“It’s OK to Undress Me”

Arahmaiani is a master at creating herself. She is a performance artist and her work is intended to provoke – spoken, performed or painted. Arahmaiani is an artist who has represented Indonesia at Biennales such as Venice, Sao Paulo, Havana, Yokohama… and the list goes on.

This conversation was recorded with Iani at Rimbun Dahan either side of a trip to Germany while painting her first solo. I spoke with Iani, along with artist Tony Twigg, about her decision to base herself in Berlin, rather than her native home Indonesia. This shift in perspective, a ‘swinging’ as she described it, between a European and Asian landscape, is explored through painting and performance in a new show at Valentine Willie Fine Art opening 24 August (Lecture on Painting – Part 1). The paintings will be supported with photographs of Iani’s body/text works, by Bernice Chauly, and an interactive performance at the opening. The link to the three components of the exhibition is text. In the paintings, Arahmaiani has laid words across the landscapes, discussing cultural and social issues and adding that provocative element which is her benchmark. The issue sitting beneath the work is exploitation of the art market.

How these works sit within contemporary Malaysian art market raised issues of religion and politics in our conversations, and also presented a grave contrast to her work in Indonesia as an activist artist, and the growing tensions restricting her art practice. I am sure many of you will respond to this conversation with fiery passion, some with indifference, and others just wait to see the show! I encourage you to participate in this performative dialogue and engage with the issues that Arahmaiani is presenting in this cohesive exhibition – Wednesday, 24 August, 8pm at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Bangsar, KL.

Painting unpopular landscapes

G: Tell me about these paintings – they started as a diversion from your works we know – installation, performance, writing – but have evolved over the past months to embrace these things.

A: Yeah, I’ve been trying to paint for years. I’m working on that subject that is so un-popular among painters at the moment – landscape! Last year I went to the north of Germany where I started to appreciate this grey landscape. I love drinking red wine; to taste the different kinds. I spent half my allowance on wine – research! (laughs) So, this experiment of wine and the greyness… like the taste of the wine – they look the same, but actually they’re different.

And then I come back [to Malaysia] and POW, it is all green and colour. I started to think that I go between these two worlds of the grey and the green, between Germany and here. Then I realise mentally I go in-between as well, swinging you know. So that is what I am trying to do with these paintings, to capture that swinging experience. Sometimes I have a real problem because these two worlds are actually conflicting and you can’t swing easily.

G: What are you trying to communicate through these landscapes?

A: The focus of this exhibition is an examination of the market place and the commodification of art. Painting on canvas as an idiom formed in the western hemisphere. Its history is rooted in this system of presentation. This exhibition will be a “Lecture on Painting: Part I” – a visual and performative dialogue to stimulate thought on this idiom of painting and its marketability.

G: You mentioned you’ll paint text over the landscapes in a kind of visual syntax?

A: I’m interested in words and their meanings. I want to [turn the words] into a visualisation where they connect [in a more dimensional way]. It will be a geometric construction. During my performance I will invite the audience to participate by adding text to the paintings. I am interested how at one moment all people in the space will experience the same sensorial stimulation, and they have to think about what they see and act.

G: Are these words going to talk about that ‘swing’ between the two countries – the cultural differences? Will they be the provocative element to these paintings?

A: I think so. Although you have similar things in one culture and another, it’s [just] mimicking. But… I don’t know about this provocative element in my work (said with surprise). I see it as something I don’t know, I don’t force. It is always something that is churned up, again, and again whether I like it or not. Maybe it is coming from my nature?

G: You have a long history of performance in your art making. Since our conversation in April, I can see the show drawing more on this history. It maintains an integrity for me that was missing in the original painting show concept.

A: I want to interact with the audience; I want them to take part. I want to turn the medium of painting into performance. I want to transform the individual ‘product’ of painting for the commercial art world into a complex question of authorship and its marketability.

G: I understand, from our conversations, it is tense for you to be in Indonesia. Your work is shown with the pretext of your identity – you need it in the international art arena. How do you deal with that anomaly: that you are celebrated as a great artist in your own country but can’t exist there, yet you are trading off that Indonesian identity to exist elsewhere?

A: Through my work, my expression, I try to deal with issues of social, political and gender problems within my own country, Indonesia. But, as we know it is a globalised world, so this is somehow connected with the bigger system. People outside Indonesia experience or recognise something similar in the issues I’m presenting. In Brazil, for example, people see in my work some things they also experience, even in Europe. There is no support for the kind of work I do [in Indonesia]. Forget it, no way! I am trying to influence the social process within my own community, trying to push for change. However I have to survive, to be practical, so this is why I do some paintings or sell my costumes from my performances.

G: I understand you have strong ideas about capitalism and making money from activist art. In the light of this exhibition in a commercial gallery, a machine of the capitalism you oppose, I imagine there is a conflict with those ideals?

A: I am aware of that. I’m addressing this issue by starting to do the commercial stuff intentionally, if I feel it’s appropriate for me. You need a certain energy and concentration to go on that track. That is the basis of this exhibition – to question and examine this commercial gallery world. The market itself is fine. How the market is manipulated is market terrorism. On one canvas I write: “I am not against the market but I hate market fundamentalism, exploitation, monopoly, market terrorism”.

