JAKARTA: For 30 years, Indonesian artist Agus Suwage has been creating hyper-stylized selfies – from caricatures of himself to imposing his face on a dictator – to document his search for identity amid the turmoil of recent history from the country.

The Macan Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Jakarta is devoting an exhibition – “The Theater of Me” – to the artist’s work with more than 80 exhibits spanning three decades of his career.

Suwage’s self-portraits document his life as an artist deeply influenced by political changes in Indonesia, such as the fall of dictator Suharto’s regime in 1998 and the hopes raised by the democratic revival that followed.

The 63-year-old portrays himself in unconventional ways and his disturbing installations play with racial and cultural stereotypes in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

The exhibition has been suspended for several years after being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, which closed museums for months.

“During this long break, I had forgotten much of the process and the works we had planned to exhibit. So this is an important time to rediscover, reminisce and rekindle the works I have made, as well as meet an old friend.” Suwage told reporters.

One of the works, “The Self-Portrait and the Theatrical Scene”, has so far never been shown.

Dozens of ironic or grotesque versions of the artist’s head adorn a large wall – in flames, like a bird, a pit bull or a kettle – to create a cynical and visual commentary on the many different faces of politics.


Agus Suwage working in his studio in Yogyakarta.

In Suwage’s work, “self-portraiture came from the start,” Aaron Seeto, director of the Macan Museum, told reporters.

“He started doing self-portraits first because he believed in self-criticism before criticizing others, and also there was an economic pragmatism in that, he would use his own body and wouldn’t have not paying for models,” he added. said.

Caged Agents

Suwage’s later installations feature dark humour, and their provocative nature increasingly tests public tolerance in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

In one, a skeleton sits in a tub of rice (“Luxury Crime”), in others a pyramid of a thousand bottles of beer is surmounted by a “guardian angel” skeleton and a statue of Frida Kahlo half-naked hangs on the cross. , his body pierced with arrows.

Suharto’s regime forced the artist, who came from a Chinese-Indonesian merchant family in Central Java, to adopt a more Indonesian-sounding name in 1967 from his birth name Oei Hok Sioe.

Agus Suwage poses for a photo in his studio in Yogyakarta.AFP

Agus Suwage poses for a photo in his studio in Yogyakarta.

Suwage then studied graphic art in the Indonesian city of Bandung, where a photographer roommate captured the images he would use as the basis for his early self-portraits.

In the late 1990s, he saw the repression of student movements and deadly riots in Jakarta, a period that would shape his development as an artist.

After experiencing success around the world – his works can be found in museums from Japan to the United States – and seeing the price of his pieces soar, Suwage does not hesitate to criticize the art market.

In the 2003 “Toys ‘S’ US” series, he miniaturizes himself into a metal toy in various forms to explore the relationship between artist and collector, and how he felt infantilized and forced to work by those around him in the art scene.

In his “Passion Play” installation, he places life-size mannequins representing his collectors and agents in a large cage.

“Through this thought process from my beginnings as an artist, I have seen a close relationship between art, politics and society,” Suwage said.

It is an “exploration of memory, fear, alienation, dreams, identity and humor”.

The exhibition lasts until mid-October.


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