ON LIVING BETWEEN THE RATIONAL AND IRRATIONAL, THE PRESSURE OF SELF-EXPRESSION, AND “MEETING” HER DAUGHTER FOR THE FIRST TIME.
“It’s not about seeing what’s good and bad – or right and wrong. If you go deeper into the understanding of this principle, you realize that contradictions are just the nature of things. Nature is like that.”
There are few pursuits in life that demand such profound intimacy between rapturous elation and bellowing torment than the path of the artist. In walking it, one is often thrusted forcefully to the edge – impelled to master the dance between deep introspection and critical questioning, brought to bare witness the birth and decay of ideas, and, almost habitually, surrender all doubt to the unfolding mystery of time and fate.
It is a conflicting path that Arahmaiani has grappled with throughout her entire life. Born of an Islamic scholar and politician father, and a mother of the Kejawen tradition (a syncretic Javanese tradition with Hindu, Buddhist and Animist roots); the melting pot of ancestral knowledge and it’s potential challenges were there to begin with. Yet it is a dichotomy she has labored to understand and eventually make her own.
As a young and defiant art student in Bandung amidst the Suharto reign in 1983, she provoked hostile responses from the military for a daring art performance on the streets and was imprisoned. In 1994, death threats from Islamic hardliners elicited by her works Lingga Yoni and Etalase, ensued a self-imposed exile out of Indonesia, where she dove deeper into her artistic exploration. Here, she continued to pioneer creative work centered around globalization, environment, religion, gender and sexuality among other issues. Her mark has since been left around the world, from Biennales in Cuba, South Korea, The Netherlands, São Paulo, Venice to solo exhibitions in New York and Jakarta to name a few.
Perhaps most intriguing however, was a life-changing journey to Tibet where she lived alongside Buddhist monks of the Gelugpa Sect, of which the current Dalai Lama leads from. To the surprise of everyone at the temple, she rallied an audacious environmental movement to combat the local town’s dreaded trash problem, spearheaded by her Buddhist monk counterparts, and later on, with the help of the Chinese government – something once thought impossible. Recycling programs were made, and 230,000 trees were planted throughout the plateau.
It is perhaps the archetypal example of Arahmaiani’s work; obscuring the lines between artist, teacher and activist. Other examples include the well known Lingga Yoni, which seeks to revive ancestral understanding of the Masculine and Feminine energies, or her ongoing Flag Project which beautifully entwines together the shared issues and values of various communities around the world.
In a tranquil morning in the village of Kemenuh, Arahmaiani fondly recalls the pressure she faced in the early years of self expression, the contradictory forces within her, and tells the endearing story of meeting her daughter after decades of separation. She also reflects on her parents’ influence on her upbringing, and books that have shaped her life.
I’D LIKE TO START WITH A SLIGHTLY RANDOM QUESTION – WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU CRIED TEARS OF JOY?
It was a moment I will never forget – during my first trip to Tibet. It was still dark and very early in the morning. My Tibetan friend drove me to a village and we had to pass by an area of dramatic scenery. The road was so small – it could only fit one car, and it wasn’t in good condition either.
Towards the right, there were these hills with big stones that seemed like they could fall anytime. On the left, there was the Yangtze River in full force. The sunlight started to appear, and at the same time, my friend began playing a Buddhist chant on the car’s music player.
I just started to cry at that moment. Looking out of the window; there was suddenly all this stimulation, and I couldn’t really explain what I felt. It wasn’t joy, but it was an experience that touched such a deep part of me.
“I just started to cry at that moment.”
IS THAT SOMETHING THAT OFTEN HAPPENS TO YOU?
No, which is why this experience was very special to me. At that time, I was just amazed, and I didn’t really understand why this happened. But looking back 10 years later, I now understand it a little bit better. It took a long process of working in Tibet and working on my craft, and constantly asking what an “awakening” really meant to me.
WHAT WERE YOUR PARENTS LIKE AND HOW DID THEY INFLUENCE YOUR UPBRINGING?
My mother came from a Kejawen (a Javanese religious tradition) family. Although they are Muslim, I later on found out that different aspects of the Kejawen belief came from Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. It’s a very syncretic culture.
My father’s beliefs came mostly from Islamic tradition, as he was a Santri (Javanese who practice a more orthodox version of Islam) and later a Kyai (an expert in Islam). He went on to study at Columbia University, so there was a part of him that was open to other cultures. He became a politician but studied English literature and culture too, so he was also a mixed bag! My mother followed the same path and studied similar things, so they weren’t too different in their opinions and sharing them to me.
But there were times in my life when that openness wasn’t the case. When I told my father that I wanted to become a prophet when I grew up, he was astounded! He told me that only men could be prophets. I was very angry!
Later in my life, I told my father that I would become an artist and study in art school. Although he agreed that I could indeed paint and write – as I was already making a lot of paintings and writing short stories – he thought that I could do much “better”, and could go into better artistic vocations like architecture.
