Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia
Grew up in: Thailand, Hong Kong, the U.S.
Currently living in: Hong Kong
Quick things: Nabila Wirakusumah is an artist and designer who has worked in oil painting, watercolor, digital art and generative art through coding. Born in Jakarta, raised in Thailand and Hong Kong, and educated in New York and Denmark, her work explores heritage, place, and the spaces in between.
(Photo courtesy of Nabila Wirakusumah | Photo credit: Joyce Lanxin Zhao)
Q: Tell me more about your journey into art.
When I was younger, my family moved around a lot. In the span of a year and a half, we lived in different cities around the U.S. But, the arts were always a part of my life. My parents, starting from when I was about 7 or 8, they’d go travel and then put us up at a family friend’s house in Ubud, Bali, for a lot of our summers growing up. We would learn Balinese dance and painting. I felt like I had a knack for it, and it turned to a lot of after-school art classes, things like that. I don’t think I fully formed that “oh, I can do this” outside of it being a hobby until I was in high school. Funnily enough, I was in trouble so I couldn’t go on this school trip, so I had to stay back and do a “staycation” kind of art program while everyone else went on the trip. So, as I was doing that, I was like, “I love this. If I’m just making art all the time, I’m happy.” That’s when I realized OK, I can do this full-time.
Q: What medium do you most prefer working with?
That’s always been my problem: trying to find that one medium. Right now, I’m definitely preferring digital just for the ease of it since I’m traveling so much. I can’t bring my oil paints everywhere. But, before that, it was watercolor. Digital art has so much ease and flexibility, and I also studied graphic design initially so there’s a big comfort in that.
Q: What are some other forms that you would like to explore?
My younger sister is so good at editing videos and it’s something I’ve always wanted to get into. I want to see where her voice as an artist goes. I think, right now, it’s less about finding brand-new avenues and more wanting to cultivate the media that I’ve started that I haven’t given a lot of love to. I do a lot of digital art, generative art through coding. One of my favorite pieces — I haven’t put it online that’s the best way to show people, but it’s a series I’m proud of. Generative art is not always through coding but what it is — the artist designs a system, the aesthetics of the final piece is not really the goal, but you create this system that runs by itself and then it manipulates what you see. So, the system is the actual art piece, but every time you run it, it’s a little different.
I created a series with five generative art pieces, where I took old photographs of American families, like from the ‘50s, very Americana-style images, and this was on the eve of the 2016 election. So I collected these images, scanned them, Photoshopped myself into the background in a very subtle way, inserting myself in these images. Then I created code that would run on top of the photographs and start to distort them that would obstruct the photo until I was the main thing that you could see. My question through this piece was about what it meant to be American, and if there’s one specific definition, and if my identity kept me from being able to fit into that. Is it an act of reconciliation or subversion? By writing this code, by creating generative art, I’m able to create my own system that disrupts the narrative of these photographs and refocuses the narrative onto myself.
Q: What are some of your future goals with your work? Where do you see your work going?
I’ve been working on a series of digital portraits that are looking on what I think is central to my identity, this sense of contradiction, between east and west, tradition and modernity, and I have a self-portrait that I’m still too afraid to put on Instagram because I’m topless and Indonesian relatives…you know how it is. It was easier to just really not care about what people thought, but now I have this very deep respect for everyone in my family the older I get. Even though I’m firm in my beliefs and stand by my painting, I’m also just aware of the fact that I don’t want to upset them and their sensibilities.
There was a piece I did that was featured in BRIC in Brooklyn that featured me somewhat naked, and you can also see my tattoos. The first one is a physical piece I did on canvas, but it’s actually mixed media. I did some digital art of myself repeated, figures of myself praying, but I was naked. And I’m also tattooed. So this was playing on this contradiction of the first time I felt God and I actually felt a spiritual connection. It was during a really hard point in my life. I took a shower for the first time in a few days, and I came to my room and, even though I hadn’t prayed in over 10 years at that point, I was just overcome by this feeling. I fell to my knees and I started praying, and it was before I’d put on any clothes. In that moment, I felt this connection to God. When I came to and came out of this spiritual high that I was on, I felt that in all of my contradictions, I still felt this connection.
