Shortlist | Transformative Territory: Performance Art and Gender in Post-New Order Indonesia

Shortlists offer thematic selections from AAA’s Collection, including overviews and annotations by invited contributors. The following shortlist by Wulan Dirgantoro traces the history of performance art in Indonesia, with a focus on the practices of female artists.


Image: Cover of <i>Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia</i>, by Wulan Dirgantoro.
Image: Cover of Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia, by Wulan Dirgantoro.


Performance Art in Indonesia

The origin of performance art in Indonesia is still a widely discussed topic within Indonesia’s art history circles. Performance art is a medium based on representation by action, and Indonesian performance artists see the body as the centre of their artistic investigation and expression. As such, performance art has a strong appeal in Indonesia due to its perceived ability to directly communicate an artist’s message to an audience, and it’s especially popular amongst women artists, who use it to emphasise their subjectivity.

The discussion below encompasses a broader understanding of performance art in Indonesia by its practitioners, observers, and scholars, and these studies have been framed mainly through observing and analysing artists’ lived experiences, rather than using a theoretical or art historical approach. Curatorial essays, field research/observation, artist statements, and interviews often form the core of the existing body of scholarship on performance art in Indonesia—with these materials primarily produced and circulated within the art ecosystem, from exhibitions to workshops and symposia.

Indonesian and non-Indonesian artists and scholars have attempted to theorise the field since 2000, and its trajectory can be traced in terms of two streams. The first is how it emerged out of experimentation with mediums in art academies in the 1970s by groups such as GSRBI (Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia, the Indonesian New Art Movement, 1975–88) and PIPA (Kepribadian Apa, What Personality?, 1977). Both groups are composed of students in their twenties in Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta’s art academies, seeking to expand the language of art beyond the conventional medium. The groups’ highly experimental aesthetic approaches included early forms of performance art, happenings, and participatory art in Indonesia.

The second stream is performance art that emerged from the theatrical/traditional rituals in the 1970s to the 1990s, such as Sumber Waras (Fountain of Well Being, 1988–89), Perengkel Jahe (Shapes of Rhizomes of Ginger, 1988–94), and Jeprut groups (1994 onwards) from Bandung. Two female performance artists, Arahmaiani and Marintan Sirait, are associated with the groups, with the latter actively contributing to Sumber Waras’ formative years. It should be noted that these groups emerged during the height of the authoritarian New Order period (1966–98), when it was difficult and even dangerous for artists to be openly political in their works. Many artists, as a result, realigned their practices with other disciplines to develop their medium. Furthermore, in parallel with the previous experimental movement, there were influential theatre groups such as Studiklub Teater (led by the late Suyatna Anirun), and prominent new theatre traditions (as championed by WS Rendra, Putu Wijaya, and Arifin C. Noer) that directed the focus of many experimental art groups towards developing the performer’s body in line with theatrical techniques and also with spiritual and ritualistic thinking. Nonetheless, as Hujatnikajennong (2002) argued, the development of Indonesia's performance art history is closely intertwined with and positioned within the experimental, avant-garde scene of GSRBI.

However, these are not hard and fast distinctions. Indonesian performance art practitioners have used and adapted the diverse elements in their locale for their work. An early example would be Heri Dono’s Kuda Binal (Wild Horse) performance in 1992, where he drew from Javanese folk ritual dance to deliver a critique of the conservatism of art institutions in Indonesia.


Image: Cover of <i> Eye of the Beholder: Reception, Audience and Practice of Modern Asian Art</i>.
Image: Cover of Eye of the Beholder: Reception, Audience and Practice of Modern Asian Art.


Recommended Readings


Hasan, Asikin, ed. Dua Seni Rupa: Sepilihan Tulisan Sanento Yuliman (Two Visual Arts: A Selection of Sanento Yuliman’s Writings). Jakarta: Yayasan Kalam (Kalam Foundation), 2001.

An edited volume on one of Indonesia’s respected art critics, Sanento Yuliman, who documented GSRBI. The movement is described as a catalyst for a new direction in Indonesian visual arts, including the emergence of performance art.

Supangkat, Jim, ed. Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia/Kumpulan Karangan (Indonesian New Art Movement/ Collection of Essays). Jakarta: Penerbit PT Gramedia (Gramedia Publisher), 1979.

The first edited volume on the experimental movement in visual art. The volume contains some of the critical polemics in Indonesian media about art, aesthetics, and the role of artists. Artists who were actively involved in the movement, such as FX Harsono and Hardi, often traced their performance art practice to their formative years in the GSRBI.

