The popularity of art has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only does art provide practical and therapeutical benefits for isolated people in lockdown, it also creates opportunities to foster positive international cultural and political relations. 

The Artists’ Camp Retrospective, an exhibition of artworks and photographs made during two unique intercultural events held in 2011 and 2016 in the Northern Territory of Australia by Indonesian and Aboriginal contemporary artists, opened at the Northern Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA) in Darwin, Australia, on July 24. The exhibition is open to the public and continues until Aug. 23.

Its significance was underlined by the attendance of both Indonesian and Australian dignitaries. The opening was officiated by the newly appointed Indonesian consul to the Northern Territory, Gulfan Afero, and the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Gary Quinlan. Other audience members included Anthea Griffin, the Australian consul-general to Bali: Sandra Henderson, director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Darwin; Kate Walker, director international engagement of the Northern Territory Department of Trade, Business and Innovation; and the local Federal Australian Parliament Member for Solomon, Luke Gosling, MHR, who has been a strong supporter of the Artists’ Camp art and cultural engagement project with Indonesia.

The opening was live-streamed, distinguishing it as a virtual and actual experience including people unable to attend due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Online attendees included the exhibiting Indonesian artists Made Budhiana, Made Sudibia, Made Dalbo Suarimbawa, Wayan Wirawan, Dewa Rata Yoga, Gede Gunada and Ni Nyoman Sani from Bali as well as Suryani born in East Java. Others present via the Zoom linkup were the former long-term ambassador to Australia, Najib Riphat Kesoema, and personnel from the Indonesian Foreign Ministry in Jakarta.

More than 50 paintings celebrate the dynamic characters of the rugged and unforgiving Australian landscape, along with distinctions of the Aboriginal culture specific to regions of the Northern Territory. The retrospective of the Artists’ Camps held in 2011-2012 and in 2015-2016 includes photographs taken by the artists, highlighting distinctions of the natural environment, events and meetings as part of the camp’s programs.

“The Artists’ Camp Retrospective is a positive initiative, bringing the cultures of the two nations closer together,” said Gulfan, who strongly supported the project and urged all relevant parties to ensure that the event continues into the future. “The eight Indonesian artists have traveled through several regions of the Northern Territory, familiarizing themselves with the foreign environment and interpreting the landscape and Aboriginal ethnicity, producing excellent works. This collaborative project has succeeded in connecting Indonesia and Australia in an outstanding art and cultural engagement.” 

The Artists’ Camp has a long and unique tradition of engagement, initially the concept of the original director of Museums and Art Galleries in the Northern Territory (MAGNT), Colin Jack- Hinton. Jack-Hinton realized that, as of 1978, the north of Australia had been interpreted in art and carvings by Aboriginal people for thousands of years, however, not by nonaboriginal Australian artists.

With the intention to create a body of works to expand the collections of the museums and galleries in the Northern Territory to increase the understanding of this largely wild part of northern Australia, Hinton invited a range of Australian artists to visit the beautiful and culturally rich Top End of the Northern Territory in 1978 to interpret Aboriginal culture and the landscape.

The Artists’ Camp then evolved into a broader initiative in 1990 through the vision of long-time collector of Indonesian and Aboriginal art and former chairman of the board of MAGNT Colin McDonald. McDonald took Indonesian artist Made Budhiana to the Northern Territory to participate in the first international Artists’ Camp, along with Australian and Malaysian artists. In 2011, the concept was resurrected by McDonald and the NCCA by inviting Budhiana and three other Balinese artists to spend six weeks in the Top End. Some of these works are on display in the retrospective.

“The Artists’ Camps intend to develop and grow a deeper sense of cultural understanding and appreciation between different people,” states McDonald in his curatorial essay about the Artists’ Camp Retrospective. “Indonesia is a culturally and artistically rich nation. Art is everywhere in Indonesia, from the beautiful ceremonial offerings laid out each day in Bali to the strong emerging contemporary art that is impressing the world and attracting international collectors.” 

“I discovered many strange and surprising things that were vastly different to anything I had experienced in Indonesia,” said Made Budhiana, who participated in both of the Artist’s Camp events. “I was amazed by the vastness and scorched natural setting that stretched on for kilometers without any inhabitants. There was no food or water, yet there is also other danger, such as the constant threat of wild animals and cold weather. It was then a challenge to absorb and express these influences into new works that were different to any of my previous paintings.” 

Ni Nyoman Sani, one of Bali’s leading female artists, attended the 2015 event and commented: “I am grateful to have been a participant in such an enriching experience with the powerful Northern Territory landscape and aboriginal culture. I learned to connect with nature, yet outside of what I am familiar with in Bali. It’s important to celebrate and share the uniqueness of the Artist’s Camp. When creating art in nature, we enrich our mind, body and spirit.”  

“This virtual exhibition will keep cultural communities in both countries connected in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Quinlan.

 “Australia and Indonesia first connected 400 years ago when traders from Makassar visited northern Australia. Those visits left an imprint in both countries’ language, ritual and memory. As two such close neighbors with distinctive cultural traditions, we need to share more of these perspectives to learn more about each other. This exhibition helps us do so.” (wng)

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.