01: Vessel   02: Burning   03: Foil
Rianti Gautama: In the name of the Mother, Child, and the Body, Arianna Mercado
December 2023

Rianti Gautama, Jangjawokan dan Mayang Jambe (A Tale of a Sundanese Woman), video, 2021. Courtesy the artist
Watch a preview of this work via Vimeo.

The first time I saw Rianti’s work was at an exhibition at Bermondsey. The performance, in collaboration with Victoria Kosasie, was intense. The two artists were bound together by batik, traditional textile usually used as a sling for infants. The batik was wrapped diagonally across their chests, extended up to the neck, and past their bodies knotted to each other as if they were playing tug of war. They flung each other across the venue, physically hauling and pulling at each other, grasping at papers littered on the floor. Occasionally, they’d muster enough strength to write on these papers, with statements such as “I MATTER / I DON’T HAVE TO GET MARRIED TO BE HEARD” both in English and Indonesian.

Rianti is a multidisciplinary artist from Bandung with a background in architecture. Her practice has spanned performance, installation, and video. This conversation begins with Rianti’s most recent work, Ke-tubuh-an (2023), a three-part project that utilizes wax techniques in batik to inscribe text and patterns. Ke-tubuh-an is a culmination of the research Rianti has engaged with in the past two years, thinking through the agency of women, traditional cultures, and motherhood.

Arianna Mercado: I wanted to start off with your work, Ke-tubuh-an (2023), which you showed for the first time in your degree show at Central Saint Martins. Can you tell me more about that?

Rianti Gautama: Ke-tubuh-an is a project consisting of three related works. It's an extended version of an initial work I made thinking about my mom and me. Ke-tubuh-an specifically references ketubuhan perempuan, or roughly translated to female embodiment. English doesn’t fully capture the meaning of ketubuhan, which also refers to how we can communicate with our bodies and the bodily experience. The word is usually used in relation to performance. For this work, I was thinking about being born as a woman and the burden or social role that's put on you because you have a vagina and a womb. I wanted to talk about the female body experience that I was personally taught and feeling.

It's been a difficult journey for me to accept my body, its maintenance, changes, roles, as well as my own femininity, especially after I turned 30. Ke-tubuh-an emphasizes my body and the experiences it has taken to figure out this journey of me being at peace with it. Part of this journey was also because I grew up with specific cultural traditions. My mom and my family have upheld our ancient traditions from generation to generation. I learned about how to be a woman through my mom and I learned my female body roles through her. I was challenging that, in my own way, through this whole process, struggling through a clash with tradition but also wanting to respect it.

Your work articulates a lot of tensions and contradictions: the contemporary and traditional, as well as an ambivalence to motherhood. To me, the work that you're making feels like it's bubbling, like when you're boiling water and the water is about to overflow. Do you sense that in your work as well, that there’s a feeling of overflowing of emotion or a release of trauma, and escaping boundaries set for women?

I do. The struggles were definitely boiling, especially in the last few years. It's such a weird struggle as well, because I love our traditions. I feel attached to them. I feel like I can take positive things that I learned from tradition, but at the same time, I cannot deny that there are restrictions.

The work is very personal. Since I turned 30, my body has changed a lot. I gained weight easily, my metabolism slowed down drastically. In my 20s, I was quite healthy and I didn't have much problems with my periods. I’ve been experiencing this kind of pain in my 30s. It hurts a lot more when I’m on my period. I always ask myself, why do I have to have this body? It's just so hard to maintain! It's not only problems with my womb, but I also had an issue with a tumor in my breast before. It's all from a hormonal imbalance that I had in my early 20s. Aside from that, there's also societal issues with my family. They pressure me to get married soon. But do I really want to be a mother? I always thought that I do, but do I want to produce a child from my own body? Do I have to bear that role? Do I have a choice?