I can (now) understand his point, because ever since I was in elementary school, I was always top of the class – hence his high expectations. But I loved painting and I wanted to study art. Eventually, he did support me after I kept insisting.
So it was a struggle in my early path of becoming an artist – but it became much harder later on! People generally didn’t really understand what I was trying to do.
“People generally didn’t really understand what I was trying to do.”
TAKE US BACK TO YOUR EARLIEST MEMORIES YOU HAD OF WANTING TO BE AN ARTIST. WHAT, OR WHO, INSPIRED YOU IN PARTICULAR?
I was inspired by a lot of artists, such as Affandi and Van Gogh. But it’s the spirit of being an artist that has always inspired me; the freedom you can feel from having all these kinds of expressions. It wasn’t until I went to art school that I got to learn about other possibilities, like sculpture.
My grandfather – being a martial arts master and dancer – inspired me as well. It was stimulating to explore possibilities with dance and performance.
Then there is Writing, but there’s a difference to it. Writing stimulates the thinking of narratives in life. It’s more rational, whereas painting allows me to be irrational. You have to have logic and structure with writing.
“It’s the spirit of being an artist that has always inspired me”
Ultimately, I think that’s what naturally happens to me in my artistic expression – I bring these two things together; the rational and irrational.
The logical aspects within myself are actually strong, but there are some artists I know of that don’t need logic. They just need to express themselves.
Some really go for it. It’s all fine, and art is all a process of getting to know yourself and knowing how to express that in a proper way.
As I grew older, I began to write essays and publish them in the newspaper during the military regime (of Suharto). The process was both fascinating and challenging to me. I was very critical and had a lot of questions. There was also a demand to write my thoughts relating to arts, culture and politics.
But there wasn’t time to go revisit my short stories that I used to write as a child, and take them more seriously. Perhaps now is the time!
“I bring these two things together; the rational and irrational.”
DID THAT DEMAND FOR YOUR WORK AT THE TIME COME WITH PRESSURE?
I did feel pressure. I ran into a lot of trouble and life was somehow difficult in terms of having freedom to express yourself. Ever since I was young, my friends always thought I had weird ideas, and I’ve always felt the need to express those ideas. That has been my story until now!
BUT THERE’S CERTAIN SOFTNESS TO YOUR PERSONALITY THAT SEEMS TO CONTRADICT THE PROVOCATIVE NATURE OF YOUR PERFORMANCE ART. HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN THAT WAY? IS THERE A RESTLESSNESS WITHIN YOU THAT MANY DON’T SEE?
At the beginning, I myself was really confused. I didn’t really understand why there was an “oppositional” energy within me. It’s obvious (to those who know me), it’s been with me since I was a child and it can be confusing to others who I meet.
But as I grew up, I learned that this was actually potential which can be used – so it’s all a matter of perspective. When I began to learn about Lingga Yoni and Yin Yang, I realized that it’s possible to hold these two contradictions and “combine” them somehow.
I learnt that it’s not about seeing what’s good and bad, or right and wrong. If you go deeper into the understanding of this principle, you realize that contradictions are just the nature of things. Nature is like that. If we can understand, and somehow “become” it – then these two conflicting forces can become useful and not destructive. That’s what I’ve learned from ancient philosophy so far.
“I didn’t really understand why there was an “oppositional” energy within me.”
Most people aren’t really aware of these things, and because of it, many aren’t capable of understanding and controlling the destructive parts of their personalities. In actual fact, any negativity can actually be turned into something positive if you are aware of this dynamic in the first place. It’s all energy.
This duality is something I studied deeper after meeting my Buddhist teachers (in Tibet). The Dalai Lama gave me such a deep understanding about this dynamic and of myself too.
This teaching existed predominantly here in Indonesia before too – when Borobudur was flourishing. The fact that Borobudur was buried under the Earth for 800 years, to me, is quite symbolic of what is happening (the loss of this understanding). This fundamental understanding is part of our roots as Indonesians and we seem to have forgotten it.
“This fundamental understanding is part of our roots as Indonesians and we seem to have forgotten it.”
WHAT’S ANOTHER IMPORTANT LESSON YOU LEARNED IN YOUR TIME LIVING WITH MONKS IN TIBET?
Another one I’ve learned from them is to go back to the basics of living. The modern world often forgets that, with all its sophistication and theories. People are often too critical of simplicity – calling it old fashioned or primitive.
HAVE THERE BEEN ANY OTHER MENTORS OR EXPERIENCES THAT HAVE MARKED SIGNIFICANT CHANGES IN YOUR LIFE?
Of course. I haven’t had the easiest time throughout my life during the military regime. I had trouble with both the military and hardliners who forced me to escape Indonesia. It wasn’t an easy life, but during that process, I met some people who inspired me and gave me knowledge about how to deal with these situations.
