One of Indonesia’s most revered and internationally active contemporary artists, Suwage is known for his paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations that relentlessly investigate the interrelationships between multiple forms of identity – touching on issues of ethnicity, religion, and politics – as viewed through a very personal lens. Over the course of his 35-year career, he has continually returned to the self portrait as a primary motif through which not only to address these broader socio-political issues but also to probe what it means to be an artist. He has had a longstanding fascination with the process of artistic inspiration, with notions of artistic influence, and with the role of the artist in society.
The exhibition’s title, Room of Mine, suggests that the new works have a highly personal focus, offering a glimpse into the artist’s own studio, and by extension into his own inner world. The exhibition concentrates on only one medium – paper – which Suwage describes as “still the most intimate material” for him.
With a series of large-scale watercolors and an extraordinary group of paper mâché sculptural works, he reveals aspects of his studio space – his work table, library, and bedroom – as well as a wide array of images that continue to haunt him, whether taken from the works of renowned Indonesian painters of the past, from contemporary mass media, or from his own earlier work.
Appropriation, particularly of his own work, is a central, ongoing strategy for Suwage, a process of recycling and recontextualizing that parallels the cycle of life and death that has been an underlying theme throughout his career, and which is grounded in the spiritual traditions of Java’s ancient Hindu-Buddhist culture.
Suwage’s mixed Chinese Javanese heritage, and his experience as a Christian convert to Islam, have informed his approach to cultural pluralism and religious syncretism. His works have often made critiques – sometimes pointed, sometimes veiled – of various forms of intolerance and of the attempt to impose a single rigid, monolithic structure on society, whether by Indonesia’s authoritarian Suharto regime (1966-98) or more recently by the rise of a fundamentalist strain of Islam in Indonesia.
Burning fires and the specter of violence recur in many of the works in the exhibition, creating a somber mood that is leavened by humor and an irreverent spirit of self-mockery and irony. Suwage is a master watercolorist, and the works shimmer with vibrant color delineated by boldly assured line drawing, the use of textual components, and startling juxtapositions of images – all hallmarks of his early training in graphic design.