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Independent Photography in East Java
moking craters, expansive rice fields and historical port-cities have often attracted photographers to East Java, one of the most scenic areas of Indonesia. Surabaya, the capital of the province, is only second to Jakarta in terms of population. And in Malang, the province has a university town that rivals Bandung in West Java. But oddly enough, the region is seen to be a cultural backwater. Surabaya, for instance, is often seen as an industrial hub with little to offer in terms of artistic production. However, for anyone with a sense of history, it must be deeply ironic to see East Java dismissed as a cultural wasteland. As early as the Ming dynasty, the old coastal cities of Jepara and Gresik in East Java were already vibrant and cosmopolitan, decades before Dutch power would propel Batavia into prominence. Furthermore, the ‘traditional’ Central Javanese culture had in fact borrowed heavily from the cultural styles of these coastal cities, partly through the influence of Pangeran Pekik (murdered in 1659) from the Surabaya royal family.1 In terms of photographic production, wedding, event, advertising and press photography dominate the scene in Surabaya and Malang. Meanwhile, the wider community of hobbyists and serious enthusiasts gravitate towards pictorialism. Against this backdrop, it is not always easy for the independent photographers to stay positive and to further their practices. The few who have persisted often find themselves unappreciated. Starting out as an interior designer, Hari Yong (b. 1955; Surabaya) became a commercial photographer in 1985. Away from his professional practice, the sixth-generation Chinese tried in vain to be part of Surabaya’s pictorial movement but his artistic work was always deemed to be too ‘personal’ for the salon clubs. Since then, he has kept more or less to himself, leading an almost innocuous existence, as he continues to document the city he calls home. In 2000, while taking pictures with a friend, Yong stumbled upon the evacuation of the Kalisosok Prison. By then, he had two days left before the jail was shut down. While his friend remained uninterested, Yong recognised the window of opportunity and the importance of keeping a record of the prison. He applied for a permit and was given four hours to shoot whatever he wanted, which led to Abandoned Histories (2000).
According to Timoticin Kwanda, Head of the Architecture Department from 2001 to 2006 at the Petra Christian University in Surabaya, Kalisosok Prison was built in 1808 during the colonial era. As the largest prison in East Java, it had interned violent criminals and political dissidents, including Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno,2 and more recently, the freedom fighters from East Timor and West Papua.3 ‘After being packed with inmates for so many years, Kalisosok Prison is finally freed from the burden’, says Yong. ‘The aim of my work is to preserve its memories. People in Surabaya usually take our heritage for granted. Whenever there is a disused building, it is always taken down to build a mall.’4 That was precisely the plan that an investor had for Kalisosok more than three years back but the heritage board rejected the proposal. Since then, the prison has been left vacant.5 For many years, Yong has gone about cataloguing Surabaya using photography. His work on Kalisosok is only a small part of this long-term project titled Surabaya Koe (My Surabaya, 1990 - ). A small selection of images has already been shown at Galeri CCCL Surabaya during the French-initiated Month of Photography in 2007. As a peranakan,6 Yong speaks no Mandarin nor his ancestral dialect of Hokkien. Surabaya is the only home he has known; with or without race politics in Indonesia, Yong could never contemplate being elsewhere. It is in China where he would find himself truly an ‘outsider’. As such, Surabaya Koe may be seen to articulate Yong’s love affair with his hometown. In most of the images human presence is absent, forcing his viewers to study the ‘silence’ of these landmarks in Surabaya. It becomes clear that Yong has little interest in a parochial sense of cultural or ethnic identity. Everything counts in the melting-pot society that Surabaya has always been since the Ming era when Ma Huan, Zheng He’s Muslim interpreter, visited and wrote about it
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P43: Sadewa, Untitled image from Me and Mirrors project. P44: 1/ Hari yong, Surabaya Kalianak, 1997, from the Surabaya Koe project; Kalianak River, North Surabaya. 2/ Hari yong, Untitled image from the Abandoned Histories project. P45: 1/ Sadewa, Untitled image (‘The Gate of Death’), from the Transposition of Rahwana series. 2/ Mamuk Ismuntoro, Dare to Live. Diana, 19, is getting married at the Pasar Baru refugee camp. A graduate from high school, she plans to stay temporarily at the camp with her husband (July 2008).
