The query of what makes Indonesian artwork Indonesian is in no way a brand new one. When debates round nationwide id arose within the wake of the Indonesian Nationwide Revolution, the duty of defining “ke-Indonesia-an” (“Indonesianness”) grew to become inseparable from developments within the realm of arts and tradition.

Maybe essentially the most notable final result of such contentions was the writing of an artwork historical past that memorialised a number of male Indonesian painters as the daddy figures of contemporary Indonesian artwork. These included the European-educated painter Raden Saleh (1911-1990) and the self-taught painter Sindudarsono Sudjojono (1913-1986)—two artists who ceaselessly vie for the title of Indonesia’s first trendy painter in accounts of visible modernity in Indonesia.

The trendy artwork canon which emerged thus was one based mostly upon a rivalry between the colonial and anti-colonial; the overseas and the indigenous; the Dutch/Dutch-influenced male painter and the Indonesian male painter. But, as scholars now level out, such narratives depart little room for ethnic and/or gendered distinction. How and the place would possibly, say, the expertise of a Chinese language-Indonesian lady artist be situated in Indonesian artwork historical past?

Despite contestations over the nationality standing of Chinese language-Indonesians, the Chinese language ethnic minority has occupied essential positions in Indonesia’s financial and cultural growth. Newer works have sought to re-evaluate the contributions of the Chinese language minority to Indonesian society, together with their function in shaping concepts of what it meant—and looked like—to be a modern Indonesian, through studio and amateur photography, in addition to the visually diverse works of art they produced in the early-to-mid twentieth century. These research go an extended technique to dispelling the parable of Indonesia as a homogenous nationwide entity, encouraging us to search for various views and cases of cross-cultural alternate that trespass the boundaries of the nation-state. Of their makes an attempt to take action, nonetheless, they usually nonetheless overlook or omit the gender issue, inadvertently upholding the masculinist requirements that skew our understanding of contemporary Indonesian artwork. Thus, the query stays: the place are the Chinese language-Indonesian ladies?

Retracing and recovering their misplaced tales could be a tough course of. Only a few ladies of Chinese language descent are recorded in historic accounts of Indonesian trendy artwork or within the collections and archives of Indonesian cultural establishments. Regardless of such obstacles, the significance of bringing to consideration the forgotten tales and transnational experiences of girls who held fluid cultural identities, nonetheless fragmentary, shouldn’t be missed. Not solely are transnational ladies’s histories human histories in spite of everything, however their retelling additionally unveils the intersecting constructions of patriarchy and nationalism which have for therefore lengthy restricted historic views.

The issue of the method, and the elusiveness of girls’s tales, implies that it could really feel remarkably fortuitous to return throughout their names in scholarship. My first encounter emerged from conversations with an educational mentor, who directed me towards the recently translated writings of a Chinese language-Indonesian artwork critic, Oei Sian Yok (1926-2002).  Between 1956 to 1961, Oei wrote a whole lot of articles reviewing each worldwide and Indonesian exhibitions for the Jakarta-based Star Weekly journal, beneath the pseudonym Pembantu Seni Lukis Kita (Our Artwork Servant). On the time of publishing, the Chinese language group in Indonesia confronted discriminatory laws that sought to handle their ambiguous nationality standing. Notably, the signing of the Sino-Indonesian Twin Nationality Treaty between China and Indonesia in 1955 compelled Chinese language Indonesians to decide on to stay as residents of only one nation. In following years, the Chinese language minority in Indonesia continued to endure from repression and violence throughout the New Order period, which sought to efface all points of Chinese language tradition and language. Such a place of precarity might be discerned in Oei’s articles, which appeared to pave an alternate manner of appraising artwork that overturned the binary antagonism between colonial and anti-colonial viewpoints. Opposite to the incendiary rhetoric of an Indonesia-centric, nationalist historiography of artwork, Oei wrote:

Once we hearken to foreigners speaking about our personal nation, generally we don’t acknowledge what they are saying as one thing of our personal anymore. They usually hear or see one thing that we couldn’t understand, as a result of now we have taken issues round us with no consideration, as being abnormal; foreigners would possibly rediscover issues for us as a result of they see with the “different eyes”.

Right here in Oei’s writings, wherein she acknowledges and affirms the contributions of “overseas eyes” to the Indonesian inventive imaginary, we glimpse a family tree of transnational pondering in Indonesian artwork criticism. Implicit in her writings, is the provocation that the very thought of Indonesia as a contemporary nation has, and will very nicely proceed to be, formed by those that occupy ambiguous, transnational positions within the nation—the interior “different”.

Portrait of Oei Sian Yok, {photograph} taken in 1953. Supply: Wikimedia Commons.

Not lengthy after, I chanced upon an not easily seen album of work titled Lukisan Tradisional Tiongkok Karya Chiang Yu Tie (The Conventional Chinese language Work of the Artist Chiang Yu Tie) within the digital recesses of the College of Sydney’s library catalogue. Piecing collectively scattered fragments of data, gleaned from Indonesian language blog posts, and only one journal article, I got here to know the Chinese language Indonesian painter Chiang Yu Tie (1916-2000).

Born right into a rich and politically conservative household in Zhejiang Province, China, Chiang went on to check European portray on the Xinxi State Academy of Portray in Chongqing regardless of her household’s disapproval, graduating in 1945. After falling unwell three years later, Chiang migrated to Indonesia in 1948, the place she finally settled in Bandung as an artwork trainer and based her personal portray studio known as Rumah Rumput.

