The throne project

Indonesia- based Malaysian artist Na­diah Ba­mad­haj’s ex­hi­bi­tion De­scent ex­am­ines the in­flu­ence of roy­alty in Yo­gyakarta.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By ROUWEN LIN star2@ thes­tar. com. my

THERE is trou­ble brew­ing in the heart of the Ja­vanese king­dom, a rum­bling of dis­sent and dis­sat­is­fac­tion that has been go­ing on for a while now, ever since Sul­tan Ha­mengkubu­wono X sig­nalled his in­ten­tions for his el­dest daugh­ter to as­cend to the throne when he calls it a day.

In a sul­tanate where men tra­di­tion­ally rule the roost, this de­par­ture from the norm stirred up con­tro­versy within the palace walls – and be­yond.

The Jakarta Post re­ported that none of the Sul­tan’s broth­ers at­tended last year’s closed pro­ces­sion at the kra­ton ( royal palace) in Yo­gyakarta in Java, Indonesia, where his daugh­ter was pro­claimed crown princess. Ru­mours abound that his broth­ers are ve­he­mently against this de­ci­sion.

“This is the first time a woman has been ti­tled crown princess in the late Mataram king­dom ( the first Sul­tan of the cur­rent Ha­mengkubu­wono line ruled in the 18th cen­tury) and there was sig­nif­i­cant neg­a­tive re­ac­tion to this po­ten­tial change. It is this idea that the ex­hi­bi­tion De­scent is moulded around,” says Malaysian artist Na­diah Ba­mad­haj, 48, who has been based in Yo­gyakarta since 2002.

Her up­com­ing solo show, De­scent at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur, fea­tures six new char­coal on pa­per col­lage works. Three other works from the same se­ries have been loaned from col­lec­tors for this ex­hi­bi­tion. De­scent marks her seventh solo ex­hi­bi­tion, and her third with Richard Koh Fine Art. Her last solo with the gallery, Poised For Degra­da­tion, was held in Sin­ga­pore in 2014. Much of her work, in­clud­ing De­scent, is heav­ily in­flu­enced by his­tor­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal events.

When asked what it is about so­cial con­structs that speak to her so strongly, she points out that she had been ex­posed to so­cial is­sues from a young age, and it was a com­bi­na­tion of study and ex­po­sure that made her the kind of artist she is to­day.

“My mother was fea­tures ed­i­tor at the New Straits Times be­fore the Ma­hathir era, and many of the peo­ple she in­ter­viewed sat at our din­ner ta­ble. I briefly vol­un­teered at the woman’s refuge in Pe­tal­ing Jaya when I was 14. At univer­sity in New Zealand, when other art stu­dents did their ex­tra cred­its in Art His­tory, I did a dou­ble ma­jor in So­ci­ol­ogy, con­cen­trat­ing my fi­nal aca­demic study on a fem­i­nist per­spec­tive of sex work­ing,” shares Na­diah.

Af­ter art school, she worked on HIV/ AIDS preven­tion for sex work­ers at the New South Wales AIDS Foun­da­tion in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, and then in Kuala Lumpur at Pink Tri­an­gle Malaysia.

“My brother’s death in 1991 opened up my en­tire world to so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, and hu­man rights is­sues in South- East Asia,” she says of hu­man rights ac­tivist and po­lit­i­cal science stu­dent Ka­mal Ba­mad­haj, who worked as an in­ter­preter for Aus­tralian aid agen­cies in East Ti­mor, and was killed in the Dili Mas­sacre when Indonesian troops opened fire on a fu­neral pro­ces­sion.

“So mak­ing art­work with­out so­cial con­tent has never been an op­tion,” she says.

“I am driven by ideas first and fore­most, and the work is moulded around those ideas. My con­tin­ued per­sonal re­search on so­cial is­sues has given me the struc­ture to base my ideas upon.”

She high­lights a phe­nom­e­non ob­served in Fine Art grad­u­ates, where they are equipped with artis­tic skills, but “with­out suf­fi­cient train­ing in how to ob­serve the world or ar­tic­u­late their ideas about it.”

“They then have to strug­gle to find their voice within their cho­sen medium,” she says.

Na­diah’s voice, how­ever, rings true and crys­tal clear.

In De­scent, she ref­er­ences the enti- tle­ment to power of mem­bers of the royal fam­ily, but also ex­presses the grad­ual de­scent of her af­fec­tion for the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in Yo­gyakarta – a far cry from her im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion upon hear­ing the news.

When the fe­male heir ap­par­ent news first made its rounds, the fem­i­nist in her jumped with joy, she re­calls.

