Eko Nugroho, Permen & politik sama 2 mengandung pemanis buatan (2013), from the installation Lot lost (2013-15). Collection Art Gallery of NSW. Purchased with funds provided by the Neilson Foundation and Dick Quan, 2015. On display, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until next year.
In 2000, in Yogyakarta, a young Indonesian artist first published Daging Tumbuh (Rotting Flesh), a zine that embodied the cultural transformation after the collapse of president Suharto’s 31-year rule.
In those early zines, Eko Nugroho gave readers an introductory taste of his dark humorous imagery: heads with smokestacks, faces with two beaks, robotic limbs and jellyfish-like people. It is imagery born out of disparate influences such as graffiti, comic books, science fiction, popular culture and Javanese traditions such as wayang theatre.
Nugroho, who was born in 1977, became an artist at the height of the reformasi, a tumultuous time in the late 1990s marked by violent protests and political upheaval. He is now part of a group known as Generation 2000, which has thrived since the end of the Suharto era.
Since starting the zine, Nugroho has broadened his output to work across a vast array of mediums, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, embroideries, artist’s books and video animation.
The eclectic nature of his practice is well illustrated by his 2013-15 installation Lot lost, a recent Art Gallery of NSW acquisition, which has just been installed for the first time in the contemporary galleries.
Seven large embroidered posters feature in the installation, one of which is Permen & politik sama 2 mengandung pemanis buatan, depicting a robot-like cartoon creature in DayGlo colours. Across the bottom is a slogan in Indonesian that translates as “candy and politics both contain artificial sweeteners”.
The gallery’s assistant curator of international art, Lisa Catt, explains that Nugroho observes everyday life and social issues in his home country.
“Laced among his proclamations of colour and contradiction is a piercing sociopolitical commentary about the state of democracy in Indonesia today,” she says.
“But while the work of previous generations of Indonesian artists tended to be unapologetically political, Nugroho takes a far different tone. His activism is more discreet, guised in candy colours and dark irony.”
Catt says the embroideries in Lot lost are humorous in a dark, satirical way, with a playful use of language. They refer to subjects such as lax government standards, corruption of public officials, the increasing influence wielded by religion and intolerance toward minority groups.
“With their chunky outlining, flattened colour and graffiti-like lettering, the embroideries do indeed bring to mind a collection of street posters,” Catt says.
Despite Nugroho’s art having a political edge, Catt says he hasn’t encountered any interference or problems. “This is the whole thing about using satire,” she says. “He comes at it
more from a social angle through this fantastical, vibrant, visual language that he has created. He comments but, because it is wrapped up in bright colours and humour, he hasn’t had any issues.”
Catt says it has been amazing to see Nugroho’s trajectory from modest beginnings as a street artist to Lot lost, which incorporates the techniques he has been experimenting with for the past 16 years.
“For me what I love about this work is that, as a viewer from Australia, I find it extremely engaging because it is something I haven’t seen before and yet it tells me so much about one of our closest neighbours.
“I respect Eko so much as an artist and I think it is so important for Australian cultural institutions to be engaging with these artists to reflect this shift in cultural consciousness that is going on at the moment within the Asia-Pacific region.”
Machine embroidery rayon thread on fabric, 171.5cm x 155cm