When I moved here in 2021, before I decided to talk about gender and womanhood, I was so frustrated, because there were a lot of cases of gender-based violence and murder happening in Indonesia. The perpetrator was always from authority, like this woman who was murdered by her boyfriend who was a police officer. She was actually pregnant at the time and then the guy was forcing her to abort the child. It was such a power struggle. She killed herself on top of her father's grave, because she was so embarrassed and humiliated about what happened to her. It's so frustrating to see this happening. I tried to find solace through tradition. My mother has always taught me to be a strong person. I felt that if I tried to dig deep into our traditions, maybe there are things that are overlooked that I can learn from about being a woman.

You work a lot with your mother. What is the conversation like? Is it difficult? Does she want to participate?

To be honest, my relationship with my mom is unique. She's a typical Asian helicopter parent. Growing up, we had a lot of clashes. It was such a whirlwind relationship. I still had some kind of resentment before. There were a lot of things that I figured out about myself when I got here. I learned that I have ADHD, and she also probably has undiagnosed ADHD. I didn't actually tell her about [Ke-Tubuh-an] and what I wanted to do with it because our communication is not that good. I felt like I couldn't really talk to her. She would always ask me what I was doing. She didn't really get it before and was always questioning me. But I told her the basics, that I wanted to talk about womanhood and accepting my femininity as strength rather than weakness. But funnily enough, when she came to the exhibition, she actually really loved it. She loved how subtle I was talking about feminism. Because she is a feminist, but she doesn't understand what kind of feminist she is, and doesn't want to put a label on it.

It's nice that she really loved it. She was essentially a part of it.

She was! I mean, she still criticized some parts. Like she couldn't help herself. But I love that she accepted that this is how I see it. I was afraid that I couldn't really be honest with her about my true feelings about being a woman. Whenever I talked to her about that in the past, she wouldn't understand and then always brought up religion again, telling me that I just have to pray. It's not really helpful. I feel like when she saw the work, she saw that I was struggling, but at the same time trying to overcome it. She kind of understood it on that level and was surprised at how well she connected with it.

Rianti Gautama, Tubuh, cotton, wax, 2023. Photograph: René Lazový. Courtesy the artist

I also wanted to ask you about your Kodrat, Berat Terikat (2022) performance with Victoria Kosasie. It was a very loaded feminist work early into your explorations with this topic. Can you talk a bit more about this piece?

That exhibition opened and we performed it on April 21. This date is an important memorial day in Indonesia for a woman named R.A. Kartini. When I met Vicky, whom I found had so many similar research interests to me, we ended up talking about whether we should do something on this day to commemorate her, months before the exhibition was even organized. We started thinking about our bodies and our role as women. Vicky is ten years younger than me. She had her own struggles at the beginning of her 20s while I was in the beginning of my 30s. It was nice to talk about these struggles, because they were similar but also very different. We were both afraid about the idea of being a mother.

In this work, we both pulled each other with a lot of force. We were thinking about patriarchal society, and how it's not just the man victimizing us, but sometimes it comes from women themselves. A lot of unnecessary questioning and comparisons has often come from women. Many of my friends are married with children. I feel the pressure of being compared to these women. But I also feel envy. I feel like I've been tied back and in a way it hurts. But maybe I should be the one who should release it for myself.

During the performance, we were so into it, we actually couldn't comprehend the people around us, like we couldn't hear anything. We were so focused on our feelings. That's the first time I poured a lot of things and figured out the trajectory of what I wanted to talk about.

Has your mother seen that one?

No. I only showed her the picture, but it was really harsh. We hurt ourselves. But she loved the photo because I was wearing the kebaya. I told her it was about [quietly] motherhood, but I redacted some information and didn't show the video because you could see the pull and what I was writing. I was afraid for her to see it and criticize it. I didn’t want to explain.

