A Malaysian artist reflects on a conflicted society in her adopted home of Yogyakarta.
IN the middle of the city stands the Kraton, home to the Sultan and the heart of Javanese culture. Within its walls, the streets wind themselves around the palace grounds, snaking around humble dwellings and shops. Markets and schools dot the compound, set against the backdrop of elaborate architecture from an age long past.
Nadiah Bamadhaj, born and raised in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, has called this place home for over a decade now – a city she describes as one “rich with culture and history spanning thousands of years old”.
Here in Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia, ancient artforms are preserved and practised till today.
Nadiah, 45, refers to them as forms of “high art” that are “juxtaposed sharply against a degree of visible economic and infrastructural poverty, evident by the swellings and structures that congest the city, and in the number of visibly homeless people.”
It is these contradictions and contrasts that she attempts to convey through her works in Poised For Degradation, an exhibition comprising four architectural works and four portraits.
The exhibition is currently showing at Richard Koh Fine Art in Singapore till Feb 14.
“The contrast between these rich forms of traditional culture and visible economic destitution of where I currently live form the intellectual foundation for the exhibition. The works are based on my observations of both social life and the physical environment of where I live,” she explains. “I hope to convey my emotions about the juxtaposition between the cultural poise and the economic degradation that I see around me.”
In Kandang Ningrat, for example, Nadiah crowns a humble cowshed with a palace roof structure, and in doing so, “lifts” the shed a level higher than its intended function. In Tertindas Yang Ditandu, the ventilation holes in a wooden box renders it “liveable”, despite the boxed-in oppression – in contrast to the carrying poles that hint at being carried around like someone held in high regard and worshipped by all.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what Poised For Degradation has to offer. All the forms in Nadiah’s drawings are taken directly from her surrounding environment, “either from found objects, or from Javanese mythological references”.
When asked what the most distinctive aspect of everyday life that has found its way into her works is, the artist responds with, “the structures that symbolise the degree of economic poverty in Yogyakarta – dilapidated buildings, recycled objects, zinc and wood dwellings, warungs and carts that are wheeled by hand (which also act as homes), places that 10 years ago I would never had guessed that people would call their homes.”
She singles out Null And Void as the work that best conveys the economic brutality for a large number of people in the city, a work that represents an elderly woman who walks past Nadiah’s studio every day, collecting recyclables.
“She’s probably in her 90s,” relates Nadiah, “and hard of hearing, frail, and extremely vulnerable to both the physical environment and to people who wish to harm her.”
Nadiah has chosen to represent this old lady on a congkak, as she is “the end result of a game that has already been played”.
This is probably not an unknown sentiment in this city, where, apart from its romanticism and culture, says Nadiah, “living in Yogyakarta is basically living on a fault-line within view of a very active volcano, under a near-sighted and overly-bureaucratised government, with an expensive and over-burdened health system, in one of the most over-populated islands in the world.”
The potential of things going wrong is high, and to this artist, Null And Void is “the antithesis of our hopes and dreams for the future, the fear of what life could become.”
Sounds grim? Perhaps.
“Despite the changes of subject matter over the year, most of my work has consistently reflected a certain amount of “grimness” – it is not intentional, it just always seems to come out that way. I find a work is successful when I manage to marry grim with a certain amount of humour,” she says, adding that so far, only her mother is able to read this combination in her work.
Having developed her charcoal and collage technique since 2000, Nadiah believes that this technique adds a certain emotional quality to the work she creates.
“I find it hard to describe this in words. I suppose it contributes to articulating the ‘grimness’ I talked about earlier, or at least I hope so,” she says.
Through Nadiah’s eyes, Yogyakarta looks different now than when she first set foot in the city. Compared to living in Kuala Lumpur, she notes that the divisions between household, community, and administrative bureaucracy are much more porous in Yogyakarta.
“Each does not exist independently of each other and one’s participation in each component is essential and noted. Because of this I have had more of an opportunity to observe the social structures and processes of community life,” she relates.
Although she finds that this impinges on the kind of privacy and social independence that she was previously used to, she points out that Yogyakarta is “a more culturally and religiously tolerant environment” to live in.
“Despite the economic hardships that I attempt to articulate in my work, the fundamental basis of life in Yogyakarta is people’s desire to get along with one another and maintain a peaceful life,” she says.
How’s that for poise.
Nadiah Bamadhaj’s Poised For Degradation is showing at Richard Koh Fine Art Singapore, Artspace@Helutrans, 39 Keppel Road, #01-05 Tanjong Pagar Distripark in Singapore till Feb 14. More details at www.rkfineart.com.