Curated by Emily Rolfe and Bianca Winataputri
13 July – 12 October 2019
Fairfield City Museum & Gallery
634 The Horsley Dr, Smithfield, Sydney, Australia
A conversation can be a space to recall stories and histories that may otherwise be left untold, a space to listen, learn and to be heard. With this in mind, curators Emily Rolfe and Bianca Winataputri travelled to Indonesia to begin a dialogue between renowned artist FX Harsono and early-career Australian-Indonesian artist Ida Lawrence. The conversations centred on Harsono’s life, research and practice, specifically Writing in the Rain, 2011 in which Harsono investigates his own family history as a Chinese-Indonesian, a minority group in Indonesia.
In Conversation: FX Harsono x Ida Lawrence presents Writing in the Rain alongside a new body of work by Ida Lawrence, shaped through conversation with Harsono and a wider community of family and peers. Lawrence’s works consider the visible and invisible, the spoken and the untold, in the history, stories and traditions of her family’s village in Java. This exhibition invites the audience into the exchange between two cross-generational and cross-cultural practitioners, providing insight into Harsono’s five-decade career, the role of the artist in society, and the importance of learning about the past.
Exhibition booklet, designed by Ashley Murray
Paintings and transcriptions:
A village and surrounds I (maps and props) 2019
acrylic on unstretched canvas, 160 x 187cm
This is a map my father draws while he explains some of the histories of his village and surrounds – a collage of eavesdropped scraps of information, maybe some reading, lots of speculation. He describes how our village and all the neighbouring villages were once specialised districts of the one ancient (?) kingdom (their names contain clues, he says), how kings and kingdoms rose and fell, how at some point the river’s course was redirected so that the villages that had already converted to the new religion could be united on the west bank.
This is a previous drawing used to help narrate the same thing.
Another time, I hear him explaining these theories using props, in lieu of pen and paper. Clove cigarette packets, lighters, toothpicks and kecap manis bottles are lined up and slid across the table top, representing different characters, locations and the passing of time itself. If you’re not paying close attention, you may misidentify a single toothpick as one of the nine Javanese Muslim saints, when actually that toothpick has morphed into a different character from a different story which is being recounted – in great detail – as a metaphor for the Muslim saint story. Similarly, you must be on the ball if you wish to recognise when a sultan’s ninth wife – who is strangled, upturned, and subjected to violent seizures – in fact briefly returned to her status as a mere salt shaker.
The grave of ‘Java’s Ned Kelly’ is located West of the river, not far from the village where my grandfather was born. He fought crocodiles (two hundred was it?), tamed wild buffalo (or was it something about Buddhists?) and lived over 400 years ago – I don’t see much overlap with Ned Kelly myself, but ok. To help illustrate another chapter of history, my father refers to a feuding king as Osama bin Laden and another as Bush. Not sure I can tell you who represents who – but if I’m not mistaken, Osama bin Laden is the cigarette lighter.
A village and surrounds III (kehidupan baru) 2019
acrylic on unstretched canvas, 160 x 185 cm
A village changes its name from Mbulak Rawe to Mbulak Rejo. I can see why Field of Liveliness is preferred over Field of Thorny Trees with Itchy Sap.
The river’s course changes, curving east. Reasons for this detour range from geographical, agricultural, political, and magical.
A bride and groom decide on the new name they will adopt for their new life together, both shedding their birth names in the process – just like their parents, parents’ parents, and parents’ parents’ parents had done too. Their children are the last generation to follow this tradition – now that there’s paper work for everything.
A baby falls ill. She recovers and her parents give her a new name – a new start in life.
I think we are going to visit my father’s cousin, on the west side of the river, but on the way the car swerves and suddenly we are at the cemetery. My father and uncle clamber out, weave between stone, ceramic and gravel plots, and squat beside a nameless grave. When I reach them, my uncle has already launched into prayer and he and my father are both crying. I whisper to my father, ‘Umm, Bapak, whose grave is this?’. It’s their mother’s. Now we’re all crying and we sprinkle rose petals over her resting place.
(Am I sprinkling the correct way? I am doing a backwards and forwards motion, but should I be sprinkling from head to toe? Or the reverse? Am I going too fast? Too slow?)
My uncle grabs a handful of petals and sort of chucks them, like he’s feeding pellets to chooks*. My father tips the near-empty plastic bag upside down and flaps it about forcefully, until the last petals have no choice but to succumb.
I’ve visited the cemetery many times before but every time my grandmother’s grave seems to be in a different location. Either my memory is playing tricks or we have just wept over the wrong woman’s grave, some other person’s grandma. Maybe this is not such a terrible thing.
Later I learn that it has been years since my uncle last went to the cemetery. His religious community frowns upon the ritual we performed.
*I don’t know if Indonesian chooks get fed pellets.
After school, a boy herds buffalo along the edge of the rice fields.
After school, a boy drives fast cars on his tablet.
Colliding tectonic plates convince a south-bound river to flow northwards instead. It comes as a rude shock one morning but those living in this area warm to it quickly, once they dry their feet.
Lapangan – the village field. Twelve metre rolls of newly dyed and rinsed batik are drying in the sun. Sheep are grazing. Children play with kites. This is where residents pray together at Idul Fitri. On Google Maps it is labelled: American Football Field
A man cuts down a healthy jackfruit tree. He doesn’t use the wood, leaves or fruit for anything. He just leaves it there in his yard to rot. Months later he does the same to a thriving mango tree. Then another cops the same fate. And another. And another. He digs a new well, though there are no issues with his existing well. Down, down he digs, but there’s no water. He tries another location. No luck. He changes his house to face west, instead of south. The neighbours think he’s mad. My father thinks his father was grieving.
