Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia
Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia, and Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
Currently living in: Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
Quick things: Anissa Amalia is a visual artist based in L.A. They moved to the U.S. from Jakarta when they were 17 years old. Not only have they done photography, but they have also shot music videos and created live visuals for shows. For their BFA graduation piece in 2017, Anissa created the immersive, interactive installation “So, You Want to Be an American Citizen?” Learn more about that piece here.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by written questions sent through email and Anissa sending their responses in a recorded audio file.
Q: Tell me more about yourself! What drew you into the field of the visual? How did you develop your visual style?
I don’t know where I got it from. It might be my dad. I don’t know much about him. I grew up with my mom back home in Jakarta, and she’s not an artist, I don’t think. I mean, she has some sort of artistic, I can’t really say skill, but eyes, I guess. She loves interior design and she likes decorating the home and her office. But outside of that, my mom is a businesswoman; she grew up in Surabaya and she moved to Jakarta and kind of started her own company from the ground up. She’s very business-oriented.
I think I got drawn into this whole visual thing when I was really young; my mom always put me in these courses after school, and it varies from art to math to music to even ballet, which I hated, so she kind of was trying to figure out what I was good at. I was really bad at math, I hated going to Kumon classes and all these things. I hated ballet — so bad at dancing; I’m just not physically coordinated that way and I’m just musically incompetent. It’s awful. But then, I kind of excelled in painting, I guess you can say, and since then, I fell in love with the medium. I doodled a lot growing up, but every kid does that, but I guess it started around then, and, from what I think I’ve noticed, because I was such a quiet kid, I didn’t necessarily talk much growing up.
My painting teacher, he really sparked up this confidence in me where like, wow, I guess you really can express yourself visually. And, you know, I have all these paintings that I made from scratch, just based on my imagination. I know I wasn’t the best painter, but I was pretty decent at it.
It’s not until I was in middle school I came across my mom’s old Canon DSLR camera and I was like, oh what is this? I’d never really seen a camera like this. So I was intrigued and I just started taking photos for fun at home and at school. I think my mom realized — god bless her really for being super supportive of all these things — and she sent me to these photography classes over the summer back in Jakarta and I kind of learned the essentials of what photography is. I started to take more photos at school, and then I became this person in my year that always brings a camera with her.
With filmmaking, I guess it just came naturally for the love I have for cameras and photography. It just kind of made sense that I appreciate the beautiful visuals that you see in films. It wasn’t until high school that I took it more seriously because I had some projects at school where we had to make a short film and it was really fun.
But I never really thought of it too far. I was in between this whole oh, I want to be a painter and then I wanted to be a designer and then I wanted to be a graphic designer, fashion designer, whatever. I moved from one medium to another. But now, having been working with just photography and film for the most part, looking back, it really does start early in my life. Maybe part of it was fascination of American media and American film, and I’m like wow, that looks so cool, and all these things. I was always watching those behind-the-scene things all the time, when I was so young.
There’s something beautiful about it. I’m still not sure what it is. I guess it’s an extension of what I see, in a way. It’s a different set of eyes for me.
If you look at my stuff from four, five years ago, it was awful. Horrendous. I still don’t think I know what type of style I want. But people ask me often. What’s your style? What’s your style? Especially living in L.A. and it’s so Instagram-centric, they’re like, what’s your brand? And I was like I don’t fucking know what my brand is. I just like what I like. I see what I like to see. A lot of it revolves around brights colors, I think. If I were to pin myself down to one thing when it comes to my style is probably bright and vivid. But outside of that, aesthetically, I don’t know. This is going to have to be a question that I have to answer for myself in the long run, but as of now, I guess that’s what my style is.
Q: What inspires you to do your work? What continues to motivate you to do your work?
I’m inspired by…just people. I don’t know. Just society and community on its own — there’s just so many stories to tell. It sounds cheesy but you really just have to look around you. I guess a part of it was my identity inspired me, who I am, where I’m from, my background, my story. Because that’s kind of the main thing in my work is to tell stories. I’m inspired by the resilience of many other artists of color before me that fought for what they want. People don’t take artists seriously back home in Indonesia. So it’s discouraging, not until I moved here that artists use whatever medium that they use in their work not only to make something that looks nice to look at but also to create a conversation. I’m always inspired by things that are thought-provoking, that makes you question things, that makes you ask things. Probably the biggest inspiration is really people of my community and many other amazing artists of color out there.
What continues to motivate me? The simple answer is my mom. I gotta keep going; she sacrificed so much that she’s kind of the main driving force. I’m not even doing this for like, “Oh, I want to get rich and famous in America.” Growing up in Indonesia, it’s always family first, and that kind of always has been for me. In a way, it’s my family, my family pushes me.