There was Made Sija (a legendary puppet master) here in Bali and the late poet and theater director W.S Rendra. He (Rendra) gave me a place to study – his personal library, which not many people had access to! He let me stay as long as I wanted so I could study.
I left home at one point and lived on the streets for a long time. I learned a lot about life in those years – it was the best education I could ever have. Luckily, I met some Jesuit priests who became mentors to me, but I didn’t know they were priests at the beginning!
I discovered that many priests were purposely in disguise and intentionally hung around the streets to talk to people.
They were all very kind and lent me books to read. This went on for years. What made it special was that our interactions were very real in a way because I met them on the streets, as opposed to meeting in a classroom.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST AND EASIEST PART ABOUT THE ARTISTIC PROCESS FOR YOU?
Nothing is really easy! But the easiest part probably has to do with working with my intuition. It’s a fast process which I don’t really need to make sense of. Intuition is just “there” to feel, and then I figure what I need to do – which is often where things get complicated.
For that part of the process in particular, you have to question things from a variety of different aspects. It’s especially difficult for community-based work because it brings in a lot of other people (into the process).
But I think I have this “problem” of being really happy when I have challenges. It’s just my nature! This need for challenge can sometimes become problematic for others who see it and think I am crazy. For example, when I challenged myself and joined a skydiving team when I was 15, despite being too young, or when I told others I wanted to go to Tibet. The way I see it: if life is good, and everything goes well and smoothly – I get bored!
WOW, YOU SHOULD WRITE A BOOK ABOUT YOUR LIFE!
There’s a young curator from Jogja who wants to write my biography in relation to my art work – and my daughter also wants to write something about her relationship with me.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR DAUGHTER?
We never lived together. She was taken away as a baby by her father’s family, because I wanted to become a single mother. But it was too much of a “brilliant” idea at the time.
I wasn’t able to meet her for a long time, and only did when she was 24 years old! Long story short, a friend of mine noticed her studying at the University of Indonesia and told her who her mother was.
We arranged a meeting, and the first thing my daughter told me was that I was beautiful. She was astonished, and I learned later on that it was because since she was a child, she was told that her mother was an ugly, crazy and bad woman!
The first five years of getting to know each other again was very hard for both of us. There was a lot of hurt that flowed through me and back to her.
I had to be honest with her, saying, “Look, I’m an artist. I don’t have much in terms of material things to give you, but I can guarantee that everything I do and give will be honest.”
I came to understand what it’s like to have a mother-daughter relationship.
We eventually had to make a decision; either we change the way we are to each other by being more open and kinder, or we don’t see each other again.
Luckily, she agreed to start again and we’ve been becoming better since. We’re like good friends.
ON A WHOLESOME LEVEL, WHAT HAS BECOME MORE IMPORTANT TO YOU OVER THE YEARS, AND WHAT HAS BECOME LESS IMPORTANT?
What has become more important for me is dealing with how we can reduce destruction of this planet and human life together with different communities.
I don’t want to go into the illusion that we can stop it completely. But at least we can try to reduce it, and that means thinking about different ways and strategies to do so.
I have a way of seeing things like that, and it’s centered around how we can, first of all, strengthen ourselves inside. That’s the way. We first have to strengthen ourselves.
If we continue to only just “do and do”, like I see in some practices of some NGOs with their rigid methods and systems, life can become draining. I used to work with this kind of approach, but it often doesn’t get anywhere.
What has become less important to me is to be seen as an artist! The “art world” is a little bit strange, and sometimes I want to hide! There are a lot of traps and tricks. If you’re not aware, you can get stuck. I don’t want to stay stuck there, or “stuck” in anything, to be honest!
There are a lot of aspects in life that can entrap you, even with close (romantic) relationships. They can limit or distort your own perspectives.
It’s something that I’ve experienced and questioned after looking at my monk friends in Tibet. “How can they live like that?” I thought. But I saw how they practiced their lives and meditation, day and night, and I realized that you could live a meaningful life like that. After I hung out with them, I forgot the thought of having a boyfriend!
My life is somehow easier and less complicated, especially with the life I live moving around places! If that will change someday, I don’t know!
What I’ve also realized is that my life and work seem so serious, but it’s also really funny in a way. If I didn’t have humor in my life, I would be way too tired. It’s definitely important to have a sense of humor – another thing I learned from Monks!
ARE THERE ANY BOOKS THAT HAVE PLAYED AN IMPORTANT PART IN SHAPING YOUR LIFE? IF SO, HOW?
When I met W.S Rendra for the first time, he gave me two books. One was Pararaton (a Javanese chronicle, also known as “The Book of Kings”), another was The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I didn’t understand why he gave them to me. One was a history of the ancestors of Javanese kings, the other was about going to heaven and hell.
Later on, I came to understand that my artistic focus is actually not far from these topics. I’m in between these worlds – the physical, worldly reality and the spiritual. Through my work, I try to find out different ways to put these two things together. This has been important for me to this day.
If you would like to contact Arahmaiani, you may do so at:email@example.com