Farah Wardani

[Letter] Notes from the Programme Director

This letter is written by Farah Wardani, Programme Director of JB 2021: ESOK, in response to letters by the Artistic Director, Dolorosa Sinaga and the curators (Grace Samboh, Sally Texania, and Qinyi Lim)

Photo taken by Ary “Jimged” Sendy. Courtesy of Jakarta Biennale 2021: ESOK

Dear Mbak Dolo, Qinyi, Sally, and Grace,

Thank you for joining this ride towards JB2021! We have spent all of 2020 in fruitful dialogue, exchanging thoughts and ideas on current art practices. Now, one year later, we are still dedicated and together in this, in making ESOK happen.

When I took on the position of caretaker of the Jakarta Biennale (JB), I admit that I missed working with my old friends. To do things together as my body remembers it. In many places in Southeast Asia, like Jakarta, the word “organic” has become the leading myth to describe how things are done. However, I sometimes wonder whether this has become an excuse, rather than a definition of a way of working, as those who choose to use the word can’t seem to manage to unravel the organizational details of the way things are done around us.

Some even cling to the typical “foreign” claim that we do not have an art infrastructure. Yet, things have always happened. There have always been festivals, exhibitions, shows, performances, programs, etc. How can we say that there is no infrastructure? There have always been art spaces, museums, galleries, city halls, people, and art practitioners, to make all these things possible. And, the government, along with its institutions, has always been around.

After experiencing a repressive regime for three decades—an experience shared by many of us—, its survivors have gotten used to taking care of themselves, minding their own business, cooperating with various non-governmental entities, be it locally, nationally, or even internationally. Therefore, it makes sense that many of us working in the arts, in academia or in any scene really, who managed to survive such regimes, have never felt the need to work with the government nor its institutions. Many of us have become our own self-made institutions and have carved out their own ways of doing things. I myself grew up in such a regime. Yet, I am hopelessly romantic… All these romantic terms, like “organic”, “collegial”, “collective”, etc, I still use. I abide by these ideas, if you will. Like I said at the start of this letter, I do miss working in this way, I miss doing things our own way, the way we see fit. But, I believe that in such a convivial setting, roles and responsibilities must be clarified.

Let’s start from the Jakarta Arts Council—of which I am also a committee member now—the initiator and co-organiser of JB. Since its inception in late 1960s, as one of the partners of the governor of Jakarta, it has been the council’s main role to facilitate, support, and develop the arts and culture in the province of Jakarta. The council’s committee members are art practitioners, like myself, who are selected to serve their own communities of practitioners and people. JB is one of the programs initiated by the Jakarta Arts Council. However, we need to be mindful that as one of the oldest visual art biennales in the country, JB has become an institution in itself. I think that we, the Jakarta Arts Council, need to embrace that reality and act accordingly. JB has the option to not be an extractive, authoritarian, dictatorial, or passive kind of institution. It can be the kind of institution that functions for and with the people, with the practitioners, with all its stakeholders. Yes, I do believe that in our context, institutions can operate as facilitators, and JB in particular can be an institution that accommodates the growth of artistic discourse and practice towards a better future.

At the end of 2020, Grace and others who would soon form the JB 2021: ESOK team, organized two sessions of talks involving several former JB caretakers: Firman Ichsan (JB 2009: ARE(N)A, head of the Jakarta Arts Council in 2009–2012), Ardi Yunanto (JB 2009: ARE(N)A), Riksa Afiaty (JB 2015: Maju Kena, Mundur Kena) and Melati Suryodarmo (JB 2017: JIWA). Whilst rambling about maintaining faith in artistic practices, we kept coming back to the importance of siding with the public, the audience, people, ourselves and our societies. For me, these two elements are indeed embodied in our work. Hence, taking care, maintaining, nurturing, and supporting the sustainability, continuity, and evolution of JB and our work is at the core of our daily modes of working—because our artistic practice is not merely a “job”, it is our life.

Mbak Dolo, Qinyi, Sally and Grace, I feel it is in this spirit that we look at the manner in which we work, produce and collaborate. The notion of working organically and in conviviality, has been described in specific trajectories that are part of the discourse of contemporary art, such as relational aesthetics. However, I am reminded of the fact that we have always worked in this way, even if it goes against the grain of what we now know as “professionalisation” in the world around us. A world framed by industry and capital. For me, working organically and in conviviality does not denote unproductivity, but I rather regard it as an intrinsic quality of a platform like JB. Hence my invitation to you all as my friends comes with an honest and sincere manner of speaking and framing of ESOK. JB may be the front for the work we do, but behind the scenes I hope we will maintain and extend our concern for each other’s work and continue to support each other.

Jakarta, March 2021


Farah Wardani is an art historian and curator who currently serves as the Programme Director of the 2021 Jakarta Biennale on behalf of the Visual Arts Committee of the Jakarta Arts Council (Dewan Kesenian Jakarta). Previously, Farah served as the executive director of the Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where she amongst others developed the IVAA Digital Archive, the first digital archive of contemporary art in the country. Farah was also Artistic Director for the 2013 Yogyakarta Biennale and was Assistant Director for the Resource Centre of the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) from 2015-2019. Her work at NGS included the building of the museum’s new Rotunda Library & Archive and the NGS Collection Search Portal.