Hasan, Asikin and Malna, Afrizal, et al. “GSRBI dan Arus Kontemporer” (GSRBI and the Contemporary Stream). In Seni Rupa Indonesia dalam Kritik dan Esai (Indonesian Visual Arts in Criticisms and Essays), edited by Wicaksono Adi and Bambang Bujono, 297–385. Jakarta: Dewan Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Art Council).

The edited volume is a compilation of critical writing on Indonesian modern and contemporary art history. The section discusses the influence of GSRBI (1975­–79) and how it opened up new possibilities in artistic expressions, including using the artist’s body as an art medium.

Wijono, Iwan. “Art Action in Indonesia.” In Inter, Art Actuel,19–23. Quebec: Les Editions Intervention 83, 2003. [CLP.2003]

Iwan Wijono’s observations on the visual language employed by Indonesian performance artists to represent the suffering of the ordinary people, such as the use of bandages, restrictive devices on the body, and self-inflicted pain.

Berghuis, Thomas. “Performance Art and Its Constraints.” In Eye of the Beholder: Reception, Audience and Practice of Modern Asian Art. Sydney: University of Sydney East Asian Series no. 15, Wild Peony Press, 2006. [REF.CLJ]

Berghuis's chapter in this edited volume examines Chinese performance art with reference to Indonesia. It also examines the broader issue of performance art's ability to transcribe the visceral experience of the modern. See additional discussion on performance art festivals in Asia in Thomas Berghuis, “Art into Action Performance Art Festivals in Asia,” in Ideas, Asia Art Archive, from

Rath, Amanda Katherine. “Contextualizing 'Contemporary Art': Propositions of Critical Artistic Practice in Seni Rupa Kontemporer in Indonesia." PhD diss., Cornell University, 2011. [REF.RAA9]

The dissertation discusses the development of the term “contemporary art” in Indonesia, and the relevant discourse on the topic. Rath examines performance art practices during the experimental period from the 1970s to the mid-2000s.

Dewanto, Nirwan. “Tujuh Paradoks" (Seven Paradoxes). In Seni Rupa Indonesia dalam Kritik dan Esai (Indonesian Visual Arts in Criticisms and Essays), edited by Wicaksono Adi and Bambang Bujono, 421–24. Jakarta: Dewan Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Art Council), 2012 (orig. 2002).

Dewanto discusses the problems of performance art in Indonesia, including how Indonesian performers are too fixated on themes and failed to explore forms (bentuk). According to Dewanto, performance art practices during this period failed to address the connection between the artist and the audience. For more observations on the performance art scene in Indonesia, see wen yau, "Research Log: Logic Behind the Chaos: A Glimpse into Performance Art in Indonesia,” in IDEAS Journal, Asia Art Archive, from

Hujatnikajennong, Agung. “Dari ‘Pemberontakan’ hingga ‘Hiburan’” (From ‘Rebellion’ to ‘Entertainment’). In Performance Art: Questioning the Act: Between the Body and the Verb/Mempertanyakan Raga. Journal Karbon, edisi 4 (2002): 9–17. [PER.KAR]

This special edition of the journal is dedicated to performance art in Indonesia. It contains essays and reports by writers, curators, and practitioners of performance art in Indonesia. Hujatnikajennong’s piece echoes Dewanto’s observation above, while highlighting the strong sociopolitical content in Indonesian performance art practices.

Ewington, Julie. “Five Elements: An Abbreviated Account of Installation Art in Southeast Asia.” ArtAsiaPacific 1, vol. 2, 1995. [PER.AAP]

Ewington proposes a link between performance art and installation art that has origins in traditional performing arts in the region. Iwan Wijono’s article (above) seems to agree with this observation, while Berghuis and Rath are more cautious to make such a connection.


Performance Art and Gender in Post-New Order Indonesia

Like many other art media in Indonesia, the performance art scene is predominantly male, and also a chronically under-researched area. The discussion below seeks not only to discuss a wide range of events female artists regularly participate in and also organise, but also aims to embark upon the mapping of practices by female performance artists across several generations.  

Women artists such as Arahmaiani (b. 1961), Marintan Sirait (b. 1960), Melati Suryodarmo (b. 1969), and Kelompok PEREK were among the early proponents of performance art in Indonesia. The collective Kelompok PEREK was Indonesia’s first feminist art collective, which for a short period between 1998 and 2001 tried to challenge the male-dominated scene. They brought visibility to the presence and agency of women’s bodies in public spaces by enacting a range of participatory performances that questioned the popular perception of femininity/masculinity in Indonesia. The group’s shift in direction in 2009 illustrated the complexities that arise as women artists strive to leave a mark in Indonesia’s male-dominated art world.