Q: You came to the U.S. when you were 17. What drew you to the U.S.? What was the adjustment like for the first few years?
I wasn’t planning to go to the U.S. I didn’t want to. I was trying to go to the U.K. actually, or somewhere in Europe. The high school that I went to happened to use the Cambridge system, so I thought oh, maybe I can go to the U.K., because I went to a British-system high school. But little do I know, I have to finish high school and take those A-level tests to even get to the universities there. And I was just in a point in my life in Indonesia where I felt caged, I felt trapped. I went through so much bullying for years and I just didn’t feel good about myself. I didn’t feel like I’m achieving anything or I’m doing anything and my mom put so much pressure on me to be successful.
It was halfway through 10th grade, I told my mom I don’t want to go back to school, I can’t finish high school in Indonesia anymore, I have to leave. She was kind of taken aback by it, but she was really supportive. I was really struggling mentally and I just wasn’t happy at all and I needed to leave. And I know it’s not going to be easy — my family’s not rich, and my mom struggled a lot to even help me to be here. So then she found this lady, she works for an agency that help people move abroad as students. She asked me what I wanted to do and all these things and all the complications that might happen if I were to move to the U.K. And she was like, “If you want to make film, why not go to L.A.?” Man, no! And it’s funny, because life is a full circle, huh? I told her I didn’t want to move to L.A. when I moved to the U.S., and here I am now. I just find it hilarious — looking back, I never wanted to move here.
So I was just like, I never thought of it, maybe, possibly, and she was like you don’t have to go L.A. right away, you can go to Seattle. And I was like, what the hell is Seattle? Never heard of it, never knew of it besides it’s mentioned a couple of times in “Grey’s Anatomy,” and there’s the Space Needle in it, I don’t know, I literally have no clue what Seattle is. I wasn’t interested, but I was like, OK, whatever, I just needed to get out. She was like, you can finish high school in Seattle and transfer somewhere else to a different state for college. But I ended up staying longer than expected.
I guess the hardest adjustment was just little things. It wasn’t really being in America, necessarily. I grew up with the culture, the media for so long, because my mom wanted me to speak English well that that’s all I watched, besides local TV here and there, but for the most part, she made me watch all these shows in English, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and all the books are in English at home. I took way too many English courses, so it’s ingrained in a way. When I moved to the U.S., I was able to talk to people and pretty much other Americans about things I watched growing up and they’re like, “Oh my god, I also watched that.” I felt like I grew up in America.
My Bahasa is so bad, and it’s embarrassing. When I talk in Bahasa, I sound like a bule, you know? Which is weird because I grew up there and I lived there for 17 years. But yeah, the adjustment was fine, I was just excited to be in a new place. I didn’t really cry the first year. I loved it. I was all by myself, I’m far away from people that I know. I can’t really recall if there were any moments where I was struggling to adjust besides getting to know the area better, and I lived in the suburbs before I moved to the city.
So adjustment was pretty easy, and I’d spoken the language for pretty much my entire life. I mean, what made it easier is that a lot of Americans here thought I’m also an American or I was born here, until I told them I wasn’t. So for whatever reason, and it’s pretty messed up to think about it, because I don’t have an accent, they treat me differently. It definitely made it easier for me to blend in and made me feel like “one of them” even when I’m not. In a way, it’s a survival game. Being in America is a survival game for the rest of your life if you’re not from this country. Even people from this country are also in a survival game.
Q: Before coming to the U.S., what did you know about the country? Were you aware of the racism, sexism, etc. in this country? What were your expectations? What has been your experience?
Thanks to the internet and social media and Tumblr at that time — Tumblr was so big — I think that’s where I consumed most of the information about America, besides the news. But more on a personal level, like you kind of understood a little better of what’s really happening in this place through posts on Tumblr. I knew America has problems…This place is so sugar-coated, it’s insane, but that’s kind of how you consume it. Growing up, you just see these people telling me America’s great, everything’s so much better there, but then, when you kind of let yourself be immersed beyond that, you start to realize what America really is…And I just didn’t realize how complicated it was. It’s not just about the whites and the non-whites — all these different -isms apply in our community as non-black people of color that we subconsciously do to black people in this country.
Yeah, it wasn’t until I moved here. And Seattle’s such a liberal place — I think it was kind of a good starting point for me to tackle down these different -isms because people in Seattle are so loud and very vocal about these issues that I’ve learned so much over the past six and a half years that I was there. I was already expecting that shit’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna be bad here, I know it’s not gonna be sunshine and rainbows, but I just didn’t realize how mentally overwhelming it is to be here as a person of color.