The second piece I did is completely digital but it’s playing on these paintings that I grew up with all over my grandmother’s house, my aunt’s house, my mom’s house, of topless women as was the tradition predating Islamic influence, and yet when I go back to Indonesia, it’s when I feel most conscious of my body and how I’m being sexualized or how the male gaze is seeing my form. So I painted myself topless with symbols that connect to my Indonesian heritage, the keris — which is what my tattoo is of — and plants that I would see around the country. I want to do more pieces that play on that tension, of contradictions, of taking up space somewhere in the middle. Just for myself so I can be understood by my American friends, for them to understand the tension that I have of being Indonesian, Muslim, and also for my parents to understand where I’m coming from, having been educated abroad, in America. It doesn’t make me less Indonesian, but it also means that I have certain convictions about how I should be able to treat my body and how I want to be seen and respected as a woman.
Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?
When it’s such a presence in your home, I think you go through a phase, especially in high school, where you distance yourself from what your parents love. I was always aware of it — there’s a huge presence of our culture at home — but I didn’t feel that self-motivation to kind of re-learn my culture and be appreciative of it until I moved away and I moved to New York. I think there were so many comforts in our home that I suddenly didn’t have anymore in New York that I craved a lot. From the basic stuff like the smell and taste of the food, but also my home is completely covered with Indonesian paintings and sculptures and puppets and masks that I started to — when I got to New York and I was in art class trying to figure out my voice and what I wanted to draw, the things that I started reaching for were things evoking the prints in batik or just symbols that reminded me of the pieces of art that we had at home.
Q: Have your parents ever shared with you a specific suku, or ethnic group, that you’re a part of?
No, not at all, actually. They were very unspecific about it to the point that I, coming back from the first couple semesters in New York, was like, “I need to know more. I feel like I don’t know how to talk about where I’m from,” or whatever, and they were just like, “You’re Indonesian, and to be Indonesian is to be a part of so many cultures.” To them, it didn’t matter.
The first time I felt close to a specific community would be, two years ago, I discovered my grandmother was from the Minangkabau area, which is the largest matrilineal society in the world, but also in Indonesia. My mom was working with this company that was trying to preserve songket weaving. Because of my design background and now that I’m finally back in Asia, we took a trip there recently and that was the first time — my experience in Indonesia has been, by and large, in Jakarta, which is hard to feel any sort of cultural ties there. But, then, we flew to Padang and drove to Koto Gadang, which is where her village is, and that was really profound to me. I can’t pretend that I suddenly felt like I was home, but there was something really beautiful to understand where these things that were in my house now had a context. I felt a draw to want to understand that more — I was told to relate to this country as a whole, which I was simultaneously told I would never be able to confine into one definition. So anchoring it somewhere that I could actually feel like I could see the roots where my mother’s side has come from was really eye-opening.
Q: What has been some of your triumphs and struggles as an artist of color? Are there moments where you feel, as an artist of color, you’re being constricted by certain expectations or perceptions of what your art should be?
I’m a pretty positive person. It’s always been difficult to be a marginalized person in art, but there also seems to be more chances now to make yourself more visible and shout your existence into the void, because this is what we have to do. So I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and say, “You’re an artist of color, your aesthetic speaks to heritage that has been othered, and I want you to be represented.”
But also, the parts that have been trying is having those conversations with people who have this inherent fear, who are like, “I want to understand you, I want to understand your voice,” and they want to do the right thing, but there’s this fear, being too afraid of misrepresenting me. It’s just a lack of practice. I’ve had a lot of experiences with white people not knowing how to approach my work or even feeling like they can.
Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?
I was trying to explain this to my little sister, who’s going through that phase — she just started high school — of just feeling like you don’t know how to connect to your heritage and wanting to pull away for a bit. Being Indonesian is seeing beauty in diversity, and how this archipelago of 17,000 islands — there’s a unity that can exist. Part of what I struggled with in having a sense of Indonesia with my work is being like, “OK, I need things that are characteristically Indonesian,” and of course, what people think about is Bali and wanting to draw all these Balinese symbols. And, yes, I love Bali, it’s a huge part of my childhood, but that is such a small, small part of Indonesia, and it was naive of me to think I could inject this sense of Indonesian culture and think there were motifs and symbols that could encompass the whole country, when I really needed to do my research about what part of Indonesian culture I wanted to show. The more I learn, the more I’m humbled by how many perspectives I need to be aware of in just this one space.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.