I Wayan Jana, Bisma, 2023, carving on suar wood, installation view, Voice Against Reason, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, 2023. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

In the history of art there are many examples of artists and art movements that have spoken out against power, challenged the status quo, and advocated for social, political and cultural change. This tradition of artistic resistance and advocacy is inherited by today’s contemporary artists; it has enhanced cultural discourse and played a pivotal role in mobilising public opinion, initiating critical dialogue and affecting social and political transformation. Through creative expressions, artists illuminate the complexities of human experience in the face of uneven power dynamics, offering new perspectives and inspiring social reform. Remarkably, although artists often face substantial risks by challenging government or state power, their quest for truth and justice continues.

Voice Against Reason presented by Museum MACAN in Jakarta serves as a testament to the enduring power of art as a tool for social critique and reform, and pointed political and social commentary defines many of the works. Featuring 24 artists and groups from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, this event highlights art's unique ability to be outspoken, and to connect deeply with individuals and communities to encourage reflection, empathy and action. For example, one of the public programs, a performance lecture by Tintin Wulia, Memory is Frail (and Truth Brittle) is inspired by the history her family endured during the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia. Her dense and expanded lecture underscores the significance of 'historical reflection and review' in today's context.

Installation view of Voice Against Reason at Museum MACAN, Jakarta, 2023. Foreground, left to right: Khadim Ali, Fragments of Identity and Silent Ark, both 2023. Background: Khadim Ali in collaboration with Mumtaz Khan Chopan, Ali Froghi and dan Hassan Ati, Voice and Noise, 2023. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

As the major 2023-24 show, the exhibition occupies the main gallery spaces with its unique upside-down U-shape floor plan, stimulating visitors’ curiosity as the installation unfolds. Typically, Museum MACAN features a striking entrance piece, here marked by two large fabric installations by Khadim Ali, Fragments of Identity (2023) and Silent Ark (2023). A descendant of the Hazaras in Afghanistan, Ali currently resides in Australia and is no stranger to diaspora and cultural mixing, or to presenting his monumental artworks in prominent locations. (Sydney visitors will be familiar with his 2017 entrance stairwell commission at the Museum of Contemporary Art.) At MACAN, his embroidered textile installations highlight the dual themes of humanity's inherent good and evil, and our complex relationship with nature, respectively. Reminiscent of sacred and cultural manuscripts, Ali’s captivating banners lure visitors into the exhibition's themes by way of his own lived experiences.

Voice Against Reason includes a wide field of media and styles combining culturally specific traditions such as shadow puppet performances, carved wooded sculptures, text, paintings, ready-mades and multi-channel video, some which require the audiences’ investment in time to fully comprehend their intended messages. The exhibition’s provocation—against reason—invites a bold selection of artists to address topics of central concern to their own Southeast Asian communities: displacement, relationships between individuals and the state, propaganda, Indigenous knowledge and shared memory along with environmental and cosmological balance seen in the interplay between humans and the non-human.

Bagus Pandega, Yesteryears, 2023, (detail)  3D printing machine, Sidoarjo mud, plywood base, installation view of one of three 3D printing machines. Collection of the artist, courtesy of ROH. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

A particularly compelling piece is Yesteryears (2023) by Bagus Pandega, a vital talent in the realm of new media art in Indonesia.[1] Pandega utilises three large 3D-printing machines to craft sculptures from mud sourced from the disaster-hit area of Sidoarjo, East Java. This site witnessed a devastating (and ongoing) mudflow in 2006 that erased entire villages. Despite differing opinions, the prevailing science is that the disaster was caused by a human error during a drilling operation by PT Lapindo Brantas in search of gas, and not the Javanese earthquake which occurred days prior. Pandega’s installation highlights memory, loss, and resilience, showing photographs of locals holding drawings of what were once their homes, which are reconstructed in ‘clay’ by the machines. Throughout the exhibition, these mud sculptures are rebuilt and then dismantled, reflecting a perpetual cycle of creation and destruction.

It's not the first time the Sidoarjo environmental disaster has been referenced by creative activists. Pioneering artist Dadang Christanto exposed the human impact of the mudslide in the performance piece, Survivor (2006), a work which has remained a touchstone of Indonesian contemporary ‘political’ art, given the mining company's connections to political leaders of the time. Another powerful figurative work is a diorama of cast resin dolls, When the flood is over: No. 32 (2023), a collaborative work by Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso, Hyphen—, Tom Nicholson bersama Ary "Jimged" Sendy, Aufa Ariaputra and Nasikin which comments on official historical narratives and Sukarno’s political legacy in Indonesia. Of a more syncretic and metaphorical nature, I Wayan Jana’s Bisma (2023) recalls the religious persecution of St Sebastian in beautifully crafted timber.

Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso, Hyphen—, Tom Nicholson bersama Ary "Jimged" Sendy, Aufa Ariaputra, Nasikin, When the flood is over: No. 32, 2023, installation comprising 23 dolls (cast resin figurines) on a table; two HD videos in colour. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

This project exemplifies Museum MACAN's commitment to engaging in collaborative projects with external curatorial contributors, a practice evident since the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, I was invited to independently co-curate Stories Across Rising Lands, a survey show of contemporary Southeast Asian arts, focusing on the cultural and geographic diversity of the region through the small narratives of everyday life: migration histories, labour, the environment and the status and role of women in society. The following year, Present Continuous represented the museum's initiative to work with various art organisations and individuals throughout Indonesia, underlining local cultural and community issues. Voice Against Reason extends this recent tradition by incorporating a curatorial partnership with two emerging curators, Rizki Lazuardi from Bandung and Putra Hidayatullah from Banda Aceh, who in turn bring a strong representation of younger artists into the mix. This approach was initiated by Aaron Seeto during his tenure as Museum Director from 2017 to 2024, dismantling the barriers traditionally associated with museums as hermetic art institutions and fostering a space for diverse viewpoints and local agency. Seeto’s method has shaped an exhibition program with wide appeal which is inclusive and engaging, prompting me to wonder if his legacy will be continued, or if a fresh direction will evolve for MACAN.

A key element of this exhibition is its presentation of two historical artworks from Indonesia's modern art period Alam Benda (n.d) by the female artist Emiria Soenassa (1894-1964) and Selamat Jalan Pak (1971) by Sindudarsono Sudjojono (1913-1985), which effectively connect past and present artistic narratives. Emiria brings attention to those often overlooked in the wider narrative of Indonesia, while Sudjojono’s socially conscious paintings advocated for independence from Dutch colonial rule during the Indonesian National Revolution (1945-49). Placing their works in the context of a new wave of artists opens a conversation between historical eras, illustrating how themes of social justice, nationalism and the critique of societal marginalisation have persisted over generations.

While Voice Against Reason has successfully engaged the public and provoked positive responses, a significant challenge remains in ensuring that its ideas, deeply rooted in specific cultural and geographical contexts, are echoed to an international audience. To address this, the exhibition could be envisioned as a touring show, inviting broader engagements. This would extend the impact of its powerful message and also strengthen global dialogue about the issues Voice Against Reason presents. MACAN’s plan to publish a bilingual catalogue in Bahasa and English will help in this important endeavour.

Jumaadi and The Shadow Factory, Sirkus di Tanah Pengasingan: Oyong-oyong Ayang-ayang, 2023, OHP, paper cuts wayang, duration 45-60mins. Collection of the artist © Jumaadi. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN


  1. ^ Running concurrently, Pandega’s solo exhibition at ROH, Jakarta, showcases his DIY light and sound installations, activated by biofeedback from plants which encourage us to rethink our relationships with nature and technology.