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Still available below: ARAHMAIANI in TIBET and MODERNITIES AND MEMORIES, an exhibition, in Venice, 1997.


A summary by Sue Ingham

In 2010 Arahmaiani undertook a new direction. She developed a friendship with Tibetan Buddhist monks that has led to ongoing environmental projects together.

Arahmaiani had been invited to participate in a group exhibition of Indonesian art at the Museum of Contemporary Shanghai and she chose to develop a community project as had been her practice for some time. She had been working with communities in earthquake prone areas, particularly since the earthquake in her home town of Yogyakarta which experience a deadly earthquake in 2006. It was suggested she might travel to Yushu in a remote area which had been almost completely destroyed by an earthquake two months previously.

The following summary of her activities is derived from a report Arahmaiani (Yani) wrote in 2011, an interview from an on line magazine, Creative-i  and subsequent conversations held with her.

Cinematographer and film maker, Stefanie Platen, proposes to make a film of Yani’s work titled Bridging the Worlds. She is seeking crowd funding for her project, see the Platen website

Yushu after the earthquake, 2010 photograph by Arahmaiani.

Yushu is in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, a region that is also known as the Kham region on the high Tibetan plateau. Yani encountered numerous difficulties for the Chinese authorities had isolated the area from foreign aid and visitors and she was treated with suspicion. She suffered breathing difficulties and altitude sickness and on subsequent trips she now flies in by stages to acclimatize. As well, the assistant who first accompanied her, a young Chinese artist, was prejudiced against Tibetan people. But Yani is the product of a hybrid culture and has led a nomadic life which has made her tolerant of different belief systems. She respects the Dalai Lama for his non violent principles and sympathizes with the situation of the Tibetan people.

Photo taken by Arahmaiani, 2012.

Two and a half hours from Yushu, Yani found herself in the village of Lab in an area of dramatic natural beauty yet visibly degraded by garbage and pollution. She was greeted by a large number of Buddhist priests who were surprised by her visit but nevertheless were courteous. She was concerned as to how they would respond to a women in their midst and initially she was not allowed to stay in the monastery. Yet she was delighted to find that the monks were open to debate for they had daily discussions that seemed part of their Mahayana Buddhist tradition. She then conducted a series of interviews with both lamas and priests concerning the teachings of Buddha on the natural environment – she mentions Khadeng Lama, Geshe Lharampa Sonam Lobsang, (Lama and Geshe Lharampa being titles indicating academic degrees) and priest Sonam Rinchen.

Arahmaiani with Sonam Rinchen.

She began by raising the issue of the garbage in the monastery, asking the monks to clean it up for she thought that this would be her only visit and her one chance to propose a program. The initial response was embarrassment and, as she wrote, ‘It may be that I was the most obnoxious guest that the monastery had ever received’. The revered position of priests in Tibetan society made it difficult for them to accept the idea of cleaning up garbage themselves. Sonam Rinchen suggested that people be paid to do it instead. Yani argued that each individual should take responsibility for the natural environment, but by the time she left, the issue had not been resolved.

 Communication was difficult as the monks did not speak English and Yani had no Tibetan. But the monks were familiar with modern technology and eventually they corresponded regularly by SMS which, Yani found, worked reasonably well for mutual understanding, after translations.

Some two weeks after she left, she received a SMS saying that the priests would themselves clean up the garbage in the monastery and village and to prove it, they sent photographs. Furthermore, as almost 70% of the forests in the area had been felled, the priests also accepted her suggestion to plant trees. At the beginning of Spring, under the leadership of Sonam Rinchen, 60,000 pine trees and thousands of medicinal herbs and flowers were planted on the slopes and in the valleys around the monastery. The concept was not entirely new for some 100 years previously the revered head of the monastery, the 13th Lab Rinpoche, had with great difficulty transported and planted poplar trees, which he had learned were the best variety to grow in the soils and climate of the plateau.

Arahmaiani greeted at the airport, 2013.

Ten months later Yani returned for another visit and this time she was invited to stay in the monastery. The monastery, the village and the creeks were free of garbage, garbage management and recycling programs were in place and the trees were growing. Further programs were proposed, such as reusable shopping bags and water bottles, and a plan for the conservation of plants and animals for biodiversity. There is an increasing awareness that global warming and climate change is affecting the Tibetan plateau and there is concern for the major river systems, such as the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Yellow River, that originate in this high plateau area. Glaciers and the permafrost are melting which has caused flooding and mudflows and eventually the water sources may even dry up.  

Tree planting in and around Lab, photographs, 2014.
Arahmaiani with the 15th Lab Kyab Gon Rinpoche.

The head of the monastery, the 15th Lab Kyab Gon Rinpoche, has spoken about his concern for environment around Lab and on the high plateau. Since the middle of the last century there has been a change in the main livelihood of the local people, he says, from traditional farming and herding to trading. The people have been moving to urban centres, rare and precious plants have been harvested for sale, the water and soil has become degraded and herds of yak have declined. Referring to the monks’ environmental work, he states: “I would like to thank Arahmaiani for contributing to this project by visiting us, organizing cleanup projects and planting new trees and bringing awareness to the local people….Artists getting involved in protecting the environment is special, it is through art and performance that the message is sent to the public…”

Arahmaiani with part of her installation titled Memory of Nature, Art Stage, Singapore.

