Sitting at the Feet of Gurus

Posted in Bali, Indonesia, Java, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2015 by briancarnold

During one of her visits to Bali, she struck up a conversation with a young Balinese child.  In the course of their talk, Claire asked the child what she wanted to be when she grew up.  With wide eyes, the child replied with puzzlement, “Be?  But I already am.

Deena Burton 1

I’ve written about Claire Holt repeatedly in these pages – a thinker, writer, dancer, and person I admire greatly.  On the advice of a friend, I finally got around to reading her biography by Deena Burton, Sitting at the Feet of Gurus.


I’d say the subject of this book is better than the book itself, but Holt’s work means enough to me that I very much enjoyed learning more about her life and achievements.


Despite having looked through Holt’s archives at Cornell, I knew little about her life.  She never obtained any academic degree.  She worked for the American government.  She studied sculpture and dance, and once wrote dance reviews for a newspaper in New York City.


An early proponent of choreology – an academic study of dance – it was really Javanese dance that first grabbed Holt’s attention.  Really more than Javanese too, she wrote a book on dance in Sumatra that never made it to publication.

She studied Javanese dance in Yogya, and often did small performances and demonstrations during lectures and classes.


Born in Latvia in 1901, Holt first came to the States in the 1921, after marrying in 1920.  She began her pursuits in journalism in New York, and also studied sculpture with Alexander Archipenko.


Holt’s first trip to Indonesia was in 1930 – still under colonial rule, the Dutch East Indies – where she first met many of the first generation of artists and intellectuals from the West working in Indonesia – Walter Spies, Margaret Mead, Colin McPhee, and Jane Belo.


During her first experiences in the Dutch East Indies, Holt developed many important ideas, relationships, and connections that later emerged in major work, Art in Indonesia:  Continuities and Change.  She first discovered Javanese dance, and among the other artists and intellectuals, she also met Willem Frederick Stutterheim.


Stutterhein was a brilliant Dutch archeologist working in Central Java.  The two fell in love, though never married as Stutterheim was never able to divorce his wife back in Europe.  Much of Stutterheim’s work focused on the Hindu/Buddhist architecture found in Central Java.  Holt worked as his assistant while he conducted some this work.  Her time working with Stutterheim eventually made into her book, in the chapters exploring the early architecture of Central Java, in the chapters under the heading “Heritage.”


Holt lived and worked in New York during World War II, doing a variety of things, including working to develop a dance archive as part of the New York Public Library system.  She also lectured widely about dance in Indonesia.


By the mid 1940’s, Holt began working for the United States government, in the Department of Strategic Services (later renamed the CIA), doing research on the Dutch East Indies.  Sensing the collapse of the colonial government, the State Department wanted a record of the emerging political landscape of Indonesia.


Holt returned to Indonesia again in the mid 1950’s, and focused her work on the development of modernism and the independent nation of Indonesia.  The work she did in these years later found voice in her book under the section “Modern Art.”


After this trip in the 1950’s, Holt became a Research Fellow at Cornell, working with the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project developed by George Kahin.

Walter Spies Calonarang c. 1927 56 x 46 cm

Clearly there is much more to say about Claire Holt’s life and work than I have offered here.  Reading Burton’s book really solidified Holt’s place in my own life and work.  She is a writer and thinker I admire deeply, and I loved learning more about the life behind her achievements.

Amran Malik Hakim

Posted in Bali, Indonesia, Java, Photography with tags , , on January 19, 2015 by briancarnold


So again, while I continue to look for funding so that I can return to Java, I also find ways to continue to build the connections I need to pull this project together, including connections with a couple of new photographers.


With the help of Tino Djumini, I’ve recently met Amran Malik Hakim.


A recent graduate of the Jakarta Art Academy, Hakim brings a totally different element to this project.  Like Aumdaya and Djumini, Hakim works is a pretty traditional documentary mode of photography.  His subject and approach, however, are quite different.


Hakim photographs children with Autism in Java.  He works in a very traditional and composed manner, using a sort of classical portraiture to render his subjects.  The children in his photographs seem dignified and vulnerable.


Until recently, children with these kinds of disabilities were ostracized in Indonesia, and not given the right sort of care of resources for education or other needs.  It’s really in the post Soeharto era that children with these kinds of disabilities are being integrated into society, and given the right opportunities for education.


The pictures remind me a little bit of Diane Arbus.  There is a harsh edge at times, but also a sense of love and gentleness.



I really hope to be back in Java soon so that I can continue putting all of this together.