I went through so many different experiences of feeling invisible, feeling alone, like I don’t belong anywhere. Especially as an Indonesian, no one really knows that much about Indonesia here. They’re always like, “where is that? I’ve been to Bali though.” It’s like, goddamit, Bali is in Indonesia! What? What are you talking about? So I think the first experience was just feeling I can’t even relate to the term Asian because people expect when they hear the word “Asian,” you’re either a Japanese person, a Chinese person or a Korean person, and then they look at me and I’m a little bit taller than most Asian people they expect to look like, and I’m a lot darker…and I’m not skinny. So then that was already weird.
And then I experienced a few microaggressions in the community college I went to. Someone in this math class was like, “Hey, do you want to do my homework? You’re Asian and you wear glasses so you’re probably smart, right?” And I was like, “What the heck? What the fuck is wrong with you? No, I suck at math.” I was just mind-blown. Yeah, just this constant nagging of oh my god, you sound so good for not being born here.
I think about my mom, when she comes to the U.S. to visit me. She doesn’t speak good English, it’s very rusty, and you can really tell her accent, and I can see right away how she’s being treated, how she’s ordering food, even at Starbucks, it’s sad to see that. Because my mom is an amazing human being, she’s so smart, she knows how to speak her mind, but in this country, she’s so quiet, she doesn’t talk much, she always makes me order things because people don’t treat her well.
And slowly realizing the harsh truth of being a person of color in the industry I want to be a part of. It’s so dominated by white men, you have this impostor syndrome, thinking that you’re not actually good and you’re just lying. There’s a lot of this inner turmoil that I had to go through and I’m still going through.
Q: How hard or easy was it to find what you would consider your community?
It took a little bit. I don’t think — it’s not until I moved to Seattle, like outside of the suburbs, that’s when I was slowly meeting and finding people that I considered my own community or a second family, in a way. It took me about three years or so to finally have a super solid, like these are my people type of relationship.
Honestly, I’m so blessed with how things happened for me in this country. I always just happened to meet the right people at the right time at the right place…I also do push myself. I volunteer, I go out, I reach out, I meet people, even at concerts, shows, schools, I don’t know, I really opened up myself to my surroundings because you can’t really just sit there and expect things to come your way. I really had to work my ass off to be where I’m at right now.
After three to four years I was in America, Instagram became bigger and bigger and that’s kind of part of it, too. You have to thank social media because I have met so many people through Instagram as well. But beyond that, I’ve met people through concerts I went to, even Tumblr when I was still using Tumblr, and I just tried to go to as many shows as I can and be as involved in the community and the industry I want to be a part of. And through school as well, I met so many people. Every time there’s an opportunity for me to put my name out there even more for people to see me and who I am.
Q: Tell me about how you connect with your Indonesian heritage. How do you see yourself as Indonesian? Do you feel strongly about your Indonesian identity? Why, or why not?
My dad’s from Sumatra, he’s Minangkabau, he’s from Padang, and my mom is Javanese, from East Java, Surabaya. I grew up only knowing my Javanese side; I never really knew my Sumatran side besides the food. So that on its own, I’m already dealing with so many identity issues — like I’m not full Javanese but I’m not full Sumatran either — but then I don’t really know my dad’s side and half of my culture and half of me. Do I have a right to call myself Javanese either? …I’m mixed with two different ethnic groups and I only know half of it and I never thought of it that way because I grew up in Jakarta, it’s so westernized. My mom…she never really talks about his culture. She only implements this whole thinking of, “You’re a Javanese woman, you need to make sure you stay that way forever.” So that I’m more ingrained with my Javanese side. But I definitely do consider myself an Indonesian. I always will be…For me to switch that, I don’t think I can even see myself doing it. I can’t call myself an American ever or any other identity — I’ll always be an Indonesian no matter what, no matter where I am.
That’s vague to me, that type of question. Because, what type of Indonesian are you? I grew up consuming so much Western media. In Jakarta, it’s one of those things where if you like traditional things, it’s like you’re lame or whatever. I think society’s changing, or my generation’s changing and they have more appreciation of their country and where they’re from and our heritage. But growing up, I was really interested and I respected it, but was trying so hard to be Westernized that I forgot where I’m from. So do I feel strongly? Kind of, in a way. I feel strongly about it now; I wasn’t before. But there’s some aspects of what it is like being specifically a Muslim Indonesian that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about. I don’t know. Maybe I just have different views on things.
I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be Indonesian when I have this other half of me that I still can’t figure out and I still haven’t figured out. So, there’s that.
I will always forever love the food. It’s one of the best foods out there. From my Javanese side, I stick to the tradition of being Muslim Javanese Indonesian — god, there’s so many terms — you know, just little things, little rituals that my family taught me growing up. And the language — the language is kind of fading, it’s really scary. I still speak it, it’s not like I don’t, I still text my mom in Indonesian, but my sister and I, we talk in English a lot more. It’s so hard when you have to speak English 24/7, it becomes rusty. It’s there, it’s engraved in my heart forever, it’s never going to go away, it’s just slowly fading and rusty, and that’s not what I want.
