A Student of Tradition and the Contemporary, Alia Swastika Seems to Also Have Found the Balance between Introspection and Advancing the Arts

Curator Alia Swastika
Curator Alia Swastika

I became the director of the Yogyakarta Biennale Foundation since 2018 because I think the concept of equator is a very interesting proposition. Since 2011, the biennale launched the Equator series, focusing the exhibition on art coming from countries close to the equator. It tries to offer another geopolitical perspective about internationalism in art, rather than following the usual model of international exhibitions, and that is why we chose equator as a starting point. I would like to bring the idea to a bigger art community in the world, in order to spread the art history to go beyond western art history. Among the Global South, it is also important to raise awareness between art communities and practitioners, as well as scholars in order to increase collaboration and connection between artists from these regions.

I started to be involved with the Yogyakarta Biennale Foundation when I curated the first Equator edition in 2011, with Indian curator Suman Gopinath. We invited many Indian artists to come to Indonesia and worked with the local scene here. For me it was interesting to see that for most of them it was the first time to be in Indonesia. And this is important because in the past, the connection between the two countries was very strong and it seemed that it had been disconnected for more than thirty years. In 2015, I became the director of the biennale and in 2018 I took over the directorship of the foundation. The difference is that the director of the biennale oversees the biennale, while as the director of the foundation, you run other programs as an institution, and you help oversee the operational side of the biennale (like when choosing curators, etc). The former director of the foundation was Yustina Neni, and she stepped down in 2016. I took over in 2018, and started some new programs like publications, the Biennale Academy in 2019 (workshops for young artists, young curators, etc) and also organizing a symposium.

I take my breaks in my home, between my kitchen and my garden. I cook simple things in my kitchen, usually homemade Indonesian food with recipes from my mother or my grandmother, they are a very good cooks. Some of these include Sayur lodeh, a vegetable soup in coconut milk, and Rawon Daging, a beef soup seasoned with black keluak nut, those are homemade Indonesian food that are usually not served in restaurants. In my garden, it is not about what you grow. It is not that I have a urban farming garden now, just a couple of fruit trees, like mango, papaya, mangosteen, and lime. For me, gardening is about keeping an ecosystem, even it is a small one. I like to watch the whole cycle of life happening there: you grow leaves, the ants and the caterpillars eat them, then the ants and the caterpillars are being eaten by the birds, or you can have many beautiful butterflies, then the soil brings some worms under, then they are eaten by the rats. For me, it is always great to see this process. I watch this from my own backyard!

A characteristic landmark of the biennale is the former art school before they moved it further south of the city. We rent the space from the institution that takes care of the building, in the location where they turned the building to art spaces. When they don’t host the biennale, they have other big exhibitions and events there. It is quite a simple architecture, but there are a lot of banyan trees around the area. It has already attracted artists to respond to the trees as a performance site and to create site specific projects. In the last 2019 edition of the biennale, EQUATOR #5, “Indonesia with Southeast Asia”, curated by Penwadee Nophaket Manont, Akiq Abdul Wahid, and Arham Rahman, an artist from Laos, Bounpaul Phothyzan, fell in love with the banyan tree site. He created an installation from bamboo and clay, an ensemble of large vessels that took a week to complete, about the creation myth of the Laos people. It was such a beautiful piece as its round forms and material echoed nature and a possible harmony with manmade interventions!

I have to agree that my personal favourite are also the banyan trees, they are so magical. They are a hundred years old, their whole presence already looks like an art installation.

Curator Alia Swastika, Talk at Biennale Jogja 2019
Curator Alia Swastika, at Biennale Jogja 2019

The way I reconcile my personal taste with the mission of the biennale is that I always emphasize works that are very political but at the same time reflect to a poetical visual imagery, so yes, I still believe in the “beauty” of art. Biennales now, in Indonesia and other parts of the world, are usually being used by governments or big companies to be massive gatherings and popular meeting points because they think quantity means success in bringing art closer to audiences. This usually falls into simplistic and decorative, instagrammable artworks. The biennale wants to be closer to the audience, but I also wanted to build an open-minded audience, to contribute to a tolerant and critical society.

The best way to work with a team, is to realise that sometimes you need to leave them in order for them to solve the problems without you around. Leadership also means you trust them to solve the problems and give them possibility to experiment with their team.

The best way to know an artist is to follow their routine and real life, inside and outside of the studio. I remember when I was younger, I visited lots of artists’s houses and studios, just watching them making something and developing ideas without any plans to work together. One of the artists that I was very close to was S. Teddy D (he passed away in 2016). He was known as someone who is almost a genius, but a bit crazy. He was always drunk, yet sometimes did something extraordinary. So, I wanted to experience his craziness, and indeed, he was really crazy. I saw him a lot in the studio, and he told me so many things about art and life. He was my first teacher in the arts. I did fully understand the relationship between his craziness and his art practice, not only seeing it from afar, but from my experience of being part of his daily studio life. I curated some shows involving his work, one of them was a solo show at Ark Galerie in 2011, called WAR.

