Artist utilizes cultural symbols, identity in work
By Amir Sidharta
JAKARTA (JP): Anna Zuchriana's work entitled Kenapa Sih Cina? (Why Chinese?, 1997) surprised its audience when it was first exhibited.
In the middle of the canvas, appears a bride in full costume. To her right, there is an advertisement: "Just married: Oey Twat Nio and M. Jusuf Rasjid. Batavia, 27 June 1959."
Towards the left of the bride, there is a group of black and white images that shows the atmosphere of old Kota (Jakarta's Chinatown), during its heyday. Towards the bottom of the canvas, there are the forms of Chinese wine bottles ornamented with mega- mendung cloud motifs that uses gradations of colors.
The audience who are familiar with the artist's previous works, were surprised because suddenly Anna presented a theme that is very different. The audience who does not know her works, were also surprised because she intrepidly presented something that previously was considered taboo or at least controversial.
Certainly, all were even more surprised when Anna revealed that the advertisement that was featured in her work was the announcement of the marriage of her mother who is of Chinese descent, with her father who is a native of Jakarta (Betawi).
Furthermore, some visitors asked if she was not afraid to exhibit the work. It should be noted that at the time, around the end of 1997, our economic circumstances were at their lowest ebb, and the political situation was uncertain. At that stage, the May Riots that were so traumatic for the Indonesian-Chinese (who were the principal targets of the riots), had not even occurred, but there were signs that riots of that magnitude could and might happen.
It is clear that to produce the work extraordinary courage was needed. Anna was not fearless. Her mother was also embarrassed as well as afraid when she saw Anna's work.
This work became a turning point for Anna. Previously, her art mainly consisted of ornamental and decorative motifs, which she studied at the Jakarta Institute for the Arts (Institut Kesenian Jakarta/IKJ).
However, it was her colleagues at the IKJ who made her more open about her cultural identity. Her colleagues often asked her to take them around Chinatown (Glodok) and old Jakarta Kota.
Thus, Anna realized that Chinatown is a significant place for the non-Chinese community as well, as it is there that many of them also visit to look for Chinese herbs and medicine, for Chinese sinshe healers, food supplies, and various other merchandise. She became interested in searching further into her cultural roots. After creating the work entitled Kenapa Sih Cina, Anna has not stopped exploring themes of cultural identity.
Anna's family history is also very unique. Her mother is of Chinese descent, while her father is a Muslim Betawi. Her father's family lived in the vicinity of Kebon Jeruk, not far from the Kebon Jeruk Mosque which is known for the grave of its founder, who is of Chinese descent.
The May Riots of 1998, in which the Indonesian Chinese were the principal victims, became a very significant incident for Anna. She saw many prayer mats being hung in front of stores as a kind of shield bearing a religious symbol that can protect its owners from the mobs.
She responded to that phenomenon by creating a work entitled Sajadah (Prayer Mat, 1999), embellished with mega-mendung motifs and an image of a barong from a Chinese door handle. In her other works, she depicts a woman wearing a veil embellished with a collage of Chinese ideograms.
At the time of the May Riots, many women wore veils so that they would not become targeted by the masses. For Anna, who is culturally mixed, Betawi and Chinese and also a Muslim, cultural and religious symbols have become politicized and absurd.
Can ethnic identity be erased by covering it up with other religious or cultural symbols? Why has the interpretation of religion and culture become so superficial? Can religiosity be gauged by its symbols?
In the works currently being exhibited at the Cemara 6 Gallery, Central Jakarta, we can see that Anna is still exploring her cultural background. In her graphic art work entitled Sebuah Perjalanan (A Journey, 1999), she presents maps of China and Indonesia.
A photograph of a couple of people wearing Chinese costumes is screen-printed onto the map, so that they appear to be making the journey from China to Indonesia. Towards the upper part of the work, there is another photograph that shows her mother's family in Indonesia.
She is also interested in the history of the Chinese in Indonesia, especially that which is related to the beginnings of the systematic discrimination which has been practiced since 1959, when many Chinese had to choose either to "return" to China or become "naturalized" Indonesians.
At that time, many people, including some of her mother's relations, left Indonesia to return to China. Anna featured the events of 1959 in two of her works. Jalur Mana yang Harus Dipilih (Which Route Should be Taken, 2000) shows news clippings about the events of 1959 along with a ship used by the Chinese Indonesians to "return" to China. In Yang Mana yang Harus Dibuka (Which One Should be Opened, 2000) there is a double door, one labeled "Djakarta" and another labeled "Peking".
Anna's sensitivity towards ornamental motifs, which she once studied at the IKJ, lead her to explore the relationship between ornamentation in Chinese and Javanese cultures, especially that which developed in the terracotta designs of the Kasongan district near Yogyakarta. This can be seen in the work entitled Cina dan Kasongan (China and Kasongan, 2000). She noticed the relationship between China and Kasongan without even knowing the legend of the revered Kyai Song from China who is believed to be the ancestor of the craftspeople of Kasongan.
Recently, Anna has often also featured Chinese wayang figures juxtaposed with wayang kulit figures, as can be seen in her works Bisa Saja Berdamai (There Can be Peace, 2000) and Haruskah Dia Menjadi Kebiadabannya (Must He Become His Monstrosity? 2000). She seems very much attracted in her explorations to borrowed cultural symbols in order to convey her thoughts and narratives.
We can also become lured into stories, and we hope that she will continue to tell her stories, like the story-teller in the Tales of the Arabian Nights, but that is not enough.
Currently she seems to be merely bringing together borrowed elements in her compositions, without including enough of her own expression in her work.
In the future, we will have to persuade Anna to take her stories one step further, to develop a more substantiated discussion so that they can become even more significant and meaningful for us and for humankind.