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The Role of Identity in the Realization of Artworks

As an artist of the 1980s generation (the years that I began working), the issue of identity has been a focus of attention in connection with the exploratory efforts I have done within the process of creating my works of art. The issue of seeking a "national identity" within the realization of art in Indonesia has actually been debated for a long time. In fact this debate has been going on since the time of Indonesia"s independence. The painter Sujoyono was among those who were most persistent and articulate about advocating the development of painting in the direction of "a new Indonesian painting style".

The issue of identity then emerged again as an important argument when the political interests of the government caused those in power to consider it important to seek out a format of "national personality/character" within the realization of art and culture in the 1970s. Among the art circles, this issue reached a climax with the "Black December Incident", in which a statement was issued by several young artists in Yogyakarta against the results of the jury decisions made at the Indonesian Art Exhibition in 1974 awarding the Best Work prizes to a number of senior painters. The works thus honored, which were almost all decorative in style, were considered to have brought forth a strong tendency toward an "Indonesian national identity".

As a member of the "transitional generation", of course, the idea of "seeking an Indonesian national identity" through the creation of modern artworks was something that had permeated the basic spirit of my creative process from the very beginning. Many of the artists of the 1970s and early 1980s adhered to the idea and worked toward the goal of finding and realization a form of Indonesian modern art that continued to bear the characteristics of the local culture while using the "universal" language that had become the accepted guide. However, the Black December Incident, and then the painter Oesman Effendi"s statement that "Indonesian painting (read this as "art") does not exist" at the very least made the artists aware that the concept of an Indonesian personality/character in the form of art was absurd.

Several of my works done at the beginning of the 1980s clearly contain indications of this search. The abstract bio-morphic (within the context of formalism) images I used were among the universal idioms that were strong influences from European sculptors, such as Brancusi, Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and others, even though there were always strong elements showing a local characteristic about them, including ornamental and other elements. However, after a time this effort brought no satisfaction, and it even began to feel like I was heading down a dead-end street.

The Issue of Cultural Identity

The presence of the post-modern discourse in the era of the 1980s caused the emergence of pluralism within the realization of contemporary artworks, replacing the universalism that was previously believed to be the characteristic of modern art. Within this post-modern discourse, difference and diversity were acceptable, and even became the characteristics of this framework of thought. In the development of Indonesian art during that period, the issue of identity shifted somewhat into a special position; that being a shift from the perception of "national identity" that was political in nature to the perception of a cultural identity that was based in the background of the culture.

The influence of globalization was newly felt in Indonesia in the 1990s due to the increased speed of exchange of information and a greater occurrence of international travel both in and out of the country, and the influx of foreign visitors. The increased number of visits by artists, curators and collectors from abroad to Indonesia, as well as the reverse, that being visits by our artists abroad for study, residencies, or even exhibitions, have had a major influence in relation to the changes taking place. This was also the case with my own trip to study overseas, which brought a major and radical change to my artworks.

These changes have continued to occur in my artworks since I was in the United States. Being in a foreign place among foreigners (it is said that in New York "everyone is a stranger"), gave rise to an awareness of the meaning of an identity. Who are we, among other people, with languages and customs that are different from one another"s? Identity is not simply a question concerning what makes us different from other people, that being everything concerned with origin, history and memory, but is rather an awareness of the element of culture within current conditions as well as situations to come. This is because identity will always play a role in determining the position and the patterns of interaction between "the self" and "the other".

The seeking and thinking about identity also brought forth a collective memory of the treasury of local culture of my own people. The traditions, mythologies and cosmologies that live among the ethnic societies that we originate from, including those of the past, are a part of identity. This is also true of the beliefs, hopes, dreams and aspirations, that play a part in "forming" an identity, so that in such a way that identity itself becomes something dynamic. In relation to this " according to Stuart Hall (in "Cultural Identity and Diaspora") " cultural identity is an accumulation of "essential identity" (given, static) and "hybrid identity" (created, dynamic in character).

It is this collective memory, which, among other things, began to emerge in my artworks through forms that carried ethnic characteristics, either through local symbols or through metaphoric forms that were more universal. This cultural identity, to me, constituted steps taken within relationships and interactions with other individuals, and with other ethnic groups and peoples.

In this global age, in which geographical borders tend to disappear and communication between human beings in all the different parts of the world become increasing intense, the issue of cultural identity is decidedly crucial. Within the process of globalization itself there exists a singularly and truly problematic paradox, in particular in relation to the representation of art. On one hand, the art of today continues to exhibit the use of universal idioms along with the global issues that have become mutual concerns, so that contemporary art is basically an expression or statement in relation to a certain issue that has a common ground that eliminates the boundaries of regions and cultures. But, on the other hand, identity becomes an important matter because within the communicative relationships among human beings and peoples, identity will determine the positions of the parties involved. This paradoxical phenomena is one of the characteristic elements of contemporary art in Indonesia, which sets forth actual themes that have become global issues, such as socio-politics, human rights, ecology/the environment, gender/feminism, as well as ethnic matters, through any number of artistic forms, as well as expression through the use of idioms that are universal in nature, in which localness always arises as a mode of operation determining the cultural identity of the artist.

Anusapati is an artist work based in Yogyakarta. He is also a lecturer of the Indonesian Art Institute, Yogyakarta.