Jogja, as the city of Yogyakarta in central Java is better known to locals, has long been a hotbed for art. For centuries, this city – home to the temples of Prambanan and Borobudur – has shone bright as a cultural hub, with deep traditions of fine art, batik and performing arts.
Creativity continues to flourish today, and vibrant contemporary works are visible throughout the city, at galleries, art spaces and even storefronts and doorways. For that, some thank President Sukarno, who established the Academy of Fine Arts here in 1950. Since then, schools of music and dance opened, merging in 1984 to become the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI), the country’s premier art school.
Over time, Jogja has become the best place in the country to create and see contemporary art, a phenomenon joyously celebrated with the return of Art Jog (4 May – 4 June), an event created by Heri Pemad, an artist-turned-manager who studied at ISI, and Bambang “Toko” Witjaksono. The first iteration in 2008 featured only Indonesian artists and drew 15,000 visitors. Last year, 45,000 people came and a daily performance programme was introduced for the first time. Now in its 11th year, the annual festival, held at the Jogja National Museum, commemorates the city’s collective vision and its buzzing contemporary art scene – a scene best discovered through meeting the artists and curators that call this place home.
Bambang “Toko” Witjaksono, artist and co-founder of Art Jog
“Euphoria” is how Toko Witjaksono, co-curator of this year’s Art Jog and a lecturer at ISI, describes the mood in the city during the event. “This is where art lovers come,” he says.
As one of the Art Jog judges, Witjaksono decides which submissions will show at the festival, and is ebullient about the artistic creativity found in the city. “This place is like a laboratory for artists,” he says. “It’s good to live here as it’s much cheaper than Jakarta and students can meet senior and established artists easily. Jogja is a big kampong (village). We all know each other and help each other.”
Mella Jaarsma, artist and founder of Cemeti – Institute of Art and Society
“There are many skills like batik, woodcarving and welding available here,” says artist Mella Jaarsma, who opened Cemeti – Institute of Art and Society with her partner, Indonesian artist Nindityo Adipurnomo, in the front room of their home in 1988 before moving it to its current iron-beamed space in 1997.
This year is the sixth time that Jaarsma will exhibit her work at Art Jog. “It makes the art scene more active. It has a good balance of commercial art and art that would normally find it hard to enter the market.”
Jaarsma believes one of Jogja’s greatest strengths is an inclusive approach to art. “We love to overlap on projects. There is little involvement from the government, so we have to do things together.”
For the duration of this year’s Art Jog, the entrance of the Jogja National Museum will feature a large whale surrounded by bright crocheted coral gardens and hundreds of yellow and orange fish, displayed in a diamond-shaped structure of perforated metal. Specially commissioned for the festival, it’s the work of noted artist Mulyana, a compact, smiley man with a slim moustache.
Mulyana has felt the benefit of exhibiting at the festival, finding international recognition after having his work featured at Art Jog in 2015. “[After that] everybody knew me. There are many galleries on the lookout for young artists at Art Jog.”
Since then, Mulyana’s work has appeared at Singapore’s 2016 Imaginarium, with exhibitions planned in Hong Kong and Bandung this year.
He works out of a home studio in a quiet residential area near the artist hub of Jalan Tirtodipuran, surrounded by crochet versions of his alter ego, Mogus, or “mad octopus monster”. Mogus was born out of a love of sea creatures and a desire to present the often-maligned octopus in a more positive light. “People think it’s evil, but I see how flexible it is, and how it has many hands to give.”
His studio includes a room of shelves crammed with different coloured wool, another filled with various-sized Mogus figures and an area where local women, many former stay-at-home mums, are spinning wool into fantastical coral for the show.
Mulyana first got into art to cope with being verbally bullied as a boy and later began making models with origami. “Art calms me; it was healing. I loved origami but the paper was not strong. Crochet is amazing; it is so strong, you can make it into any shape and take it anywhere.”
He formally studied art in Bandung before moving to Jogja in 2014. “In Bandung, art is more of a concept, but here everyone does art whether they have money or no money,” he explains.
Tamara Pertamina, artist
Known for her provocative installations and performance pieces, transgender artist Tamara Pertamina moved to Jogja in 2013 from Jakarta.