Portrait of Chiang Yu Tie, {photograph} taken in 1980. Supply: Wikimedia Commons.

Like lots of her contemporaries, Chiang’s work usually characteristic Balinese landscapes and dancing Balinese ladies. The recognition of Bali as an issue amongst Chinese language émigré artists in Southeast Asia speaks to their distinctive mind set, which encompassed a fascination for the unique new world they now discovered themselves in, and a want to specific as authentically as attainable this native actuality, in a creative language acquainted to them. Oei attests to this endeavour to achieve a real and devoted picture of Bali, with out its “make-up” (tanpa make-up):

The truth is, there are two variations of Bali, one being the Bali that’s recognized by travellers, with all its make-up, designed to indicate off to vacationers…Then there’s additionally an actual and real Bali, which is commonly unknown to guests, as a result of it’s tough to search out, and the highway is slim…

Nonetheless genuine, this dualistic imaginative and prescient of Bali, distilled by way of the othering, touristic gaze of Chinese language artists, would occupy an influential place in burgeoning nationwide, and worldwide, imaginaries of Bali, and extra broadly, Indonesia.

Chiang Yu Tie, Balinese Woman, 1979, ink on paper, dimensions unknown. Personal assortment. Reproduced with permission from Teng Mu Yen, 2022.

In making use of a feminist studying of Chiang’s works, nonetheless, we’re invited to think about how the development of a nationwide creativeness of Indonesia can also be inflected by gendered distinction. Are there, maybe, alternative routes of cultivating a way of Indonesian cultural id that not solely permits ethnic variety, but additionally shifts away from the troubled and deeply gendered narratives of a singular inventive genius, or an unique chronology of “stylistically authentic”, consultant works from (male) artists?

As we revisit Chiang’s works, we’re provided an alternate viewpoint that defies inflexible classes of colonial and anti-colonial time in addition to patriarchal valuations of “good” artwork and “Indonesian” artwork when it comes to originality, genius, and rivalry. In a portray titled, Kuda Lari (Galloping Horse), Chiang’s inscription fairly actually poses a query to its viewers, reflecting on the constructed notion of inventive originality:

Day after day, two years have already handed…The brand new meets previous. The previous “horse” is elevated by a “mountain”. An artist is only a creator. Who is aware of, what do you assume?

Chiang is more likely to be referring to the concept of creating a person artwork model by way of a discerning strategy to imitation, which dates to Qing Dynasty China. Actually, her chosen topic—a galloping horse—is one which bears an extended lineage in Chinese language artwork. On this sense, her work testifies to the presence of a Chinese language line of thought within the historical past of Indonesian artwork. Seen in hindsight, with a heightened mindfulness towards the exclusionary nature of canonical historical past, her work present respite from totalising, gendered narratives of nationhood and post-colonial id, providing an expanded definition of “the artist”, and who might lay declare to that title.

Chiang Yu Tie, Galloping Horse, 1970, ink on paper, dimensions unknown. Personal assortment. Reproduced with permission from Teng Mu Yen, 2022.

A lot of her retellings of wayang tales additionally supply an area wherein a female sensibility could reside. In a piece painted in 1979, titled Srikandi dalam sayembara panahan (Srikandi in an archery competitors), Chiang depicts Srikandi, a personality from Javanese wayang born as a male however later reworked right into a feminine (though the gender transition is reversed within the Hindu epic Mahabharata), who has been retrospectively changed into an icon of feminism and ladies’s emancipation in Indonesia. An inscription within the higher left-hand facet particulars the story of the heroine in first-person narration:

I was a scholar of archery. Now that I’m expert, let’s compete. If I ought to lose, I’ll change into your concubine.

An English translation offered within the exhibition catalogue provides a last line: “…but when I have been victorious, I’d refuse to offer [my] hand to thee.”

Chiang Yu Tie, Srikandi dalam sayembara panahan, 1979, ink on paper, dimensions unknown. Personal assortment. Reproduced with permission from Teng Mu Yen, 2022

Accompanied by defiant first-person inscriptions that appear to disclose the artist’s private voice, Chiang’s selective renderings of wayang characters depart us to marvel concerning the hidden workings of girls’s company within the transmission of tales and pictures throughout time and house, outdoors of the established canon of Indonesian artwork historical past. This resistance in opposition to masculinised, nationalistic grand narratives is, partially, additionally generated as we join with such works within the present-day. It’s between Oei and Chiang’s follow within the twentieth century, and our affected person, persistent makes an attempt to revisit their works with an open-mindedness and receptivity, that we discover capability to dismantle these totalising narratives that so rigidly police our concepts of who can and ought to be a contemporary Indonesian artist, and what trendy Indonesian artwork ought to appear to be.

Undoubtedly, extra analysis is required to recuperate such tales and figures misplaced to canonical historical past—the interpretation of Oei’s work marks solely a preliminary foray into the subject material. Even so, the ripples of their affect might be gleaned in the present day: in 2012, over a decade after her passing, 51 work by college students, many ladies, taught by Chiang and her daughter, Teng Mu Yin, have been exhibited by the Ikatan Wanita Pelukis Indonesia (Affiliation of Indonesian Ladies Painters) in Bandung. 

Because the works of Chinese language-Indonesian ladies artists and artwork critics are delivered to gentle, they invite us to rethink the narratives and construction which have lengthy been held up as a part of an authoritative historical past. By making room for transnational and gendered experiences within the studying and writing of historical past, we could start to uncover a far richer and multifaceted image of Indonesian artwork and id.


The writer is grateful for help offered by the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre by way of its Residency scheme.