Jakarta Biennale and Museum Macan: A Soulful Treat or Two

Have you ever felt hopeless about the world? Lately, I often have. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are a few tweets away from nuking each other, the Middle East has a new 4-way conflict, while medieval foolishness make a return in right-leaning Indonesian society every other week.

Art is one of the places I take refuge in when the world gets too much. These days Jakartans and I are in luck, for Jakarta Biennale 2017 and the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum Macan) were recently unfurled.

Hosted for the 2nd time at lofty warehouse compound Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem, the Biennale chose “soul” for its theme this year, opened accordingly with a soulful performance of the South Sulawesi’s Bissu community. The androgynous shaman bissu is 1 of 5 genders traditionally recognized in Bugis native group, living with all aspects of gender combined to form a whole regardless of sex he or she was born. Embracing their calling peacefully among Bugis folks for over a century, connecting to deities at ceremonies and acting as a pillar for harmony.

Donning colorful garbs and makeup, dancing and chanting in a trancelike state, poking themselves with sharp objects without getting harmed, the bissu troupe were indeed a sight to behold that afternoon. Everyone in the audience recorded the ritual, and yet as I stood holding my phone camera, I silently wondered if my future kids would get to see them live. The Bugis Muslims, one of the most devout Muslim clouts in Indonesia, has long welcome bissu into daily life including to perform pre-hajj blessing, yet as Indonesian Muslims keep leaning right and the Government seems to be clueless on how to manage it politically, I doubt if the gender-bending bissu would have a place in the society for long.

Some of the arts inside also offered a poignant look at our history and identity. I loved how Made Djirna used thousands of pebbles to create an imposing tribute for unsung heroes—heroes who might’ve formed the path we walk on and the wall that shield us. Heroes who, like Semsar Siahaan’s famed 1982 painting of embattled female laborers depict, are often overlooked and left to be imprisoned between menial jobs and mediocre existence.

I especially loved Ho Rui An’s monologue, which dissected the perils of hardscrabble indigenous workers during colonial ruling in Asia through the lack of visible sweat on Queen Elizabeth II and white actresses. It was long and meticulous, and yet so smartly sardonic and richly researched I cracked up laughing along the way. I learned a new word, punkawallah, and all its possible wretched meaning that day, and I swear I’ll squint for sweat traces the next time I watch a Hollywood blockbuster.

Sometimes moments don’t stem from the art pieces, but from the engagements about them. At this Biennale, I got it from a side chat with celebrated sculptor Dolorosa Sinaga. When I said that for someone who grew up dancing I absolutely appreciate the anatomical precision of her works, she launched to tell how the hard training from orthopedics and osteopaths at a certain art program in the UK during the 1980s, during which she was also made to observe dancers in training, earned her the advanced skills to start from a sheaf of papers in forming such lifelike metal sculptures. Just listening to an artist animatedly telling you how they perfect their craft can round up the overall senses in viewing the art, adding more appreciation without losing the illusion.

Museum Macan also offers contemporary art delights in a decidedly a more modern setting. Housed in a high-ceilinged, sun-basked, loft-like floor on a brand new building in Kebon Jeruk, the private museum is truly a breath of fresh air compared to the general state of our government-run museums nationwide. Offering vast choices of Indonesian and foreign masterpieces from different era, the collection is accompanied with foreword at every section, making it easy for anyone to learn and enjoy.

Raden Saleh is no longer a name on art books or faraway museums– it’s a name on the works immediately greeting visitors upon entrance. Brilliant strokes of Hendra Gunawan or Lee Man Fong, emotive abstracts of Srihadi Soedarsono and Mark Rothko, or self-portraits of some of our maestros, are all within sight and sense.

For those inclined to indulge their senses further, there are room-shaped installations from Entang Wiharso and Yayoi Kusama. If exhibited infinity boxes from Kusama taught you anything, it was the virtue of patience and the importance of comfortable shoes while standing in queue. Come early. Fans of pop-art would also be treated to works by Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Andy Warhol.

I’m excited to think of the possibilities once the Museum develops their permanent and temporary exhibitions. As I sipped ginger tea from the museum beverage stand overlooking the highway connecting Jakarta to Tangerang, I couldn’t help reminiscing of the similar rainy afternoon I spent at wonderful foreign museums, wishing my hometown would have one. Now it does.

The Jakarta Biennale runs until December 3rd. Museum MACAN opens daily except for Mondays. Bring your scattered mind and tired soul, and let art make it right—at least for a moment or two.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/11/11/urban-chat-jakarta-biennale-and-museum-macan-a-soulful-treat-or-two.html

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