The Untold Stories That Are Worth Telling

Curator Grace Samboh
Curator Grace Samboh

At the moment, I am working on three long-term commitments (besides countless of short-term ones), they are my thesis, the Jakarta Biennale, and a collection-based exhibition series that will be the result of a joint venture between Galeri Nasional Indonesia, MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum (Chiang Mai), Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the Hamburger Bahnhof (in Berlin), and the Goethe-Institut Indonesia, titled “Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories”. I was very interested to work with the national collection. When I started, I didn’t know what they had besides what was on display, which is in itself quite new, as they only started to open up their permanent collection to the public within the past decade. I am interested in what they are showing, what they aren’t showing, and how the narratives are being weaved. Since 2017, curator June Yap (SAM), Gridthiya Gaweewong (MAIIAM), Anna-Catharina Gebbers (Hamburger Bahnhof), and I have been sharing our investigations into the respective collections we work with. The Goethe-Institute Indonesia is our collaborator and interlocutor. The nature of the exhibitions for each chapter will be altered, shape-shifted, and will specifically respond to each site and context, with works from that collection and loans from the other collections, to foster a dialogue around shared knowledge based on common histories. We are aiming at tracing stories, counter-histories, and absent histories, whose spirits populate the present and seek new narratives. The project explores how these interwoven histories, within the context of nation-building, individual identity formation, and their embodiment, are reflected in artistic works and exhibition history.

For the Jakarta Biennale we have a routine: hours and hours of conversation every two weeks with Dolorosa Sinaga (the artistic director), Farah Wardani (the director), Qinyi Lim (curator), and Sally Texania (curator). We are slow-cooking the Jakarta Biennale 2021, which will be titled ESOK (“tomorrow”), the list of artists isn’t announced yet but this year we are aiming at showing both international and local artists. We are drawn to artistic practices that are formulated in tactical actions and care work for, and initiated within, societies. These kind of practices oftentimes cross path with both activism and educational work. As an event and as an institution, our biennale wants to invest, to boost, and to become a resource for artistic practices that strive towards a better living environment. This may sound simple, but, trust me, the day-to-day reality in that striving is not, and will never be, simple. The quality of ‘activism’ is therefore expected within the artists that we are to work with, especially, we think about the endurance of such practices, the sensibilities needed to keep things balanced, political consciousness, and the consideration of each step that is to be taken, and much more.

I have been also working since the last two years with the RUBANAH Underground Hub in Jakarta. I have known and worked with the founder, Enin Supriyanto for more than a decade, I trust that his experiments are necessary and fun at the same time. In its day-to-day operations, RUBANAH do not comply with the simple binary division of the art scene between market and discourse. We operate as part of an existing and thriving ecosystem, acknowledging those who came before us, and working on varied projects at the intersection of many disciplines.

To reset my mind I take fifteen-minute power naps. I really can do them anywhere. If there is a crowd, I will walk away a little, that’s all. I do need to lie down, but it can be wherever, it doesn’t have to be a couch, just somewhere I feel clean. I need a break fo my mind and my body, when I have to switch topics for example. I would set off an alarm for 20 minutes, and then I would sleep, thinking that the first five minutes I would try to sleep, and then next fifteen, I would sleep. I need that physical restart.

Curating could also mean opening up a gym. Solo exhibition of Julian Abraham "Togar", "Ulah Tanah" (Mischievous Earth, 2019), at RUCI Art Space, Jakarta. Photo courtesy the artist and RUCI Art Space.
Curating could also mean opening up a gym. Solo exhibition of Julian Abraham “Togar”, “Ulah Tanah” (Mischievous Earth, 2019), at RUCI Art Space, Jakarta. Courtesy the artist and RUCI Art Space.

I could do with a world without cicaks! They are geckos or small lizards that reside on the walls of domestic places. I am scared of them. Everywhere I go, I check if there are cicaks on the wall or on the ceiling first. If they are there, I am not going to enter. They are not dangerous, just to me.

My favourite piece of tech is a measuring tape! Flexible and useful, it is as essential as my wallet for me!

If I were an art collector, I would collect unfinished works and unpursued ideas. They also need to be preserved! It is related to everything I do. You can find unfinished works very easily in artists’ studios. Things they have started working, on but didn’t finish. Not the ones they didn’t finish because of lack of money or time, but those works that just never are going to be finished. Or ideas, those with some articulation, a sketch for example, or a story that is often retold but never being executed. I once did a project that invited artists to present unfinished work. It is a different way to talk about their practices. It could be that they didn’t finish a work because they developed their practices or changed course completely. There is a very different reason for each person for something to remain. One could destroy it, or use the materials into another work. The fact that it remains there, unused but not thrown, is very interesting I think. For some, it could be something that tells a story that other objects aren’t able to tell. A modernist answer could be that it is interesting because it’s not finished, it’s not signed, it’s not given to the public to perceive, so there is still a lot of the person who makes it in it. All works are somehow autobiographical, but the ones that are undone, the artist decided that they are not for the public to own.

