Re: Notes from the Artistic Director

by Grace Samboh

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

Dear Ibu Dolo, Qinyi, Sally, and Mbak Farah,

It is such an honor to embark this journey with all of you. I have always admired Ibu Dolo’s practice in which art, activism, and pedagogy mingled as one. For me, Ibu Dolo’s recent monograph really unraveled how the three co-exist, function and manifest in your practice, be it as an artist, an activist, an educator, a friend (to many), and a person that is willing to strive for any human rights cause. I see this opportunity to conduct the Jakarta Biennale with you, and all the team, as an exciting new phase in my learning curve.

My curatorial practice has always departed from existing materials, infrastructures, and entanglements. In different contexts, people label these three things differently. Oftentimes, they seem to be used interchangeably with history, institutions, and critical studies; or artefacts, geopolitics, and societies. In figuring out these three emphases, I came to realize that, a lot of the time, I intentionally avoid the search for the new, the oppositional attitude resulting in being against or “anti-” anything, and the intellectual gaze. Why am I saying all this upfront? This feels like a bit of a disclaimer, no?

When I first read the call to join “ESOK: Membangun sejarah bersama”, my very first reaction was to try to translate them in English. A resemblance occurred! The eminent human-rights figure Eleanor Roosevelt’s last book is titled Tomorrow is now: It is today that we must create the world of the future (initially published in 1963, recently republished in 2013). She wrote the book on her deathbed, in the brink of the American war in Vietnam. Half a century later, we live in the times in which our neighbour might be our worst enemy. Yet, here we are, about to embark yet another journey that is as confident; that “ESOK” is the now that bears the past and embraces the future.

My immediate affiliation to Eleanor Roosevelt may also come from the fact that Ibu Dolo have always been vocal, if not forefront, in speaking up for human rights violations, especially the ones that are exercised structurally by the government. Meanwhile Ibu Dolo’s sculptural practice is on the go, you exhibit locally and internationally, you also work with activists, communities and NGOs that struggle for better living conditions. You once spearheaded the Jakarta Arts Institute, you teach, and you managed to carve a legacy into the school’s curriculum with the subject “Art and Activism”. In one of your statements as an artist, you said, “Wrestling with forms and matters, holding a dialogue between concepts and expressions, all together with deciding how to execute work is part of my daily life.” It is impressive to see how that also manifests in the different roles that you play in life. I am excited to see how we can find these qualities in the artists that we will be working with; to unravel how we will work with them and their particular contexts; and to figure out how to articulate these diverse complexities into an exhibition.

Some parts of me are actually quite anxious with the directness of (what may be considered as) the big narratives or mega-topics that you uphold, eg. freedom of speech, equality, democracy, human rights violations, etc. All throughout my practice, I have always been drawn in by the people that are navigating these concerns from the peripheries or from a very particular standpoint. I tend to avoid using the keywords so that I do not have to carry the burden of its connotations. I guess, now is the time to come out in the open that these things have indeed been my concern and that I have been working with it.

I am particularly interested in the entanglements that are rooted in polarization, or simply the division of livelihood into two oppositional poles; right or wrong, left or right, black or white. I think I simply do not want to conform to the existing binaries that generate stereotypes, oftentimes exclusionary, and intimidated by differences. In search for what may carry the qualities of activism in the things that I do, amongst those who I have been working with, I thought of vocations. The people that I have committed myself to —be it artists, artworkers, scholars, academics, or anyone really— they tend to treat their work a little bit more than their formal (or professional) requirements. They seem to always be doing slightly more than what they are expected to. And, somehow, I find myself to be so too. I often dwell on why. A lot of times, I had to stop pondering because there is always something else to do. At this point in time, I think that this attitude of ‘doing a little bit more’ is something that I can offer to all you, to the journey that we are embarking upon.

To many extent, I think this attitude of ‘doing a little bit more’ is rooted in an epistemic disbelief of having to be ‘a part of a system in order to change the system’. The system refers to any institution that by premise is supposed to take care of us, the people, be it public or private, and from the smallest unit (family) to the abstract ones (state, UN, ASEAN, WHO, or the likes of it). The disbeliefs do not manifest in an oppositional attitude —to be against or to reject something—, rather it works with anything, anyone, or any resources that are a hand reach away. The disbeliefs work with existing infrastructures while building human-to-human relationships with the people that operate within the infrastructure, within the system. Instead of raging against the machine, the system, or the powerful, the practitioners that I have been working with tend to work towards harmonious coexistence while holding on to the idea of better living conditions.

Cheers to a new phase in our practices! Cheers to working together! Cheers to ESOK that embodies the past, acts now, and is sensible of the future!

Jogja & Jatiwangi, July-August 2020,
Grace Samboh


This letter is written as a reply to Notes from the Artistic Director, written by Dolorosa Sinaga for the JB 2021: ESOK team.

Grace Samboh (b. Jakarta, 1984) is in search of what comprises a curatorial work within her surrounding scene. She jigs within the existing elements of the arts scene around her for she considers the claim that Indonesia is lacking art infrastructure especially the state-owned or state run as something outdated. She believes that curating is about understanding and making at the same time. She is attached to Hyphen —, affiliated to RUBANAH Underground Hub, and currently undertaking a doctoral program at Arts and Society Studies, Sanata Dharma University, Yogyakarta. She’s logs her writings at