Reality in the World of Eko Nugroho

| Rifky Effendy

Reality in the World of Eko Nugroho

Reality In The World Of Eko Nugroho | Rifky Effendy

Eko Nugroho is one of Indonesia’s most successful young artists of the early-2000s generation. His work—paintings, murals, comics, embroidery, sculpture and installations, shown in museums and galleries across Asia and Europe, in Australia and the United States—has a unique character and today influences contemporary visual art practices within his own country.

Nugroho made a solid start on his art career in 2000, when he was still a student. As the main founder of Daging Tumbuh (DGTMB),1 a group of students, most from the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI), who create unique comics, Nugroho’s recognition grew as the profile of DGTMB developed. DGTMB comics have a format unlike anything else. They don’t tell linear stories; most are compilations of several short narrations collected from contributors in a number of cities, such as Yogyakarta, Bandung and Jakarta, as well as from other art groups. The number of DGTMB comics produced was small, but buyers were allowed to make and distribute their own photocopies, a process that ran counter to printing and publishing copyright laws, making the DGTMB group, Nugroho in particular, stand out.

Nugroho’s own artworks are coloured by dark humour and filled with strange figurative images—heads with smokestacks, animal masks, hands shaped like scissors or deformed in some other way, and legs with wheels, all symbols of a human identity that has become imperfect, mutated into half-human/hall-machine creatures by outside influences. Frequently these images are presented in sequence, with balloons of humorous text full of double meanings. Nugroho’s works are often sharply insinuative, with an attractive freshness of expression, and full of funny forms that invite close exploration.

Humour is a mainstay of Javanese wayang puppet theatre, and is focused in the punakawan (clown) characters Semar, Gareng, Bagong and Petruk. In Balinese wayang puppetry, the punakawan are Malern and Merdah (Pandawa faction retainers) and Delem and Sangut (Kurawa faction retainers). In leather puppet theatre, the punakawan are faithful servants and caretakers who generally appear during the goro-goro segments that contain not only jokes and other humorous elements, but also sage advice and moral instruction. The role of the punakawan in puppet theatre has inspired many artists, who use punakawan-like figures to channel criticism about the authorities. This can be seen clearly in the works of Heri Dono or the performances of Koma Theatre, which use humour to poke fun at those in power.

Nugroho’s work jabs much more deeply into the public conscience when he mixes comedy and street art to convey messages about contemporary social issues. He also always considers the contexts of space and time when creating his works, as if not just observing, but actually immersing himself in a dialogue with his immediate environment. Often employing elements of satirical texts, which are political in nature, to comment on the happenings around him, Nugroho’s visuals are consistent, as seen in the distinctly odd human figures, and sculptural objects emerge that seem to be projections of Nugroho’s own individual identity.

As a result, Nugroho’s works are layered with playful symbols that cut across disciplines and cultures with inter-textural strength, forms and texts emerge in differing contexts, as his use of language does not adhere to any formal structure and tends to be poetic, lyrical. This reflects Nugroho’s exposure to and drawing on colloquialisms derived from local languages, the text dialogues of comics, lines from films, lyrics from songs - all of which have left a mark on popular culture.

On one occasion in 2005 Nugroho commented that categorisation of his works was indeterminate. Were they or were they not comics? This would depend on the standpoint of the viewer. As it turns out, Nugroho is invited to share his works at both visual-art events and gatherings of comics makers and video animators. Accepted by a variety of creative communities, his artistic stance is similar to that of a more senior artist, Heri Dono, in that they both use artistic forms from other disciplines, such as music and the performing arts.

With the Apotik Komik group in Yogyakarta in 2000 Eko Nugroho had the opportunity to explore alternative comic creation and street art. He then involved himself in mural projects, the results of which can still be seen in various places throughout the city. In 2004 he took up a residency at Amsterdam Graphics Atelier, after having participated in an exhibition at Rumah Seni Cemeti (Cemeti Art House).

