When FX Harsono graduated from art school in Yogyakarta – the Indonesian city known for its cultural heritage – in the mid-1970s, he was determined to shake up the definition of art. Decorative paintings and sculptures were favoured in Indonesia at the time, but Harsono and his fellow New Art Movement members had different ideas: using everyday objects as a medium for commenting on social and political issues.
Over the years he has focused his art on criticising the dictatorship of former President Suharto and exploring his identity as a Chinese Indonesian, producing works such as a large pile of pistol-shaped rice crackers and rows of traditional Javanese dance masks sawed in half with their mouths removed. Works like these have won Harsono international acclaim (he had two exhibitions in New York City during January alone), but space in contemporary art museums back home has been scarce – until now.
In November, Indonesia got its first world-class contemporary art museum in the form of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara. Better known as Museum MACAN (pronounced mah-chan), the 43,000-square-foot space in Jakarta, the capital, features work not only from Harsono and other Indonesian artists such as Nyoman Masriadi and Heri Dono, but also Mark Rothko, Keith Haring and Ai Weiwei.
‘MACAN is very important,’ says Harsono. ‘Most of contemporary art is driven by what sells. Museums like MACAN make it possible to develop the art scene.’
Nearly 10 years in the making, Museum MACAN is based on the private collection of some 800 works belonging to Indonesian businessman and philanthropist Haryanto Adikoesoemo, which he has collected over the past 25 years.
The museum’s mission is to address the blind spot most Indonesians have when it comes to art, especially with their country’s own masters. Until now, insofar as anyone in Indonesia thought about it, art was something to be owned. Harsono says viewing private art work required an application process and often involved skittish collectors. And while there are worthy contemporary art museums in Jakarta and Yogyakarta dating back to the 1980s, they are small. The vast majority of art spaces in the country are commercial, which means they are concerned with sales and do little to support artists eager to push the envelope. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s contemporary art has burst onto the international scene at major fairs, galleries and museums in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong.
Museum MACAN is already making an impression. It is compared favourably to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and the Museum of Old and New Art in Australia’s Tasmania. Floor-to-ceiling windows show off a rare leafy view of Jakarta, allowing ample space for visitors to linger and chat in the museum’s cafe before making their way inside. A children’s art space gives youngsters a chance at self-expression with various learning programmes and is free to anyone with a ticket.
Once inside the gallery space, visitors follow an arc sweeping past colonial-era pieces from the likes of Walter Spies, renowned for his depiction of bucolic scenes from Bali. But soon they are thrust into a dialogue on the freneticism of modern society. Masriadi’s 2005 painting Juling, meaning ‘cross-eyed’, features Indonesian figures all devoted to their mobile phones. Visitors vie for selfies in front of the piece in spite of, or perhaps because of, the obvious irony.
Masriadi says that while most Indonesians have had only limited exposure to art, his countrymen are still enthusiastic if they are given the chance. ‘Indonesians care about art,’ he says. ‘Museum MACAN has the making of an icon in the Indonesian art world. Of course many Indonesian artists will want their work shown there and that will motivate more work.’
Housed in the newly completed AKR Tower in West Jakarta, which is also the headquarters for Adikoesoemo’s logistics company, the museum meets high standards. In a country where leaky roofs and blackouts are common, rigorous systems keep the air and humidity steady. Lighting is controlled to preserve valuable pieces. The ambition is to create a track record that will attract travelling international exhibitions in the future.
For many travellers to Indonesia, Jakarta has been little more than a gateway before continuing on to other parts of the far-flung archipelago. Museum MACAN’s Australian-born director, Aaron Seeto, says the museum is determined to help make Jakarta a destination in its own right. ‘We want to be part of a cultural infrastructure that has been lacking here,’ he says.
Already nearly 100,000 have come. The museum’s inaugural exhibition, Art Turns. World Turns., showcases 90 pieces – including works by Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Zao Wou-ki – and runs until 18 March. A painting based on Harsono’s video installation Writing in the Rain is part of the show. The video, which was on display throughout January in New York’s Times Square, features Harsono writing and rewriting his Chinese name, Oh Hong Bun, only to have the characters washed away by streams of water. It’s a melancholy work about identity following years of persecution of ethnic Chinese under Suharto: until his ouster in 1998, ethnic Chinese were forced to adopt Indonesian names. The former president also stifled art and political criticism, which makes Museum MACAN all the more significant for artists like Harsono.
‘The museum has the power to show people new and different ideas,’ he says. ‘Maybe people say we are late when it comes to having a big museum. But for me, it is better to be late than never.’
Galleries to check out in Jakarta
This private gallery in the Kemayoran area consists of two buildings: Art:1 New Museum, which houses a permanent collection of prestigious Indonesian works; and Artspace:1, a more fluid space featuring emerging artists. mondecor.com
With a mission to promote young, emerging Indonesian artists, this gallery holds shows in its large space in the Kemang area and exhibits at big-name fairs. edwinsgallery.com
National Gallery of Indonesia
This museum has been a primary public institution for visual arts in Jakarta, with a collection of modern and contemporary Indonesian art as well as works from prominent artists across Asia. galeri-nasional.or.id
The art collection of businessman and philanthropist Ciputra focuses heavily on the work of Indonesian artist Hendra Gunawan. This site includes a gallery, museum and theatre space. ciputraartpreneur.com
Cathay Pacific flies to Jakarta from Hong Kong 26 times a week