Arum Tresnaningtyas Dayuputri (Aumdayu)

Posted in Bali, Indonesia, Java, Photography with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2015 by briancarnold


It’s been a while, too long really, since I posted anything here.  Realistically, in a way these projects documented here are on hold, though I have been moving them forward – working on grant writing, lecturing at the Cornell/Yale Indonesian Studies Conference, and finding venues for this exhibition.

Goddes of Pantura

It’s been about a year since I last left for Java on a grant from the American Institute for Indonesian Studies,  though with the help of some friends and good connections, I’ve been able to contact with a couple more good photographers to include in this project on Javanese photography.

Goddes of Pantura

One of these photographers is Arum Tresnaningtyas Dayuputri (or often just Aumdaya).  A young photographer, her pictures have a wonderful energy.  She documents the culture surrounding dangdut, a form of Indonesian popular music found across Java.

Goddes of Pantura

An obvious true lover the music (and a musician herself) Aumdaya offers a wonderful look at the sexuality, performance, idolatry, and business of dangdut.

Goddes of Pantura

Of as much interest to me is how she typically shows her photographs.  Rather they going for the typically gallery presentation, she binds her photographs in books – sort of mock newspapers – printed on newsprint with some accompanying text, and then gives these away at performances.  Sometimes, she displays prints of the photographs at different shows and dangdut venues in Java.

Goddes of Pantura

For this exhibition, Aumdaya and I are going to sort through her photographs, and make a special zine – a sort of greatest hits – and then give these away in the different galleries hosting the exhibition.

Goddes of Pantura

Her photographs add a nice dimension to this exhibition.  A bit less formal, and a bit more playful, Aumdaya’s photographs bring new photographic ideas about culture and identity to this small survey of Javanese photography.


Posted in Bali, Indonesia, Java, Photography with tags , on June 26, 2014 by briancarnold

Still fresh back from seeing the wonderful exhibition curated by Gael Newton at the National Gallery of Australia – Garden of the East:  Photography in Indonesia 19850s-1940s – I spent my morning in one of the Cornell libraries looking at some photographs made by a prolific Japanese photography in Indonesia in the early 1930s, K.T. Satake.


A real workman photographer, Satake photographed extensively across Sumatra, Java, and Bali, and in 1935 released the book Camera-Beelden van Sumatra, Java, and Bali (Camera Pictures from Sumatra, Java, and Bali).  Printed in 1935, jointly published between Surabaya and London, and bilingually produced in Dutch and English, the book offers about 800-900 views made across the three islands.


Most of the photographs are black and white, though there are a few autochromes scattered about the book (with the exception of the picture above, the autochromes are still life photographs of fruits found around the islands).  Printed in halftone, the black and white reproductions aspire for a more painterly palette – something more akin to photogravure or collotype – and are printed in colored inks, pages of photographs alternating between a sepia brown and an olive green.


The book prints have a flat, matte finish, with very compressed tones.  Often, the printing works for the photographs, and successfully emulate a more lavish printing process.


In some ways, the pictures have a simple ethographic quality to them, but if only for the sheer volume, the book does offer a bit more.  Satake did have a great love for Indonesia, even if a romantic vision.


His pictures are at their best when he is looking at deep space, across epic and layered landscapes.  There was also a stretch in the middle of the chapter on Java in which environmental portraits are paired against small grids featuring details from Borobudur, or some of the other major monuments in Central Java, an interesting photographic dialog.


The picture captions or titles often fail the pictures (A Type of Balinese Woman), and sometimes the pictures lapse into a sentimental, pictorialist vision (the soft focus doesn’t translate well into the halftone printing technique used for the book).


Regardless, it is a thorough study of many iconic regions across the three islands.  The photographs do get a bit redundant as you go through the book, and I did appreciate his dramatic vision of the larger, more mythic landscapes.

Garden of the East

Posted in Bali, Indonesia, Java, Photography with tags , , , , , on June 18, 2014 by briancarnold

So I just returned from a week in Canberra, Australia.  I went to see an exhibition currently on view at the National Gallery – Garden of the East:  Photography in Indonesia 1850s-1940s – and to participate in a short conference staged in conjunction with the exhibition.


The exhibition is great, really the first of its kind.


Along with Gael Newton, FX Harsono, and Alex Supartono – as well as a few other assistant curators from the museum – I gave a 45 minute lecture about my work in Indonesia, both past and present.


The presentation and the photographs in the exhibition are wonderful.  It was a great treat to see many photographs I’ve read about in person (a well execute albumen print is a delightful thing to see).


I’d never met either Pak Harsono nor Alex Supartono before, though I’ve heard about them both a great deal over the last year or two.  It was great to make these connections.