Compared with the 1990s, there are now more women pursuing performance art as their primary medium. In post-New Order Indonesia, artists such as Otty Widasari (b. 1973), Mimi Fadmi (b. 1979), Tamarra (b. 1989), and Ratu Rizkitasari Saraswati (b. 1990) explore issues relating to the female body and gender through their work. While performers such as Ferial Affif (b. 1980) continue to experiment with the possibilities of a radical female body—Affif’s ET/E/POCH/RNA(ME)L(T) performance in 2014 sees the artist sewing her mouth shut to show the boundaries of the performer's body—artists are also undertaking a new sense of direction. For example, the performances by Ratu Rizkitasari Saraswati and Tamarra showcase their interest in Indonesia's pre-modern history, and ushers the issues of intimacy and connectivity into the present. Tamarra's works, in particular, highlight the challenges of representing fluid gender identity in the predominantly heteronormative and conservative Indonesian society. She has recently embarked on a research project on the bissu community (transgender priests in South Sulawesi), tracing the trans history in Indonesia. Other female artists such as Octora Chan (b. 1982) look at the problematic perception of Indonesia's femininity as shaped by Indonesia's colonial history in her performance work Rice, Beasts, Provisions and Women (2017). Interestingly enough, many recent performance works (though not limited to female artists) are physical endurance performances.

The role of Melati Suryodarmo (b. 1969) in shaping the development of the performance art scene in Indonesia is notable not only from her work as an artist, but also from her work in organising the annual performance art festival and workshop Undisclosed Territory (2007–onwards). As a performance artist, Suryodarmo trained with Butoh choreographer Anzu Furukawa and Marina Abramovic. Her works involve physical endurance and meditation, bringing powerful energy to the performance space, and also inspiring a younger generation of female performance artists in Indonesia.

Suryodarmo’s festival joins an existing network of performance art festivals in Asia. Undisclosed Territory is regularly held in her studio/art space, Studio Plesungan, in Solo Central Java. The space also hosts collaborative projects for performance artists from all over the world. For many Indonesian performance artists, these kinds of festivals and events are essential platforms of exchange and support.

Several performance art communities have emerged in the post-New Order art landscape, such as 69 Performance Club (Jakarta), Performance Art di Djakarta (Performance Art in Jakarta, Padjak), and the older Asbestos Art Space (Bandung) and Performance Klub (Yogyakarta). These communities actively contribute to the archiving, organising, and documenting of the performance art scene in Indonesia. While so far in Indonesia there has yet to be a specific festival or event that focuses on feminism or gender, the existing platforms are still essential in that they allow female performance artists to raise issues relating to gender visibility.


Image: Cover of <i>Reworlding Art History: Encounters with Contemporary Southeast Asian Art After 1990.</i>
Image: Cover of Reworlding Art History: Encounters with Contemporary Southeast Asian Art After 1990.


Recommended Readings


Supriyanto, Enin. “Tubuhmu, Rumahmu” (Your House, Your Body). In Sesudah Aktivisme (After Activism), 37–42. Yogyakarta: Hyphen, 2015 (orig. 1996).

Except for works by globally renowned artists such as Arahmaiani, Melati Suryodarmo, Mella Jaarsma, and Titarubi, few studies have looked into female artists who are active in the local performance art scene—such as Marintan Sirait, who was instrumental in developing experimental body/theatre works in Bandung in the early 1980s. Supriyanto’s catalogue essay introduced the works in Sirait’s first solo exhibition. See also Amanda Katherine Rath (above), who also discussed Sirait in her study.

Dirgantoro, Wulan. “Performing Feminism/s.” In Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. [REF.DIW]

The monograph is the first study to examine the interplay between gender, feminism, and contemporary art in Indonesia. The chapter focuses on Arahmaiani and the collective Kelompok PEREK—in particular the significance of the collective in their formative years—while critically addressing gender issues in post-New Order Indonesia.

Antoinette, Michelle. “Corporeographies: Locating Intimate Spaces in Art.” In Reworlding Art History: Encounters with Contemporary Southeast Asian Art After 1990, Brill/Rodopi, 2015 [REF.ANM2]

Antoinette, Michelle. “Endurance and Overcoming in the Art of Amron Omar and Melati Suryodarmo: Invoking Uncommon Alignments for Contemporary Southeast Asian Art History.” In Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in AsiaNUS Press PTE Ltd 1, no. 1 (March 2017): 81–129. [PER.SON]

Antoinette’s works examine the Southeast Asian regional imaginaries in art history and exhibitionary practices from a comparative perspective. In her article on Suryodarmo, Antoinette discusses the artist’s body as a vehicle of transformative affective potential.