during their fourth expedition (1413-15) to the Indian Ocean. Older than most Javanese cities, Surabaya’s Arabic, Dutch and Chinese quarters are still intact. Unlike some salon photographers, Yong avoids sentimentalising the city. Nostalgia can sometimes be distracting because it necessarily directs him towards certain monuments and away from other landmarks. Worse, it directs the viewers away from the cultural or historical significance of these sites. Apart from Yong, Mamuk Ismuntoro (b. 1975; Surabaya) is another photographer who pursues personal work, which some of his peers see as a waste of time. ‘I like to share things about culture and social issues with people’, he explains. ‘Photography is not just a technical thing. It takes passion, vision, creativity and, of course opinion and empathy. Long-term personal work keeps me focused on these virtues.’7 A journalism graduate, Mamuk has been working as a fulltime photographer for various publications over the years. He is now the picture editor of Surabaya Post. His first project on the Chinese community of Surabaya sees him grappling with the mechanics of long-form documentary work. Since then, his storytelling has matured significantly, especially in Dare to Live (2006-08). The mudflow disaster first hit Porong in Sidoarjo, East Java, on May 2006 and has since displaced 42,000 people. Most geological experts feel that the oil and gas company PT Labindo Brantas, which was then involved in drilling activities in the area, is at least partially responsible for the catastrophe. As of May 2009, the mudflow has covered some 800 hectares of farming and industrial land, destroying twelve villages. About 100,000 cubic metres of mud continues to surface each day and possibly for the next thirty years. Not to appear useless, the Yudhoyono government has shifted its attention to related social and infrastructure issues rather than trying to stop the blow-out. On the ground, the loss of property and employment has become a reality while compensation has not been forthcoming for many victims. Cramped into camps at Pasar Baru and under the old GempolSurabaya highway, refugees from the disaster are trying to get their lives back on track through the simple routine of praying, working and schooling. Right from the start, Ismuntoro has been conscious of the photographers’ near-pornographic obsession with the disaster landscapes at Porong. He addresses that unease in Dare to Live, providing a different way of contemplating the human stories that are often lost in disaster reportage. As the work was self-initiated, Ismuntoro had no particular schedule or deadlines to fulfil. He would visit Porong with his 35mm digital camera, taking time to talk to the victims while trying to sieve out the details that wouldn’t ‘interest’ the press or wire photographers. The result is a surprising combination of
Eyes on Indonesia Issue #244 October 2011
survivor portraits and images of abandoned homes and schools. An image of the graffiti at Pasar Baru refugee camp speaks of the anger that the victims felt against PT Labindo Brantas. As a form of retaliation, the graffiti acquires greater effect through the currency of Ismuntoro’s photograph. Dare to Live allows viewers to understand the tragedy from the level of its victims. Over in Malang, Nakula Tronic (b. 1980; Kediri, East Java) and Seto Hari W (b. 1981; Madiun, East Java) decided to establish Insomnium in 2003. Inspired by Mes 56 in Yogyakarta, Central Java, Insomnium aims to provide a forum for contemporary photography and visual arts. As Hari W asserts: ‘People have been pursuing salon photography for years. We want to show that there are other strands of photography. Photography is multi-faceted and we can connect it to disciplines like anthropology or sociology.’8 In 2005, they rented a house that served both as a gallery and a living space for some of its members and collaborators. Not surprisingly, a lack of funding has been their Achilles’ heel, forcing them to give up the space in 2007. Previously, Insomnium had been able to organise several workshops and exhibitions in Malang, sometimes in partnership with the British Council or with the collectives of Mes 56 or the Jakarta-based ruangrupa. Since then, it has been unable to run its own programs and
nowadays acts mainly as a support organisation for other initiatives in Malang. Unlike Bandung, the absence of a major art institution has meant that the art community in Malang is smaller. While Mes 56 has been able to feed off the energies of other collectives in Yogyakarta, Insomnium is more isolated in this picturesque hill station. Fortunately, its members have continued to produce work. As an economics student from the University of Muhammadiyah Malang (UMM), Tronic joined its photo club in 2002 and stayed only for a year, dropping out from school altogether in 2007. In The Bag Project (2006), Tronic approached friends, photographers, artists, designers and strangers to empty their bags and allow him to take pictures of their belongings. The people whom he picked were entirely random. The objects in each bag, Tronic believes, add up to the construct of the owner’s personality. He is also fairly upfront about the voyeuristic nature of this project. Needless to say, the act of discovering people’s belongings provides comic relief. A rock-and-roll singer, for instance, carried a little doll and baby oil in his bag.9 Nevertheless, the work offers a different way of encountering the issue of identity among young Indonesians. Tronic’s brother Sadewa (b. 1980; Kediri) did communication studies at UMM from 1999 to 2006. Joining Insomnium in 2004, Sadewa’s first major work Me and Mirrors (2005-06) features a series of self-portraits taken across Indonesia during moments of self-reflection:
When I see myself in the mirror, I often think of my problems. Sometimes, I feel like the reflection is not me. I feel like I don’t know myself. When I have these thoughts, I want to take pictures to remind myself. I want to tell people that: ‘This is me!’10
However, some of the self-portraits also have more aesthetic motivations. Put together, the entire series functions like a visual diary not unlike How We Forget and Why We Remember (2006-
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Eyes on Indonesia Issue #244 October 2011 45
1/ Mamuk Ismuntoro, from the Dare to Live project. Graffiti at the Pasar Baru refugee camp in Porong, east Java, highlights the plight of the victims in the mudflow tragedy caused by PT Labindo Brantas (July 2008). 2/ Nakula Tronic, image from The Bag Project; Adon, 27 years old, bassist.
