Focus: Artist Eko Nugroho
We meet with Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho to find out more about his work and what inspires him.
Eko Nugroho is one of Indonesia’s most successful contemporary artists. Known for the playful street art vibes in his works, he creates imaginative landscapes filled with comic-like figures and objects that cleverly marry local imageries with a global aesthetic. Usually accompanied with pithy slogans, his artworks convey his observations and critique about daily life in Indonesia today.
A graduate from the painting department at Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI) in Yogyakarta, Eko works in a wide variety of media, including mural, tapestry, sculpture, puppetry and video, which are sought after in galleries and at auctions, and regularly seen at biennales and museums.
Eko is committed to street art in his practice. Just last year, he took part in the Perth street art festival ‘Public’, for which he created the work ‘Moving Landscape’. “For me, street art stimulates ideas, techniques and the character of my work. The conditions for working on the street are not like working in a gallery or the studio. We need to adapt to all sorts of situations like the weather, passers-by, the environment, our equipment and the techniques available to create a work,” says Eko. “The necessity of working with the public when working on the street has had a big impact on my work. Lots of my work and my processes start from conversations with the public.”
Eko’s foundation as a street artist has served his career well. In the past few years, he has had solo shows in galleries at home and also abroad, such as at Arario Gallery in Seoul and Arndt Gallery in Berlin. His works are also spotlighted at major art events, such as at the Lyon Biennale in 2009 with a sprawling mural on the exterior of the Sucrière, the main site of the biennale; or more recently with the installation ‘Lot Lost’ at Art Basel Hong Kong 2015 in its Encounters sector, which showcases large-scale works. Eko’s works are also in important collections, such as those of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Singapore Art Museum, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, as well as the Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, among others.
Beyond the art world, Eko has worked on projects with brands such as Louis Vuitton and IKEA. In 2013, Louis Vuitton approached him to work on a design for their second scarf collection with street artists. Eko readily said yes to the challenge. “It had the potential to open a new critical dialogue as well as presenting a big opportunity for my own career as a visual artist mostly working within the art world up until that point,” says Eko.
For the collaboration, Eko’s artwork ‘Republik Tropis’, a colourful C-shaped assemblage of his favourite symbols and patterns, including masks, eyes, pods and tendrils, was printed on a silk scarf and sold in the luxury brand’s boutiques worldwide. The exposure introduced Eko to a wider audience, and at the same time gave him a taste of working in the world of fashion.
In 2015, Eko was one of 12 street artists to create a poster for IKEA. The work featured a masked figure wearing a T-Shirt with the words ‘Salty Tolerance’, to encourage people to be more understanding in what the artist observes to be an increasingly intolerant world.
Original, humorous wordplay is part of what makes Eko’s works refreshing and memorable. Eko notes the importance of words to convey his intentions within his artworks. “A lot of my work plays with language. It might be word play, idioms or simple sentences that open up a critical dialogue in a simple, comical or fun way,” says Eko. “‘Salty Tolerance’ is like a request to the public, or a plea almost. These might seem like funny sentences but they are very critical, even if they are soft through the application of humor.”
In the same year, Eko mounted a solo exhibition at Komunitas Salihara in Jakarta – his first in Indonesia in a few years. Appropriately titled ‘Landscape Anomaly’, it is quintessentially Eko. Part-science-fiction and part-cartoon, extraordinary hybrid creatures and objects are created in various mediums, from mural to installation, creating a synergistic narrative featuring his signature symbols: crabs as symbols of corruption, diamonds denoting prosperity, and swords representing violence.
The mask in particular populates many of his artworks, and is a key symbol in Eko’s representation and critique of the apathy he sees in the post-Reformasi generation. Eko says, “You can access everything with just your handphone but at the same time, you are only the consumer, you don’t necessarily have control over the information. So I create figures that are only watching using their eyes but not using their ears or their voice. This represents the generation that doesn’t want to talk and doesn’t want to listen. There is no dialogue.”
The works in the exhibition are not only visually arresting, but also a biting critique of Indonesian democracy. As an artist working after the Reformasi, Eko’s works do not have the strident political messages of his immediate predecessors. Nonetheless, he – as with others in his generation – are concerned about the state of the country. “The socio-political state of Indonesia definitely impacts my works because my ideas for my artwork come from this condition. And this situation is the key of my work,” says Eko.
In this exhibition, Eko chose to focus on key aspects of the struggle for real democracy in Indonesia, such as corruption, poverty, radicalism and terrorism, posing single-word questions such as “Toleransi?” and “Merdeka?” in an inquest of the existence of real tolerance and independence. Eko says, “There is a unique and very interesting phenomenon in Indonesia following the Reformasi. Even with the declaration of Indonesia as a democracy, there is still a lot of anarchy and we are still really in the middle of a process of becoming a democracy.”
As part of the exhibition, the team at Komunitas Salihara suggested that Eko work with a collaborator from the local fashion community to fulfill Eko’s wish for a public project to accompany every exhibition. From the list of possible partners that they drew up, Eko chose womenswear label MajorMinor. For the collaboration, which resulted in a full clothing collection, Eko gave the label’s designers access to his visual vocabulary to incorporate into garment designs.
Eko has always embraced new challenges, and is adept at finding interesting ways to present work to the public. Back in 2000, when he was still an art student, Eko started a zine called ‘Daging Tumbuh’. He explained that while there were many spaces for more established artists to exhibit their works, there were none for young artists just starting out. He wanted to provide this but did not have the means to rent one as a student. His solution was to “exhibit” the works of junior and senior artists together in the form of a zine every six months.
From the zine came the DGTMB Shop project, which expanded on the idea of helping artists by selling their artworks and design products. The shop started out with a space in Yogyakarta, and is now online as well. T-shirts, sew-on embroidered patches and toys featuring Eko’s artworks are also available for purchase. And with the success of the zine and the shop, Eko has created the DGTMB Versus project, through which he organises and curates pop-up exhibitions in Yogyakarta and other parts of Indonesia to present the works of young artists to the public.
Eko’s prolific output over his career has been made possible with a dedicated studio team who has worked and honed their skills together with him for nearly a decade. They have become like family to him. Eko says, “My studio and my studio team are really solid and this creates a sense of unity in my work. I would like to continue to work and explore new ideas and continue to give a space for the young generation to grow.” When asked what advice he would give to young artists, he says, “Seize the day! Keep making work!” It is a work ethic that has served the artist well.
Text by Nadya Wang
This story was first published on Art Republik.