I'm not against marriage, I actually want to get married. I love it. I want to have a partner. But what irks me about being married is that sometimes your voice gets lost. In Indonesia, during the authoritarian regime, we had this organization called Dharma Wanita. If your husband was a civil servant, you had to join this organization. It's essentially the Wife Association. These organizations were nationally eradicated during Reformasi, but there are still versions of this in the police and military right now. My dad was a lecturer in a public university, so my mom had to be in Dharma Wanita. But then, there are no counterpart organizations, no Dharma Pria for husbands. Around this time, they really reduced the role of women into only being about motherhood and wives. Kartini day was established during Sukarno's presidency. When the coup happened, Suharto changed the meaning of women's movement into mother's movement. He reduced the complexity of being a woman to only being a mother. They still had a commemoration of Kartini day, but it became more about a dress up event for the kids and a festival for a woman to assert their role as a mother.

Rianti Gautama and Victoria Kosasie, Kodrat, Berat Terikat, performance, 2022. Courtesy the artist
Watch a preview of this work via Vimeo.

What happens in these organizations?

It's just women gathering. What I remember from when I was little was that we would get together with everyone's moms and kids. Then we would have some kind of like Balinese dance lessons and performance. It's like a charity with outreach programs.

My mom was also a lecturer. She had a job so she couldn't really be involved in the organization, but was still forced to be part of it. There are things that are kind of beneficial in a way, like making friends for you and your child. Even if you don’t have kids, you have to join. But at the same time, there's no counterpart to it. If you're a working woman, your husband doesn't have any kind of group like this.

Being an active member is also about your husband’s career. One of my distant cousins' husbands is a police officer and she cannot really work. She has to be in and contribute to this organization, even if she's not being paid because it will help with her husband's promotion. I was asking, how about police women, what if she wants to be promoted? The absurd thing was that my aunt said “Well, yeah, that's why police women don't really get promoted that much.” I was so dumbfounded. I haven't done too much research about it, but she said it so casually! It's such such a blatant sexist system that still exists.

I think what's also interesting about your work is the influence of Indonesian history and the authoritarian regime on the woman’s body, but you haven't explicitly discussed this yet. Would you ever take your work in that direction?

I do want to talk about more. Not just the political situation, but also the influence of religion. To be honest, I have been in a slump. I really don't know what to do or produce, but you actually just gave me an idea!

The material is there!

It's just that the entanglement of politics and religion is such a sensitive topic. The hardest part of it is the fact that I'm Muslim. I feel like there are different ways we can interpret it, but Islam is shaped by Arab culture. In Indonesia, to become conservative doesn't mean to become an orthodox Muslim. It means to adapt Arab culture into the Islam that you're practicing. In doing so, they neglect the traditional cultural part of it. My mom was scared when I was making a video about Jangjawokan because it can be considered as an ancient time cult. This was supposed to be our traditional religion, but Islam came in and became more of an Arab thing. She censored herself in a way and thought hard about what to publish. We had to select which would be better for the public to hear because she was afraid of the backlash. It's still very restricting.

Is there anything that you really want to do with the work and this research?

I really want to show the work as a solo narrative. It's not because I just want a solo show, but I think every work that I have right now is connected. If we can see it as one narrative, I think it will be better. I've experienced a lot of collective exhibitions until now and there are limitations on group exhibitions. I hope I can present these narratives and show how the research has progressed and developed.

Rianti Gautama (b.1990, Bandung, Indonesia) is a multi­disciplinary artist with an architecture background based in London and has been active since 2014. In 2019, she was featured in CoBo Social’s shortlist of Indonesian Women Artists: Surging in Art, Science, and Technology. Rianti is a co-founder of An.Other Asian, a collective focuses on Southeast Asian artists' representation and promoting Southeast Asian arts and culture in London. Rianti recently graduated with an MA in Fine Art in 2023, Central Saint Martins, Uni­versity of the Arts London.

Rianti’s practice spans various ranges from installation, media art, and performance art. Her recent practice explores her personal experience on womanhood, body agency, and gender relations based on her heritage and traditional upbringing. Through her work, she aims to shed light on traditional Indonesian ideals of more balanced gender relations that were neglected and forgotten due to colonial influence that might help to improve the current condition of gender disparity.

Arianna Mercado is a cultural worker from Manila currently based in London. She is the co-founder of kiat kiat projects. Arianna has worked on projects with Afterall, Cell Project Space, Singapore Art Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design Manila, among others.