Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2:
Curatorial Concept

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Not a Dead End

While biennials remain a space of capital, they are also spaces of hope.”[1]

(Simon Sheikh, 2009)


One of the metaphors that I understand from the concept of the Biennale Jogja Equator Series (Biennale Equator, 2011 – 2020) is journey. This year the Biennale Equator lands in the Arab nations, but in the next seven years, the Biennale Equator will continue to cross westwards, stopping over in one region then the next. Following the imaginary line of the equator, the circular route of the Biennale Equator’s journey – and its tangents – signifies a kind of cycle, where the end of the journey is also the departure point. In a long journey, stopovers become important as ‘temporary destinations’ that give time and space for musing, not just about what has happened along the road, but also about the destinations and risks ahead. This Biennale will eventually from a means for the traveller to understand themselves, through the journey and encounters with others.



Although a number of biennial events are always identifiable with ‘international visual art’, every biennial has its own way of mapping the world. But a map is basically just one of the ways of seeing, a form of representation that never really describes everything. There are limitations that are unavoidable, so the connotation of the ‘world’ in a biennial can never be inclusive. As can be read from the scope of regions and countries in various biennials throughout the world, classic geographical categories are still often in use, for example: Asia, Europe, America, the Mediterranean, etc. But apart from this, biennials create new cartographies that refer to geo-politics, geo-economics, geo-cultures, geo histories and so on. In short, the understanding of ‘international’ in a biennial these days in increasingly arbitrary.

Among the hundreds of biennales that occur on the face of the earth, the Biennale Equator imagines its own regional scope. By choosing the equatorial zone as a ‘working field’, the Biennale Equator delineates nations that are within the topical and sub-tropical zones as its focus. Although it refers to a mapping system that tends to the ‘scientific’, the scope is essentially arbitrary. But it is no coincidence that in this region there are many countries categorised as “non-Western” or “third-world”, relating to narratives of colonial history, post-colonialism, as well as new connections driven by 20th century processes of globalisation. The Biennale Equator overall has the potential to result in new discoveries and re-readings from history, as well as new projections about the equatorial region.

The Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2 has chosen the Arab region as its ‘partner’. The selection of a region – rather than just one nation – is based on a desire to develop a format for exhibitions that have previously been ‘bilateral’ (BJXI / Biennale Equator #1, 2011, Indonesia – India). In curatorial terms, the term ‘Arab’ appears to have the potential to offer a variety of interesting entry points. However, it is in fact quite difficult to draw out clear connections between art practice in the two regions. Throughout my research, there was not one set of documentation or information about activity that revealed a historical connection between the visual art world in Indonesia and the Arab region. Further, the equatorial scope that the Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2 has staked out includes five nations, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman, that each has their own visual art histories.

The visual art connection between Indonesia and the Arab region in fact was established in 2012 through a network that was initiated by the market. Within the popularity of art fairs in recent years, Southeast Asia and the Arab region are described as ‘emerging art scenes’ – a phrase that smacks of Euro-American centralism – indicating new visual art worlds that are in the midst of growth in the international art scene, when in fact it is because of the injection of capital and the support of neo-liberal market mechanisms. The economic paradigm within contemporary art in Indonesia and the Arab region is likely to grow stronger in the future. But for reasons that I will explain shortly, this exhibition chooses to look at the economic aspect from a different perspective.

In all its limitations, I immediately determined ‘encounter’ as the first keyword to begin the Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2. Initially I adopted that word at random from an official publication from the Biennale Equator. But slowly I discovered richer meanings through my daily routine of moving from one place to another. The importance of ‘encounters’ becomes more clear if the goals initially indicated don’t really offer certainty, and when there is spontaneous experimentation, inadvertence or synchronicity that might give birth to new consciousness. Compared to ‘meeting’ or ‘conference,’ which have connotations of a larger agenda, ‘encounters’ is a concept that is simpler and more visible.


Syncretic Vortex

The Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2 doesn’t depart from one solid theme or concept defined at the outset. But with Arab as a ‘partner’, our attention is of course, drawn to social, cultural and principally, religious connections. This was an unavoidable issue, remembering that the cultural histories of Indonesia and Arabia have been connected for several centuries through Islam, the religion of the majority population in both regions.

In the 8th century, relationships between Indonesia and Arabia began through trade, the acculturation of Islamic teachings and the spread of the Arab diaspora to Sumatra and Java. These connections slowly and complexly evolved alongside the history of Islam in Indonesia, from the marriage and formation of family ties between Arab traders and local residents; the establishment of Islamic kingdoms in Sumatra, Java and Maluku in the 15th century; the Islamic struggle against the Dutch colonial government  up to the 19th century; the anti-colonial movement of Islamic social organisations in the beginning of the 20th century; the emergence of Islamic parties in the independence era; up to the strengthening of Islamic institutions and lifestyle post-Reformation, that brought with it a return to fundamentalism. All this is just a small sample of the signs that can be drawn on in a summary of Islamic history and connections between Indonesia and Arabia.

