Agus Suwage is never subtle with his political and social commentaries; beneath his light, airy voice and mature complexion is a young man at heart whose art is outspoken, multi-faceted and complex.
As one of Indonesia’s most well-known contemporary artists, Suwage has established a reputation for expressing important cultural and socio-political themes through cynicism and satire. These sentiments are fleshed out in the exhibition ‘The Theater of Me’ at Museum MACAN, which examines Suwage’s development as an artist where more than 80 pieces of artwork—ranging from sculpture, installation and painting to drawings—are presented to commemorate his artistic journey over the last 30 years.
“[The exhibition] was planned right before the pandemic, so we had to postpone the launch and paused,” Suwage recalled during a press conference held at the museum. “And during that long hiatus, I had forgotten a lot of the process and the artworks we planned to exhibit. So this is an important moment of rediscovering, reminiscing and rekindling the works I’ve done – just like meeting an old friend.” Though inaudible, his voice and wistful eyes didn’t hide his excitement when sharing this moment with us, “…and [the exhibition] feels like a life album.”
Born in Purworejo in Central Java, Suwage began his practice as a graphic designer, where he studied the discipline and graduated from the Faculty of Art and Design at Institut Teknologi Bandung. His works have been exhibited across Indonesia and abroad such as in Singapore, Malaysia, India, Mexico, the Netherlands and Germany.
Throughout his career, he has delved into a story that is consistent in his work: identity. He explores and expresses the meaning and weight of the word in relation to the socio-political and cultural discourses of his time. Heavily informed by the turbulent events leading up to the Reformation Era in the mid-1990s, in particular the May 1988 Riots, a mixture of hope and fear can be palpably felt in many of the pieces hung and displayed across the museum’s halls and corners.
Upon entering the exhibition hall, visitors are greeted with a monument-esque installation made up of over a thousand glass beer bottles. A golden-winged skeletal figure wearing a turban and wielding a sword perches atop. The piece entitled ‘Monumen yang Menjaga Hankamnas‘ (2012) (Monument that Guards Hankamnas) is a parody of the power-hungry individuals, as well as a critique of an authoritarian disgrace and intolerance. Despite ongoing reforms, Suwage argues that tolerance is still a far-fetched concept that must be fought for.
Suwage’s work is consistently sombre, veiled in dark humour and visualisation, irreverent yet entwined with self-criticism and irony; they silently exude poignant emotions of his journey and the bitter truths he has witnessed through life.
‘Daughter of Democracy’ (1996), for example, was created after the birth of his daughter in 1996, at a time when the ground realities in Jakarta were unsettling. As one of the exhibition’s highlights, Suwage sympathised with the student uprisings and protests that erupted in Jakarta and used this piece to pay tribute to them as a symbol of hope for a new generation and a new democracy.
Notably, self-portraits depicted in a variety of bizarre, unsettling and entertaining ways, make up for the majority of the exhibition pieces. Characterising Suwage’s self-portraiture practice, it is a mark that sets him apart as a contemporary artist.
“We see Suwage imitating animals and portraying himself in the likeness of dictators, mavericks and vulnerable people,” said Aaron Seeto, Director of Museum MACAN. Suwage’s constant reflection of the self is hidden beneath the irony and satire that adorn his self-portraits. “Agus Suwage’s self-portrait reflects how he defines and redefines his identity as an artist. He also believes that before criticising others, one must be self-critical and address one’s own flaws,” added Seeto. ‘Potret Diri dan Panggung Sandiwara’ (2019) is one of the many self-portrait pieces created by Suwage before the pandemic that is being presented to the public for the first time.
Other notable pieces of the exhibition are ‘100 Drawing dan 720 Hari’ (2012 – 2014) (100 Drawing and 720 Days), which presents an intimate and more observational look into Suwage’s artistic narrative while practising a wet-on-wet watercolour technique. ‘Toys ‘S’ Us’ (2003) and ‘Passion Play’ (2009) pose as critiques against the complex relationships of an artist in a commercialised world. Another body of work entitled ‘Too Young to Die, Too Old to Rock N’ Roll Series’ (2007 – 2009) is also on display, where skulls and skeletons are used as imagery of life and death.
For 30 years of traversing through moments and riding on the peaks and troughs of life, art has and will remain a constant entity to Agus Suwage. When asked what lies ahead, the artist simply answered, “Art is the medication to my soul and I’ll always be making it for as long as I live.”
‘Agus Suwage: Theater of Me’ will run from 4 June to 15 October 2022 at Museum MACAN. For more details and booking information, click here.