There is trouble brewing in the heart of the Javanese kingdom, a rumbling of dissent and dissatisfaction that has been going on for a while now, ever since Sultan Hamengkubuwono X signalled his intentions for his eldest daughter to ascend to the throne when he calls it a day.
In a sultanate where men traditionally rule the roost, this departure from the norm stirred up controversy within the palace walls – and beyond.
The Jakarta Post reported that none of the Sultan’s brothers attended last year’s closed procession at the kraton (royal palace) in Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia, where his daughter was proclaimed crown princess. Rumours abound that his brothers are vehemently against this decision.
“This is the first time a woman has been titled crown princess in the late Mataram kingdom (the first Sultan of the current Hamengkubuwono line ruled in the 18th century) and there was significant negative reaction to this potential change. It is this idea that the exhibition Descent is moulded around,” says Malaysian artist Nadiah Bamadhaj, 48, who has been based in Yogyakarta since 2002.
Her upcoming solo show, Descent at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur, features six new charcoal on paper collage works. Three other works from the same series have been loaned from collectors for this exhibition. Descent marks her seventh solo exhibition, and her third with Richard Koh Fine Art. Her last solo with the gallery, Poised For Degradation, was held in Singapore in 2014.
Much of her work, including Descent, is heavily influenced by historical and political events.
When asked what it is about social constructs that speak to her so strongly, she points out that she had been exposed to social issues from a young age, and it was a combination of study and exposure that made her the kind of artist she is today.
“My mother was features editor at the New Straits Times before the Mahathir era, and many of the people she interviewed sat at our dinner table. I briefly volunteered at the woman’s refuge in Petaling Jaya when I was 14. At university in New Zealand, when other art students did their extra credits in Art History, I did a double major in Sociology, concentrating my final academic study on a feminist perspective of sex working,” shares Nadiah.
After art school, she worked on HIV/AIDS prevention for sex workers at the New South Wales AIDS Foundation in Sydney, Australia, and then in Kuala Lumpur at Pink Triangle Malaysia.
“My brother’s death in 1991 opened up my entire world to social, political, and human rights issues in South-East Asia,” she says of human rights activist and political science student Kamal Bamadhaj, who worked as an interpreter for Australian aid agencies in East Timor, and was killed in the Dili Massacre when Indonesian troops opened fire on a funeral procession.
“So making artwork without social content has never been an option,” she says.
“I am driven by ideas first and foremost, and the work is moulded around those ideas. My continued personal research on social issues has given me the structure to base my ideas upon.”
She highlights a phenomenon observed in Fine Art graduates, where they are equipped with artistic skills, but “without sufficient training in how to observe the world or articulate their ideas about it.”
“They then have to struggle to find their voice within their chosen medium,” she says.
Nadiah’s voice, however, rings true and crystal clear.
In Descent, she references the entitlement to power of members of the royal family, but also expresses the gradual descent of her affection for the current political leadership in Yogyakarta – a far cry from her immediate reaction upon hearing the news.
When the female heir apparent news first made its rounds, the feminist in her jumped with joy, she recalls.
“But it was soon dampened by the gossip that Sultan Hamengkubu-wono X – owner of massive businesses, collector of rent and taxes on royal lands all over the region, and one of the wealthiest people in Indonesia – clearly wanted to keep it within the immediate family and not have it go to his heir apparent brother, or champion gender equality for that matter,” she explains.
The situation was complex; there seemed to be more than meets the eye in this set-up.
As an artist, Nadiah has always been interested in how architecture and space influence social experience.
“The city of Yogyakarta,” she elaborates, “is designed with the kraton at its centre, placed exactly between Mount Merapi and the Indian Ocean. This architectural axis, as with many cities around the world, attempt to impress a form of power on its subjects.”
She observes that Yogyakarta’s social life revolves around this royal architectural axis (similarly with its psychological life about this seat of power too), so people have a constant awareness of this power and its history as they have to revolve around it in physical space every day.
“I think it is for this reason that there was such a strong reaction to a potential change in the gender of the Sultanate,” she adds.
Of all the works in Descent, Nadiah singles out No. 9 as the one closest to her heart. It is intended to be a portrait of Sultan Hamengkubu-wono IX, the father of the current Sultan.
“Yogyakarta’s ninth Sultan has a very strong legacy amongst the population. He inherited the title very early in age and was the first of his line to be educated by the Dutch, but despite this, was very active in the fight for independence against them and the Japanese,” she relates.
This Sultan was affectionately known as someone who was merakyat, someone who kept very close ties with the masses.
After Nadiah read his biography, she was especially affected by how he was taken away from the kraton at the age of four to be schooled by Dutch families. In particular, it was the description that the boy was clinging to a kraton pillar when he was taken away that struck a chord with her.
“At the time I read this, my son was four years old as well. In No. 9, I depicted Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX as a four-year-old in memory of this trauma in his life. My son posed for this portrait of the ninth Sultan.”
In a 2014 interview with The Star on her solo exhibition Poised for Degradation, Nadiah mentioned that people in Yogyakarta generally strive to get along with one another and maintain a peaceful life.
Today, she still holds to this statement.
But things have changed somewhat in the two, almost three years, since that show.
“There are growing social movements in favour of religious conservatism. With these movements are groups of disenfranchised youth that organise in the name of religion, but whose methods are those of organised gangsters.
“I would still hold to my previous statement that the majority of Yogyakartans want peace, especially from these forms of gangsterism. But due to a lack of effectual leadership, and a lack of maintenance of the rule of law, there are no mechanisms to keep these groups in check,” she says.
The ascension of a woman to the throne is no longer topical news in Yogyakarta, but through Nadiah’s works in Descent, perhaps a deeper awareness and interest in the issue can be evoked.
“With the current social and political issues happening there, not only can a woman ascend the throne, but a choice of good leadership should also enter into the equation,” says Nadiah.
“I don’t know if this is necessarily conveyed through the body of work, but it has been the motivating factor in making it.”
Descent is on at Richard Koh Fine Art, 229, Jalan Maarof, Bukit Bandaraya, Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur, Sept 28-Oct 19. Call 03-2095 3300 or visit rkfineart.com for more info.