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Aniela Rybak 23 May 2022
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In the last few months, SAPAR Contemporary in New York displayed the exhibition Mulyana: Fragile Ecologies. It featured some of the most interesting works of Mulyana, an Indonesian visual artist who creates new extraordinary habitats and creatures through his hand-crocheted art. Mulyana not only focuses on environmental issues, but goes deeper exploring the themes of fluidity, loss, community, and much more.
SAPAR Contemporary is a contemporary art gallery born in 2016 in New York, Tribeca, which works with and represents international artists. The gallery develops various far-sighted projects: among them, there is their Incubator program, which focuses on the cultural and artistic scene of Central Asia. If you want to learn more about SAPAR’s projects you can find more information here!
From January to March 2022, SAPAR hosted Mulyana’s first solo exhibition at the gallery, curated by John Silvis. In that exhibition, you could observe and engage with two hand-knit and crocheted costumes, coral islands, Mogus figures, and a video showing a performance of the artist. Even though the exhibition has ended, you can still experience it through the viewing room on SAPAR’s website.
Born in 1984 in Bandung, Indonesia, Mulyana graduated in Art Education at the University Pendidikan Indonesia in 2011, and in 2014, he settled in the town of Yogyakarta, where he decided to open his art studio. During the past decade, Mulyana’s artworks were featured in various group and solo exhibitions, making a name in many countries of the world, from Indonesia to the USA.
Mulyana perfectly embodies the values that are currently transforming the contemporary art world. We can surely say that the artist doesn’t believe in an elitist art system where only those who have studied art history or critique can have access to art and culture. Mulyana’s art, on the contrary, is accessible and deeply rooted in the concept of community: from its making to its display, it becomes a shared experience in which human beings can understand themselves better.
For this reason, the artist chose to share his practice with a community of transgender women in Sorogenen village who became his first collaborators; in this way, he created a community-based workshop from which his distinctive art medium originated.
This aspect of his art practice is strongly connected to the themes he brings out with his works: these are themes that touch everybody, like the future of our planet, grief and loss, and the quest for the self-acceptance that every human being has to go through at some point in their lives.
The artist uses the techniques of hand-knitting and crocheting to design colorful realities that then he populates with marine creatures. It all started in 2008 when Mulyana created The Mogus, which is the main and first character of the artist’s mythology: it is a small monster that looks like a jellyfish or an octopus and can vary in colors and shapes.
The term “Mogus” merges two words: the Gurita animal, which is an octopus, and the artist’s family name, Sigarantang. For Mulyana, this creature embodies an alter-ego that better shows to the world some of the features that he can’t express as a human being.
Mulyana, Small Mogus 55, 2021. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary.
Mulyana, Small Mogus, 2021. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary.
Mulyana, Small Mogus 15, 2021. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary.
This aspect is emphasized by his life-size costumes, which are exhibited on mannequins or worn by the artist himself in some of his performances. For example, two of his costumes were displayed at SAPAR, Nayanika and Adikara, but there was also a video of the artist’s performance. In the video, we can see Mulyana wandering in Indonesian landscapes wearing a bright yellow costume. Even in a disturbing and post-apocalyptic scenario with black and white temples, isolated stretches of sand, and abandoned buildings, Mulyana walks quietly and joyfully, almost dancing ironically.
In this way, the artist fully embraces his alter ego and investigates the topic of the mask: when he becomes The Mogus, he is not hiding some part of himself, but he is finding and accepting aspects of himself. From this point of view, The Mogus has both a personal and a universal meaning: it is the way the artist has found to be true to himself and to celebrate the diversity of every person.
Mulyana, Adikara Costume, 2020. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary.
Mulyana, Nayanika Costume, 2020. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary.
In his fictional oceanic habitats, all The Moguses live together in harmony with each other and with their surroundings: the message is to take care of ourselves, our relationships with others, and the natural environment as well. When we do that, our colors are brighter than ever, but if we neglect all the connections that keep us alive, everything turns grey or white.
The ecosystems Mulyana creates are beautiful as much as fragile. In some of them, we can see the first signs of the process of decay and death that humankind started in the natural environment; in Sea Remembers, exhibited in 2018 at the ArtJog Biennale, a three-dimensionally printed whale skeleton breaks the harmony between the colors of the magic underwater world.
This artwork, and similar ones like Into the Abyss, put us in front of a choice: we could recognize that our actions have an effective impact on the environment and decide to build a healthier and more sustainable relationship with it, or just simply give up.
However, Mulyana also shows us what the consequences are are if we choose to let go. On the walls of SAPAR, next to colorful and joyful coral islands, white and grey ones were also exhibited. When corals die they indeed become white, losing their colors. This series of white artworks are called Bety, which is the name of the artist’s mother who passed away: again, Mulyana gently intertwines intimate and universal spheres, using these colors to symbolize loss, death, and destruction.
Mulyana, Harmony Coral Islands Series, 2021. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary.
Mulyana, Harmony Coral Islands Series, 2021. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary. Detail.
Mulyana, Candramawa 9 & three Small Mogus + Additional Mogus, 2021. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary.
Mulyana, detail from the Candramawa Coral Islands Series, 2021. Courtesy of SAPAR Contemporary.
So, while on one hand, the artist creates new surreal and extravagant ecosystems, on the other hand, he reminds us that if we don’t develop an environmental awareness the only environment we will have will be crocheted.
What differentiates Mulayana from other artists is his ability to bring out complex issues with incredible lightness. His installations give the spectators immersive experiences that project them into the artist’s mind and fantasy, where they can directly learn about topics like sustainability, grief, and self-acceptance.
The artist’s commitment to the environment and the community can be seen in the practical aspects of Mulyana’s work as well: in fact, some of the materials he uses for his artworks and costumes are repurposed yarn and support materials, but he also recycles parts from his former installations. Furthermore, the artist organizes workshops and laboratories so that the spectators can live a full and direct experience of his art.
That’s why Mulyana’s works are beloved by both children and adults of any kind; he spreads a message of love, connection, and respect for ourselves and others in a world where violence and death grow steeply. Most importantly, his art achieves what I believe is the best goal and form of expression for art and culture: it’s an exercise of empathy and compassion that we should not forget.
A special thanks to SAPAR Contemporary, which invited me to Mulyana’s display; check out their new exhibitions here!
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