McGovern-Basa, Eva. “Melati Suryodarmo: The World Within.” ArtAsiaPacific 106, Nov/Dec 2017. [PER.AAP]

The article traces the trajectory of Suryodarmo’s development as an artist, from her early training in Germany (1994–2002) and her formative performances (2002–12) to her return to Indonesia (2013). For discussions on Suryodarmo’s body of work, see her website For discussions on Undisclosed Territory, see for example Jason Wee and Grace Samboh, “Independence, space and art,” in Art Monthly Australasia 303, Nov 2017, 46–51. See also Studio Plesungan’s website on the festival:, accessed 1 December 2019.

Patel, Amisha K. “An Artist and Former Sex Worker Wants to Decolonize Gender in Indonesia.” Hyperallergic, November 26, 2018.

The article includes an interview with Tamara Pertamina, an Indonesian trans artist. The piece discusses her artistic trajectory and the challenges she faces as a sexual minority in Indonesia.

Muryanto, Bambang. “Transgender artists trace the origin of ‘bissu’ in South Sulawesi.” The Jakarta Post, February 2, 2019.

The article is a review of a performance titled Calabai Jangeng, In Search of Our Trans Ancestors by Tamarra and Emma Frank in Yogyakarta, 21 January 2019.

The Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA) in Yogyakarta plays a vital role in documenting and archiving performance art activities in Indonesia. For example, they hold archival documentations on Perfurbance (Performance Art Urban Festival), one of the oldest performance art festivals in Yogyakarta. Padjak also hosts an annual performance art festival in Jakarta, see The collective 69 Performance Club lists the activities of their members on their website, including artist’s talks and presentations; see:

There is also extensive writing on Arahmaiani, a major figure in Indonesia’s contemporary art scene. See some selected examples below:

Arahmaiani in Bangkok: Stitching the Wound, exhibition catalogue. Bangkok: Jim Thompson House, 2006. [MON.ARA]

Arahmaiani, “Kebudayaan itu Berkelamin” (Culture is Gendered). In Aspek-aspek Seni Visual Indonesia: Politik dan Gender (Aspects of Indonesian Visual Arts: Politics and Gender). Yogyakarta: Cemeti Art Foundation, 2003. [REF.CAF]

KK Adhidarma, ed. Slow Down Bro Arahmaiani, exhibition catalogue. Yogyakarta: Jogja National Museum, 2008. [MON.ARA]

Dimitrakaki, Angela. “The Premise of Contradiction and Feminist Life: Reflections on Arahmaiani’s Art and Life.” In Afterall: Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, 2016. [PER.AFT]

The short essay examines Arahmaiani’s contribution to global feminism, focusing on the challenges of positioning the artist’s practice and work.

Dirgantoro, Wulan. “Arahmaiani: Challenging the Status Quo.” In Afterall: Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, 2016. [PER.AFT]

The short essay discusses Arahmaiani’s work in the context of global feminism, beginning with her feminist practice in her early years as a student in Indonesia.


Concluding Remarks

Using the artist's body as the primary medium, performance art can communicate diverse perspectives from the artist to the audience, and vice versa. While there are differences in understanding feminism as a discourse and artistic strategy, other issues in Indonesian society, such as the rise of religious intolerance and the persistently high number of sexual harassment and domestic violence cases against women, certainly resonate with many female performance artists in Indonesia. As feminist politics is also politics of the body, the particular political and social issues with which female artists engage tend to be issues of visibility, and their work provides a clear analogy between the experience of the female body and women’s position beyond visual arts. More research is needed to highlight the contributions of many women artists in shaping the field of performance art in Indonesia and, more broadly, Southeast Asia. As art historians, curators, and artists in the region develop methodologies to sustain and promote women’s growing artistic practices, there should be a systematic archive of these practices—especially materials which were scattered regionally and have rapidly disappeared in the pre-digital era.


Wulan Dirgantoro is a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests are gender and feminism, and trauma and memory in Indonesian modern and contemporary art. Her publications include Feminisms and Indonesian Contemporary Art: Defining Experiences (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and “Aesthetics of Silence: Exploring Trauma in Indonesian Painting 1970-1980” in Ambitious Alignment: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art (Power Publication and the National Gallery of Singapore, 2018). 




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