PERANAKAN artefacts are highly sought after as antiques here, but for Indonesian artist Yuli Prayitno, Indonesian Peranakan objects don't just signify a unique and exquisite material culture. Instead, he incorporates them into his "archaeologic art" - in his bid to highlight a suppressed culture and history in Indonesia.
Instead of the usual collector's interest in precious Peranakan ceramics or jewellery, which is the case in Singapore and Malaysia, Prayitno is more interested in the spirit of multi- culturism they embody in Indonesia.
"What the artist is saying is that the Peranakans contribute to an important cultural heritage in Indonesia, and their wisdom and knowledge deserve to be acknowledged as important," says Seng Yu Jin, curator for Prayitno's solo exhibition titled Unity in Diversity: Archaeologic Excavation of the Peranakan Tionghua at Equator Art Projects.
The artist's latest works revolve around Tan Gwat Bing, the first person to establish a photography studio in Yogyakarta in the early 20th century. Prayitno had heard about the imminent demolition of Tan's house and studio, which prompted him to go there to salvage what he could.
The Yogyakarta-based artist is known for his installation-sculptures using a variety of materials to highlight contemporary social issues such as gender and identity, by remixing forms. Seng, currently a senior curator at The National Art Gallery, Singapore, explains that he's been following Prayitno's works since 2006.
"He isn't Peranakan, but he understands the importance of multiculturism," notes Seng. "Not just the Peranakans - many ethnic minority groups in Indonesia suffered during the New Order under President Suharto as they could not practise their culture, since Indonesian culture was narrowly defined as Javanese."
Working like an archaeologist, Prayitno began to survey and research the Peranakan Tionghua in Yogyakarta before coming across the "artefacts" such as photographs, postcards and books left behind by Tan Gwat Bing.
He dug into the history of photography in Indonesia and the carpentry techniques used to con- struct Peranakan Chinese furniture that was different from other furniture produced in Indonesia. "But Prayitno departed from the methods of an archaeologist when he began dismantling the furniture and intervening in these artefacts by inserting Chinese characters," says Seng.
Prayitno's "archaeologic art" is made through the construction of narratives by recovering previously overlooked culture and knowledge of the Peranakan Chinese in Indonesia. The Chinese had brought modern technologies and ideas - stemming from their desire to be a part of global modernity. They were rooted in their hybrid cultural practices that have produced the famed Pekalongan batik featuring both Chinese and local motifs, Peranakan cuisine and jamu, a form of traditional herbal medicine.
"Prayitno's reassembly of the furniture into artwork is meant to highlight the historical injustice they suffered through discrimination since colonial times. He also makes visible the lost knowledge and wisdom of the Peranakan Chinese as a community that forms a part of Indonesia's cultural diversity," adds Seng.
Seng and Prayitno discussed the artist's concept to focus on the national motto, "Unity in Diversity", that initially symbolised the country's recognition of its cultural diversity as a strength under earlier President Sukarno. This changed during Suharto's regime.
One of his works uses a Garuda Pancasila in which Prayitno had included the Chinese character ping, which means peace. "The use of Chinese characters was his decision as he wanted to capture the wisdom of the Peranakan Chinese and how the different cultures can learn from each other," says Seng.
His use of history is in a revisionist vein to question the overlooked and suppressed histories of the Peranakan Chinese and, by extension, other ethnic minority groups in Indonesia. He calls his interdisciplinary approach "archaeologic art" since he selectively adapts real cultural artefacts and inserts speech bubbles. "This is very South-east Asian as this region is about the history of selective adaptation to foreign cultures through its history," notes Seng.
"The issue of cultural diversity and how multiculturalism should be embraced rather than treated with suspicion are still issues pertinent today," he highlights.
Due to the shipment of the artworks being affected by recent floods in Jakarta, Yuli Prayitno's exhibition has been postponed to Mar 7 - Apr 6, at Equator Art Projects, 47 Malan Road, #01-21, Gillman Barracks.
For more information, please go to www.eqproj.com