Although the existence of Islam is evident in the social life of Indonesia, connecting Indonesia and the Arab region through similarities in religious identity is an erroneous simplification. In reality, Islam in Indonesia lived and developed in its own way. In Java, including in Yogyakarta, various rituals and traditions prove that much of the population practice a syncretic Islam. Anthropologists have explained how syncretism in Java indicates the flexibility of society to receive religions from outside.[2] Because of this, the construction of Indonesia as the nation with the largest Muslim population on the world must be seen as co-existent with syncretic processes that occur internally. Apart from this, the existence of followers of other religions – Hindu, Confucians, Buddhists and Christians – that in fact also emerge through encounters between cultural, religious, original belief and social systems within the archipelago, should not be marginalised.

This exhibition sees Islamic syncretism as a productive phenomenon for discussing the relationship between Arab and Indonesia. Regarding the ‘syncretic reality’, artist and theorist Roy Ascott has explained syncretism as a process necessary for the management of difference in both the community and national context. [3] According to Ascott the process of syncretism should be exchanged with synthesis that combines different substances, although the original is lost completely. In syncretism, extreme differences still stand, although they are seen as consistent with similarities and resemblances that create the combination. This teaches us about the concept of the world as plural and layered.

 I liken syncretism to an understanding that provides enthusiasm, like the grease or the energy that makes it possible for the components of a (cultural) machine to move, supporting one another, and resulting in a new understanding. These days, when awkward stereotypes about a culture often lead to an impasse in dialogue, suspicion and conflict, volunteering to receive a syncretic situation or entity is important, if not crucial. I know that this is not an easy mission. In fact, religious syncretism in Indonesian is also criticised, threatened by processes of purification that are enforced by fanaticism and fundamentalism.

The biennial is a channel for encountering diverse narratives, thoughts and interests in an exhibition medium. Particularly in Yogyakarta, where the cultural and political formations also tend to the ‘syncretic’, contemporary visual art becomes open practice for encounters between the old and the new, the ‘local’ and the ‘foreign’. In the case of the Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2, because of the intersecting histories between Indonesia and the Arab region, ‘the foreign’ always has the potential to contain local aspects and vice versa, ‘the local’ is not always close and familiar with the space and social context that the exhibition occurs in. The syncretic dimension in contemporary visual art is not only located in the artists’ concepts that transgress cultural and territorial limits, but also in the way that their art works can create dialogue with new spaces.


Migration and Mobility

Religion is not the only entry point into a discussion around the relationship between Indonesia and the Arab region. Historically, the spread of Islam in Indonesia occurred through trade. Not only Islam: the connection between trade and the dissemination of religion is clearly demonstrated throughout the history of human civilisation. (The Silk Road is a spiritual path, for example.) It is no coincidence that economic activity, and particularly trade, are issues that are discussed extensively and substantially in Islamic teachings.[4] In a more recent context the phenomenon of the flow of human movement and goods reflects how the material dimension has become another important aspect of the historical relationship between the two regions.

The spread of Islam through the archipelago generated a return migration flow to the Arab region. Migration of Indonesian Muslims to the Arab region is mainly driven by the calling to undertake the holy pilgrimage (Umrah and Haji) that has taken place since at least the 13th century. The number of pilgrims from Indonesia continues to rise each year, following the formalisation of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia in 1950.[5] In the socio-cultural context of Indonesia, a person who has undertaken the Haj tends to be considered as a role model for other Muslims (due to being seen as someone with a higher level of piety). For a section of the population of Indonesia, the journey to Mecca impacts positively on their social and cultural capital.

The wave of Indonesian migrant workers (TKI) was first initiated by those who organised Indonesian pilgrims in Mecca.[6] Sending TKI to Saudi Arabia has been a part of an official national government program since the 1970s. Although in practice it causes many problems, TKI migration to the Arab region, mainly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, continues to rise each year due to the minimal opportunities for work in their own country. Ironically, while the Indonesian government promotes the TKI as ‘heroes of foreign exchange’, regulation and official protection for them is still poor.[7]

I allude to the phenomena of the migration of Haji and TKI to explain how the Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2 must address the patterns of production, distribution and consumption of contemporary art these days. Not to place the two phenomena as completely parallel, but rather to broaden the scope of discussions that can have impact through new social formations – including the visual art world.

It is a reality that the potential for, and ease with which, humankind can physically move places connects the activities of the larger part of the world population now through economic, political and cultural systems that are not limited by stable cultural spaces. Digital technology also creates another kind of mobility through virtual reality: mobile spaces not limited by physical movement.

John Urry describes contemporary mobility as a social dynamic that destroys definitions of propinquity that once were a standard measure for the formulation of social patterns.[8] When traditional patterns of migration erase the concept of identity (as in the case of the Arab diaspora that came to the archipelago centuries ago), an imagined community on the internet creates a new social character. Digital machines that erase the boundaries of ‘communication’ and ‘transportation’ create a new configuration of ‘distance’, presence and absence in a network society. Within contemporary mobility, the understanding of ‘migration’ has shifted to the immaterial, because the human body has mutated along with internet connections in devices such as mobile phones and tablets.