Lab Kyab Gon Rinpoche joined Yani at the exhibition of her work in the Singapore international art fair, Art Stage, in 2013. Her work, The Memory of Nature, involved an installation of stones laid out in a pattern on the floor, photographs of the monks and their projects in Lab and a performance with a flag. Here Yani’s work is clearly seen as art but the question arises as to how her excursions to Lab can be defined as an artistic activity. In a piece she wrote, titled My Second Life in Tibet, she hoped that, depending on the direction the monks and the local people took, this may become another of the community-based projects she had been involved in, such as the Flag project. She is interested in concepts that bridge art and life and which are very similar to those of Joseph Beuys whose work she admired as a student. She seeks to foster collective rather than individual creative projects in an ‘open art system’ where the definition of art expands to encompass multiple disciplines and challenge established values. She says her methodology is to begin with a dialogue to identify the important issues and then to encourage collaborative works which may be art or take other forms.

Arahmaiani with  the 15th Lab Kyab Gon Rinpoche, Singapore, 2013.

In an email dated May 2014, Yani reported, “We have a good news for you from Lab. The environmental project is progressing well. This springtime we have planted more than 100,000 trees (willow, pine tree, poplar). This time we have the support for the local government.”

In August 2014, beside Lab village which has been fully rebuilt after the earthquake in 2010, there is to be a celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the original tree planting by the 13th Lab Rinpoche.

A Satellite Exhibition during the Venice Biennale in 1997:

Modernities and Memories – recent works from the Islamic world

It is quite remarkable what books you can find by Googling. Considering my current reports about Indonesia’s participation in the Venice Biennale, I was interested in the earlier international exhibitions that included Indonesian artists. In particular I sought information about the satellite exhibition in Venice funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1997, titled Modernities and Memories – recent works from the Islamic world. Lo, I have found and purchased a copy of the now 17 year old catalogue.

This exhibition is significant because it provides an opportunity to consider issues of globalisation, but here they are compounded by the qualification of ‘Islamic world’. Are there fundamental similarities in art that calls itself ‘from the Islamic world’? Were these works brought together in a commonality of religious belief? What is the significance of the fact that so many of the artists had either studied or worked in western countries? And does it take finance from the first world to mount an exhibition of art in Venice from what were then considered third world countries?

Catalogue cover for Modernities & Memories -recent works from the Islamic World.

The exhibition was shown at the Zenobio Institute, Dosoduro, during the Venice Biennale, June 15 –November 9, 1997 with funding provided mainly by the Rockefeller Foundation. The selection process was the result of curatorial collaboration rather than the connoisseurship of a single curator and as a result, curatorial meetings were held in Paris, Istanbul, Jakarta, New York and Venice. Representatives from Egypt and Pakistan were also included.  It is doubtful whether any of the participating countries could have individually initiated or afforded these exhibition processes. So-called third world countries do not have funding and infrastructure for the arts on the scale the Rockefeller Foundation was able to provide. Often a comparable tradition of support for the visual arts doesn't even exist, even if there is a willingness to enter the international dialogue. It was also noted that other Islamic countries were absent: Iran, Iraq, Palestine, the Gulf States and Yemen among them. These were at the time considered centres of Islamic fundamentalism and difficult for an American institution to approach, so from the very start the concept of an ‘Islamic world’ was questionable.

After Venice the exhibition travelled to Turkey where it was mounted in at the Dolmabahçhe Cultural Centre in Istanbul from October 6 – 30, supported by Bilgi University in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation. Istanbul was perceived as a geographical convergence point for western and non-western artists and intellectuals and clearly the Turkish arts organizations saw themselves in this role. In fact the Istanbul exhibition provoked more reviews and debate than the exhibition in Venice.

The editor of the catalogue for the exhibition was Hasan-Uddin Khan, an architect and academic originally from Pakistan then based in USA. His essay, Pluralistic Dialogues, Identity, Representation and Crossing Boundaries, was succinct and clear, unlike the usual grand language of many exhibition introductions and statements of mission. He stated that the exhibition aimed to express the ‘plurality of Islamic cultures in contrast to a monolithic perception that lumps Islamic cultures together in opposition to ‘Western democratic values and even modernity’. Four years later the demolition of the twin towers in New York drove a wedge between so-called western and Islamic values, reinforcing the very perceptions this exhibition strove to counter.

List of artists.

Hasan-Uddin Khan referred to the influence of the modern movement and the experience of independence and nationalism being a common denominator of the cultures represented in the exhibition. Many artists became involved in these events and became observers of their societies through their work. As Hasan-Uddin Khan wrote, they were simultaneously players from within and critics from without.

But increasing globalisation in the visual arts created a pressure for uniformity: that is, it seemed art must conform to certain criteria to be exhibited internationally. Interestingly this also resulted in a backlash, a searching for a local identity. Yet while all the works in this exhibition show a knowledge and understanding of international art practice, both in form and content, strangely few if any are a direct expression of religious belief. The common dominator was the knowledge of western art practices - so some fundamental questions arise that are probably unanswerable. Are there aspects of modern art that are alien to traditional Islamic practice?

