Alternative Islam

An interview with Arahmaiani

In the work of Indonesian artist, Arahmaiani, the immediacy of performance is seasoned with a potent blend of activism, cultural research and community development. The result—a politically engaged cross-media practice rich in poetry and chance, in suggestive collisions of language and cultural signage—has earned her an enduring place as one of the leading voices of critical art in Southeast Asia.

Since her student days in Bandung, Arahmaiani has consistently challenged the political and cultural status quo in Indonesia and elsewhere. A Javanese Moslem, in recent work she has sought to do justice to the diversity of Islamic cultures, taking aim at the world’s stereotypes of her faith. Her installation at the 2005 Venice Biennale tackled the issue of post-9/11 cultural and racial profiling, drawing on her own brush with the US ‘Homeland Security’ regime. Last year’s Satu Kali festival in Kuala Lumpur was shut down by Malaysian authorities after one of her performances was alleged to be offensive to Islam.

The artist has recently been in Australia to take part in Artspace’s ‘Aftermath’ series, focusing on the relationship between performance art and installation. Her work, Make-up or Break-up, is built around a series of public performances—somewhere between promotion and protest—featuring banners that bear the names of multinational corporations in Jawi (Malay-Arabic) script. I asked her about the political and social context that informs her work.

David Teh: You support a syncretic idea of Islamic culture, contrary to the monolithic image it’s given in Western media. Your recent work has explored ‘alternative images of Islam’, including in Thailand, where Moslems are a minority. Can you say something about your discoveries?

Arahmaiani: The experience I had working with Moslems in Bangkok was really valuable. I learned a lot about the meaning and position of a minority, but also of the dominant group. In Indonesia, Moslems and Javanese form the dominant group (and this position of course brings the problems of a superiority complex). People say power tends to corrupt; it is almost always applicable. And a simplistic understanding of democracy (like here in Indonesia), where truth is believed to be the voice of the majority, can create more problems than solutions.

When we speak about ‘the Islamic world’ it can be misleading if we don’t put it in context. Javanese Islam is quite different from Malaysian, Afghan, or Arab Islam—in fact, it’s mixed with Animism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Islamic ways are not the same everywhere. … I think the tendency to create a monolithic image of Islam is driven by political and economic interests—Moslem and non-Moslem—which aim to turn belief into dogma. But those who don’t want to follow this lead, who want to be themselves and live in peace and tolerance, have no need for dogma. It’s probably true that the world, or Islamic world, is in crisis. I’d like to see it from the understanding the Chinese people have about the word ‘crisis’. They say that crisis means danger and at the same time also means opportunity. So an alternative image of Islam is needed. The media has constructed it in a negative way, with a lot of negative consequences. This needs to be corrected.

DT: Is art an effective way to combat the stereotype?

A: Art can be effective. Art has a power of communication (in the Indonesian context it’s very obvious). The artist has a ‘special’ position in society, and combined with activism this can be even more effective. I think religious discourse has been corrupted, and has always been, but unfortunately people in the ‘third world’ are often unaware of this. So art can function as a catalyst, bringing different things from different levels together. …

DT: You participated in a group exhibition as part of the recent G8 protest in Heiligendamm. For some time, your work has evolved in dialogue with activism. Can you tell me about this interplay with social and political causes?

A: Besides working as an artist, I’m also an activist. I’ve combined these two different approaches in my own personal mode of expression. I believe social and political realities are the main determinants of life. Art will always be affected by them, but it can also influence them (if it’s not ruled too much by the art market). When I speak about the power of art, I speak in the context of struggle of Moslems with their religion. In this specific context, art has a certain function and meaning (there are possibilities for it to function socially and politically). Artists who create critical work often get a response from the society, even strong responses from conservatives. So art can move and ‘change’ something. But is it effective in the context of Heiligendam? This is another story. Art in the advanced Western context is already kind of exclusive. The art market is a strong determinant of today’s Western art, and brings serious problems regarding its social function. In the Islamic world, art has huge potential to operate on political and social levels of awareness.

DT: Text and language play a prominent role in your work. Have they always been elements of your practice?