Kepada warga, saudara, calon saudara dan mantan warga di Kliwonan dan desa-desa sekitarnya: Maafkan saya jika rumah, warung, pabrik, sawah, kolam ikan, kuburan, jalan, RT, RW, kampung, dusun atau cerita Anda tidak termasuk dalam peta ini.
A village and surrounds VI (mirrors and mould) 2019
acrylic on unstretched canvas, 160 x 191 cm
Everything fades, turns to mould, becomes dust. The process is faster here, in this climate. I am confronted by its visibility. Family photos cloud and disintegrate, walls crumble, paint bubbles and flakes, faded remains of clothes are demoted to tea towels and mats, doors rot, clothes lines crackle. No photos remain of my grandmother or great-grandparents. Probably no photos ever existed. The only things anyone can tell me about my great-grandparents is that one of my great-grandfathers liked to drink tea, was from a village that is far away, and is dead.
Three cousins and an aunty decide to research the family tree, spanning 6 generations. All living relatives are contacted, interviewed and kindly asked to postpone any procreation until the book is finished, published and distributed.
I go with Mbak Hari on the back of her bicycle to her work, the batik factory. I am a shy child and it is torture to have a factory full of women looking at me, pinching my cheeks, talking at me in languages I don’t understand. I get terribly upset and am only consolable when my mother arrives half an hour later. To this day, I will not live this down! Every time I return to the village, someone will bring it up and I will be teased endlessly by Mbak Hari and her parents and her siblings and her husband and their children and their neighbours. We will laugh together at how I cried and cried all those years ago. Every time I leave the village to return to Australia, Mbak Hari and I will say goodbye and kiss one another on both cheeks. Without a doubt we will both shed tears in the process – but we will never laugh about it.
My cousin and I drive about 20 minutes to the museum at Sangiran. It is dedicated to the history of thousands/millions of years ago and includes fossils of old school buffalo and Homo Erectus or ‘Java Man’. Java Man very cunningly left bits and pieces of himself strewn all over Sangiran and surrounds – only revealing himself to white men, a handful of Javanese blokes whose five-syllabic names require a slightly smaller font on the museum’s information board, and several anonymous male ‘local farmers’ who it should be known preferred to define themselves not by their occupation but by their relationship to women.
The museum’s life size dioramas of Java Man and Family are great places to get a good peek of safely-prehistoric pubes, dicks and breasts (and female shoulders!), which could quite possibly be the closest thing to sex ed that visiting school children encounter throughout their entire education.
Dimly lit, the museum is a hot spot for courting teenagers and twenty-somethings. Sitting beneath dense information displays about no one knows what, new couples chat, take selfies, maybe hold hands (!), and secretly imagine a future together – immortalised as fiberglass replicas, beside their stiff looking future children, in a dioramic depiction of twenty-first century family life – within a museum of the distant future.
On the way to the museum my cousin and I are cut off by a bandy legged motorcyclist (they are the worst). Without a headcheck or glance in his rearview mirror, he abruptly changes lane at full speed and full faith. Faith that everyone, like him, is keeping their eyes solely on the road ahead. I begin to think that rear vision mirrors are a redundant feature but then we pass:
- an ojek (motorbike taxi) rider who has adjusted his mirror to allow him to chat with his pretty female passenger
- a couple (that’s my gross assumption) who park, dismount and use a mirror each to tame their windswept situations
- a man outside the market on a stationary motorcycle who uses his mirror to assist him to dry shave.
We also pass by a truck which is blasting Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On from its stereo. I have been in Indonesia just four days and already I have heard this song three times. It seems that many pop songs that died long long ago elsewhere live on strong here.
Fa akros de distens
En speses bitwiiiiiin as
Yu hev kam tu syo yu go oooooon.
A story my father heard as a child 2019
acrylic on linen on board, shelf, 9 panels, dimensions variable
My father tells me a story he heard when he was a child. A putri (a ‘princess’? a ‘girl’?) in an old kingdom (?) nearby his village (?), is accused of eating jackfruit (why she wasn’t allowed to eat it, I don’t understand). She claims innocence but says if no one will believe her then they should cut open her stomach and check for themselves. (Classic.) They cut into her belly and
…my father can’t remember the rest of the story. She is buried in a cemetery in the middle of the rice fields, halfway between the village where my grandmother is buried and the village where her mother is buried. My father thinks the putri was pregnant. My cousin guesses she was ill; my father is not convinced. I read in an essay by a Javanese writer, on an unrelated topic (political imprisonment without trial etc), that in his community when someone was terminally ill, the sickness was likened to accepting an offer of jackfruit and rice. I discuss this with my father and he says No that’s not true. Well couldn’t it be true in the village of the author? And he is like, Nah.
Namanya Sulastri, kata Pakdhe. Namanya Lastri, kata simbah yang aku ketemu di depan makam. Su/Lastri adalah selir ke-9nya sultan Kraton Surakarta. (Sultan yang mana, mbah? Tidak ngerti, mbak). Su/Lastri ngidam nangka tapi tidak dikasih sama sultan. (Gak persis iya, mbak). Lalu perut Su/Lastri dibelah dan dalam perutnya ada bayi (sudah punya suami belum, mbak?) yang bawa dua nangka di tangannya (nangka yang sudah dibelah, mbak … yang sudah masak … tinggal makan gitu) padahal Su/Lastri belum dikasih buah itu. Mayatnya dibuang di Bengawan Solo dan sampai Pilang. Dia dikubur oleh masyarakat (RT ini lho, mbak) dekat sungai.
This project was generously supported by Create NSW and Fairfield City Museum & Gallery.