There were also lots of interesting ideas and photographs presented and discussed – ideas about photography, colonialism, Indonesian history, the emergence of contemporary photography across Asia, and how photography is part of contemporary identity politics in Indonesia as well as the rest of Asia.


And I hope to have planted some seeds for my coming conference in Bandung.


Regardless, it was great to be apart of all this stuff.  The exhibition is wonderful, and truly the first of its kind.  And delighted for more connections for my ongoing ideas and work in Indonesia.


Posted in Bali, Indonesia, Java, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on May 7, 2014 by briancarnold

I’ve been back from Indonesia for about 3 weeks now, and the momentum of my trip and discoveries seem to be leveling out.


My projects and goals are defined, and now the work to put them all together will just take time, communication, and cooperation.


And the other day, I had a nice opportunity to help conclude my recent work and adventures; I was again invited to join the Cornell Gamelan Ensemble for their spring concert.


It was a new repertoire for the group, highlighting some different vocal works and traditions.  We had some great visitors singing and performing with the group, Peni Candra Rini, Jessika Kenney, and Pak Harjito.

Sarad Offering in Bali

There was one moment in particular during the performance that seems worth mentioning.  It was early in the concert, the whole group was there together, and the groove and energy of the music were all in place.  I was aware of and connected to the spiritual and sublime qualities of playing music together, that meditative and beautiful core of gamelan.  It’s been about a year and a half since I last played gamelan; it was nice to find that feeling again.

It felt like a reminder of what I have going in Indonesia, the personal importance of pursuing this work and these discoveries.


And I took one more step, to fully wrap up my experience, to symbolize its importance in my life.


I got another tattoo.  Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and creativity.  I think of the tattoo as something like a Balinese offering, to acknowledge and help sustain the success of my projects in Indonesia.

And then I’ve been obsessed with this song by the Jogja Hiphop Foundation.


When Two Become One

Posted in Bali, Indonesia, Java, Photography with tags , , , , , , on April 30, 2014 by briancarnold


What you see here is an attempt to reconcile or unify two distinct intellectual and creativity curiosities and pursuits I’ve held close for years.


I first went to Indonesia in the fall of 1992.  My goal was to study Balinese gamelan, though what I found was much bigger and greater than I anticipated.  I did study gamelan, with a young musician (everyone told me he was a prodigy, and his father taught Michael Tenzer), named Dewa Putu Berata.


I returned to home to Colorado, and joined a nonprofit group dedicated to advancing Indonesian art and music, really so I could continue to play gamelan.


Just prior to leaving for Bali, I discovered photography.  Just like gamelan, once I had made my first photographs, I threw myself into a study of the medium whole heartedly.  I spent the summer before my trip to Indonesia working at the Colorado History Museum, printing photographs from the collection.


It was several years later, around 1995, that I began my real pursuit of photography, when I sent up my first studio and started trying to make a profession out of it.  But really, for close to 20 years now, I’ve been playing, studying, and performing gamelan as a way to continue my investigation into Indonesia, while simultaneously pursuing a career as a photographer.


It was about three years ago that I tried to put these two pursuits together.  Often, people would ask me what the two things had a common, but I was often dismissive of the question.  There was something there, but it was more a feeling than a thought.  But three years ago, I worked to make a more clear connection, and instigated a study of Indonesian photography, look at its history and trying to learn more about contemporary pursuits in Java.  I made this blog to document this study.


In the last three years, I’ve traveled to Indonesia twice, and I’ve received a research fellowship from the Cornell Southeast Asia Program/Modern Indonesia Project, and more recently a grant from the American Institute for Indonesian Studies.  And now I feel I stand on the brink of opening up a really big project.


I’ve gathered together 8 artists from Java, and I am working to put together an exhibition of contemporary art photography from the island.  As it stands now, it looks like this show will open in early 2016 in Bandung, at the prestigious Institut Teknologi Bandung.  And it seems like the opening of the exhibition will coincide with a small, international conference about contemporary photographic practice.


There is still more.


The show will also open at the Johnson Museum at Cornell University in late 2016 or early 2017.  This opening will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Claire Holt’s classic publication, Art in Indonesia:  Continuities and Change.


Claire Holt is something of a hero, so this would be a wonderful honor.


There is also a chance for publication from this project, with Red and White Books (an affiliate of Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara in Jakarta), or with the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project.  Much of this is still speculative, and yet if any combinations of these events and possibilities come to be, it seems like a remarkable way to reconcile these two projects, and to both record something of my own history and to offer more about Indonesia to a greater public.



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