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Ruangrupa’s 19-year journey to Documenta

Dylan Amirio

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, March 14, 2019  /  07:30 pm
Ruangrupa’s 19-year journey to Documenta

Creative force: Prior to its appointment as the artistic director of the Documenta 15 art exhibition in Germany, Jakarta-based art collective Ruangrupa was best known for its intense social commentaries in various artistic mediums, balancing them with bright colors and humor. (Courtesy of Documenta/Gudskul/Jin Panji)

Ahead of its upcoming curatorial project at the prestigious Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 2022, Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa has already established itself as the preeminent contemporary art institution in Indonesia.

It started out humbly as a forum for artistic collaboration that rewarded critical thinking about one’s surroundings.

The Jakarta-based art collective was founded in 2000, two years after the fall of the repressive Soeharto regime. Coming out of the authoritarian era, Ruangrupa took advantage of the newfound freedom by providing exhibition spaces, publishing services, workshops, research and setting up festivals and events.

Throughout the years of Ruangrupa’s success in the contemporary art scene, certain themes, colors and methods started to become noticeably characteristic of their works and exhibitions. For one, even though most of Ruangrupa’s artists tend to focus on bleak social commentary, many do so with the use of everyday objects and bright colors.

“Maybe you can see a characteristic because we tend to focus on certain social phenomena and environments, such as urban landscape,” Ade Darmawan, one of the co-founders of the collective, told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

Ruangrupa made history by becoming the first ever Asian group – and first ever art collective – chosen to curate at Documenta, an exhibition that started in the industrial German town of Kassel in 1955 to bring Germany back into a dialogue with the rest of the world after the end of World War II.

“If Documenta was launched in 1955 to heal war wounds, why shouldn’t we focus Documenta 15 on today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism or patriarchal structures, and contrast them with partnership-based models that enable people to have a different view of the world?” Ade said, sharing his vision for Ruangrupa for the 15th edition of Documenta in 2022.

As the collective prepares for one of its largest events, Ade said he felt that the participating members of Ruangrupa would serve as examples in their respective disciplines for the Indonesian contemporary art scene.


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Documenta 15 will be the latest entry to Ruangrupa’s vast portfolio of international art events, an impressive feat considering that not all of the art collective’s members are full-time artists.

“We often analogize Ruangrupa as a band,” Ruangrupa member and architect Iswanto Hartono said. “Each person has their own instrument [and uses it] to contribute to our harmony.”

The collective’s core members consist of 10 individuals, each of whom are becoming leading artists in their disciplines, although the collective states that it does not see itself as a member-oriented group, as it prefers to keep membership fluid in order to collaborate with artists of all kinds.

“We just try and work with other suitable artists so that they can help us articulate our expressions a bit more,” Ade added. 

Ade has headed the collective since its inception. He is known as a celebrated mixed media artist, dabbling in the mediums of installations, digital prints, drawings and video art and has held solo exhibitions abroad in places such as Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore and South Korea.

Two of its members share similar backgrounds in architecture. There is perennial hat-wearing architecture professor Farid Rakun, who is currently the Jakarta Biennale interim director, and Iswanto Hartono. Both apply their knowledge in construction, design and understanding of equilibrium into their works.

Iswanto tends to focus his works on forgotten history, particularly on colonialism and post-colonialism in Indonesia. He has exhibited his works in Japan, Senegal and the Netherlands among many other places. In the collective, Iswanto manages the ArtLab that conducts research and leads creative collaborations on urban and media issues.

Directing the ArtLab alongside Iswanto is performance artist Reza Afisina. Both men are part of a conceptual, collaborative art duo called RAIH. Reza’s new media works have been showcased in premiere shows in New York, Venice, Taiwan, Bangkok and Paris, and Reza served as an interlocutor at the Asia Pacific Triennale in 2018.

Two of its core members, Indra Ameng and Narpati “Oomleo” Awangga, are prominent senior figures in the Jakarta independent music scene. Indra is the director of Ruangrupa’s RRRECFEST music festival and also part of a small music promotional duo The Secret Agents with his wife Keke Tambuan. Oomleo, meanwhile, is best known for his role in electronic indie band Goodnight Electric and is also a notable columnist, comic book artist, radio announcer and illustrator.

Members such as Ajeng Nurul Aini and Daniella Fitria Praptono are responsible for more of the behind-the-scenes duties of the collective’s operations, with Ajeng serving as the collective’s managerial backbone and Daniella mainly running regular art workshops for women and children at Ruangrupa’s GUDSKUL institute.

Rounding up the main team are Julia Sarisetiati and Mirwan Andan. Having graduated as a photography major, Julia was in charge of curating OK. Video, a biannual media art festival from Ruangrupa, and the RETURNS: Migration Narratives in Southeast and East Asia event at the Goethe Institut. Her works have reached events in Denmark, Vietnam and South Korea.

Meanwhile, Mirwan Andan’s background is perhaps the most intriguing out of the bunch, as he did not graduate with an arts background, having spent six years at an Islamic boarding school in his native Makassar before studying French literature and political science in college; all the while acting as a researcher for Ruangrupa since 2007. He currently runs a small library in Jakarta and runs the Jalur Timur artist development project in Makassar, South Sulawesi.