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'Flag Project': Arahmaiani’s eloquent art statement

Krystina Lyon

The Jakarta Post

Ubud, Bali  /  Wed, May 22, 2019  /  09:00 am
'Flag Project': Arahmaiani’s eloquent art statement

Colorful: Thirty flags are paraded at the amphitheater of San Wayan House of Masks and Puppets in Ubud, Bali. (Courtesy of Arahmaiani, Kayu Lucie Fontaine Batu/Evelyn Pritt)

Arahmaiani Feisal’s Flag Project is eloquent in its simplicity, hugely ambitious in its scope and moving in its humility.

Oversized, brightly colored and fluttering gently, they burst into view as one approaches the old Limasan building on the grounds of Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets in Ubud, Bali.

Flags – thirty of them. Each is sewn with one keyword held dear by the communities that the artist worked with around the world over the past 13 years.

Art statement: Flags as part of Arahmaiani’s Flag Project are displayed at the San Wayan House of Masks and Puppets in Ubud, Bali. The display runs until May 31.Art statement: Flags as part of Arahmaiani’s Flag Project are displayed at the San Wayan House of Masks and Puppets in Ubud, Bali. The display runs until May 31. (Krystina Lyon/-)

What presence lingers from the performance, which took place at Kayu, the Lucie Fontaine branch in Bali, comes from these flags rippling in the breeze as they hang from bamboo poles on the building’s verandah and upper floor.

This artwork provides the tangible memory of the dialog created by the flag bearers and orchestrated by the renowned artist.

Born in Bandung in 1961, Arahmaiani is considered one of Southeast Asia’s most fearless, pioneering artists.

She was held in home detention for a month following a taboo-breaking public performance in 1983 when she criticized the military regime and 10 years later she was again in trouble with the religious authorities on charges of blasphemy for a realist drawing showing sexual symbols on top of Jawi (Arab script for writing Malay) script.

She paid dearly for these high-risk expressions and leads a peripatetic life as a global nomad with bases in Chiang Mai and Sydney.

Her work is driven by the desire to help solve problems on a global scale such as global capitalism in Nation For Sale; gender imbalances in His Story; religious tolerance in Stitching the Wound; environmental issues featured in an exhibition in the US called Shadows of the Past; or by encouraging respect and tolerance on a personal scale in the Flag Project

Arahmaiani FeisalArahmaiani Feisal (Courtesy of Arahmaiani, Kayu Lucie Fontaine Batu/Evelyn Pritt)

In the words of veteran art critic Carla Bianpoen, Arahmaiani is “a fearlessly consistent artist whose unrelenting quest for equality infused her various art expressions with the female spirit, be it in performance art, painting or poetry that speaks of her enduring advocacy against all forms of fanaticism”.

Arahmaiani initiated Flag Project in 2006 following an earthquake in Yogyakarta, with its main objective to encourage dialog and communication for collective creativity and problem-solving. It later extended into the global project it has become today – performed as a community project in Australia, Belgium, China, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Tibet and Thailand.

When starting the project at Yogyakarta’s Amumarta Islamic boarding school, they came up with two keywords written in Arab Pegon, Jawi or Malay Arabic: akal (mind) and nyali (courage). 

From the Tibetan monastic Gelugpa sect in 2010 came the words om (a condensed version of all Buddha’s teachings) and thasi delek (blessings and good luck). In 2012, a community in Passau, Germany, added the words mut (courage) and herz (heart) to the Flag Project.

Art and beyond: Flag bearers perform as part of Arahmaiani’s Flag Project in Sydney, Australia.Art and beyond: Flag bearers perform as part of Arahmaiani’s Flag Project in Sydney, Australia. (Courtesy of Arahmaiani, Kayu Lucie Fontaine Batu/Evelyn Pritt)

In order to elicit the words, Arahmaiani facilitated conversations within these communities of different faiths, religions and beliefs in Asia, Australia and Europe.

These words represent core values that each group finds important and which they practice as individuals as well as a community.

Arahmaiani said her first hope for the project was “always about creating a better and brighter future where people coming from various cultures and backgrounds or faiths can live peacefully together”.

The artist revealed that the words “communication”, “dialog” and “respect” would be added soon to the flag's keywords to reflect the growing need for them in today’s world.

Other words include “air”, “capital”, “courage”, “culture”, “earth”, “freedom”, “food”, “hand in hand”, "justice”, “love”, “solidarity” and “wisdom” as well as short phrases like “don’t be arrogant”.

The keywords have always been hand-stitched onto the different colored flags by seamstresses in Yogyakarta.

These same flags were featured at a recent retrospective called "The Past Has Not Passed" held at Museum Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN) in Jakarta and were delivered safely to Ubud for the latest performance.

For the performance in Ubud, 30 flag bearers formed a circle and marched to the tunes of Balinese kecak dance and hip hop performed by an Indonesian band. They then broke off in pairs to interact together, waving their flags and creating a “dialog” with each other in the way that Arahmaiani envisaged as an alternative, creative way to solve problems.

The energy and goodwill created among the participants and audience were symbolic of the transformation communal art practice can provide as well as widen artistic practice from the individual to the group. It was one of the reasons this work was brought to Kayu.

Italian artist and curator Marco Cassani, who brought Arahmaiani and her Flag Project to this hidden, peaceful nook of Ubud, said he wanted to “underline her connection with Bali from the past” when she was given refuge by the community in Bona village during that difficult period in her early career as an artist.  

His main ambition is to connect local communities to international audiences in a more general sense with the projects he initiates at Kayu. This idea of creating a sustainable network of communities is one that Arahmaiani has been nurturing with her Flag Project.

Arahmaiani said through networking, these communities could connect and find creative solutions to their problems, while at the same time, her collaborations seek to remain unrestricted by conventions imposed by art institutions and art markets – remaining inclusive for the widest possible audience and participants alike.

“Through this network, these communities can also share and support,” she said. “And these flags serve as a statement for respecting cultural diversity and faiths.” (ste)


-- The exhibition is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 2 to 4 p.m. until May 31. For more information, email

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