Intersections Between the Local and the Global: Intercultural Dynamics in the Yogyakarta Art World

By Tessel Janse

To a Dutch student of postcolonialism and contemporary art, Yogyakarta, as a crossroads where local and international art worlds converge, brings many relevant topics together.[1] My fascination for the city started when my aunt and uncle, both artists, took part in an artist in residence (AiR) programme with Cemeti in 2008. Their fellow AiR was local artist Wimo Bayang, who made a series of photographs of Jogja locals with water pistols, with the title “Belanda Sudah Dekat!”, or “the Dutch are near!” This references the common Indonesian colonial expression “calm down, the Dutch are still far away,” and I interpreted Bayang’s project as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the presence of my aunt and uncle and perhaps even Cemeti. I became curious about where exactly the friction between the local and the international lay.

During my short stay with the IVAA, I spoke with over twenty artists and art managers from Jogja as well as from some international institutions that call Jogja home. Soon, it became clear to me that the dynamic between the local and the global art worlds is a topic increasingly discussed amongst Jogja’s local artists. In this article, I will shortly present some of my findings on this topic. Implicit in this, I will be speaking for others and therefore inflicting ‘epistemic violence’, by Gayatri Spivak defined as the repressing of another’s voice by ‘overwriting’ it with your own perception of it.[2] Therefore, I will limit myself to asking relevant questions and posing some possible options to move forward, drawn from suggestions by interviewees, rather than presenting set conclusions. Before anything can be said about the dynamics between local and Western international in Jogja, the complexity of its art scene needs to be emphasized: every gallery has a different management structure and approach to power relations or collaboration. The same counts for individuals. Moreover, many power dynamics are not simply traceable along an axis of ‘outsider’ versus Indonesian, but, as anywhere, also run along the divisions between gender, class, ethnicity, age and occupation. Any comprehensive conclusions would require a long-term intersectional study of the micro-politics of Jogja’s art world, which is beyond the scope of this study. However, there are some recurring issues that are specific to the encounter between the local and the international, which have been identified as a pattern of power relations by multiple interviewees.

Without doubt, the international aspect to the Jogja art world brings considerable benefits. Besides its contribution in shaping Jogja as a unique place of cultural exchange and a hotbed for artistic enterprise and international relations, international institutions bring funding and the many visitors generate an economy to the profit of locals. The international audience for Jogja’s artists provides some with the opportunity to travel, take part in international AiRs and address sensitive topics more freely than at home. It is safe to say that the Jogja arts culture would not have been as diverse and outspoken as it is today, without this international collaboration. However, this utopia of intercultural inspiration, as it is portrayed by some international galleries, is not free from the interplay of global relations that are still heavily influenced by colonialism.

Though branding the current dynamic in Jogja as neocolonial may be too rigorous, many local interviewees have expressed that they see similarities between colonial inequality and the Western presence in Jogja’s art scene today. First of all, there is an inequality in opportunity. Though international art spaces in Jogja present themselves as promotors of mutual exchange, this is in practice often slightly one-sided. The funding from home governments means that AiRs are mostly in the benefit of the home country. The result is that artists from that country are supported in travelling to Indonesia, but Indonesian artists rarely have the opportunity to travel the other way. General thresholds like the difficulty of obtaining a visa to Western countries, the difference in exchange rates, and the lack of government funding for the contemporary art sector in Indonesia, mean that accumulating the required time and money is a steep task for local artists. Moreover, as one internationally renowned local artist explained, when Indonesian artists do travel, it is often at the mercy of host organization. This because the devaluation of their money in the West makes them completely reliant on funding, in practice rendering these artists “poor and homeless cosmopolitans.”