I never curate a show without feeling chemistry with the artists. To work with artists sometimes you need the sense of falling in love at first sight. It’s like chemistry.

It’s a very difficult and challenging role in a way, but it is also very creative. Yogyakarta is a very community-oriented place. So everyone asks you to be involved in collective practices, but that style is not necessarily for everyone. I really have to juggle between my tendency to be an individualist and the social relationships. It has forced me to try and put myself into someone else’s shoes, it is a good challenge. And also, the organization is very small so somehow there is great flexibility to play within the system or even create your own, especially in a place where you don’t really have a so-called art infrastructure. In a way, this has given me the opportunity to always create and experiment with various programs, for example, by creating the Biennale Academy where we started to have classes for young curators and young artists that we limit at around fifteen students per class.

To keep sane I listen to music and I go to concerts, and sometimes I go to karaoke with my friends in Yogyakarta. But also, Yogyakarta is now a happening place for experimental music, like for noise, sound performances, etc. It all happens in small independent spaces or cafes. I like to go see these gigs because you hear something new or it gives you a new experience.

I have many different roles outside my work with the biennale. In 2015, I founded Study on Art Practices where I invited some younger writers and researchers to collaborate for the publication of a journal, called Skripta (we are still working at putting it online). Last year, with the same platform, I did a research on Indonesian female artists who worked during the New Order period (1970 – 1990s) in Indonesia. At that time, the government had very strict rules on women organizations and only allowed them to promote domestic issues, instead of politics. They looked into their practices and works within a particular framework, based on gender politics from that time. Yet, women artists were as active as their male counterparts, they just didn’t benefit from the same aldowledgment and documentation about their work. The research is already published into a book in Bahasa, “Membaca Praktik Negosiasi Seniman Perempuan dan Politik Gender Orde Baru” (Reading the negotiation of women female artists towards gender politics of the New Order), published by Tan Kinira books and Ark books, based on a research funded by Cipta Media Ekspresi grant of Ford Foundation Indonesia . I am now working on the second series, introducing more women artists from that period, with the younger female writers and researchers I mentioned above, some of them have helped me in different projects before, including in the biennale. I think it would be great to build the bridge that enable them to meet artists from a very different generation and learn from the period that was mostly manipulated in Indonesian  history lessons.

If I was an art collector I would collect works by Indonesian women artists who emerged during the New Order. I did work before with some collectors, to advise them on their collection. The Indonesian history of collections is quite limited, and collectors need someone to help them put their artworks into a particular reading and context. But, if I was collector I would like to collect all the women artists that now I am working with on my research. They were very underrated and I do think they have great stories to tell. So, having this as a body of collection would be an important piece of Indonesian art history and Indonesian women movement. Women artists highlighted would include Siti Adiati, who had an installation made of plant and golden paper at the Jakarta Biennale 2017, Dyan Anggraini, who was otherwise a civil servant, but, as an artist, creates emotional drawings and mixed media paintings, she had a solo exhibition at the venue of the National Gallery of Indonesia in Jakarta in 2018, or the ceramicist Hildawati Soemantri.

“Membaca Praktik Negosiasi Seniman Perempuan dan Politik Gender Orde Baru”, published by Tan Kinira books and Ark books, research Funded by Cipta Media Ekspresi grant of Ford Foundation Indonesia
Membaca Praktik Negosiasi Seniman Perempuan dan Politik Gender Orde Baru”, published by Tan Kinira books and Ark books, research Funded by Cipta Media Ekspresi grant of Ford Foundation Indonesia

I recently produced a record of my partner’s band called Melancholic Bitch. Their concerts were always my favorite ones! The singer lives in New York, it is hard to get him back, so we do concerts, maybe like, every two years? Hahaha.  Maybe this is subjective, but you should check them out! They are super cool. They sing about very political subjects on Indonesian politic and society, with intriguing music and lyrics.

If I ever need to reset my mind I stay in the darkness for a few hours. I like to close all the windows and turn off all the lights to be completely with myself. That’s how sometimes I find peace and talk a lot to my own mind.

Music is very important. I had many traumas in my childhood and music was my biggest way to escape. Music helped my go through a very difficult time during my teenage years. Being anonymous in big concerts is also something I enjoy very much; since I love people watching and getting lost together into another space of life. Sometimes I even go alone for small gigs. In 2017, we went to see the Rolling Stones concert in Paris, where they had about 60,000 people. It was so great having everyone singing and dancing together. So many people around you from different places, and you barely know anyone.

