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Constructions of ‘Indonesian-ness’ in Modern Art and Artistic Identity in a Politically Fraught Terrain during the 1950s


After four years of physical struggle and diplomacy, Indonesia’s independence was officially recognized, and its sovereignty transferred on 27 December 1949. While protracted struggle and sacrifice to obtain independence had galvanised the people around an idea of Indonesia, this shared experience and political victory could not provide the sole points of reference for the social and cultural transformation necessary to engender national unity. In this article, I engage three conflicting yet ultimately overlapping arguments and positions, each one positing a modern artistic subjectivity and perspectives of an Indonesian modern art. At stake was not only participation in constructing a national identity, and giving meaning and expression to an amorphous keIndonesiaan (Indonesian-ness), but also related issues of creative freedom and the role art and artists would play in its formation.

Regardless of their ideological differences, the positions discussed here share a common commitment to the nation and its future, and the conviction that the revolution remained incomplete—having achieved its political but not its social and cultural aims. This includes arguments of a complex figure of a new man/humanity. Here, I argue a construct of artistic subjectivity in which connotations of truth and authenticity are posited as aspects of a specific aesthetic identification within the discourse and construction of Indonesianness.
The intellectual horizons under discussion were simultaneously egalitarian and elitist. Media and mediation played key roles in the dissemination of such arguments of modern artistic subjectivity.

I keep my case studies specific to ideas put forward by artists and writers publicized roughly between the years 1950 to 1955. During this brief period, just prior to the first national elections, the arts experienced a kind of democratization, and can be considered among the freest and most dynamic in terms of the relationship between art, politics and nationalism, between artists and the state.


modern art, Indonesia, postcoloniality, Lekra, Seni journal



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