Forms and texts emerge in differing contexts. As his use of language does not adhere to any formal structure and tends to be poetic, lyrical. This reflects Nugroho’s exposure to and drawing on colloquialisms derived from local languages. The text dialogues of comics, lines from films. Lyrics from songs - all of which have left a mark on popular culture.

Over time, Nugroho’s works have been displayed both locally and internationally. In 2006 he was invited to participate in the 5th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2006-07) at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, and in the same year he featured in ‘Wind from the East: Perspectives on Asian Contemporary Art’ (2007) at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki. Then, in 2012, he held a solo exhibition, ‘Temoin Hybride (Hybrid Witness)’, at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. Here Nugroho presented the totality of himself as an artist with an installation comprising murals, sculptures, paintings and embroidered textiles, filling the entire space, and the walls from floor to ceiling, with enticing colours. That same year, he held a joint exhibition with Jompet Kuswidananto, ‘RALLY: Contemporary Indonesian Art’, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. In 2013, he is among a group of five artists included at the Indonesian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.

Nugroho not only uses comics as an idiom, but expresses himself through painting, sculptures, murals and new media such as video animation. He also collaborates with artists active in various disciplines, seeing the elements of communication as pivotal to his conceptual approach, his methods and his artworks. He explained the process behind creating these networks:

For example, when I create a mural, I must understand the overall situation of the place where the mural will be; I have to get to know the people who live in that area. However, this depends on how much time I have. If the time allocated is minimal, I will go straight to producing the mural with the hope of communicating on a smaller scale.2

This penchant for communication may contribute to the acceptance of Nugroho’s work in so many circles.

Another experimental characteristic of Nugroho’s practice is embroidery. Initially, he was interested in the embroidered emblems that members of street gangs sport on their jackets, jeans and other pants. He also noted that embroidery was widely used by formal institutions like the police, the civil service and schools, and came to understand its significance as an expression of identity, either personal or collective. Nugroho once explained that he used a tailor to produce the embroidered elements of his works, saying At first it was a hassle to find someone who could do what I needed; most tailors can only do simple motifs and tend to repeat them.’3 Eventually he was able to ‘teach’ the tailor to produce the kind of embroidery he had created in his mind, and now he combines rich thread with his strange yet familiar figures, flattened but deep perspective and other elements such as wire, to effectively ‘sculpt’ on a two-dimensional plane. These works represent the weaving together of all Nugroho’s varied strands -comic books, satirical humour, transformation, mutation, and craft as art - to form an indeterminate, layered and sumptuous artistic practice.

55th Venice Biennale, Indonesian Pavilion, 1 June - 2 November 2013.


Translated into English by Margaret Agusta.

All artwork illustrating the pages of ARTAND are provided in context of the original article. Images should not be extracted or republished without prior permissions from the artists or rights holders. For more information about the artwork, please contact the artists.

The following biography was provided for Rifky in the frontmatter for this issue: 'Rifky Effendy is Curator of the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) Indonesian Pavilion. In 2009 he co-founded the Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale. Along with fellow curators and artists, Rifky established the Bandung-based art space PLATFORM3 in 2009, and in 2010 formed Inkubatorasia, a Jakarta-based space dedicated to promoting emerging contemporary artists.'


1. The first DGTMB edition was published in June 2000.

2. ‘Interview with Eko Nugroho’, in Tuula Karjalainen and Marja Sakari (eds), Wind from the East: Perspectives on Asian Contemporary Art, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, 2007.

3. Rifky Effendy, article for VISUAL ARTS, Jakarta, no. 22, 2008.

Image Captions

p. 130: Temoin hybride (Hybrid witness), 2012, Installation view, Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris Courtesy SAM Art Projects, Photograph and © the artist.

p. 131: Menghasut Badai-badai (Instigator of storms), 2012, Bamboo, oil containers, fibre resin, stainless steel, plastics, imitated leather, batik, teakwood, portable DVD player, approx. 400 x 400 x 400 cm, Photograph Oki Permatasari, Image courtesy the artist.

p. 132: Creamy policy, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 150 cm, Private collection, Jakarta, Courtesy the artist and Ark Galerie, Jakarta, © Eko Nugroho.

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