Afrizal Malna understands the term ‘migration’ as an expression that connects the physical and metaphoric meanings of changing identities.[9]

According to him, the ease of migration has also occurred because of the ‘market of signs’ that makes it possible for bodies to attain identities  – such as when a person buys and wears a head scarf to assert that she is a Muslim. But on the other hand, this condition also indicated a crisis of identity, because ‘I’ as an empty space can be filled by whomever; an unstable fiction in the midst of a cultural battle field.

This exhibition is constructed of a selection of works that signify the unexpected encounters between flows of capital, values, language, information, ideas, material objects and agents driven by migration and mobility (local and transnational). Although there is no curatorial directive that obliges them to respond to an ‘Indonesia-Arab’ framework as declared by the Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2, it is unavoidable that the majority have consciously made work that represents the complexity of cultural relations between the two regions. Metaphors of uncertainty, contradiction, contingency, displacement and the destruction of identity are relatively dominant in this exhibition.

An interest in the issues of migration and mobility drove me to realise a curatorial experiment for the Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2. A number of the works have resulted from platforms of encounter. The first platform is a residential project and exchange in Yogyakarta, Sharjah and Cairo. Collaborating with art centres in the Arab region, Biennale Jogja sent a number of Indonesian artists to live and work there for several weeks. This platform also invited several artists from the Arab region to live and work in Yogyakarta. The second platform was to invite a number of artists to send concepts or proposal to artists from the other region to act as unit of production for that concept.

Concepts around migration and mobility cannot be separated from art production-distribution-consumption models that are followed these days, at the same time forming a more intense mobile art world. As well as intending to test how far concepts of ‘equatorial journeys’ can produce a ‘cultural encounter’, the two vehicles are ways for the Biennale Jogja XII Equator #2 to appropriate patterns of production and distribution in the current global economy. Instead of making the biennial simply a presentation of artworks, Biennale Jogja Equator #2 attempts to manage the possibility of new methodologies in its production. Although not all can be perfectly realised, I enjoyed the preparations for this exhibition as an experiment and process, like an adventurer who picks his lessons from his stop-overs. As in the Javanese adage: “There are no dead ends, because life is just a stop-off for a drink.[10]


Agung Hujatnikajennong


[1] Simon Sheikh, Marks for Distinction, Vectors for Possibilities, Questions for the Biennial, in Open 2009 / no. 16, Jorinde Seijdel (ed.), The Art Biennial as Global Phenomenon, Strategies in Neo-Political Times, p. 79.

[2] For example, see Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973). Although much-debated and criticised, Geertz is still a classic reference on syncretism in Java.

[3] Roy Ascott, Syncretic Reality: Art, Process and Potentiality, 2005,, accessed 3 February 2013

[4] In a number of stories and teachings of Islam, Nabi Muhammad SAW is described as a trader who was successful because of his honesty. In connection with economic knowledge, there are 20 types of business terminology in the Al-Quran, repeated in various sections.

[5] In 2005, the total number of Haj Pilgrims from Indonesia reached more that 200,000 people. In Indonesia, the organisation of departures for the Haj has become a national business monopolised by the government through the Ministry of religion. In practice the system is unprofessional and plagued by corruption. See  M. Awaludin Luckman, Penyelenggaraan Haji di Indonesia in Kaitannya dengan Undang-undang Mengenai Larangan Praktek Monopoli dan Persaingan Usaha Tidak Sehat, Tesis Program Pascasarjana, Fakultas Hukum Universitas Indonesia, 2010 (unpublished).

[7] In the worst case scenarios TKIs lose their lives, exploited and forced to labour, and made into objects for human trafficking. See the research of Ira Merdekawati, Upaya Pemerintah dalam Melindungi Tenaga Kerja Indonesia di Arab Saudi pada Kurun Waktu 2007 – 2009, Skripsi Program Studi Hubungan Internasional Fakultas Ilmu Sosial dan Politik, Universitas Komputer Indonesia, 2011 (unpublished).

[8] John Urry, Connections, Environment and Planning – Society and Space 2004, volume 22, p. 27 – 37. Urry mentions the phrase ‘mobility turn’ to describe how ‘mobility’ has become an interdisciplinary topic, because it involves cultural studies, feminism, migration and geographic studies, etc. For further reference to the theory around this topic, see John Urry, Mobilities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007)

[9] Interview between the author and  Afrizal Malna, 25 October 2013. Afrizal Malna is an Indonesian poet, writer and essayist who uses the term ‘migration’ as a metaphor for many kinds of movement: transformation, shifting, change, etc. Afrizal’s work is one of the inspirations for the definition  of this exhibition concept.

[10] I would especially like to thank Farah Wardani and Aqik AW for the formulation and finalisation of the title of this exhibition.