“But it was soon damp­ened by the gos­sip that Sul­tan Ha­mengkubu­wono X – owner of mas­sive busi­nesses, col­lec­tor of rent and taxes on royal lands all over the re­gion, and one of the wealth­i­est peo­ple in Indonesia – clearly wanted to keep it within the im­me­di­ate fam­ily and not have it go to his heir ap­par­ent brother, or cham­pion gen­der equal­ity for that mat­ter,” she ex­plains.

The sit­u­a­tion was com­plex; there seemed to be more than meets the eye in this set- up.

As an artist, Na­diah has al­ways been in­ter­ested in how ar­chi­tec­ture and space in­flu­ence so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The city of Yo­gyakarta,” she elab­o­rates, “is de­signed with the kra­ton at its cen­tre, placed ex­actly between Mount Mer­api and the Indian Ocean. This ar­chi­tec­tural axis, as with many cities around the world, at­tempt to im­press a form of power on its sub­jects.”

She ob­serves that Yo­gyakarta’s so­cial life re­volves around this royal ar­chi­tec­tural axis ( sim­i­larly with its psy­cho­log­i­cal life about this seat of power too), so peo­ple have a con­stant aware­ness of this power and its his­tory as they have to re­volve around it in phys­i­cal space every day.

“I think it is for this rea­son that there was such a strong re­ac­tion to a po­ten­tial change in the gen­der of the

Sul­tanate,” she adds.

Of all the works in De­scent, Na­diah sin­gles out No. 9 as the one clos­est to her heart. It is in­tended to be a por­trait of Sul­tan Ha­mengkubu­wono IX, the fa­ther of the cur­rent Sul­tan.

“Yo­gyakarta’s ninth Sul­tan has a very strong legacy amongst the pop­u­la­tion. He in­her­ited the ti­tle very early in age and was the first of his line to be ed­u­cated by the Dutch, but de­spite this, was very ac­tive in the fight for in­de­pen­dence against them and the Ja­panese,” she re­lates.

This Sul­tan was af­fec­tion­ately known as some­one who was mer­akyat, some­one who kept very close ties with the masses.

Af­ter Na­diah read his bi­og­ra­phy, she was es­pe­cially af­fected by how he was taken away from the kra­ton at the age of four to be schooled by Dutch fam­i­lies. In par­tic­u­lar, it was the de­scrip­tion that the boy was cling­ing to a kra­ton pil­lar when he was taken away that struck a chord with her.

“At the time I read this, my son was four years old as well. In No. 9, I de­picted Sul­tan Ha­mengkubu­wono IX as a four- year- old in mem­ory of this trauma in his life. My son posed for this por­trait of the ninth Sul­tan.”

In a 2014 in­ter­view with The Star on her solo ex­hi­bi­tion Poised for Degra­da­tion, Na­diah men­tioned that peo­ple in Yo­gyakarta gen­er­ally strive to get along with one an­other and main­tain a peace­ful life.

To­day, she still holds to this state­ment.

But things have changed some­what in the two, al­most three years, since that show.

“There are grow­ing so­cial move­ments in favour of religious con­ser­vatism. With these move­ments are groups of dis­en­fran­chised youth that or­gan­ise in the name of re­li­gion, but whose meth­ods are those of or­gan­ised gang­sters.

“I would still hold to my pre­vi­ous state­ment that the ma­jor­ity of Yo­gyakar­tans want peace, es­pe­cially from these forms of gang­ster­ism. But due to a lack of ef­fec­tual lead­er­ship, and a lack of main­te­nance of the rule of law, there are no mech­a­nisms to keep these groups in check,” she says.

The as­cen­sion of a woman to the throne is no longer top­i­cal news in Yo­gyakarta, but through Na­diah’s works in

De­scent, per­haps a deeper aware­ness and in­ter­est in the is­sue can be evoked.

“With the cur­rent so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues hap­pen­ing there, not only can a woman as­cend the throne, but a choice of good lead­er­ship should also en­ter into the equa­tion,” says Na­diah.

“I don’t know if this is nec­es­sar­ily con­veyed through the body of work, but it has been the mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor in mak­ing it.”

De­scent is on at Richard Koh Fine Art, 229, Jalan Maarof, Bukit Ban­daraya, Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur from Sept 28- Oct 19. Open 12pm– 6pm ( Tues­day to Satur­day). Call 03- 2095 3300 or visit rk­fin­eart.com for more info.

The Height Of Am­biva­lence ( char­coal on pa­per col­lage, 2016).

The Last Throne ( char­coal on pa­per col­lage, 2016).

The Misog­y­nist’s Throne II ( char­coal on pa­per col­lage, 2015)

( Bot­tom left) The Re­ply ( char­coal on pa­per col­lage, 2015).

( Be­low) No. 9 ( char­coal on pa­per col­lage, 2016).

— Photos: Richard Koh Fine Art

( Left) Protes­ta­tions of the

Sub­servient ( char­coal on pa­per col­lage, 2016).

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