Indonesia is a treasure-chest of art forms. With over 17,000 islands, art is the expression of the archipelago’s hundreds of tribal cultures and the result of centuries of trade, exchanges and colonial presence. The diversity of ethnic groups is reflected in the varied linguistic, religious and costume traditions co-existing within the country and art is no exception. Handicrafts, textiles, ceremonial items as well as forms of theatre and traditional dances exalt the influence of traditional cultures in daily life. At the same time, Indonesia maintains a very vivid contemporary art scene; many contemporary local artists are known at an international level and the country is a hot destination for worldwide artists and designers, who come here to get inspiration. Across the country, different forms of ancient animist cults are still worshipped, bringing with them prehistoric influences in architectural elements and handicraft. We find impressive funerary monuments and inscribed massive stones, headdresses made of animals’ feathers and bones and carefully carved tribal jewelry. Textiles are another artwork Indonesians are rightly proud of. Textile designs takes inspiration from various sources, and we find Chinese and Islamic symbols as well as patterns from the Dutch and Portuguese tradition. We recognise Hindu and Buddhist elements in monuments, sculptures and bas-reliefs in archaeological sites such as Borobudur as well as in paintings and craftwork in touristic areas such as Bali. Jakarta’s museums are guardians of the country’s historical milestones, while in Yogyakarta, where the Sultan’s family has always supported different art forms, the art scene is today rich and diverse. Jakarta and Yogyakarta are also connected to the international contemporary art scene, showcasing a variety of exhibitions, theatre plays and dance shows at all levels and for all tastes. Street art and graffiti culture are a big part of Indonesia’s current art scene, and murals decorate many cities, often on legal grounds. Art is in the Indonesian blood and all movement, action and object will remind you of the diverse artistic soul of this beautiful country!
Amazing range of cotton and silk sarongs, woven ikat and carpets, stamped batik, embroidered fabrics with patterns and motifs influenced by the Chinese, Indian and Islamic traditions as well as by Dutch symbolism and traditionally made in almost all the big islands.
Traditional puppets (leather/shadow and wood Wayang)
Representing characters of the Hindu epic Ramayana, used in traditional theatre art for centuries. Intricate leather motifs and three-dimensional wooden figures representing good and evil forces are today heritage of an ancient theatre tradition and popular tourists’ souvenirs.
Ceramics & Pottery
Ceramics is a very important sector for the Indonesian economy, with a production of 350 million square metres in 2016 only. The strong Chinese influence on ceramics can be seen in the beautiful traditional vessels and plates, as well as in some ceramic jewelry production. Lombok pottery (turun temerun) is a beautiful example of traditional crafts passed over from one generation to the next.
Handicrafts in natural fibers/materials
Rattan, bamboo and alang-alang are just some of the natural materials used to create lovely handicraft for ceremonies and to sell as souvenirs. From woven banana-leaf items designated to religious rituals to handy rattan basket and practical bamboo kitchenware, natural fibers are an eco-friendly material that has been used for centuries to make a range of artwork and objects for daily use.
Shells & Jewelry
People have always been attracted by the beauty of precious shells, often using them as a currency and to make quality jewelry. Mostly associated with tribal art of Timor, West Papua and Moluccas, shells are also used to produce fine kitchenware for home interiors in Bali and Jakarta. Pearls and gemstones are used to produce beautiful silver and gold jewelry, including antique bracelets and rings with diamonds, opal and amethyst among other precious stones.
Woodwork includes furniture-making, for which Indonesia is worldwide famous, especially as far as antique colonial furnishing is concerned. Wooden carvings range from sculptures representing Hindu gods and demons to beautiful patterns on ancient inscriptions. Javanese carved panels are a sought-after interior design element and primitive tribal masks are still used in traditional ceremonies, especially in the east of the country.
Stone carvings in Borobudur are some of the most famous, although Indonesia’s carving tradition is very ancient and representative of a variety of ethnic groups. Stone carvings can be found on a number of inscriptions, bas-relief and beautiful statues in a variety of forms and uses across the whole country. Stone statues produced in Bali are a very popular garden decoration element.
Paintings & Calligraphy
We find beautiful paintings in traditional textiles as well as in Balinese ancient and contemporary traditions and romantic naturalistic work from the XIX century. The Islamic influence on calligraphy has produced a variety of beautifully decorated ceramics, jewelry and carpets.
Indonesian vernacular architecture features one of the world’s largest variety in terms of shape, size and use of materials. From the Dayak river longhouses to the Batak rumah adat (traditional houses) and the Manggarai drum houses, traditional buildings are an infinite source of artistic inspiration featuring a large use of natural materials and ancient yet innovative building techniques.
Any street artist would claim street art has always existed. In Indonesia, from prehistoric murals on funerary monuments to tags on public toilets, this artistic expression has developed into a very rich street art scene that ranges between wall tagging and font writing to government supported murals, screen printing and visual advertising. The influence of fine arts, traditional textiles motifs and patterns as well as of religious symbolism in paintings and traditional carving can be felt in today’s street art, which is increasingly been exposed in art galleries. More and more artists have claimed their identity to government agencies and Ngos, who support artistic works in small and large events, from concerts to big urban regeneration programs. Mainly concentrated in the big cities in Java, the street art scene includes collectives of local artists who collaborate with the authorities to spread art on the walls of the country. This generation of artists aims at being recognised as proper artists while maintaining their passion for popular, grass-root urban art. An example is Kei island in the Molukas, where some Indonesian artists were called by the local government to paint some areas as part of a tourism development project. Yogyakarta is currently the biggest street art scene in the country, home to Taring Padi collective among others. In Jakarta, Taring Babi and Ruang Rupa are other well-known art collectives. In East Indonesia, street art remains traditional, attached to ancestral tribal influences and practices.
You can find beautiful examples of Indonesian street art in many cities in Java such as Yogyakarta, Jakarta, Bangung and even Batu and Bogor. Just walk around the cities with your eyes open and don’t hesitate to visit art spaces and collectives! It is free of charge!