with video and photography.  

With no government support, for young artists to work in a community-based manner is a liberating endeavour. They can set their own rules and it is an important playground to develop all kinds of aspects. But on the other hand, I also criticise the communities that sometimes play too safely – they can hide, and they don’t make an individual statement through their art; in this way, too much is compromised.

You take on multiple roles that, for certain, converge in many ways – as artist, teacher, “art worker”; do you find one taking precedence over the rest? What do you consider your work or your practice?

I think this also reflects the situation in Indonesia. If you want things to happen you depend on personal initiatives, which grow out of necessity. So working in Cemeti is as important for me as developing my work as an artist.  Throughout 28 years of running Cemeti together with the team, I spent 80% of my time at that job. I am now happy to be balancing this after stepping out for three years and being able to now spend approximately 80% of my time on my art practice.  

What is the significance of IVAA, and do you feel that the function of and engagement with the archive differs between Indonesia and Europe?  

This archive-cum-foundation was also founded out of urgency. When we started in 1995, no visual art archive existed, except the Jakarta Art Council archive. In that sense, it is very different from the European archives, in which an awareness of the importance of historical materials is part of government policies. Because of the lack of an established infrastructure with museums and other institutions in Indonesia, on one hand, most roles in the arts like curators, achievers, and art historians are self-taught and develop slowly, but on the other hand, this also creates space and freedom to work in non-conventional ways.

Who are some younger artists and/or art projects in the Southeast Asian region you’ve been excited about and provoked by? Why?

The contemporary art scene in Indonesia has been limited to Java and Bali and is particularly clustered in such cities as Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta. When we talk about Indonesian artists we usually mean artists from Java or artists from other regions who settled in Java, because of its art institutional landscape. I was very excited to see the Biennale Jogja XVEquator #5, which took place this year and had the title ‘Do we live in the same PLAYGROUND?’. It was curated by Akiq AW and Arham Rahman from Indonesia, and Penwadee Nophaket Manont from Thailand. Bringing together artists and collectives from Southeast Asia, it finally included artists from regions like Aceh, Kalimantan, Madura, Sulawesi and Pattani, drawing into the center issues of the periphery. This was also the first Biennale in Indonesia with a balanced selection of female artists.

What are some of your upcoming projects or collaborations in 2020 we can look forward to?

I am looking forward to the upcoming two-year focus on Cemeti’s programme ‘Rhizomatic Archipelago’, which will run land, sea and river residencies for diverse communities across the Indonesia archipelago. I am also working towards my solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Jakarta which will take place in July 2020, curated by Alia Swastika. I am excited to show my works from the past ten years, as they haven’t been exhibited together. I am concurrently working on a new series of work – after the exhibition in Jakarta, I hope to show everything back at my basecamp, Yogyakarta!

Mella is a panellist for the S.E.A. Focus talk Southeast Asia Art Watch: Indonesia alongside Dr. Oei Hong Djien, Mira Asriningtyas, Dito Yuwono, and Tom Tandio. Click here to find out more.