Q: What has it been like being a person with Indonesian heritage abroad? Did you ever think about your Indonesian heritage while you were still in Jakarta?
It’s been weird being an Indonesian person in America. No one really knows who we are, no one really knows Indonesia. Like, I always get mistaken to be Filipino, which is fine, it’s just…that’s the thing, because the term Asian-American — immigrants that move to the U.S. from Asia way back in the day, a lot of them were pushed here because there’s a nasty relationship between their country and America. In a way, America pushed them away from their country, telling them they’re going to have a better life in America, but it’s just actually a whole lot more difficult, for the sake of the American dream. But Indonesia never really necessarily had a relationship with America to that extent.
You just feel invisible. You don’t really fit in necessarily in any pockets in the U.S. You’re just floating, figuring it out your way, across society. I can’t really use the term Asian-American, because I’m not an Asian-American, I’m a Southeast Asian immigrant, that’s for sure. I felt disconnected. I felt invisible.
I definitely didn’t really think about my heritage when I was back home. I wanted to be bule so bad, because that’s the cool thing. That’s what kids do, they do the cool thing that their friends do. I was trying to globalize myself, Westernize myself, like oh, yeah, I know all these bands from the U.S. and the U.K. and they’re all these indie bands or these cult movies that I’ve seen, blah blah blah.
Even the way I grew up as an Indonesian is pretty different, because I didn’t grow up where my mom grew up. I grew up in the city, it’s more forgiving to have these different ideologies, and thoughts, and way of living. I mean, it’s still quite taboo — I grew up for my mom to be a single parent, she pretty much broke all the stereotypes of what’s expected of Indonesian women, so then, I grew up with that and I’m used to do that.
Q: Did you connect with an Indonesian community in the U.S.? Are you interested in connecting with other Indonesians, or has that been a difficult experience?
To be quite honest, I don’t have that many Indonesian friends. Is that bad? Oh man, I hope not. I think finding like-minded Indonesians is slightly difficult. I think I’m just gonna end it right there.
Finding the people that has the same viewing or thinking as I am is not that easy. So I’m quite selective with the Indonesians I surround myself with…Even within my own people, I’m “too bule.” Somehow I look too American, sound too American, have American thinking, that I can’t even get along with my own people. So that we just become these weird leftover Indonesians in America with these type of mindsets.
And there’s not too many of us here. I mean, I always want to connect with other Indonesians, it’s not like I don’t want to talk to Indonesians who don’t have the same mindset or values as me — it’s just really difficult, I must say. Anti-blackness is just so big everywhere, sometimes it’s really difficult. I know a part of it is my responsibility to talk to other Indonesians about these issues, but then it’s just disheartening to see other Indonesians who use the N word and don’t think it’s wrong, or have dreads or cornrows, I don’t know. Doing this cultural appropriation from black culture or anything that’s not ours, it’s disheartening. And sometimes views on LGBTQIA groups and feminism and rape culture — it’s hard. Because then, it’s like, oh you’re too loud to be a woman, or something like that. Too opinionated. Sometimes I get frustrated but that’s something I need to work on and maybe let myself have those conversations with other Indonesians. I guess that’s why I’m a little more discouraged if I don’t vibe that well with them.
Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?
It means I just have to keep passing it down. Over generations. It can’t stop at me. It’s a part of me and will be a part of the coming generation. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a kid — I think I probably will, not until I’m like 30 or something, who knows — but if I do, that’s my responsibility. I need to make sure my kid understands what it means to be part Indonesian, if I happen to marry someone who’s not Indonesian. But if they’re full Indonesian, it’s important wherever they’re going to live, it’s still a part of them. Passing down the tradition, and acknowledging your ancestors and your family, and where you’re from — I think that’s what having Indonesian heritage means to me.
Q: What do you hope to achieve with your art? If you can share, what are some goals you have for yourself and/or for your work?
I hope that I can be the best artist I can be through my art, and I hope that I can create a community through my art. I hope I’m able to share stories and open up conversations between people. I hope I can make a bit of an impact, even if it’s something small. I really hope I can achieve that and hopefully, with my art, I’m able to give back to the community.
My biggest goal is to own my own creative company where I can produce my own things and provide these resources to the upcoming generations of artists by giving free workshops or cheap equipment to rent. Something that can be accessible to anyone from different socioeconomic statuses, from different upbringings, and I really hope that I can mentor a lot of upcoming artists of color, the young generations of artists of color. Hopefully, I can give back to Indonesia, too. I’ve always dreamed of opening up a summer camp in Jakarta. I love teaching. I didn’t realize how much I love teaching. I guess it runs in the family. My mom used to teach, so it’s natural.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.