Growing in the Back Row

Note: This article is in the catalog Jakarta Biennale 2015

In the mid 1990s, I went to a painting exhibition in Makassar, which prompted a question in my head: “Can we access the world of art without having the skill to draw, paint, and such?”

The question was pushed to the backburner for about two decades, and only reappeared in September 2015, after another question popped up in a media interview, which was part of my duty as one of the six curators working for the Jakarta Biennale (JB) 2015.

The JB 2015 curatorial team implements a different system from previous editions of the biennale. Apart from myself, the JB 2015 management invited curators from three other cities: Asep Topan (Jakarta), Benny Wicaksono (Surabaya), Irma Chantily (Jakarta), Putra Hidayatullah (Banda Aceh) and Riksa Afiaty (Jakarta, Bandung).

Photo source: saintjimpe.blogspot.com

We, the team is called ‘the young curators’, have been working since January 2015 while learning a thing or two in the Curators lab program led by Charles esche, the curator of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Based on the JB management’s projection, the system would ease the transfer of knowledge because Charles has the experience of working in respected biennales, such as the São Paolo Biennale and the Istanbul Biennale. In practice, the Curators lab is a learning method that pushes us young curators to jump into the ocean of managing a biennale.

The adjective ‘young’ serves as an indication of how green we are in the process of walking through the thick forest of Indonesian art. But some people, particularly my friends, see it as an issue of age. And thus, ‘young’ became the ‘word of the year’ for me who have renewed my ID card for four times.

Photo source: saintjimpe.blogspot.com

Throughout our working process toward the opening of the JB 2015, I underline several important points related to my experience in the Curators lab.

First, art cannot stand on its own, as pointed out by Charles, how “art alone is not enough.” I have become more convinced that we need more perspectives from many other disciplines to respond to or to solve human problems through the world of art.

The background of the curators’ team is quite diverse. Of the team members, only Benny is an artist. I work mostly in the field of literature, asep is a post-graduate student on curatorship, Irma works at a foreign cultural center, riksa manages an art laboratory called artlab at ruangrupa, Putra is a typical quiet and diligent ‘student’—he just received a post-graduate scholarship from another country—and Charles, from what I heard, studied political science.

Second, the management system. I became a member of a working group that consists of so many people who prepare an international-scale event that involves about 70 artists from inside and outside the country, not to mention the sponsors funding this event. Based on my rough estimation, for a two-month event, it requires at least one year for the curators to learn to ‘straighten the rows’ behind the leader Charles esche. Halfway through the end of the preparation, I was introduced by the management to several other people who have actually worked for a long time for the Jakarta Biennale 2015. They include Shera Rindra M. Pringgodigdo from the communication department, Bagasworo Aryaningtyas or Komeng who is responsible for community project locations, and Adi Setiawan a.k.a. Digel who takes care of the locations of murals. I also correspond with two or three other people in charge with the editorial of the website www.jakartabiennale.net.

At first, I only had a little grasp of what curatorial work entails, based on two things: (1) a short stint related to writing initiatives and several art events in Makassar with my friends in the past decade; (2) working pattern and model estimation based on the curatorial workshop at ruangrupa, Jakarta, in 2009. The magnitude of the Jakarta Biennale 2015, however, forced me to fully concentrate and reserve my energy to maintain my endurance and exploration power. The closest thing to it that I have ever experienced is probably curating and editing manuscripts for the Ininnawa Community and Tanahindie publishers in the past ten years.

Third, I have the opportunity to compare the dynamics of the art scene in Makassar with those in Banda Aceh, Jakarta and Surabaya. The comparison is based on the practitioners’ network, discourse dynamics, and the growth of the art scene enabled by publication space and support from other parties. Clearly, Curators lab provides the opportunity for the curators to learn from each other’s city in order to observe and respond to the issues in their own place.

Last but not least, fourth: celebrating locals’ small victories. People have been defeated by the political and social structures for so long. Only art and literature give a huge opportunity to voice their hopes, in their attempts for sovereignty. art and literature can become the energy to boost people’s power to maintain the environment and the humans in it.

We recognize this situation when accompanying Charles to meet a number of locals and find out their strategies to face the reality of life. They are the residents of densely populated Kampung Pisang in Maccini sombala, Tamalate district, southern Makassar. The kampong is prone to eviction from time to time and its fate depends on the dialog between the city administration and the residents. The area, which is formed from the mound dumped from a lake construction in GMTDC (Gowa-Makassar Tourism Development Corporation), is getting narrower. People share and rearrange the settlement, including by building houses with a combination of new and used materials. For me, such creativity needs to be celebrated as a small victory amid the limitations.

Nevertheless, as you read my explanation so far, don’t imagine that my fellow curators and I carried out rigid and lengthy assignments, or stuck in a confined space while exchanging ideas. We actually laughed a lot. learning with Charles is so much fun for me because he has a gesture of an ‘old friend’. (Or maybe since we know next to nothing, it was easier for Charles to direct us?)

Photo source: saintjimpe.blogspot.com

Charles really taught us to open up to so many possibilities, perspectives and opportunities. In a conversation with Charles and Irma, on the way back from Kampung Pisang, I asked him, “Why did you look so relaxed (with us and the others)?” to which he replied, “Why not?” and laughed. It showed just how rich the life experience of the Scottish man is.

Once our task is completed in the first quarter of 2016, it would be time for each of us to go back to our habitat. I believe the way that Charles has shown us, ‘the fledglings’, is the horizon to pursue.

At least Charles and us were a sight to behold, like a row of neatly arranged trees. Maybe we are the shady trees that have yet to bear fruits, while Charles is a lush green tree with dangling, ripe produce. Once the JB 2015 is over, the fruits would fall on the ground. It would be our turn to learn to expand our roots into various directions, to enable our trees to produce fruits amid such harsh climate.

Therefore, whatever my friends and I in Makassar do so far (and hopefully in the years to come), it will make us grow to be better in managing what we will face later on.[]

Anwar Jimpe Rachman, writer-researcher-curator for Tanahindie and Publisher Ininnawa.

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