07) by female photographer Christina Phan (b. 1977; Jakarta). In both cases, the photographers use their self-portraits to mark specific moments of their existence. In this sense, Phan is more courageous, choosing to bare her emotions to the camera, while Sadewa looks somewhat more reserved in his self-portraits. In Transposition of Rahwana (2007), Sadewa moves beyond the fixation on self and works with Mujiyana, a Ramayana dancer playing the character of Rahwana. Traditionally, Javanese people believe that the spirit of Rahwana, the symbol of evil, can never be destroyed, that it resides in every soul as the dark side of human behaviour. To locate the relevance of this mythology in today’s world, the photographer invited the fully dressed dancer onto the streets of modern Yogyakarta and posed him at the Beringharjo traditional market, in front of a McDonald’s outlet and against the bustling traffic. The juxtaposition of this mythical character against urban, mundane realities helps to convey his cautionary message: ‘Careful! Rahwana is close to you!’11 Ironically, the bemusement that some of the onlookers felt when they saw Rahwana suggests that leakages of meaning are unavoidable in this modern restaging of an old story. Like most photographers, Sadewa’s confidence in the medium’s ability to fix the notions of identity and meaning may just be unjustifiable. Nevertheless, the works of Sadewa and the aforementioned photographers have brought new ideas about the photographic practice to East Java. But it will take a few more years before their input will be felt on a wider scale. m
1. See Peter Carey, ‘Civilization on Loan: The Making of an Upstart Polity: Mataram and Its Successors, 1600–1830’, in Beyond Binary Histories: Re-imagining Eurasia to c. 1830, Victor Lieberman (ed.), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, pp. 267-288. 2. Timoticin Kwanda, email to author, 20 March, 2009. 3. Jacob Rumbiak, Bravo the Cat: Life among Papuan and Timorese Political Prisoners in Jakarta, Inside Indonesia, http://insideindonesia.org/content/ view/455/29/. 4. Hari Yong, interview by author, Surabaya, Indonesia, March 2007. 5. Timoticin Kwanda, email to author, 17 December, 2009. 6. See Mely G. Tan, ‘The Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia: Issue of Identity’, in Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians, Leo Suryadinata (ed.), Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1997, p. 42; Tan explains that the peranakan are ‘those who are of mixed descent, whose families have settled in Indonesia for at least three generations, who may have had some Chinese language school education but do not speak Chinese as the home language, and whose cultural orientation is more towards the culture of the area in which they have settled’. 7. Mamuk Ismuntoro, e-mail to author, 18 December, 2009. 8. Seto Hari W , interview by author, Malang, Indonesia, March 2007. 9. Nakula Tronic, interview by author, Malang, Indonesia, March 2007. 10. Sadewa, interview by author, Malang, Indonesia, March 2007. 11. Sadewa, email to author, 3 January, 2010.
Zhuang Wubin is a Singapore based researcher specialising in the contemporary photographic practices of Southeast Asia. He is also a photographer: wwwseasiaphotography.wordpress.com; www.lastharbour.com
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Eyes on Indonesia Issue #244 October 2011