Another issue lies in the contrast between how Western visitors to Jogja perceive their role, and how they are perceived by locals. To many locals, Western visiting artists or long-term art managers represent access to international networks and careers and signify a pathway of funding. Therefore, they have a powerful position as people are eager to collaborate and build connections, which entails the risk of exploitation. Western visitors often do not realize this, and misinterpret help and being accommodating for friendship, whilst locals do expect something in return such as fair payment, or an equal return of the favour. One could also ask oneself whether some actors in Jogja become gatekeepers: through their international connections, they could possibly control who becomes internationally successful, and indirectly affect art-historical developments. At the same time, expecting artists to remain culturally authentic would be a patronizing myth.

A third and often mentioned shadow of colonial relations is the presence of orientalist stereotypes in the discourse of Western institutions and artists. In interviews and in gallery publications, the experience of culture shock is very often romanticized, and Jogja and its locals are represented as ‘cultural’, friendly, close to nature and to the past. Several locals expressed their issue with the fact that visitors are invariably intrigued by stereotypically exotic features, but pay no attention to the complexity and modernity of Jogja’s culture. Another problem exists with visitors bringing preconceived ideas, such as the suspicion that locals will try to ‘rip them off’, or are and lazy and unreliable, which in some cases has led to serious conflict. At the same time, it was explained to me that self-exoticization is also a defense mechanism, a way to maintain a ‘right to opacity’ and only show certain aspects to visitors, as Indonesians would be foolish to fully open up to the West again after what happened in the past. Representation thus works both ways.

Though Jogja as a hotbed of creative intercultural exchange definitely rests on a more complex underlying structure, this is not a univocal story of Western perpetrators and the Jogja locals as ‘victims’ without agency. There is much to be said about the power relations in Jogja’s art scene, but its members often have the best intentions but are caught in a complex web of unequal international relations. Limitations to travel and mutual exchange, like difference in currencies or in chances of obtaining a visa or funding, are out of the hands of Jogja’s art world. On a deeper level, the traces of epistemological Eurocentrism in Indonesia invest international visitors with the aforementioned significance and resulting privileges. In this context, both parties have an approach to the other that is influenced by often unnoted colonial representations. Several internationals I spoke with about power relations referred to their own relation with local co-workers or assistants as one of true friendship, and thus devoid of any inequality. At the same time, almost all locals I interviewed spoke of the Javanese culture of being overly hospitable, and of an “inferiority complex” towards Westerners specifically that leads to measuring the ‘own’ culture against the West, which prevents them from saying no and setting boundaries. Is the term friendship in some cases too swiftly applied, with the effect of circumnavigating discussions of inequality?

The complex network of influences on Jogja’s art world makes it difficult to envision straightforward solutions. Nevertheless, several practical recommendations were voiced that could lead to improvement. A key aspect is better communication and self-reflexivity, between the locals and internationals, but also as part of the AiR policy of expat institutions. Visitors’ awareness of their own significance, Jogja’s culture, intercultural communication and fair payment could be increased, for instance by institutions providing more information before visiting artists commence their AiR. It was also explained that the inferiority complex and being overly accommodating towards Westerners could be circumnavigated, if Westerners took a more pro-active stance by asking questions about what is appropriate regarding payment or asking for assistance, rather than sit back and enjoy. Structural changes such as the discouragement of personal assistants to AiR visitors could be beneficial, since having a local assistant is reminiscent of the colonial hierarchy, and often involves misconceptions about proper payment. Also, when AiRs communicate directly with the institution and locals and are more self-reliant, they get to know Jogja’s society better, learn new things and approach the other more as equal.

Following from these suggestions, the way forward for now lies in individual and institutionalized self-reflexivity, communication, some structural changes, and in making the problematic visible and discussable. These solutions are small-scale but within reach, as the extensive problems of global inequality are not so easily tackled. Importantly, they require participation from both the internationals and locals of Jogja.


[1] This article is the result of a research placement with the Indonesian Visual Art Archives in April 2018, and can be read as an excerpt of a larger dossier for the Masters program Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy at Goldsmiths, University of London.

[2] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1998. Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271-313. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. Pp. 279-283.