'The Exististentialism of Mella Jaarsma', by Meta Knol

The Exististentialism of Mella Jaarsma

When Remy Jungerman asked Mella in an artist’s interview why she chose to study at an Indonesian Art Institute, Mella answered: ‘The need to make art in Indonesia is directly related to a community, and this appeals to me’.1 This answer is characteristic of Mella. She feels strongly connected with the social surroundings where she lives and works as an artist. She has also shaped that environment herself over time, through the many initiatives that she developed for and with other artists. In her oeuvre, moreover, she also researched many kinds of social, cultural, religious, and community codes, rituals and symbols. Through the years, life and work flowed together increasingly into an indivisible whole.

There were other reasons to go to Indonesia. The contrast between light and shadow, for example, held her under a spell; the perpendicular position of the sun, the quickness of dawn and, in the evening, street life with the magic shadow play of the oil lamps of the food stalls. She started to research shadows as ‘in-between images’, immaterial reflections of shapes that appeared as silhouettes, cut out through the light. She was inspired by the ancestor sculptures from Toraja on the island Sulawesi – also a form of ‘in-between imagery’ – as well as the Balinese custom of shaping the ashes of a deceased person into the form of a (baby sized) human figure. She processed these impressions in photos, installations, drawings, and paintings.

During her first trip in 1983, she tasted a tempting new sort of freedom, the possibility to operate outside the boundaries of the current thinking of the Dutch art scene, the loosening of existing frameworks and finding new directions.

Also, there was the freedom to start from the here and now of the Indonesian reality to capture the pure appearance of life in art. This daily reality imposed itself upon her continuously in Indonesia, through the open relationships between the houses and the streets, the studio and social life. Her first visit to Indonesia was an eye-opener. “In Indonesia, existence became valid for me”, she said.2 Thinking and working outside existing frameworks has been, since then, a constant in the works of Mella Jaarsma.

There was something scalding in Yogyakarta in those years. The young generation artists wanted to escape the abstract-ethnic material painting style that was promoted by their lecturers. Heri Dono, Eddie Hara and Nindityo Adipurnomo, all classmates of Mella at the Art Institute in Yogya, were searching for other directions: multi-disciplinary works and the exploration for a connection with popular visual culture, but also, the re-interpretation of their cultural backgrounds by looking for inspiration in Javanese traditions and rituals. Mella met with FX Harsono and Moeljono, who put their artistic practices in service of social and political ideals. Their sincere engagement, and the urgency and energetic change that they generated was infectious. The contrast with the Dutch situation even became more pronounced.

Mella experienced life in Indonesia, under the dictatorial political system of that time, in enormous social injustice, religious and ethnical twists, and the always continuous danger of potential natural disasters, like earthquakes, floated as capricious, unpredictable and unstable. Furthermore, there was no official artistic infrastructure to which artists could link up. In these uncertain circumstances there was no other way than to pave a new path. This initiated a process of self reflection that appears to have been very fertile: the question about who you are and which identity you want or could adopt in an ongoing changing environment, has occupied her thoughts ever since. The analyses of insiders and outsiders has clearly become a leading theme in her works.

Before the political situation changed in 1998 and the Reformasi period introduced democratic reformations, Mella couldn’t work for several months. Too many things happened and much had changed. There were demonstrations and killings. The popular fury was addressed to Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity. There was a political and social vacuum, in which the identities of everybody – participants and observers – was challenged. Mella decided to use her work to connect people of different religious and cultural backgrounds. In front of the ‘Gedung Agung’, or the presidential palace in Yogyakarta, on Malioboro street, she made a performance of frying frog legs, a Chinese delicacy that is considered to be ‘unclean’ by Muslim Indonesians, but that she as a foreigner could distribute to bystanders. Shortly after that, she created the work ‘Hi Inlander’: four veils made from basic natural and, at the same time, meaningful materials, such as frog skins, fist skins, kangaroo leather, and chicken feet. She raised questions about native and ethnic stereotypes in visual self-explanatory forms.

Since then, Mella has dismantled cultural codes and meanings of garments and other forms of body coverings and protection, building on the theme of the burka, the veil that, at the same time, both covers and reveals; the subject of temporary shelters that barely give protection to vulnerable persons, and other forms of camouflage that straddle the middle between serving as both armor and a weapon. She developed new dress codes, as hybrid mixtures of bodies, garments and rudimental architectural sculptures that collectively show the liquidity and intangibility that present human identity: “Through my work, I try to reject the question of origin and actually deconstruct identities by producing renewable identities, seeing identity as a transient invention. (1) In the eyes of Mella Jaarsma, identity is multiform, flexible and, therefore, personal.

With this she retains all shades of the human identity. It characterizes her fundamental, human life philosophy. Therefore, it is tempting to connect Mella’s work with the ‘humanistic psychology’ of the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). He developed a theory linking basal, physical needs, and the need for self-development that would be of a higher mental order.

MetaKnolgraph.gifAccording Maslow, a meaningful life with individual development, freedom and responsibility could be only be in balance after the fulfillment of pure physical needs, such as eating, drinking, sleeping, sex, and protection against extreme physical circumstances. Upon the fulfillment of these securities, the needs for social contact, love and acknowledgement are able to manifest themselves, which leads to a pure experience of truth and beauty. Maslow assumes that every person in principle is actually longing to reach a certain form of higher self-development. The nice thing is that the work of Mella Jaarsma shows all steps in the pyramid of Maslow at the same time, without creating a forced hierarchic order. Her works are not only earthy, basal and physical, but they are also visual expressions of what Maslow would call ‘self-actualizations’. 

Already during her academic time in Groningen, Mella Jaarsma read books from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that impressed her a lot. Sartre (1905-1980) was, together with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a representative of the atheistic humanism, which developed strongly during the mid-twenties in Europe.

In his eyes, the human being was not pre-destined: “Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made.”(2)The human being stands in first of all, naked in his existence, and secondly, through self-reflection and self-improvement, develops him/herself as a meaningful essential individual. “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. That’s the first principle of existentialism,” Sartre said in his lecture ‘Existentialism is a Humanismin 1946.(3)

The humanism of Sartre’s vision not so much lied in his view about individual development, but more about his ideas concerning the self image of a person in relation to his view on ‘the other’ : “Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of inter-subjectivity. It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are.” Your own self image defines your view of the other, and with this you have taken a responsible position over the other, that is in short the message of Sartre. You have to be conscious of your responsibilities for the other: “There is always some way of understanding an idiot, a child, a primitive man or a foreigner if one has sufficient information.”(4)

This way of thinking formed an important driving force for Mella Jaarsma ever since she arrived in Indonesia, now twenty-five years ago. In concrete visual objects and performances, she discloses the complicated process of ‘seeing and being seen’. Complex themes like race, gender, identity, social class, and religion are put under the microscope through a critical, personal, but at the same time, accessible way, in which each taboo in principle is treated indifferently, but respectfully. Whoever is confronted with her artworks, experiences the psychological pressure of shame, shyness, vulnerability, and resistance, but also the promise of improvement, connection, care, and correlation. Mella delivers through her artworks the most elementary questions. Whoever passes through her oeuvre, makes a journey through different worlds and possibilities, becoming for a moment an insider in the artistic omniversum of the artist.

Meta Knol
Director Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden, The Netherlands

1. Op. Cit. (noot 1), p. 55; 
2. Jean-Paul Sartre, lezing ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, 1946, uitgave World Pulblishing Society, 1956; 3.Ibidem.; 4. Ibidem.

'Reading Mella Jaarsma, little notes of a friend' by Eko Prawoto

Reading Mella Jaarsma, little notes of a friend

It appears indeed to be true that to be able to see and perceive something clearly, humans need contrast and sufficient distance from the object. This appears to also be true in social or cultural domains. Often, our perceptions and intuitions become dull when we view ordinary and routine matters. The eyes of other people are sometimes needed to reintroduce and restore a sense of awe of the customary, to guide us to a deeper and more profound vision.

Mella Jaarsma, who was born in the Netherlands, has a distance in perspective of the phenomena of daily life in Indonesia. I have learned a lot from her sharp observations and diligence in capturing the tracks and whispers of life. This essay is not a scholarly article, but can be seen as notes of a friend who is in awe of the creative work of the artist, Mella Jaarsma. These are fragments of memories that have been collected over a period of time; the deposits of these impressions have been formed layer by layer from various meetings, encounters, discussions, conversations, as well as several collaborations, as an exhibition visitor, her architect, and friend.

Searching for shadows

Her interest in shadows brought her on a journey to Indonesia, which is known for its wayang. However, this meeting of cultures also brought a creative adventure that has continued. In Mella’s eyes, the daily phenomena of street vendor’s tents can be paralleled to a wayang kulit performance. Mella’s early works at that time explored light, darkness and shadows. However, the matters of ‘messages’ and ‘connecting channels’, also the ‘transfer’ that she ‘saw’ in the wayang performance and in real life, became the focus of her search and reflections.

Actually, Mella’s works are very philosophical, and even tend to be heavy, embedded with a discourse about the search for meaning. She stretches a body of shadows further inward and builds a consciousness for people to ask and then search for the meaning of life and living. The shadows sometimes are behind us and sometimes in front of us….

Her sharp observation of daily life, as well as her freedom of abstraction makes Mella’s works unique. There is a strong sense of locality, but at the same time, there is something new, modern and global. Mella does not see Indonesia in a romantic way. However, she always attempts to dive into her subject matter like a researcher, searching for the essence of universal humanity. Her ‘double’ status as a foreigner, but also a local resident gives her a mental authority to move in and out of the social, cultural, psychological, and even political domains. I learn a lot from Mella’s perspective about the possibilities of perceiving our culture loosely. Culture as a social convention and construction is not quiet and static. Tradition needs development and new energy so that it continues to flow and live, not just be praised and frozen.


Various ritual traditions that are still practiced also appear to tease her. Reflections on the environmental crisis and the lack of appreciation of natural resources became the stimulation for new artworks. One of Mella’s early works about the ‘rituals of pouring water’ is very interesting. Local materials, such as wooden branches, wood blocks and coconuts, were arranged into a series of sculptural compositions that performed a ‘modern ritual’ of reviving an appreciation for the importance of water. This is a very ancient impression, however at the same time, a contextual universal message.

This ‘anthropological’ perspective is one of the unique traits of Mella’s works. Research combined with a sharp intuition gives Mella’s work an inner value that is very reflective, almost spiritual.

When asked about her intentions in regards to her works, however, Mella doesn’t state a desire to express something moralistic or prophetic. Perhaps it is because of her modesty. Her art works are more of an invitation for humans to think and to contemplate the nature of their humanity.


Formerly, I thought that the creative process was a work of feelings. Apparently, this is not always so. I once peeked into Mella’s studio. There were thick books about the system and workings of the human nervous system, heavy reference books that perhaps were more suited for medical students. It appeared that she was studying about the human nervous system, in relationship to hearing and sight. As I remember, this was when she was pregnant, her first experience in becoming a mother who would bring a human into this world.

Through the language of art, Mella throws herself into her artwork. And, of course, the language of biology or science about nerves is different from the language of Mella’s authentic art. The “Sound of Breath” series, for example, is full of expressions about the processes of communication amongst humans.

Once, in her home, she pointed out a small painting with a red background, with an amorphous silver shape like a cross-section of the brain, surrounded with dynamic, wild, spontaneous black marks and with a carpenter’s ruler adhered to the bottom, folded in a zig-zag! This was her reflection and explanation about the matter of distance and the process of seeing. She invites us to think about the relative-ness of distance and about what we really see or measure.

Then, she said: “It seems that this is suitable for you, the architect. Take it, okay?”

Of course, I couldn’t say anything except “yes” and “thank you”. This deeply impressed me. I accepted the painting as an invitation to ruminate about architecture, that it involves something physical and measured, but there is also an aspect of feeling or soul that is not completely apparent. These two realities are always interwoven in ourselves.

Freedom and playful creativity

Observing Mella’s works, I am struck how she is not tied to materials or style. She has transcended the boundaries and limitations of media. She can use anything. And this is sometimes surprising.

Look at, for example, when she used buffalo horns or animal skins. Objects that were usually known as craft materials suddenly gained a new status as art objects in very different forms. There is a twisted double meaning, the borders of traditions breached, long-standing conventions fade, but also the contents of a ‘social political’ message stated. Mella invites us to think.

There is another work that I think is interesting because of its anthropological content, while appearing to be very simple. It is about the kitchen, entitled “Between Squatting and Standing”, 1999. The kitchen is the area in our culture that is considered to be the ‘back’, or left, and usually hidden. Remember the saying, “kitchen secrets”, for example. This is related to the matter of existence. It can be very symbolic.

Mella made photo documentation of many neighborhood kitchens in the area where she lives. Here, we see that she turned the kitchen, something that we ‘usually’ perceive to be an everyday, private matter, into public discourse based on its diversity. Apparently, the preparation of food can be done in a variety of ways. Mella very astutely illustrates that the activity of cooking varies in both position and equipment. There are those who do it while squatting on the ground, using a simple clay stove with burning wood, branches, or a charcoal burner, while there are those who cook while standing at a kerosene burner or gas stove. This is a clear commentary on the possibilities of harmonious living in the midst of diversity or differences. She makes a real-life example of the heterogeneity of the Ngadinegaran neighborhood in the formation of togetherness. The invitation of this reflection is based on social conflicts that later are manifested in issues of indigenous and non-indigenous elements of the community. It is as if togetherness can only be manifested in similarities or uniformities. She rejects this idea through the language of art.


Relishing Mella’s works is not always easy. Sometimes she invites us to trace and follow the margins of areas that we tend to cover up or hide as part of our cultural conventions. Mella, however, is not bound to them. This makes us inhale and think again.

Her work for the Biennale Yogya IX, entitled ‘My Name is Michella Jarawiri’, is extraordinary. Unfortunately, it did not attract much attention. I think this work was monumental. It addressed a very intricate and complex political issue with a language of art that was not vulgar and banal. It was very refined, but intense, in guiding us into a direct confrontation of our human identity.

Several of her more recent works also exhibit this same kind of toughness. It reveals a maturing of her spirit and increasing sharpness of her observation. In the midst of the tumult and heat of the art market, Mella continues to explore her own path by herself. Perhaps it is a lonely journey, but many people are waiting for her, to learn how to see and borrow the eyes of her soul, to think and awaken in following her footsteps and tracing the narrow path of this life …

eko prawoto

'Mella Jaarsma: Shedding Skin' by Apinan Poshyananda

Mella Jaarsma: Shedding Skin

When art is discussed in context of diaspora and racism one could sense a whiff of political correctness as appropriate subjects are raised by those who have the “right” skin pigmentation. Displacement and dislocation are often seen as experience faced by migrants and oversea workers who have shifted from their home to estranged environs. While dominators or (neo) colonizers stereotyped as white males manipulate and control weaker races, classes and gender. Double marginalization tends to be associated with females who do not inhabit in their home country and are not of European descent.

In the case of Mella Jaarsma definition of home in context of Emmeloord and Yogyakarta or the Netherlands and Indonesia gets confusing. Married to Nindityo Adipurnomo with two daughters and settled in Yogyakarta for more than a decade, Jaarsma is no Indonesian but she has ridded layers of her Dutch upbringing. A Dutch female artist with an Indonesian artist partner can be misunderstood from the specter of Eurocentrism and neocolonialism. This is not the case of Jaarsma.

For many years I have been visiting Yogyakarta mainly with art projects related to Heri Dono, Dadang Christanto and Nindityo Adipurnomo. I have had the chance to follow Jaarsma’s steady development from mixed media works inspired by funeral rites and cremation to performances related to cooking frogs on the streets of Yogyakarta. Her participation at the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane and Womanifesto in Bangkok received critical acclaim. Unlike many European artists who have settled in foreign lands, Jaarsma does not paint beautiful flowers and topless natives in their everyday life. Her choice of subjects has gone deeper under the superficial surface where her works become catalysts for thought-provoking debate.

For many Indonesians, 1998 was the year of living dangerously. Stopping in Jakarta on my way to Yogyakarta, FX Harsono drove me to places where innocent people were beaten, locked up and burnt. I was informed that in some villages during day time men came to houses and took girls away from their parents to be raped and murdered. Arahmaiani who had been in a riot told that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. In Yogyakarta, I faced problems as no transportation company wanted to send Dadang Christanto’s sculptures to Sao Paulo Bienal as the political climate in Indonesia was unpredictable. Christanto talked of plans to move with his family to Darwin, Australia for safety. To have the surname Christanto and Chinese blood was not a good time to be in Yogyakarta. In 1999, I returned to Jakarta to attend the symposium on art and politics organized by Tempo, the newspaper that frequently criticized the authority, where I heard that Jaarsma was co-organizing the AWAS! exhibition with works related to the recent social and political turmoil in Indonesia.

My invitation for Jaarsma to spend a residency and show her solo exhibition in Bangkok came at a time when Thai audience was fully aware of political upheaval, ethnic cleansing and religious hatred in East Timor, Molluca and Aceh. “Eat You Eat Me” exhibition was not, however, intended to project Indonesian suffering through a Dutch interpretation. It might be too cynical simply to put across the idea of an European/dominant gaze at the formerly colonized, Bahasa-speaking inhabitants. On the contrary, Jaarsma’s performances that took place at the Art Center, Chulalongkorn University and Eat Me Restaurant became gestures that reached out for human compassion, empathy and discernment. Performers cloaked in animal skin prayed with rosaries or pointed with multiple fingers, These silent haunting figures with remnants of conflict and violence seeping into the skin are symbols of cultural dislocation and tragic memory. In order to survive or improve their status, survivors often act like chameleons as their outer skin function like camouflage or deception.

In “Floating Chimeras: 13 Asian Artists Travel North” exhibition at Edsvik Art and Culture, Sollentuna, Sweden, Jaarsma recreated “Eat You Eat Me” project. Against the backdrop of the Baltic Sea and storage houses built during the time of the Vikings, naked performers cloaked in animal and leaf skin stood like some hungry ghosts. In “Heroes and Holies” exhibition at EV+A 2002, Limerick, Sweden, Jaarsma’s performers appeared in the damp surrounding of St John’s Church. Slices of photographs were stuck on the crumbling walls. They brought back to life the abandoned church while at the same time paid respect to spirits on the holy ground. Nearby, Chandrasekaran wrapped in red cloth, pierced with hooks through his cheeks and chest was suspended on pillars. Blood dripped between his legs during his cleansing performance.

Frequently, when artists travel abroad they are required to deliver their cultural goods at particular sights under time limitation. Working under pressure they get few chances to relax and rest during preparation. An exceptional case occurred at the gathering of “Floating Chimeras” in Sollentuna, Sweden. During the last week of the Swedish summer few locals could be found at the Bergendal Hotel. In fact, at nightfall hotel attendants would go home leaving the guests by themselves. For several nights the artists (Chandrasekaran, Heri Dono, Mella Jaarsma, Arahmaiani, Ye Shufang, Lin Tian Miao, Prapon Kumjim, Chen Chieh-jen, his assistant) and myself were left at the accommodation with scenic view. We began to explore the place, played piano, looked at photographs of the local, drank, smoked and played football in the fitness center. After a couple of nights new games were invented. The empty hotel with long corridors became a scene of the Shining game as we pretended to be spooked or chased by axe waving Jack Nicholson. One night someone came up with the game of shedding skin. We all undressed and went into the steaming sauna in the basement. We left our camouflages and egos in the corridor. Our skin pigmentation had no differences. By shedding our skins we shared shimmering beads of sweat and tears of laughter.

Apinan Poshyananda is based in Bangkok where he teaches at Chulalongkorn University. He was awarded the Outstanding National Researcher by the National Research Council of Thailand in 2001. He has curated numerous exhibitions in Asia, Europe, America and Australia. He was art commissioner for the Australian Section of the Asia-Pacific Triennial, Australia (1996), the Asian section of Sao Paulo Bienal, Brazil (1998) and EV+A 2002, the Irish Biennale, Limerick, Ireland. He was guest curator of the exhibitions “Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions,” (The Asia Society, New York), “Floating Chimeras: 13 Asian Artists Travel North,” (Edsvik and Culture, Sollentuna) and “Beyond Paradise: Nordic Artists Travel East” (Moderna Museet, Stockholm). He is guest curator of the traveling exhibition “Montien Boonma: Temple of the Mind” organized by The Asia Society, New York.
Published at “Moral Pointers”