A: Yes, text always seems to appear in my work. Probably because I’m a writer and poet—sometimes things can be best expressed through text. And since I also work with some conceptual approaches, text can help clarify what I want to say. So language has always attracted me. It probably has to do with the plural nature of being Indonesian, living with many different languages since childhood; and later, traveling and living in different countries—language has always fascinated me!

DT: Your recent work has dealt with Arabic script, with the range of meanings a language can carry, even to people who can’t understand it. You’re using Jawi script in your new work at Artspace. Can you say something about this work?

A: This text refers to the identity of Moslems from this cultural group, with its own specific cultural history. In the West this kind of script has negative connotations because of its political implications. But these connotations can also be twisted, as when I write the names of multinational corporations [MNCs] or international brands. Arabic script, with its negative connotation of terrorism for example, might then be translated as ‘terrorism by the MNCs’. To perform with the banners at a specific site (for example, a military base or big shopping mall) adds a further complexity.

DT: In the first attacks on ‘globalisation’, MNCs were often the target. Now it seems the focus has drifted back towards governments and the multinational institutions (G8, World Bank, the IMF). What corporate practices would you characterise as ‘terrorist’? Are there particular industries or corporate crimes that you’d like to criticise with your work?

A: MNCs and their institutions, and governments, are actually one thing; they are mutually supportive. I think any MNC whose activities create environmental and social problems is actually ‘terrorist’. In the fields of gold and mineral mining (like what some companies are doing here in Indonesia); oil; drug production; and the tobacco, cosmetics, food and electronics industries whose products are hazardous and energy-consuming. In many cases at relocated factories (at least here in Indonesia) there are problems of labour exploitation; there have been conflicts amongst the workers of some American, European, Japanese and Korean companies operating here. The basic corporate principle is profit, to commodify and financialise everything to the point of inhumanity! Everything is for sale now…

DT: Australians pretend to worry that their image, in the eyes of their Asian neighbours, is getting worse, not better. Do you think this is accurate? How do you feel about Australia as a site for this work?

A: Australia is like America (your government is American allied, so it’s not so surprising), meaning Australians in general have strong prejudices against Islam and Moslems. This is due to manipulation by the people in power, but also due to ignorance. So I’m looking forward to working there—I think Australia is the right place for this work!

DT: In the catalogue for your recent Bangkok show, Stitching the Wound, Nazry Bahrawi writes that as economic interest shifts towards the east, multi-cultural Southeast Asia holds ‘mankind’s greatest hope for (dis)solving identity politics in the Muslim world’.1 Do you agree, and do you see your work as part of this project?

A: Some people, Islamic and non-Islamic, think so. I’m not so sure. I think the world is in crisis and its economic system is not reliable enough. Without change, it probably won’t be sustainable. I’m not sure that the future will be bright. Indonesia is the largest Moslem country in the world, and people think it’s the most moderate, but the general situation today is so bad—politically, economically and culturally—things are in bad shape! The other Moslem communities in Southeast Asia are probably better off, but Indonesia is certainly in deep shit at the moment. So it is difficult for me to be as optimistic as Nazry. My project can support his theory, but I do not think much in that direction. It’s more about showing another face of Islam—showing alternatives, in a creative way.

Arahmaiani, Make-up or Break-up, 2006. Performance and installation, production shot. Photography Ali Crosby. 

Arahmaiani, Make-up or Break-up, 2006. Performance and installation. Photography Amanda Williams. 

Arahmaiani, Make-up or Break-up, 2006. Performance and installation. Photography Amanda Williams. 

Arahmaiani, Make-up or Break-up, 2006. Performance and installation. Photography Amanda Williams. 


1. Nazry Bahrawi, ‘I am Us and Them: (Dis)solving Identity Politics of Southeast Asian Muslims’ in Iola Lenzi (ed.), Arahmaiani in Bangkok: Stitching the Wound, Thai Silk Company, Bangkok, 2006, p.28-33. Catalogue for exhibition at The Art Center, Jim Thompson House, 2006.

Arahmaiani’s Make-up or Break-up was exhibited 2-18 August 2007 as part of the ‘Aftermath’ program at Artspace, Sydney.

David Teh is a freelance critic, curator and lecturer based in Bangkok, Thailand.