Monika graduated from ITB Fine Art in 2006 Cum Laude
Monika Ary Kartika’s studio is located in the mountainous area around Lembang, Bandung, far removed from the urban area. She works there, usually alone, but she does not feel alone. Apart from being a painter, Monika is also a dancer who regularly attends dancing events in Latin dance clubs—especially Salsa clubs. Strangely enough, it is precisely when she is in the middle of such merry events—Latin dance is known to be very festive, as evident in the movements and costumes—that Monika feels alone. It was with this paradox in mind that Monika set out in 2008 to explore the experience of festivity and express her explorations through her works.
Naturally enough, she began by presenting the atmosphere of the Latin dance clubs to which she usually goes. She browsed the Internet looking for pictures and information about international Latin dance competitions all over the world. Monika then digitally processed the pictures—edited, combined, changed them, or added some colors to them—before transferring them on to her canvases.
It turned out that Monika did not find what she was looking for. The paintings she created turned out to present lonely, quaint atmosphere. Some of her paintings are focused on the dancers, with empty backgrounds. Others present a crowd of dancers but with no festive atmosphere whatsoever. The colors tend to be dark, giving rise to a gloomy atmosphere. Monika felt as if she was restricted in her effort to present festive, bright colors.
Monika pressed on with her explorations and sought other subject matters, and one day Jember Fashion Carnival caught her attention. This is a carnival held in the small town of Jember in East Java, and the Indonesian news daily Kompas regularly writes about it. All participants in this carnival show lavish carnival costumes that they design themselves, along with the designs by fashion designers from many East Java cities. The tradition began around nine years ago and has been held regularly every year ever since, usually one month before the Ramadan fasting month. The founders and initiators were several Jember fashion designers-cum-entrepreneurs. The carnival, however, has no commercial objective. The participants are self-sufficient and fund their designs themselves. “Some even went so far as selling their motorbikes to be able to take part in this carnival,” Monika said.
Monika felt that she has found the right object for her paintings. She took a lot of pictures and interviewed scores of participants. She made acquaintances, asked them about their ups and downs in the process of taking part in the carnival, and chatted amicably with them. Here she does not only discover theatrical festive atmosphere, but also a sense of camaraderie that is similar to the sense of communality in traditional ceremonies. She feels that there is a sort of shared happiness that she finds positive. The joy spreads to everyone who attends the carnival. “Many outsiders like me also feel the thrill,” Monika said. “It’s obvious from the enthusiastic looks on everyone’s face.”
In 2009, Monika started to transfer the pictures she took in Jember Fashion Carnival to her canvas. Again, she first processed the pictures rather than simply transforming them into paintings. Driven by the desire to expand her visual knowledge about such festivities, she browsed the Internet and found out about the Brazil Carnival held in two Brazilian cities: Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. She immediately sensed the similarity between the Brazilian carnivals and Jember Fashion Carnival. From her Internet research, Monika found out that Brazil Carnival began only in the nineties, through the initiative of Samba dance schools in the two cities. The carnival is held every year before the Easter celebration, prior to the Catholic fasting month.
As she compared the two different carnivals, Monika felt that these celebrations were actually folk celebrations revealing communal ties. In societies where traditions are still strongly held, ceremonies similar to such celebrations point at the strength of the communal ties. “These carnivals, however, are not like the traditions like in Bali or Solo,” said Monika. “The two kinds of carnivals are new and I think I am able to relate to them because they feel contemporary.” Monika thus felt that the contemporary society still needs communal ties. It is perhaps such needs that have given rise to the carnivals.
Such realization led Monika to a certain fundamental idea for her work. “I feel that my paintings start to show stronger positive ideas,” Monika conceded. This view is related to the experiences she has had during her artistic journey. Early on in her career, Monika traversed the gloomy and lonely individual spaces. At the time, her artistic expressions showing empty spaces with minimal signs actually talked about death—she had been wrongly diagnosed as suffering from a fatal cancer.
Seven paintings in this solo exhibition reflect Monika’s exploration in searching for the festive soul that she believed was related to positive thoughts. These paintings do not depict the carnival that she has documented in photographs. Rather, they show festive expressions through the depictions of humans and through color play, ornaments, brush strokes, and collage (Monika uses beads and glitters in her paintings) in vibrant arrangements.
Such expressions seem to try to reveal the spirit behind the festivities where every participating person lets go of his or her position as individuals, and tries to enter a communal space. Monika does not only present frenzied compositions in the paintings revealing the joy that originates from feelings of pleasure, but also hints at certain magical, tranquilizing space. Although they seem rather flat at a glance, spaces in these paintings arise due to the arrangement of many different layers. Monika constructs the layers by distinguishing the sharpness of each image and by applying brush strokes.
All the paintings have certain points of interest. It is in that central position that Monika depicts faces and bodies. She had the idea to do this after thoroughly observing the carnivals. She feels that the two different carnivals are actually celebrating the body, based certainly on the desire to appear in theatrical presentations. “The mind-boggling creativity in this celebration of the body, however, isn’t there for self-promotion,” Monika said. In the Jember carnival, Monika observed how the face “merges” with the body as each participant tries to present his or her narrative, because the costumes presented in the Jember carnival are invariably narrative-based. The face becomes unrecognizable due to the heavy make-ups, and therefore seems to disappear altogether. Meanwhile, the celebration of the physique is stronger in the Brazilian carnival. “Apart from the female body, the carnival also celebrates the male and the transvestite bodies,” Monika said. “The happy faces eventually ‘merge’ with the body with the use of such dazzling costumes, in which the heads and the bodies are equally striking.”
The issue of the body indeed appears in contemporary ideas against the totalitarian power constructed by the representation regime justified by science. In such a representation regime, the body serves as material evidence for ideas about human beings. The corporeal drives (desires) that are relatively difficult to prove materially have been deliberately marginalized so that material truths can be confirmed. The philosopher Michel Foucault, therefore, believed that structured power—reflective of the power of the ratio—oppresses the body and makes every person also repress his or her body. To Foucault, this constitutes the murder of vitality as reflected in corporeal expressions.
*Con Festivita: Italian for “with feasts”
Published: November 11, 2010