A recent trip to Yogyakarta came at the end of a Bandung-Jakarta-Yogya road trip with two of my colleagues from Singapore. The excursion also meant a long and in-depth series of meetings with a number of artists. We sat down at kedai kebun Forum for our first lunch meeting in Yogya, and were greeted by the ever-so-witty Agung Kurniawan, the owner of Kedai Kebun. We were thus instantly reassured that Yogya was indeed the right place to end this lengthy road trip. Yogya always seems to me to be an open and honest place, and never hostile or aggressive. the art scene here is also often refreshingly informal, and our meeting took place in a casual setting, while our cerebral musings were lightened by jokes and polite gossip.
Stephany Yaya Sungkharisma, a young artist from Jakarta, also expressed similar sentiments about Yogya to me, as we visited her in MeS 56. Yaya was putting on her first solo exhibition down at this alternative contemporary-photography space. Another difference between galleries in Yogya and Jakarta is that in the former location, one can sit on the floor without feeling out of place and indulge in a long chat, doors wide open so that we could bathe in the natural breeze.
MES56 itself is always an interesting place to visit. this artists’ initiative was first established in 1993, and MES56 has dedicated its space to the emergence of new, contemporary photographic artists during the intervening years. the exhibitions here are mostly curated by senior members of the group.
This time around, MES56 was presenting a fascinating young artist from Jakarta, one of the up-and-comers that i included in last month’s article which reflected on my fresh picks from Jakarta. Yaya had managed to transpose some of the hostility that she perceives in Jakarta to this friendly Yogyakarta setting, creating an interesting contrast, and her exhibition examined stories that she had originally unearthed on Jalan Kemenangan in Jakarta. Jalan Kemenangan, which means Victory Street, is one of the main thoroughfares in Jakarta’s chinatown area, and is also one of the areas that experienced the full horrors of the capital’s May 1998 riots. Yaya happened to grow up on this street and spent a largely happy childhood exploring and playing there.
Yaya recently returned to this street of her youth and interviewed local residents who had experienced the riots of 15 years ago and whose hearts and minds were still affected by these traumatic events. Some were reluctant to talk to her after these many years, the ordeal being jammed down into their collective unconscious.
In 1998, houses were burned here and a collective status and history went up in smoke. important papers, birth certificates, passports and photographs were all destroyed, leaving the locals with only their memories. Yaya took pictures of these survivors before then removing their skins with a little help from photoshop. She then printed these on canvas, before replacing their skins with her hand-sewn threads. these threads are meant to represent memories, which were the only thing left of the local residents’ history and status after the riots had abated. By removing the residents’ skins, Yaya is also ruminating upon issues of race, and raises the thorny issue of belonging.
Through this thought-provoking exhibition, photography is presented as a medium of thought and reflection. contemporary photography has ushered us into an era in which artistic technique (in this case, the use of the camera) is no longer an issue and is available to all. The idea of clear and lucid documentation is no longer the final aim therefore, and photography has become a medium which can be used more creatively to generate new stories. the camera can thus offer original insights instead of just reflecting reality like a mirror.
As we sat casually on the floor surrounded by Yaya’s artworks, she expressed her longing to be able to sit around and engage in similar artistic discussions back in Jakarta. Yogyakarta’s unpretentious manner may refreshingly unravel and simplify the complicated stream of thoughts that one brings from Jakarta, but I still find the pressure of life in the capital to be, ultimately, artistically inspiring, forcing us to think in new ways and patterns. individualism, community and creative insights into survival itself are all up for grabs.
JJK Magazine | April 2013