The Newsletter 90 Autumn 2021

Introduction to Arahmaiani’s Second Life

Wulan Dirgantoro

Arahmaiani Feisal’s (b. 1961) art practice has represented Indonesian contemporary art on the global stage. Across nearly four decades of artmaking, art and activism are consistent themes in her body of work. The artist’s works have evolved from her time as an art student pushing the boundaries of creative media in the 1980s to global recognition from the 1990s with a select group of other Indonesian contemporary artists, including Nindityo Adipurnomo (b. 1961), Heri Dono (b. 1960), Mella Jaarsma (b. 1960), and Agung Kurniawan (b. 1968).

Arahmaiani’s works could be seen as a connecting point of gender activism in and beyond the Indonesian art world. Indonesian visual artists have worked alongside cultural and political activists during and after the authoritarian New Order era (1966-1998), yet this partnership often just scratched the surface to enact change. Indeed, notable Indonesian activist artists such as the Taring Padi collective, the late Semsar Siahaan (1952-2005), Moelyono (b. 1957), and Alit Ambara (b. 1971) have attempted to raise social consciousness through artmaking and direct actions. Yet, Arahmaiani’s recent projects seek an alternative way of making change through a more inclusive and empathic approach.

The following translation charts the recent trajectory of Arahmaiani’s artistic practice from Indonesia to Tibet. The artist’s ongoing projects in Lab village in the Yushu region of Tibet are impactful for their focus on the environment and local communities. Yet, the seed for this idea came from a closer place. Following the devastating earthquake that shook the city of Yogyakarta in 2006, the artist worked together with an Islamic boarding school, Pondok Pesantren Amumarta, as a way to rebuild the traumatised community. The artist worked with the students at the boarding school. They held discussions to raise awareness of the importance of environmental issues, from replanting the earthquake-destroyed land around the school to the benefits of organic farming. As a result, according to the artist, the school can now sustain their environmental curriculum by producing eco-friendly products that supplement the school’s income. 1 Conversation with the artist, 11 April 2019, Melbourne. For a more critical discussion on environmentalism and the Islamic boarding school in Indonesia, see also Kristina Grossmann, “Green Islam: Islamic Environmentalism in Indonesia,” New Mandala, 28 August 2019.

Arahmaiani’s engagement with various local communities speaks of connectivity within and beyond the boundaries of the nation. Her projects in Tibet deal with processes of belonging outside normative citizenship. Her nomadic trajectory of continuously making herself at home through different collectivities has shaped her worldview and art practices as mobile and mutable.

The artist’s initiative in Tibet triggered a series of community projects. Together with the monks from Lab monastery and community members from 16 villages, they have initiated waste management, mass tree planting, clean water projects, and yak coops over the last ten years. In addition, the artist has focused on participation and transversal dialogue to rebuild ecological awareness within the communities. 2 See interview with Arahmaiani and 15th Lab Kyab Gon Rinpoche about the project in Peter Hylands, “Arahmaiani in Tibet,” Creative-i magazine, Creative Cowboy, April 2013, pp. 18–28.  The artworks that have emerged during her time in Tibet, such as The Memory of Nature (2013-present) and Shadow of the Past (2015-present), have attested to the potential of art and creativity to affect social and environmental change.


Wulan Dirgantoro, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne,