Interview: Adam de Boer

Birthplace: Southern California, U.S.A.

Grew up in: Southern California, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Age: 36

Quick things: Adam de Boer is an artist and researcher who lives and work in L.A. His work is being exhibited at ISA Art and Design with other diasporic artists in “Buah Tangan,” which runs Oct. 15 to Dec. 15. He will also be exhibiting his work Dec. 1-5 in L.A. at Hunter Shaw Fine Art as part of NADA Miami. Adam has also exhibited his work in London, Jakarta, and Yogyakarta. 

Find him: Website Instagram 

Featured photo: On left, “Traveller’s Palm” (2018) // On right, Adam de Boer in studio. Both photos courtesy of the artist. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me more about growing up in Southern California.

The family moved to the United States after bouncing around for about 10 years after leaving Java, through these Dutch-Indonesian cohorts that were sponsored by Dutch Christian charities. They weren’t necessarily welcomed in the Netherlands when they were repatriated.

I was always aware that I was mixed, that I was Dutch-Indonesian. We really weren’t encouraged, my dad’s generation especially, to be “other.” So they stopped speaking Dutch in the home, the kids stopped speaking Bahasa Indonesia altogether, so it was confusing for me as a kid, because we’d have these big meals with the extended family, and we knew we were Dutch-Indonesian … so knowing that intellectually but not having a real connection outside of the family, or something like that.

It wasn’t until I lived in D.C. — actually, I went on a vacation to Bali to go surfing with some friends from college, and that was the first time I’d been to Indonesia. It was the first time anyone in my family had been to Indonesia since 1956. And that’s just turned to this really long story.

Q: How did you start thinking of your heritage and your family’s history?

It wasn’t really until I was in my 20s, and it had a lot to do with going to art school and studying postmodernist, postcolonial, poststructural theory, where I was able to have kind of the vocabulary around the questions I had personally. And there was a lot of pushback from my parents. … Me going back and trying to insist on the difference, that we have a much more complicated history that should allow us to live much more nuanced experiences in this country. … Articulating the difference was initially not encouraged by my parents, by my family.

I’m only one generation removed from a place my entire family’s been from, and so I think when I landed in Bali, and subsequently went to Jogja … it just felt super familiar. That sensation is what really sparked my curiosity. Like, what is it about this place that sparks a kinship? I’ve been calling myself Dutch-Indonesian my whole life, and the family — the older generation — feel more affinity with the Dutch side, and they speak Dutch still, but that’s a legacy of power. Speaking that language kept them separate from the indigenous Javanese population. To keep their comfortable position in-between, they needed to express that difference as much as they can.

But all those signifiers didn’t mean anything here (in the U.S.). They got here (to the U.S.) and they were brown. It didn’t matter how much education they had, they started from the bottom. It’s an interesting legacy.

On left: “Riverwalker,” (2020) // On right: “Monday Evening Studio View,” 2020. Hunter Shaw Fine Art. (Courtesy of Adam de Boer)

Q: Tell me more about your art journey. How has it changed over the years?

I went to Indonesia, I think the first time in 2010. It was really this kind of reunion surf trip. I grew up surfing. … We decided that we were going to Bali. When I went to Bali that first time, I didn’t think it was going to change my entire artistic trajectory, or the way that I conceived of myself, or my family, or the way that I considered my position in the world, but it did.

Whenever I traveled, especially in those days, I would bring my sketchbooks and watercolors, and I felt this connection with the place. The first taxi I got into — I got into a Bluebird taxi — the whole airport smells like kretek, which I had not smelled that since my grandparents were alive. I get into the taxi, and the guy looks just like my dad. And I’d never met anybody else that looks like my dad because there aren’t any Dutch-Indonesians around that I’m not related to. So it was just this smell plus that visage — what’s going on here?

The next year, I went back as a kind of researcher-artist before going to graduate school in the U.K., and I went on this journey trying to find where my dad was born, and where my grandparents were born, and where they had lived their young lives before they were interned during World War II, and I had a very similar experience to that young man who made that documentary.

Yes! Nadir Nahdi. [Editor’s note: Read that 2018 interview here.]

When I watched his film — it was a beautiful production. The video I made was not good. But I was like, holy shit, this happens to everyone! … My dad’s birth certificate was written in the old Dutch spelling, so we had to get things translated to contemporary Indonesian. He thought he was from Purwokerto, but he was actually from Purbalingga — exactly like that other documentary. Then, through a photograph of my grandparents swimming, found this waterfall at a place called Baturaden, which has now become this mini theme park. When I found that, it just felt like — it was like this actual relic that I was beholding. It was so profound. I could really empathize with his (Nahdi’s) emotional state. I was there with my twin brother, and we were just totally bowled over by that experience. So, after all that, I was like, OK, I’m interested in this place visually, I was making these watercolors and these drawings, and started doing tourist stuff.

So I thought, what I need to do, I need to learn how to do batik myself. … It’ll be personally meaningful, and if it’s personally meaningful, I think an audience can relate to that and it’ll become bigger than my individual story. So, I went back in 2011 trying to find out where my dad was born, and then I went back again in 2014 as an artist-in-residence in Rumah Seni Cemeti in Jogja, which is an important cultural institution. And then went back in 2017, 2018 on a Fulbright grant to Jogja.

So, it’s been about 10 years where I’ve been coming and going and investing in that story. Right now, I make these hybrid objects that utilize stories from there, stories from here, material and crafts that I’ve learned there, material and crafts that I’ve learned here — just mix that all up.

Q: Did you start learning batik when you were in Jogja?

I did. The first one I properly made was in 2011. But it was at one of those tourist things. But I just loved it. What’s interesting is how it related to what I was working with anyway. So I was working with these acrylic washes and watercolor washes on paper, but batik is like a stained painting. Once I learned how to manipulate the tjanting, it was easier emotionally and conceptually to incorporate it into my work. I just love batik.

“Kota Jakarta,” 2020. (Courtesy of Adam de Boer)

Q: Can you share some lessons you learned while as an artist-in-residence in Jogja?

With Rumah Seni Cemeti, they helped me think of my place as an artist, not just in operating in the West, but being a Westerner and showing up there, and claiming that just because my dad was born here, I can make art about it, and they were like, not so fast. I really appreciated that, and I really had some difficult conversations that helped me grow as a person and as an artist while I was there. What’s interesting about them is that they make a lot of art about this multi-culti, mixed thing, too, because being from that archipelago, people have been coming and going for forever. They’ve had a lot of influences. There’s a lot of overtly political art being made in Jogja. People come from around the world to meet the artists and look at work in Jogja.

They helped me learn how to see from a Southeast Asian vantage and help me not have shame — you know, because I had some shame. As my family told it, they left as refugees, but when they were here in Java, they were occupiers and they were removed, as they should have been. But now, I’m an American and came with grant-funding, and when I had the Fulbright, I returned with even more privilege than they had, and there was a kind of guilt associated with that.

“Room Screen Kardinal,” 2019. (Courtesy of Adam de Boer)

Q: How has your art journey changed over the years?

I think what’s happening now, it feels like much more of a thorough synthesis. I’m at this point where I have so much familiarity with all these influences. … What I think has happened lately is art, specifically about Dutch-Indonesian things, or my family history, has been very specific about that landscape, about that history, about those people. And now, I just feel totally comfortable using whatever means I want to tell those stories. I live in Los Angeles now, and I’m making paintings about L.A. in batik. It just feels like these craft traditions; they feel no more craft than oil painting does, for example. Oil painting has a history in this culture, too, but for whatever reason, it’s considered almost ahistorical, like it exists outside time and space. All materials have all kinds of baggage — just pile them together to share whatever stories you want.

Q: When you show your work, what has the reaction been like? What’s the difference between showing your work in the U.S. vs. elsewhere? What about with Indonesians vs. non-Indonesians? 

In Europe, they seem to know what batik is. I don’t know why. I’ve shown my work in London for about the last 10 years, and they seem to kind of get it. Americans teach history in a bubble. When I show my work here (in the U.S.), people don’t know what they’re looking at, and that’s completely fine. As much as the medium is the message for me, it doesn’t need to register to operate as a painting. For the few people who do understand it, they’ve been really intrigued because they haven’t seen batik used in that way.

But I’ve actually had the opposite reaction when I’ve shown in Indonesia, in Jogja. I had a lot of pushback, not only with “why are you using these materials?” Not only are they “old-fashioned,” and “that’s not where art is going,” “you’re not even doing it right.” But I’m arguing that “you’re not doing it right” is exactly where the art is.

I think I’ve finally found an audience in Indonesia; I work with a gallery in Jakarta, and they seem to know where I’m working from, but it’s taken about 10 years to get that. I’ve shown in Art Jakarta, ARTJOG, so I’m invited some times, but I’m not invited other times.

Q: What advice would you have to share for aspiring artists who are also interested in making work connected to their heritage?

It takes a long time to develop your voice, and that’s because your voice is a combination of your taste and your skill, and those things aren’t the same at the beginning. And then also to listen to your heart and your own impulses. Whatever you’re interested in, just chase that very specific thing. I think when I started doing that is when things started clicking for me.

Q: What have recent conversations with your family been like?

My dad really acknowledges and appreciates this strange perspective that I have. He was the first in his family to become a (U.S.) citizen, and flies an American flag, and he has a Harley-Davidson. So me insisting on my otherness really challenged them, because they’re like, “What’re you talking about?” They’d been spending all this time basically saying, “We’re not other, look how successful we are in a middle-class American scenario.” “Why are you making this difficult? Why are you insisting on this difference?” I think it felt for them like a fool’s errand.

But after 10 years, they get it now. I brought my dad to where he was born, and I took his older sisters there, and they remembered. They remembered the landscape and words in Bahasa Indonesia — they hadn’t spoken that language in like 60 years. So, once that happened, and once they realized that I was really invested in this history and this artistic life and trajectory — I think they just trusted me. But it took a long time, and it’s been financially really difficult at times. … But they’ve come around, and I think they’re thankful that someone’s finally carrying the torch, but I think they’re grateful that it doesn’t have to be them.