To work productively with a team I find that you need to be conscious that it’s not about you, nor about anyone in the team, but it’s about what you have decided to do together.

One of my favorite mindset to really know an artist is to be their neighbor! Not necessarily physically, but thinking-wise, form-wise, and concerns-wise.

My way to keep sane is to have one working day without any meetings. Reading, writing, and thinking, are a big part of the work anyway. Eat ice cream whenever I feel like it, without any hesitation. Take weekends seriously. Have a non-gadget day once a week.

At the moment I am reading a lot of short stories by Indonesian writer and artist Danarto.

And lately, these music albums have been on repeat: New Zealand singer Lorde’s “Melodrama” (2017), American rock band Weezer’s “Everything will be alright in the end” (2014), and UK duo Jockstrap’s “Wicked City” (2020).

Julia Sarisetiati and Grace Samboh discussing exhibition layout for Pollination #1, We’re in this together (2018). Photo courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Art Center, Ho Chi Minh City.
Julia Sarisetiati and Grace Samboh discussing exhibition layout for Pollination #1, We’re in this together (2018). Courtesy The Factory Contemporary Art Center, Ho Chi Minh City.

I started curating because a friend asked me to. And then other friends asked me again, and again. I did art studies for my Masters but otherwise I studied advertising. I moved to Jogja at the end of 2007, and it was around 2009 that the label ‘curator’ came into place. I was always around people who make things, but I don’t make things in the sense that I don’t produce anything that can be called art. I sort of started interning for Ivva (the Indonesian Visual Art Archive), the researcher who was working there at the time, also an artist, he’s name is Pius Sigit Kuncoro, asked me to help him do this one research on Biennale Experimental Art, and anti-biennale event that happened in Jogja in 1992. That was my first research experience. Part of it became a show for the Jogja Biennale 2009.

When I travel, I always take my morning routine with me! It includes freshly squeezed limes and coffee, so I carry beans, a grinder, and some V60 vegetable juice.

What drives me forward about curating is the fact that other people still make me want do it.

I never curate a show without artists’ involvement! Even if it’s an archive show.

My most recent holiday was a break from city life. It was three days of reading and eating well by an empty beach. That’s it.

“History” is a difficult word. I am interested in many things from the past but they don’t have to be History. The past is one way to define what we are now. If there are things that people have already covered, then why do I have to contest what they covered? So I just look for different stories. Ultimately, all projects are stories.

If my 10 years older self was visiting me from the future today I imagine she’d tell me to chill out even more.
If I wasn’t curating… Well, I am not only a curator, I also do groundwork research, write, and publish (with Hyphen — ). If I could choose, I’d like to instigate more research and publishing, actually.

Grace Samboh

Independent Curator

Yogyakarta, Jatiwangi, Jakarta and Medan, Indonesia


Grace Samboh (b.1984) questions (a little bit) too many things all at the same time and believes that every person needs at least three copies of themselves. Her recent curatorial works are: Group show “FOMO/JOMO: Hacking modernism’s duality” at RUBANAH Underground Hub in conjunction with archive show “From, by and for whom? Visualization of the national history” at Gudskul (Jakarta, 2019); A duo show of Julia Sarisetiati and Vicky Do co-curated with Bill Nguyen “We’re in this together” in the Factory Contemporary Art Center (Ho Chi Minh City, 2018); A group show at Mizuma Gallery, Singapore, “Carte Blanche: Anxiety” (Singapore, 2017); A travelling museum that re-started a conversation on Indonesia’s recent democracy “Museum Tanpa Tanda Jasa (The Unsung Museum)” (2016-2018); A multiple way of exchange(s) “Banyak-banyak” (Many-many) within a platform of Gertrude Contemporary Art Space (Melbourne, 2014-2015) called The Independence Project; A year of artistic research “Tahun Tanah 2015” (The Earth Year) with Jatiwangi art Factory (Majalengka, West Java). With Hyphen, her partners in curiosity, she is unraveling data, fact and stories about Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia (Indonesia New Art Movement, 1975-1989); compiling behind the scene stories of the national museum dioramas made under the supervision of the eminent sculptor Edhi Sunarso (1932-2016); and connecting intertextualities amongst various forms of Danarto’s (1940-2018) lifetime works.

Art critic and writer.

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