In Conversation With Dr Wulan Dirgantoro

by Dr S.Chandrasekaran (Lecturer, Faculty of Fine Arts) 

“I am interested in a more open, inclusive understanding of feminism; that it should be in the plural, not singular.” 

Dr Wulan (W): My last research project explores the relationship between feminisms and visual arts in Indonesia. Focusing on works by Indonesian women artists produced from the 1940s until the present day, it provides a new understanding of the history of Indonesian modern and contemporary art from a feminist perspective. Its main aim is not only to analyse the actual works of Indonesian women artists historically and today, but also to illuminate the socio- cultural and political contexts in which the artists worked through a feminist reading.

Dr Chandrasekaran (C): Can you please provide us a brief biography of yourself before you came to LASALLE?

W: I was a ceramics major from Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia before I went on to study MA Art Curatorship at the University of Melbourne. When I graduated from Melbourne University in 2003, I decided to stay in Australia until I moved to Singapore in June last year (2014). In the first five years I’ve worked in the museum and gallery scene in Melbourne, then in 2007 I was offered a position at the University of Tasmania as an associate lecturer in their Indonesian Studies program. The switch into academia felt natural because I’ve always been passionate about research as part of my previous works and the change also allowed me to pursue a PhD.

C: As a feminist scholar, how do you analyse works of Indonesian women artist through a feminist reading? How is this important in today’s context?

W: My starting point for analysis is grounded in the discipline of art history, namely from cultural and textual productions that are produced by women artists through art works, interviews, biographies, letters, and essays. I examine how critical language can be derived from these primary sources, thus basing the primacy of the analysis on the perspective of the female artists. To some extent, my analysis can be seen as embodying a stance that I criticise in my research, namely that of valourising female creativity. Yet within these works there is a complex picture of Indonesian women artists and their sociocultural environment.

It is important because the art works are not a mere reflection of their personal stories and thoughts; their subjectivities cannot be simplified through their voice as primary sources. To balance this perspective, I look at the reception of art history and feminist-inspired works within the mainstream Indonesian art world; the role of audience and reception in the production of meaning has rarely been discussed in relation to opening up a discursive field about feminism/s in Indonesian art discourses.

C: How do you position the notion of feminisms in relation to the Asian context? Are you re-defining the notion of feminisms?

W: I am interested in a more open, inclusive understanding of feminism; that it should be in the plural, not singular. For example, many of Asian women artists’ reluctance to embrace the label ‘feminist artist’ is also a form of critique of Western and second-wave feminism, which not only homogenised women’s oppression globally but also placed the West at the centre of feminist art practices. Through their own understanding of feminisms, women artists are creating art works that can contribute to a more nuanced perspective of the local version/s of feminism. Moreover, instead of reducing women’s diverse experiences into a common culture, the differences among women are as important as their cross-culturally shared common struggles.

C: How do you read Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity in the works of women artists in Indonesia? For example, women artists such as Mella Jaarsma, Arahmaiani, and Melati Suryodarmo.

W: Feminist scholars, activists and cultural workers successfully created a discursive space in the mainstream media to discuss issues which were previously taboo, such as the politics of the female body, domestic violence, sexual abuse and more.

Butler’s notion of gender performativity is certainly influential in the reading of works of many artists, including women and queer artists. However, not all Indonesian performance artists strictly addresses the issues of gender in their works, with the exception of Arahmaiani’s earlier works that are quite explicitly political in their content. If at all, what connects these artists with Butler’s notion is that identity is free-floating and constructed, not as essence. Mella’s works certainly have addressed the point that what we understand as a stable identity and the belief that everything is unchanging is constructed by a series of both subtle and blatant coercions through social conventions and taboos.

C: Within the Asian contexts, the politics of female body are constantly refrained by the patriarchal structures. As a feminist scholar, how do you read the notion of female body within the context of Asian art discourse?

W: I’m not sure if I can speak for all Asian female body in this regard but I certainly agree that the politics of the female body are constrained by patriarchal structures. From my own background and research, Indonesian women artists’ use of their body differs from Western feminist performance artist in its challenge to the premise of the women’s body as something sacred, as an embodiment of their kodrat and of patriarchal socio-cultural values. In the absence of the Humanist tradition of the female body as an art form, performance art by Indonesian women artists such as Arahmaiani is shocking and confronting. This is further underlined by the ever-present religious and social convention of Islam where physical contact between unrelated sexes in public is discouraged or even prohibited in some of the provinces.

Moreover, the high value that Indonesian society put in the role of mothers and motherhood have been subverted if you like, in the works of some of women artists. They do this by creating works that represent motherhood as not the ultimate representation of the feminine but rather as an active, speaking subject that is also compatible with the identity of the artists as the maker of images and mother as the maker of flesh.

C: Do you think Arahmaiani and Titarubi had a huge influence in establishing feminist thinking in women artists in Indonesia?

W: Certainly, as both artists have consistently raised feminist issues and criticism towards patriarchal structures in their works. It is noteworthy that Arahmaiani’s label as the ‘Indonesian feminist artist’ by the international art world was built on her willingness to tackle difficult issues such as religion, ethnicity and sex. Titarubi’s earlier body of work emphasised the positive connection between woman as artist, as a producer of text with motherhood. The artist’s works situate her personal experiences within Indonesia’s changing socio-political context. Moreover, the reading of her work provides an alternative to the traditional maternal depiction of domesticity and self-sacrifice.

C: Can you please further elaborate on the research methodologies that you apply in reading feminist discourse within the discourse of Indonesian art?

W: In my research I use a dual approach of strategies of correction and interrogation to critically assess the patriarchal structure of the Indonesian art world and to analyse works by Indonesian women artists. Despite the limitations inherent in the strategies of correction in Western feminist art, namely that the insertion women artists into the art history or canons, I argued that it is still necessary to apply these strategies in the Indonesian context, simply because the contribution of women artists has been largely overlooked in Indonesian art history. Similarly, strategies of interrogation are crucially important in order to conduct critical enquiry into and revisions of the already existing reading of works by Indonesian women artists. In doing so, I am obliged to critically read the writings by both male and female writers to understand how structures of patriarchy work as well as to look for alternative readings.

C: How do Indonesian women artists negotiate their feminist thinking within the patriarchal structures in Indonesian art world?

W: By looking beyond the labelling but not rejecting the term itself, many works by Indonesian women artists chart a trajectory of change in the way feminisms operates in Indonesian visual arts. As important drivers of this process of change, Indonesian women artists neither resist patriarchy in a ‘politically correct’ way nor revel in eroticism, but steer a course between these two positions.

Furthermore, I believe works by Indonesian women artists can include difference and absorb ambiguity within their frame of reference, thus avoiding the totalising and exclusionary practices sometimes associated with feminism.

Dr Wulan Dirgantoro lectured in the McNally School of Fine Arts from August 2014 to September 2016.

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