In curating, when I need to go back to basics I revisit traditions. Especially in Yogyakarta, you live surrounded by many different traditions. There is tension between the traditions of the court, we still have a Royal Palace in Yogyakarta with art produced by people living there, and folk, like music and dance practiced in villages, sometimes in resistance to the court. Nowadays, maybe they are seen as the same thing: just tradition. Both of them have a long history spanning a hundred years. But we always have to be aware of the political contestation behind their history. So going to the basics for me means going forward and backward to see these different kind of traditions: from temples, puppets, gamelan, dance, and many other things. I learned a lot about the very basic philosophical value of the arts, instead of taking them only as formalistic inspiration. I like to talk with someone making puppets and asking him about the whole process and philosophy behind it, or I like to talk to the batik maker also. I look into some people who try to use modern design based on this traditional form, and we discuss how they try to keep the original values when they modernize the form. And somehow, this also brings questions about my roots, not in a nostalgic way, but by putting myself in a bigger context of art practices.

Holidays actually make me nervous, hahaha, so I can’t speak of a perfect one. I never really do real, real holiday. I like to combine it with work, or make it as the starting point of a project. Last time I went to Sumba, an Island in the eastern part of Indonesia that recently has been “re-discovered” as one of the most beautiful islands on earth, I couldn’t just go for beaches or waterfalls. I decided to meet a local singer and record her songs to be produced in a CD because she never had a record of her own songs! It was a very beautiful experience! She is now quite well known among music critics, her name is Ata Ratu. We met a few years ago in Jogja, when I came to see her performance, and I talked a bit with her afterwards. Now I am still working on releasing the CD. This is one of my independent projects.

I manage to have a life outside my curatorial work by still being surrounded by the arts. Even though I spend a lot of time doing my curatorial work, most of my time outside of it, I am still doing something connected to the arts. I like to see theater performances, dances, even by just dropping by rehearsals. I can’t really separate my life from art, to be honest. I dont feel sad about it. I always feel so content. I always learn so many things from artists. I watched some rehearsals by choreographer and senior dancer Sardono W. Kusumo, he has a background in classical Javanese dance and combines it now with modern dance techniques. But I also attend rehearsals of works in the contemporary field, such as by Fitri Setyaningsih, she’s a dancer, a choreographer and a performance artist, or established performance artist Melati Suryodarmo from Solo, or Teater Garasi, a self-named collective of radical amateur artists. For me, it is interesting to see some of the process behind the final performances. 

I imagine my 10 years older self is visiting me from the future today and they tell me: “relax, it is (just) art!”

For fun I go to karaoke. When I was preparing for the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea in 2012, I stayed there for 3 months. The last two months my co-artistic director Wassan Al-Khudhairi joined me in Gwangju. We spent some time going to the karaoke in the city, since the biennale building and our apartment was kind of in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes we went with her partner or with some volunteers or artists who were involved in the biennale, definitely helped getting to know each other better!

If I wasn’t curating I would be a music producer! 🙂 Any kind of music!

Alia Swastika

Director of Yogyakarta Biennale Foundation

Yogyakarta (also called Jogja), Indonesia


Alia Swastika is the director of the Jogja Biennale Foundation in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Prior to that she has worked as Program Director for Ark Galerie, Yogyakarta, Indonesia since 2008 and is actively involved as a curator, project manager and writer on a number of international exhibitions. With Suman Gopinath, she was the co-curator of the Jogja Biennale XI, Shadow Lines: Indonesia Meets India (2011), and was one of the co-artistic directors for the Gwangju Biennale IX (2012): Roundtable. She also participated as the curator of a special exhibition of Indonesian artists in the 2012 edition of Art Dubai. In 2017, she curated contemporary art section at the Europalia Festival, Indonesia where she organized exhibitions in Oude Kerk, SMAK Ghent, MuHKA in Antwerp and some others. 

Throughout her career, Alia has worked with many significant Indonesian artists, including Eko Nugroho, Melati Suryodarmo, Moelyono, Tintin Wulia, Wimo Ambala Bayang, and Jompet Kuswidananto to held their exhibitions in Indonesia and abroad.

Alia was a research fellow at the National Art Gallery, Singapore, funded by Singapore International Foundation (2009). She has participated in a curatorial residency in BizArt, Shanghai (2008), and in 2006 she participated in a Kelola Foundation fellowship programme funded by the Asian Cultural Council. In 2005 she was awarded a grant from the Asia Europe Foundation.

As the director of Jogja Biennale 2015, she is a member of the International Biennale Association Board, and she recently founded ‘Study on Art Practices’, a platform for research into contemporary art in Indonesia. She recently published a book from her research on Indonesian women artists under New Order Era.

Art critic and writer.

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