People and Place (2015)

Participatory art project with Turner School, Mulwaree High School, Sekolah Tumbuh, S.D Kanisius Dusun Sumber, Sekolah Gadjah Wong. Cotton, screen, relief and mono-printing, machine embroidery

People and Place (2013–2015): projecting pedagogy

Writing on pedagogic projects, Bishop compares Rancière’s deconstruction of transmissive education to Freire’s pedagogical theories, which do not entirely dismiss the authority of the teacher. While Rancière valorised the ignorant schoolmaster – a position I also took as the unskilled seamstress in Nee (Born As) – for Freire, dialogue “is not a ‘free space’ where you can say what you want. Dialogue takes place inside some program and content…”[1] Freire’s concept of dialogue is reflected in the model of participation I utilised in People and Place, where the process took place within constructed “program and content”.

Image 1: Woman’s Hip Wrapper (Sarung Kepala Pasung, Sarung Tiga Negeri) Los Angeles County Museum of Art Public domain

I drew inspiration from elaborate, hand drawn batik cloths called tiga negeri (three countries), which were dyed in several neighbouring kingdoms of Java as a kind of document of inter-state cooperation (image 1).[2] The project facilitated the creation of a large-scale, collaborative, pattern based artwork that explored understandings and representations of place. The “program” included exposing students to textiles, books and original artworks which illustrated the ways in which past and present communities in Australia and Indonesia visualised their knowledge of place through pattern and motif. Students then worked together to design their own symbolic or abstract representations of place, and added this to a large cloth (12m x 12m).[3] Although a detailed map assigned each motif a location on the large cloth, my vision of a repetitious pattern emerging from different motifs slowly dissolved in the chaos of the classroom setting.

Image 2: People and Place, Sultan’s symbol, Tumbuh Primary School, Yogyakarta, 2014.

Student groups were given the autonomy to design their motifs within the parameters of materials at hand. Inevitably, this dictated some of the uniformity that emerged in each school, but the factor of group dynamic was also influential, with “good ideas” spreading from group to group.[4] Certain aspects of the discussions and examples garnered more interest from particular groups. Tjap batik (copper stamp) fascinated the Tumbuh Primary children, perhaps because the pattern was familiar to them from their location in the centre of the Sultan’s inner sanctum within Yogyakarta city (image 2). The Turner children had studied Expressionism, so abstract and minimalist compositions were evocative of place for many of them (images 3, 4).

Image 3: People and Place, abstract designs from Turner school, using materials collected from the schoolyard, 2013.

Image 4: People and Place, abstract designs from Turner school, prize winning school chicken, 2013.

The Mulwaree High School students’ cognitive development led some to symbolic representations of complex concepts, like the contrasting environmental conditions of flood and drought (image 5, 6). The tiny students of Sekolah Gajah Wong, a free preschool for children in a squatter community, used the plastic drink bottles their parents and neighbours collect for cash to create mono-prints (image 8).

Image 5: People and Place, Mulwaree High School brainstorm, 2013
Image 6: People and Place, Mulwaree High School drought and flood motif, 2013.

Unlike other cross-cultural projects I have conducted, and also unlike Nee (Born As), this project was marked by institutionalised formality, which burdened the implementation with bureaucracy and formalities, and sometimes exploitative conditions.[5] Bishop has highlighted how the instrumentalisation of participatory art in European cultural policy has the state once provided assistance.[6] In the year that the Australian government announced its ‘Asian century white-paper’ and cultural and educational policies were subsequently re-oriented, an Asian focussed arts program may have fulfilled new curriculum requirements for Asian studies, providing relief for overstretched teaching staff but undermining the program’s implementation.[7]

Image 7: People and Place, transferring designs to foam plates, Sekolah Dasar Kanisius, Sumber Village, 2014

 In the final stages of the project I traced my own experiences by designing a motif in response to each school, utilising the same processes (relief, screen print, mono-print), to echo forms that students had used in their motifs: silhouette, abstraction, symbolism. Finally, I engaged a Yogyakarta embroiderer to frame each motif in gold thread, to resolve the ambiguous edges that had emerged as motifs veered off-course and to invest in it a unifying framework. This returned each motif from its liminal phase of reflection into a broader structure of meaning.

Image 8: People and Place, preschool students from Sekolah Gajah Wong using recycled bottles to make prints.

Although students were briefed to design their motifs in response to the concept of place, inevitably their place was already intuitively embedded in their approaches, and evident in their aesthetic decisions. People and Place may well have come to reflect people and place even without the introductory stages discussing the concept.

In Indonesia, in one of the worst education systems in the world,[8] People and Place also filled a void in the system, not state-dictated but rather identified by passionate teachers who commit their own energy and time to filling it. The opportunity to connect with other cultures through creative processes was embraced and celebrated, and given the kind of support and time reserved for sports carnivals in Australian schools.

[1] Paulo Freire and Ira Shor, A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education (London: Macmillan, 1987), p. 102, quoted in Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), p. 266. Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” was popular with artists and activists in Indonesia and Southeast Asia in the 1980s.

[2] John Gillow, Traditional Indonesian Textiles (London: Thames and Hudson 1992), plates 67, 152, 153.

[3] Artist Michal Glikson accompanied me to Mulwaree High School and Turner School and produced two documentaries documenting early stages of the process. Sekolah Tumbuh students sent a video introducing themselves to Australian participants and demonstrating some of the techniques later used by Sekolah Gajah Wong. Sekolah Dasar Kanisius has limited access to technology but their participation was documented by local children’s arts organisation Tlatah Bocah.

[4] For instance, at Kanisius School, most groups ended up using the end of a biro to make small neat circles in the matrix.

[5] Negotiations with Turner School started with the principal’s firm assertion that the project must be available to the 150 year 3 and 4 students. I spent countless hours cleaning up the art room from classes held prior to the project, had to insist the teacher remain present and soon gave up expectations of teacher support for managing student behaviour. Due to the rigours of the school schedule, I would have no more than 40 minutes with each class at a time, often with less than 20 minutes a week for us to share a single step in the process.

[6] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), p. 5.

[7] The National Arts curriculum for years 3-4 states that “students will explore the arts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and of the Asia region and learn that they are used for different purposes. While the arts in the local community should be the initial focus for learning, students are also aware of and interested in the arts from more distant locations…” “Australian Curriculum”, (Australian Curriculum Assesment and Reporting Authority, 2010).

[8] Al Jazeera, “Educating Indonesia”, 101 East (2013), (Accessed 30/03/2015)

People and Place fundraiser exhibition, 2014

Fundraising exhibition for  Kanisius Primary School, Sumber, Mt Merapi. Students participants created acrylic on canvas paintings which were then exhibited at IAM Independent Art Space, Yogyakarta. Paintings were sold from the gallery and via Studio Auntara’s Facebook page.

People and Place3
People and Place2
People and Place1