Concept of identity

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 21 Sep 2013

Indonesian street artist Eko Nugroho mixes pop with the politics of his homeland.

Back in January, Louis Vuitton asked the Indonesian street artist Eko Nugroho to help design a new scarf. The luxury brand has become a master of these kind of collaborations, which have come to be known as “artketing” – combining the world of fine art with mass consumer marketing – but it has tended toward artists who are more established internationally, like Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and most recently Yayoi Kusama. The decision to select Nugroho was a sign of his quick rise.

It’s not the only one. This year, Nugroho, 36, who recently made the list of Art + Auction magazine’s “Top 50 under 50,” is participating in the Indonesian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which runs through Nov 24.

Nugroho mixes pop influences with Indonesian motifs and touches on issues of identity and democracy.

For the Louis Vuitton collaboration, Nugroho created six large oil paintings, with the brand selecting one for production – Republik Tropis, which portrays a mythical creature whose body is made of tropical fruits and vegetables, with two masked faces peering through the twisted amalgamation.

“This creature is like a compilation of the democratic idea in Indonesia, colourful and complicated, a symbol of today’s society,” said Nugroho in a recent interview in Singapore. “Our democracy is still very young, not fixed yet.”

Masks are integral to Nugroho’s visual vocabulary, and he started using them in his practice in 2000. In Indonesia, he said, they are “more about the concept of identity and the concealment of your true human nature.”

Nugroho is part of a generation of artists that emerged as the dictatorial Suharto regime was falling and Indonesia was slowly transitioning toward democracy; and from the start, he has used his works to communicate and engage with a general public, particularly through street art.

“I like to develop my work outside during daylight. It’s more free and flexible and it allows me to interact with people, sometimes asking them to help,” he said.

For his new solo exhibition, called We Are What We Mask, which opened at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute last week, masks take centre stage.

Inspired by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood and Willem Vogelsang’s Covering the Moon: An Introduction To Middle Eastern Face Veils, which retraces the history of veils, Nugroho has created 70 colourful paper works, many of which are wearable. They include a series of 10 flat masks that take on the shape of the head covering worn by the women of the Rashaida tribe in Saudi Arabia, and a series of eight full-face head pieces in absurd shapes and bright neon hues that were made from abaca cotton paper treated with konnyaku, a form of Japanese root-based gelatin, to add strength. All these “face veils” include text like “obey and happy” and “prohibited to prohibited” that take on a specific meaning within the Singaporean context where they were created.

“I like strong visuals. I’ve never used such strong colours before, sometime they are hurting the eyes, but the underlying idea is still about democracy and the freedom,” he said.

Nugroho’s works were completed during a six-week residency that challenged the technical capabilities of the Singapore institute’s workshop.

The coming months will be busy for the artist: He is opening a solo show in October at Arario Gallery in Seoul, and has plans for a solo show at the Lombard Freid Gallery in New York next year. – IHT

Eko Nugroho’s We Are What We Mask exhibition is on at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute in Singapore till Oct 9. For more info, go to

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Concept of identity


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