People will condemn you

G: What are your thoughts about the Malaysian art scene?

A: Malaysia’s [attitude] is, “What are you doing?” There is already a kind of cultural gap between the Malay and the Javanese, because for them it has this animist element. They think it’s pre-Islamic; it’s primitive –while Islam is modern. So the art scene in Malaysia, because of restrictions, either from religious but also political effect, I think is somehow stuck.

T: How is it stuck?

A: Here in Malaysia, people can’t have different opinions… an alternative voice. It’s going on up until now. How can this situation give motivation to the artists to develop their aesthetic and their own individuality?

T: How’s that reflected in the art scene here?

A: I think the art will be affected and will become less creative. What I have seen so far in Malaysia is the art development goes along with the political situation.

G: Do you feel there is an absence of art here?

A: Yeah. Art here has nothing to do with the political or social reality. There is the Matahati group who try to deal with social issues, but for Indonesians, for me [it’s wrong what they are doing]. I give you an example. Bayu is dealing with issues of hunger, children, abuse and stuff like that. He paints the suffering children, exhibits it, sold it, and got money out of it! This, for us, for Indonesians, is bullshit! What are you trying to do? You can’t do this in Indonesia – people will condemn you.

T: Who – other artists or the public?

A: The artists, the public and of course the critics. This is also a major problem here in Malaysia – they don’t have any critic.

T: You are starting to suggest there is more freedom here for artists to paint pictures with a social and political message, to show and sell them?

A: No. What I am trying to say is that I don’t see a clear conceptual base to dealing with social issues here in Malaysia. In Indonesia we have a clear conceptual base when you deal with social political issues. Tha is why it is considered to be unethical when you bring up these issues in paintings and then make money out of It.

Another example is Razman’s paintings of globalism and capitalism1. He has to take it more seriously and think deeper about the subject. He has to study what globalisation is, and be involved in real activism. he he’ll understand better and create art that is appropriate for the subject. If one is aware what globalisation is, and what painting is – I mean as a seductive object in the art market – then one is able to see the connections and examine it [responsibly]! In Indonesia without understanding these connections people will condemn you.

That is what I am trying to do with this exhibition – to look at that system, at global art trends and manipulation. I think this exhibition is more about global issues. Artists in China, Malaysia, Java and America are all dealing with these art markets – it is something we all must negotiate as an artist today. Some artists are intimidated by it.

Like the devil at work

G: Given you have mentioned a couple of Malay painters, and chosen painting for this show, how do you see your work sitting within contemporary Malaysian painting and how do you think your exhibition will be received?

A: It shouldn’t be a problem because Valentine Willie has invited many Indonesian artists already. And of course, my work is a different kind of work compared to Malaysian artwork. Indonesian artwork I think offers more varieties of expression. I don’t think it will become a problem. But with my performance, it was already a problem.

G: Explain?

A: I did this performance last year at lost generation2. I was interested in this group because they’re a mix of young Malay, Chinese and Indian artists and I thought this is very interesting because of how segregated this society is. In that performance I invited the audience to write things on my body. I said to them if you want it’s OK to undress me, but this is your decision. This was really controversial for people here. The same with the reading I did at Darling Muse3 because I am a woman… I am Muslim, and…  drinking whisky.

T: You didn’t feel what you were doing was extremely provocative?

A: Yes, I did of course – I knew it was.

T: For me, the afternoon’s literature was nothing scandalous, but thinking about it from the view of the two Muslim girls in the audience wearing tudungs, I thought this must seem like the devil at work: People talking about their first masturbatory experience, Muslim women reading poetry and drinking, drunks ranting amongst the scribblings of children on the walls and then, a man discussing his homosexuality – very provocative!

A: We try to do this, to challenge Malay society – to stir up critical thinking. This is a problem with Malaysian society, they are so obedient – they don’t have this culture of critical thinking. Some individual people try to introduce this but they are always being… (makes sound of being squashed).

My performance at Valentine’s will be an important part of the exhibition. It will turn the medium of painting into performance. The paintings, the photographs, and the performance link together to stimulate thought. Sometimes we need to be confronted with different ways at looking at things to shake us into thought.

Arahmaiani’s exhibition will open with an interactive performance at Valentine Willie Fine Art on 24 August 2005. The performance will be documented and shown throughout the exhibition. This interview was recorded 18 April and 2 August 2005 at Rimbun Dahan.


  1. Referring to Saiful Razman’s exhibition at Rimbun Dahan, March 2005.
  2. Lost Generation Space was where the inaugural notthatbalai art festival was held. It was at this festival that Arahmaiani asked participants to write on her body. The second notthatbalai art festival is going on now from Wed 17 – Sun 21, Aug 2005.
  3. Arahmaiani performed the poem, “Air Kata Kata”, written by a Jesuit priest, Sindhunata (lives Yogyakarta), at Darling Muse Gallery, April this year, while drinking from a bottle of Johnny Walker Whisky.


Gina Fairley is a Australian arts writer visiting Malaysia for a year. She was previously the Exhibition Coordinator for the Biennale of Sydney. Tony Twigg is her husband, who is presently doing a residency at Rimbun Dahan.

First Published: 18.08.2005 on Kakiseni

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