How Artists Depict Hard Times

By Cindy Julia Tobing
2nd October 2020
Art institutions Museum MACAN and Art:1 give their recommendations of artworks made by prominent local artists in response to the pandemic, which serves as a reminder and inspiration that we are all ultimately interconnected.

They say art holds a mirror to society. From momentums to upheavals, artists have portrayed moments that touch upon the realities of the times with their own twist and turn. Take Srihadi Soedarsono’s ‘Jakarta Megapolitan – Patung Pembebasan Banjir (2020)’ painting, which spotlights the flood catastrophe that hit the capital early this year. 

But this year’s ongoing pandemic is a subject that hits many for its sweeping relevance. The art world saw artists responding to the global threat virus through artworks of various mediums – from paintings and installations to murals, they give rise to conversations about today’s ongoings.

In this feature, we ask art institutions Museum MACAN and Art:1 – New Museum and Art Space for selections of artworks that echo these current realities. Created by prominent local artists, these pieces are their respective interpretations of the situation at hand, acting as both a reminder and inspiration that all of us are living under the same sky in the face of a pandemic. 


Stay at Home (2020) by Tisna Sanjaya, etching, drypoint on Hahnemuhle paper, 45 x 70cm

Gaunt, dark and haunting, artist Tisna Sanjaya’s recent piece visualised a skeletal figure that seemed to have its body organs scattered and minds in disarray – as if portraying a sense of agony and restlessness brought upon by this year’s unprecedented happenings. “Tisna is one of the artists who quickly responded to the pandemic through artworks. During [work-from-home], he regularly updates his daily activities from his studio in Bandung on Instagram,” said Asep Topan, curator of Museum MACAN, who has chosen this piece to highlight.

‘Stay at Home’, created on a Hahnemuehle paper with etching technique, was one of Tisna’s creations made during the PSBB period mandated earlier this year. It was also the period where his contemplations ran deep, exploring how he could still express them intensely through art. “Visually, Tisna’s work is interesting as it brings back imaginary monster characters that were often seen in his etching works from the 1980s,” said Asep. “He brings them back as a symbolic effort with different meanings, in response to the current pandemic.”


Believe #3 (2020) by Puji Lestari Ciptaningrum, hand embroidery on handmade 3D face mask

Another pick by Museum MACAN is from rising artist Puji Lestari Ciptaningrum, who created a 3D face mask with Salawat prayer phrase embroidered at the centre, translated as ‘there is no power nor strength except by Allah’. “Puji’s work does not only act as a ‘decoration’ but wearable art,” said Asep of his recommendation, which was also featured at the second edition of Arisan Karya. The chosen form of a face mask is also a direct telling of Puji’s response to the pandemic, with the protective gear quickly becoming an emblem of the times.

Beyond its function, however, the wearable art is a manifestation of one’s faith; be it a pleading cry or an expression of hope, the embroidered mask is Puji’s showcase of her devotion to the higher power, in the belief that all troubled by the pandemic’s uncertainty will be mended as one relies on God. Asep added: “Seeing her work, it’s as if we can see Islamic prayers being said from someone’s mask-covered mouth. It reflects both hope and a state of surrender.” 


Spreading Love #9 (2020) by Antonius Kho, mixed media on canvas, 50x50cm

Whimsical with pops of colour, ‘Spreading Love #9’ by Klaten-born artist Antonius Kho appears like a breath of fresh air. Picked by Art:1, the piece is part of Antonius’ virtual solo exhibition of the same name. Inspired by the pandemic, two pieces from the series – ‘Social Distancing’ and ‘Physical Distancing’ – was also recently showcased at the 4th International Bene Biennale in Italy. 

The mosaic-like painting is full of the artist’s signatures; a pattern of human figures and masks scattered across the canvas, along with a lurking set of eyes, emphasized Antonius’ consistent exploration of identity. “In my works, love is spread through the hair,” writes Antonius on the description, pointing to the black, flowy strings on the painting. As the title begets, the piece serves as an inspiration that centres on love as the “medicine” to dispel fear and panic. “When the world is full of uncertainty and fear, the power of love becomes a force in providing optimism and hope amidst the pandemic,” said Martha Gunawan, founder of Art:1, of her pick.


Catch Me If You Can (2020) by Nana Tedja, acrylic on canvas, 150x200cm

Another hopeful turn is found in Yogyakarta artist Nana Tedja’s work ‘Catch Me If You Can’, a sprawling abstract painting about relationships. As with Nana’s objective, her works dwell on fragments of her personal experiences as she reacts to her beliefs, thoughts and feelings. Recommended by Martha Gunawan of Art:1, the piece is a head-turner for its bold and psychedelic impression. 

While it’s not a direct response to the pandemic, Nana’s piece cultivates a deeper reflection of connection, that “relationship, be it romantic or friendly, should always be sincere both ways,” said Nana of her work. This take is something that Martha tallies with the pandemic’s perplexities, highlighting the power of connection between humans. “There is a strong will behind Nana’s work that reflects hope and conviction,” Martha added. “Relationships between humans that she builds [in this piece] gives the force for one to keep going. Whatever happens, this energy gives us the confidence to go through every good and bad thing in life.”