Mary Lou Pavlovic: Indonesia’s Prison Art

Artist Mary Lou Pavlovic lives and works between Bali and Australia. In 2015, she completed her PhD at Monash University, Melbourne about how beauty was associated with progressive politics in contemporary visual arts and how her studio work was influenced by Balinese culture. In 2015, after visiting men and women incarcerated in Indonesian jails, she helped establish an art program in the Bangli jail, as prisoners stated they had little constructive activity. Workshops were initiated which involved the artistic interactions of Indonesian and Australian artists with prisoners in Indonesian jails. Pavolvic’s work is exclusively represented in Bali by Tony Raka Art Gallery.


When did the program for prison art start?

The first program at Bangli jail began soon after prisoner executions reemerged in Indonesia in 2015. But I also started to work with a group in Yogyakarta. While in prison there, Indonesian artist Angki Purbandono established the Prison Art Program (PAPS) in 2013. This group of inmates and ex-inmates exhibited their art inside and outside of jail.


How did the upcoming exhibition come about?

I won an Apexart Gallery New York competition in 2017 to create an exhibition about artists and prisoners in Bali. We ran a series of workshops to create work for the exhibition in 2017/18. Collectively, our focus was the socially beneficial roles played by the prisoner as artist and the artist as prisoner. Our workshops highlighted the role of aesthetics in socially-engaged exhibitions. There are both obvious and not so obvious political messages in the works that are on display.


What inspired you and other artists to establish the exhibition?

Our main aim is to bring aspects of prison life to public view. The function of contemporary prisons worldwide is to make prisoners social outsiders, largely invisible to most citizens. The modern prison is hidden away. Cloistering prisoners creates a criminal class separate from the working classes – for prisons are largely filled with the poor. Authorities profit politically by exploiting prisoners to promote government ideologies, and economically, as large sums are associated with criminalizing activities such as sex work and drug use. Prisons are also the ultimate form of surveillance. The unknown life inside of prison instills the fear of jail for those outside of it. The threat of incarceration enables authorities to maintain power and control over citizens, who become in the longer term accustomed to being relentlessly monitored by disciplinary institutions we find everywhere in our daily lives.


Tell me more about the upcoming exhibition. 

The exhibition Dipping in the Kool Aid will be held from March 4th to March 31st at Tony Raka Gallery in Mas. The opening reception will take place on March 3rd. The exhibit will feature works by Indonesian and Australian artists and prisoners/ex-prisoners of Indonesian jails. The artworks have been selected from workshops held predominantly at Klungkung and Bangli in 2017/18, as well as other studio works.


It’s an odd name. Where did you get it?

Dipping in the Kool Aid is old American jail slang for entering uninvited into conversation. While neither the locale nor the artists represented are American, the phrase has been adopted by our exhibition to pay tribute to the Javanese tradition of pasemon. Under the authoritarian Suharto New Order regime that spanned 1966-1998, artists and journalists used an indirect form of satire to criticize those in power. Pasemon deftly corrects without embarrassing authority by saying one thing but meaning something else. By criticizing without “scratching any wounds,” it allows the freedom to express differing opinions.


Can you describe some of the works that will be on display?

Djunaidi Kenyut, who invited prisoners to make self-portraits by etching their own facial features onto blank postcard-size mirrors, will invite viewers to do the same in the hopes that they will empathize with the prisoners. Imam Sucahyo presents a series of wayang wayangan made with prisoners. In an ongoing project called “Rotations,” Elizabeth Gower invited prisoners to contribute to her 365 fragile paper collages of which the prisoners made about 30 out of discarded packaging from the prison cafe. A small paper and clay sculpture by Herman Yoseph Dhyas Aries Utomo (a.k.a. Komeng) represents a tough guy with a suitcase full of money that depicts the machismo of prison economics.


Are there any participating prisoners who feel that their sentences were overly harsh?

Angki Purbandono was incarcerated for one year in Yogyakarta in 2013 for smoking marijuana. In refusing to accept his imprisonment, Angki famously declared instead that he was undertaking an artist’s residency. He formed the Prison Art Program while a prisoner in Narcotics Prison Class 2A for marijuana offences. With members comprising visual art students, a dog walker and the front man for the hard-core band Serigala Malam, the group considers it a violation of human rights to be imprisoned for using marijuana. Together they present memories of prison and testimonies to the psychologically dark, violent spaces they inhabited and the resilience they discovered in creating art.


Do only male prisoners produce art?

Absolutely not! Men and women prisoners and even guards participate in prison art programs. I ran a “Preserving Life” workshop in 2017 with female prisoners at Klungkung prison. We created a large wall work featuring meaningful personal items such as Christmas decorations as well as flowers and deceased butterflies that were donated by the local butterfly park. Our aim was to preserve life, the driving motivator for the entire project. The artwork, ‘Out of the Box’ consists of photographs taken inside the jail by prison officer Yhoga Aditya Ruswanto who worked under artist Angki Purbandono’s instruction.


How does producing art help prisoners?

Creating art not only alleviates prisoner seclusion and relieves stress and boredom but in our exhibition audiences are invited to connect with inmates and their innovative works and experience an interaction beyond the social stigmas that define prison life. This connection can benefit audiences as much as inmates. For example, Mustika Rubli, the accomplished singing group from Bangli jail, has been granted special permission to sing in a performance at Dipping in the Kool Aid exhibition’s public program.


What statement do you feel the prisoners and artists are making in the exhibition?

All the values expressed stand in stark contrast to certain aspects of the treatment of prisoners in this country. In these poetic, complex and autonomous works is a desire to preserve life. Each work is an antidote to state violence and collectively they create an environment in which art claims its authority over imprisonment. The formally discreet, aesthetic structure of pasemon has created a space for the prisoners and participating artists in which political positions are clarified without directly offending anyone.


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Copyright © 2018 Bill Dalton