[Letter] Re: Notes from the Artistic Director
The first three posts of the JB 2021: ESOK blog are letters written by the curators as a reply to Notes from the Artistic Director, Dolorosa Sinaga which is also available on our Blog in a letter form available here
Dear Ibu Dolo, Mbak Farah, Grace and Qinyi,
I reflect a lot on our conversation and sometimes struggle to grasp the logic behind some of our ‘shared issues’. I find myself in a constant effort to be awakened from a sleep, just to arrive in yet another stage of dreaming. Maybe I need to reevaluate the records of my experiences to find reasons behind these mixed feelings.
The past few years of my exhibition-making practice have touched issues related to history. Along this journey, I’ve encountered numerous cases of how art could critically express human conditions and found that this has always been a topic of debate throughout events in Indonesian art history. However, art and state along with the nation-state paradigm were never separate entities. Particularly in Indonesia, the indication of art and its development as the mark of a modern nation seem inseparable with nation-building efforts, from the Jiwa Ketok period up to the time of ‘anything goes’. In the many efforts to be included or excluded in the formation of ‘national identity’, history has shown a strong dependency between art development and power relation dynamics in Indonesia.
The knowledge of this dynamic makes me reflect on Achille Mbembe’s public lecture which shares Frantz Fanon’s views on decolonization and the processes of nation-building. Fanon sees the process of nationalization as a transfer of power of those unfair advantages, which were a legacy of the colonial past, into native hands. That small group of natives has the overall claim to self-determination is a way of preventing the formation of an authentic national consciousness. In regards to this exposition, I consider institution-building as a process that goes through the same experiences. They were built to perpetuate a set of values that fulfill the credits of a modern nation as opposed to being a facility of knowledge production. In Indonesia, this could also be reflected in the stagnancy of public institution roles and art history itself.
I must admit, working with the same set of narratives is convenient. As someone who went through formal art education, its certain set of values has always made managing information based on a controlled ‘set of rules’ an easy exit for me. Within this comfort, it is easy to be unaware of the multidimensional effects of narrating “single story”. Silence is a habit. Neither having a voice nor remembering is considered a necessity.
Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie proposed a concept of “single story” as a set of knowledge we are familiar with. By presenting several stories based on her life experiences, Adichie points out that a single story becomes hegemonic once it is distributed amongst the public. It makes us believe that the world is exactly as the story tells it and this becomes a ‘common reality’. In her words: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
The ideas that I borrowed and recite above came from different times and circumstances. Fanon’s thinking came from the era of decolonization struggles after World War II, and formed since he was working as a psychiatrist for a French hospital in Algeria. Adichie’s story at a TED X talk in 2009 was based on her childhood memories in Nigeria and experiences of living in various continents. Currently, I am reading their thoughts from Jakarta – without preliminary knowledge of French colonization or the history of Nigeria. Despite these circumstances, how could a concern on the transfer of power to selected native in the colonial past and the hegemonic power of “single story” actually affect how I observe ‘my reality’? “The past has not passed” now starts to make sense.
In days where single authoritarian power has increasingly become irrelevant, how memories and collective reality were built as one single story has stayed as a legacy that we still live in. Yet generating another story could be a subversive act surrounded with fear. We might not share the same story, but we do have a shared mechanism of forgetting.
Esok brings attention to the immediate future but it is prepared in our isolation, our daily pace decelerates, creating a void that we can fill with introspection and renewed sensibility. Through Esok, I want to bring nostalgia not merely as a form to see the past that brings us joy, but as an effort to emancipate the mind by trying to hear erased voices, untold stories, and actions that were forgotten.
While thinking about working together and understanding inequities need a lot of grit, I am strangely excited to meet you virtually in our routine conversation toward Esok and to find how multifaceted ‘one reality’ could be from the perspectives of each and every one of you. I do see this curatorial journey as what Adichie coined as an effort of creating a “balance of stories” where multiple perspectives intermingled to balance each of our preliminary single story, single reality.
Hence if we position Esok as an effort to build history together, I consider this as a chance [for us] to be conscious, to acknowledge the plural reality of our history and our daily life. Let’s embrace Esok as an opportunity to converse, to remember, and move forward towards empowerment.
Jakarta, July 2020