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Leading the way while making changes: Arahmaiani’s project in Thailand

By Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani

“Build your own future,” Arahmaiani says to the communities she collaborates with, “positive change starts from the ground up.” Small interventions, dedication and encouragement will forge a brighter future, she explains to me in our lengthy conversations over the course of one year since I reached out to her with the idea of developing a new project in Thailand.[1]

The starting point for us is the concern we share on environmental sustainability and its impact on world politics. Arahmaiani’s recent works about the environment, such as Flag Project (2006–ongoing), have served as philosophical reflection for me, and I approached her with this interest in mind. But, of course, with Arahmaiani, one cannot be unbending: her work is multifaceted and expansive, spanning social equality and women’s rights, from religious acceptance to activism. However, only in the thick of making Nomadic Ecologies, our new project in Thailand, I discovered the extent of her commitment to the local communities, her ability to enhearten the people to better living conditions, to make their dreams possible, to vanquish their fears through mutual support; she inspires the people to hope and instils change.

Conceived as a two-part project, a residency and an exhibition, Nomadic Ecologies starts in Pattani where the artist spent the month of October 2022 at Patani Artspace working closely with the Muslim communities. Pattani, together with Yala and Narathiwat, constitute the southernmost provinces of Thailand, in a region notorious for persistent conflict caused by religious discrimination – a topic close to her heart and practice.

Born in Bandung, in Indonesia, to a Muslim father, himself a religious figure, and with her mother’s family side having syncretic believes and cultural background, Arahmaiani has always been progressive.[2] As a fighter, and as a woman (two incompatible aspects in the authoritarian New Order regime of Suharto, 1966–98, coinciding with her growing-up years), Arahmaiani has pushed the boundaries of the “permissible” since young. Her first performance work in the 1980s while still in school, titled Accidents, caused the initial controversy that would come to follow her future works. A few years later, she was arrested for making drawings of tanks and other weapons on the streets of Bandung, as well as writing poems questioning the country’s independence, precisely on the day marking Indonesian independence from the Netherlands. After one month in prison, she fled to Australia to continue her art studies. At that point, perhaps unknowingly, she embarked on her nomadic journey. A decade later, in the mid-1990s, she had to flee Indonesia again, this time persecuted not by the military but by orthodox Muslims who accused her of blasphemy.[3] The uproar was caused by her highly contentious works, such as Lingga-Yoni (1994)[4] featured with Arabic and Jawi script, and Etalase (Display Case) (1994), in which she stored and displayed sacred artifacts like a Buddha statue and the Qur’an together with everyday objects like a Coca-Cola bottle and a pack of condoms.

Since then, she has been living and working in many countries, developing visionary community-centered projects. I would argue, being a nomad has allowed her to be boundless, exploring each community with new eyes, enabling each new experience to inform her ability to integrate and to mediate both people and her works. This approach to making art, in which the mediums are the people and situations that call for action and social intervention, has empowered Arahmaiani to navigate gender politics and religious beliefs through environmental activism, the care and preservation of Mother Nature, and support rendered to the communities for self-sufficiency in the face of economic inequality.[5] Embracing a holistic approach, Arahmaiani’s works bridge geographical and geopolitical distances because they are fundamentally the voice of the people, of the local communities.

 Flag Project

On May 27, 2006, 15 miles off the city of Jogjakarta in Java, Indonesia, a massive earthquake killed thousands of people, giving way to terror and destruction, marking in the Indonesian memory a human catastrophe of immeasurable scale.

Arahmaiani, who was in Bandung at the time, returned to Jogjakarta to support the local communities. As part of her mission, she worked with the Amumarta Islamic Boarding School, the oldest pesantren led by Kyai Jawis Masruri, with whom she collaborates to this day on environmental programs such as teaching and producing batik with natural dyes, producing cosmetics with natural materials, as well as producing biofuel with the local plants. It was then she first devised Flag Project to respond to the horror of the earthquake by bringing people together to share their fear and despair – handstitching words like “Intellect” and “Guts” in Jawi script on the flags – in such a way binding the wounds of the community.

Why use flags? One may ask on this occasion. First and foremost, a flag signals not only identity and belonging, but also control and power, a concept Arahmaiani wants to disrupt. As I have discussed elsewhere, I believe the use of the flag in this and other examples of Southeast Asian artistic practices stems from the artists’ need to question its authority and significance as a national language.[6] With reference to Arahmaiani’s flags, in the spirit of triangulating gender politics and religious beliefs with environmental concerns, her intention is to dismantle the geopolitical power associated with flags, in turn transforming them into meaningful symbols that resonate with the people’s own identity and constitution. Since then, there have been numerous iterations of Flag Project, spreading to Germany, Singapore, Australia, Canada, Japan, Tibet, Netherlands and the United States , as well as ongoing discussions with Israel and Palestine female environmental activists addressing social, political and environmental issues. Flag Project Thailand is her latest iteration for the exhibition Nomadic Ecologies at Warin Lab Contemporary.

