Basa-Basi / Chit-Chat, 2023

Solo exhibition with ISA Art Gallery at Art SG, Singapore
11-15 January 2023

Catalogue of all works

Speech Acts of Ida Lawrence, an essay by Övül Ö. Durmusoglu

Stale Language 2022, acrylic on canvas, 155 x 120 cm

Basa-basi is an Indonesian concept which might translate to chit-chat or small talk in English and includes phatic phrases, pleasantries and greetings. In Indonesia, where my family is from but not where I was raised, I observe these commonly spoken phrases as important threads of the social fabric; ubiquitous linguistic choreographies. Basa-basi literally translates to ‘stale language’. What is meaningful is perhaps not the words themselves but the act of speaking them. Their expression is a way to show care, to be polite, to acknowledge someone’s presence, to make someone feel comfortable, an invitation to connect or begin a conversation.

Some common phrases and questions might seem strange or invasive in other cultures. In Indonesia though it’s quite normal to ask someone you’ve just met, ‘What’s your religion?’ (Agamanya apa?) or ‘Are you married yet?’ (Sudah menikah?) as a matter of chit-chat. When a stranger asks ‘Where are you going?’ (Mau ke mana?), they would be satisfied to hear you’re ‘Going on a walk’ (Jalan-jalan) or that you’re headed ‘There’ (Ke sana) in the direction you’re pointing. Speaking too soon or directly about some topics can be considered rude or uncomfortably abrupt, so an exchange of basa-basi can be a way to build rapport before speaking about deeper issues. When my aunty, who might not have seen me in a while, greets me, massages my (skinny pale) arms and exclaims ‘Wow, you’re fat now!’ (Wah, sudah gemuk!), I think she’s just trying to say I’m looking healthy. When my uncle asks when I’m going to convert to Islam, I think he’s just trying to say I’m a very talented painter.

Basa-basi does often test my patience though. There are only so many times in a day I can stand being asked ‘Where do you come from?’ (Asal dari mana?). My way to deal with the repetition is to get creative and reply imaginatively, or humorously misinterpret the question. For me, humour functions in a similar way to basa-basi: it’s an offering or an attempt to connect with someone, and can be a way to indirectly refer to or access more meaningful subjects. But in response to Asal dari mana? it can also be fun to be truthful and say ‘Sragen’ (my family’s village district), then watch the stranger laugh and laugh at my ‘joke’.