With these questions in mind, my focus was, as always, on the Indonesian participation in the exhibition.

The Rockefeller Foundation was the initiator and provided the main funding, but additional support was provided by the Jakarta Foundation for the Arts and Afrique en Creations, Paris, along with six Turkish insurance and re-insurance companies and Instituto Artigianelli, Venice. The Indonesian curatorial representatives were Pia Alisiahbana, publisher of the Femina group of magazines and Toeti Heraty Noerhadi, director of Cemara 6 art gallery, professor, philosopher and poet. Both were board members of the Jakarta Foundation for the Arts. A.D. Pirous, artist, curator and a professor at ITB, was also a curatorial advisor; a role he had long held in relation to Indonesian publically sanctioned art.

These curatorial delgates and the artists they selected, Anusapati, Hendrawan Riyanto and Setiawan Sabana, represented at that time a more conventional and conservative aspect of modern Indonesian art. The international selection committee for the exhibition were working with institutional representatives in Indonesia while more innovative, radical and activist artists functioned outside these institutions and often rejected them. The Suharto regime was collapsing, there was economic chaos and rioting, and yet none of the Indonesian works selected for this exhibition reflect any of the social and political pressures that were erupting throughout Indonesia at the time.

The three artists chosen were remarkably similar in content as is indicated by their artist’s statements and the catalogue entries written by A.D. Pirous. Their artwork was strongly influenced by the modern movement, with an emphasis on formal elements and medium over content. All three artists had studied overseas, in Anusapati’s case, the Pratt Institute NY, Hendrawan in Japan and Setiawan as artist in residence at the Victorian College of the Arts, Australia and in the Northern Illinois University. All held positions in either ISI or ITB, the two main art academies in Yogyakarta and Bandung respectively, and they were members of an art establishment that came under increasing criticism from alternative artists and the younger generation. These three artists represented a safe choice. There was no questioning of the social and political conditions in Indonesia; nothing that could reflect badly on the Suharto regime. The closest they came to social commentary were references to environmental concerns.

Anusapati, Object 8, 1997

Anusapati’s five works were collectively titled Dialogues with the Past. They were wooden sculptures that referenced objects from traditional Javanese villages, tools, toys or containers increasingly being replaced by modern industrially made equipment. They reflected the simplicity of village life in the past, translating functional objects into aesthetically pleasing forms. In his artist’s statement, Anusapati speaks of a relationship with nature: ‘The trees used to be our brothers, as we are the children of mother nature’; but there is no reference to any other spiritual, let alone Islamic, perspective.


Hendrawan Riyanto, Inner Mothers, installation 1996


The ceramic works of Hendrawan Riyanto referred to clay as a fundamental medium of life. He writes, ‘Human beings should love this natural subject, since they all will become earth / clay themselves in the end. His installation titled Inner Mothers had a ‘mother’ form as a centrepiece with smaller ‘child’ pieces of roughly fired clay. The intention was to related motherhood to the environment through the symbolic use of clay.



VeniceEx_1997_SetiawanImage description
Setiawan Sabana, Monument of Paper, installation, 1996

Setiawan Sabana’s Monument of Paper was an installation of piles of waste paper. According to Setiawan, paper is a stage of civilization that was preceded by the ages of stone and bronze and is now being replaced by computers. The contribution of paper to mankind should therefore be commemorated. The piles of found objects and rubbish are barely transformed. They are in their natural state with less attempt than the other two artists to transform the materials into aesthetically pleasing objects. These forms of installation art are more familiar to a western art audience than to an Indonesian one.


The pluralism that Hasan-Uddin Khan writes of is very evident in Indonesian culture where Islam has been historically layered with Hindu, Buddhist and Animistic practices. A certain sense of this is expressed in the artists’ intentions, but the works themselves are a product of westernised art. There is no direct reference to Islam and in fact Islamic references are rare in Indonesian visual art. In his own work, A.D. Pirous has used Islamic calligraphy and texts, but for this exhibition he is a curatorial advisor, not a participant. Placed alongside the work of other artists from the ‘Islamic world’, rather than a commonality of Islamic culture or spirituality between them, we see the commonality of modern western art techniques.

President Suharto’s downfall in1997 after thirty years of his repressive regime marked great social and political change in Indonesia, yet none of this was reflected in the works chosen for this exhibition. Later the work of Indonesian artists participating in the Venice Biennale and its satellite exhibitions made stronger statements of identity and addressed local issues. Indonesian art was moving away from the forms and content of modern art and becoming part of globalised contemporary art, and in this sense the exhibition marks a turning point.


The following articles can be accessed by clicking on the link:

Dadang: They Give Evidence the history of the exhibition of this work, now in the Art Gallery of NSW.

History of Indonesian Participation in the Venice Biennale

The Indonesian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2013 

Arahmaiani: New York Exhibition 2014

Jakarta Biennale: background and report 2013 The report is by Carla Bianpoen



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