As mentioned, Nomadic Ecologies is a two-part project and it hinges on two main concepts: community collaboration and environmental sustainability. Geographically, Nomadic Ecologies starts in Thailand’s Deep South, a region that Arahmaiani was keen to visit and research due to its cultural proximity to her Muslim upbringing. During her residency, Arahmaiani worked closely with feminist groups, environmental activists, social-political activists and artists, among others, to foster transdisciplinary collaboration through art as the visual connector that weaves together multiple, diverse voices.[7] Eleven new words emerged from these partnerships, handstitched on 11 new flags in Thai, Jawi and Malay, relating to the social, environmental and religious challenges they face daily. The translation from Jawy, Malay and Thai script is:












The very act of coming together in conversation speaks of, on one hand, local empowerment, and, on the other hand, collective performativity. The key aspect of Arahmaiani’s practice is to function as enabler of change by empowering the people. The flags themselves are in fact only one dimension of the long-term impact her residencies bring to the various communities. During her time in Tibet for Flag Project from 2010, Arahmaiani developed several environmental programs, including waste management, water management, renewable energy sources, planting trees and organic farming, among others.[8] In 2015, the Chinese government finally recognized the social significance of these programs and provided much-needed funding and support. For Pattani, Arahmaiani harbors the same long-term plans in her discussions with the community for the implementation of renewable energy, waste management, recycling, planting trees and organic farming. In this way, empowering the local communities feeds the other core aspect of her work, that is, collective performativity. In fact, as the communities ally to brainstorm, they are already projecting themselves towards a revitalized future, the flags performance symbolizing awakened awareness. At the end of her residencies, Arahmaiani and the communities create a video documentation with the new flags as the centerpiece. Ecology of Peace is her new video work for Nomadic Ecologies. Filmed over three days with the local community at distinctive locations in Pattani – beaches, rice fields and coconut forests – the video highlights the natural beauty of the Deep South in the face of persisting conflict and daily hardship. As the people parade the flags, they progressively assert their belonging not by national identity but by cultural heritage, as alluded by some of the words like “Heir” (Pewaris in Malay), inherently implying the transmission of legacy, cultural or otherwise. The sound component in Ecology of Peace is also important in emphasizing the search for a balanced progression towards an awakened future. Two songs accompany the parade: first an Indonesian song about spiritual strength and support, and a Pattani song about social justice.

Inhabiting the space

As the audience experiences the flags and the video installation in the gallery space, the notion of collective performativity extends into the narrative of the exhibition, where we are invited to participate in the making of a ‘living’ mandala of soil, seeds, water and care. Conjuring a multisensorial and interreligious dialogue across the works, the mandala-shaped work Memory of Nature (2013–ongoing) complements Nomadic Ecologies through a new, site-specific permutation conceived for Warin Lab Contemporary. As the audience gathers around the mandala, the action of creating new shapes made by the seeds uphold the same vision of the flags in coming together to share fears and hopes. As we know, the mandala in ancient culture is a symbol representing the construction of the universe.  In creating Memory of Nature the artist shapes the soil in such a way as to outline the contour of a flower . In fact, an additional flag featuring a handstitched lotus flower, beacon of purity and peace, accompanies Memory of Nature, thus reinforcing the concept of circularity, or the cycle of life, the samsara that we cannot interrupt but in which we may intervene, creating ripple effects towards communal support. Because together we are stronger, together we can foster change.

From her earlier performances in the streets of Bandung challenging the patriarchal status quo of Suharto’s New Order regime, to the present-day emphatic, transdisciplinary approach to change, Arahmaiani’s contribution to Indonesian and the broader Southeast Asian art history is invaluable. As I work with her on this project, I realize the magnitude and breadth of her involvement and the integrity of her commitment to the communities. This is evident in the composite nature of Nomadic Ecologies, which on one hand aims to connect various Thai communities on the grounds of cultural diversity, and on the other explores her own nomadic life – as she makes her home with the communities she engages with. Having spent nearly four decades as a nomad, she has learned to value ideological, racial and political differences towards mutual collaborations for the benefit of humankind, and for the preservation of nature. With this perspective, Arahmaiani through her art becomes the very vehicle for communication, peace and humanity – leading the way while making changes.

[1] Arahmaiani, conversation with author, September 2021–22.

[2] Maura Reilly, “Arahmaiani: Art is a Megaphone…and a Lamp,” in Arahmaiani: Masa Lalu Belumlah Berlalu | The Past Has Not Passed, exh. cat. (West Jakarta: Museum MACAN, 2021). The author provides detailed accounts of Arahmaiani’s practice from her early days.

[3] For more on Arahmaiani’s work in the context of current feminist struggles in Indonesia, see Wulan Dirgantoro, “Arahmaiani: Challenging the Status Quo,” Afterall, September 21, 2016, https://www.afterall.org/article/arahmaiani-challenging-the-status-quo.

[4] Lingga-Yoni (1994) features the Hindu image of female and male genitalia together with Arabic script, which aroused the anger of the hardline protesters.

[5] Anissa Rahadiningtyas, “Arahmaiani: Nomadic Reparation Projects, Environmentalism, and Global Islam,” post: notes on art in a global context, August 11, 2021, https://post.moma.org/arahmaiani-nomadic-reparation-projects-environmentalism-and-global-islam/. The author suggests a triangulation of feminism, Islam and environmentalism, a proposition that is very productive for this discussion.

[6] Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani, “The Geography of Belonging: Language, Memory and Otherness,” in A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging), exh. cat. (Bangkok: JWD Art Space, 2021).

[7] Arahmaiani Feisal, “Flag Project (2006–2020),” Garland, September 3, 2020, https://garlandmag.com/article/flag-project/. As she comments in this article, one of her main focuses is to work in a transdisciplinary manner. Arahmaiani herself is an art practitioner, environmentalist and activist, who also teaches at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Passau in Germany.

[8] Arahmaiani and Siobhan Campbell, “Balancing Feminine and Masculine Energy,” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 3, no. 1 (January 2019): 211–12, https://www.researchgate.net/journal/Southeast-of-Now-Directions-in-Contemporary-and-Modern-Art-in-Asia-2425-0147. The Tibetan Plateau is an important source of water for major rivers flowing through Asia, providing sustenance to South, East, and Southeast Asia.