Seated in the kitchen of the bed and breakfast she runs, Pertamina describes the project she’s currently researching, about Sulawesi’s bissu, androgynous shamans who once had the highest position in society. Her previous works include a protest against illegal logging where she buried herself like a tree before asking people to cut her hair.
“For me, being an artist is not a job, but a campaign. I moved here because there are many transgenders, and people are more accepting here,” she says, her sweet round face framed by hair down to her waist.
Pertamina is particularly appreciative of the collaborative spirit found in the Jogja art scene. She has worked with Mulyana, among others. “So many artists come here, they collaborate, share their knowledge. For young artists who don’t yet have confidence or money, collaborations act as a kind of comfort zone.”
Wok the Rock, member of Ruang Mes 56 art collective
Scores of art spaces open up during Art Jog, hoping to lure inquisitive art lovers, raise their profile and maybe sell some work. Among them is Ruang Mes 56, a collective where member Woto Wibowo, aka Wok the Rock, a baby-faced artist with a missing front tooth that adds to his boyishness, works on group and solo projects. Wibowo sees himself as a bit of an outsider to the Art Jog scene, and though he exhibited there in 2011, his projects are often grounded in music. “They are not always object-based,” he says, referring to the community art bar he created in Yokohama, “or not beautiful enough or just too strange. Some collectors might even question whether they are art!”
Wibowo, who works as a graphic/web designer and music producer on the side, is currently working on a couple of experimental music festivals. “I wanted to be an artist since I was a child. My parents thought there was no point wasting money to send me to a normal university, so they told me to go to art school.”
He moved to Jogja from East Java to study at ISI and never left. “People are very open to any kind of art here. At ISI, students can do whatever they want. The art scene here is very friendly and egalitarian, and it’s easy to build relationships. It is also affordable here, but still, most artists need to do other jobs.”
Ruang Mes 56 is run as a collective, with 18 members, a gallery space and a small shop selling music and merchandise. Wibowo explains, “We talk to plenty of artists, and if they have a similar vision and attitude, they can join.”
Agung Kurniawan, artist and founder of Kedai Kebun forum
Among the senior figures in the community is Agung Kurniawan, the founder of Kedai Kebun Forum, a two-storey building that combines a restaurant, gallery and large performing art space.
At Kedai Kebun, the restaurant subsidises the art side of the enterprise, and the gallery stages about seven exhibitions a year. “For now, Jogja is an easy place to be an artist but I don’t know about in five years. The rents are increasing and that is challenging,” says Kurniawan.
A tall, lean man, Kurniawan holds court from a comfortable lounge chair that he calls “my office”. With a pipe in his mouth, wearing fitted blue jeans and a white T-shirt of his design (a woman wearing a motorcycle helmet, a sword in one hand, a severed head in the crook of her elbow), he gives the impression of a quirky academic about to embark on a lengthy philosophical discourse.
Kurniawan was inspired by the Belgian comics of the 1970s and 1980s, and has produced comics as installations, though now he is moving toward more performance art. “I am not part of the glamour art market,” he explains. “I am currently working on a project using caramel to draw on walls.”
While Kurniawan welcomes the exposure Art Jog brings to the city’s younger artists, he also attributes the vibrant scene to the city’s long cultural history as well as robust competition.
“There is lots of competition among the artists here,” he says, “You need to be creative and active, otherwise you won’t survive. And if you survive here, you’ll become a good artist.”
Art you can touch
Look out for the pop-up store, Art Mart, at this year’s Art Jog
Formed a few years ago by a group of established artists, Ace House Collective serves as a platform for members to hang out and trade ideas. “Our work is mostly performed and is site-specific. We recreate functional institutions like a store, an office, a museum,” explains Gintani Swastika.
This year, the collective plans to revisit a previous art installation, a pop-up supermarket, for the duration of Art Jog, with items like soap, shampoo and snacks for sale alongside works of art.
“Most galleries are white cubes, very clean, and they add to the mystification of art. Art Mart aims to bridge the gap between artists and the audience,” explains Uji Handoko Eko Saputro. “Here, you can interact with and touch art.”
SilkAir flies daily between Singapore and Yogyakarta. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine