In the middle of a sentence, Farah Wardani suddenly stopped talking, a puzzled look on her face.
“Am I still making sense?” she asked. “Once I start talking about art, I tend to jump from one topic to the next.”
It’s obvious that the art world is not only Farah’s expertise but also the one place in which she likes to linger and explore. During a recent visit to Jakarta, she took the time to meet with the Jakarta Globe, and as soon as she started delving into her favorite topic, her eyes lit up.
Farah, an art critic, writer, curator and executive director of the Indonesian Visual Art Archive, lives in Yogyakarta, but was born and grew up in Jakarta.
After high school, Farah enrolled at Trisakti University to study graphic design. She graduated in 1998 but quickly realized that graphic design was not the field for her.
“I always used to hang out with the artsy bunch,” she said with a smile, before sipping from her coffee. It isn’t hard to believe — there’s a bohemian, free-spirited air about Farah.
“I then tried to find a way to dive deeper into the world of art,” she said. “I used to be an illustrator, but then I became more interested in the theoretical and educational side of art.”
That path took Farah all the way to Europe. She received a scholarship in 1999 to take her MA in art history at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Despite the degree, Farah wasn’t sure what to do upon returning to Indonesia in 2001.
“The art scene back then was very different from what it is today,” she said. “You didn’t have that many galleries, exhibitions and art fairs.”
Farah decided to go to Yogyakarta — often cited as the center of Javanese, and, on a larger scale, Indonesian art — and did an internship at the Cemeti Art Foundation. It would be the beginning of a long-time collaboration, but Farah didn’t know it at the time. After the internship ended, Farah came back to Jakarta, where she began to work as a freelance arts writer. She also joined the art community ruangrupa, helping artists make proposals, prepare exhibitions and do projects. She also began teaching at Paramadina University.
Looking back on it now, Farah describes the time as “basically trying to do anything connected to arts.”
After doing things here and there, Farah became an editor of Visual Arts Magazine from 2004 to 2006. Then Yogyakarta called again.
“I had always thought about moving to Yogya,” Farah said. “It is one of the centers of the art scene and it just seemed like an easier place to live. As it happened, I always stayed in touch with the Cemeti Art Foundation, and they were thinking about revitalizing the foundation in response to the fast-changing scene.”
Farah joined Cemeti as the new director — a task that seemed to come naturally her, since she was already familiar with the foundation’s work. One of the most important endeavors of Cemeti from the beginning was to catalog and archive data on the Indonesian art world.
When Farah took over, she and her team decided to rename Cemeti the Indonesian Visual Art Archive, thus giving it a new direction for the future.
“The first two years were really messy,” Farah said, laughing, but quickly adding that everything was on the right track now. Today, the archives contain thousands of records, from photographs to video footage, reference texts, exhibition catalogs and reviews as well as original works from Indonesian artists.
But being the director of IVAA also means that Farah has to constantly expand her network, which requires her to be very mobile. She splits her time between Yogyakarta, Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
“To be honest, I am quite overwhelmed with what’s happening in the art scene today,” Farah said.
New galleries seem to open every week, and artists deemed up-and-coming talents pop up at a staggering rate.
“Suddenly I hear about artists having a big break, even though I never heard their name before,” Farah said.
While she thinks the changes are a good development — it means the business side of art has had some success establishing itself and artists now have a better chance to make a living from their chosen profession — Farah admitted she still has a somewhat of a romantic view when it comes to art.
“Sometimes I feel that the business side overshadows the other side of art,” she said. “It’s a competition, which is natural, but I still believe art has to have a purpose. It’s not just a profession.
“I think artists play a certain role in the development of culture. Sometimes, in taking that role, they have to live on the edge. They have to be those crazy people within a society that see the world from a different perspective.”
In the end, Farah said, it’s all a matter of choice.
In the past couple of years, there has been a lot of talk about how contemporary art from Indonesia keeps thriving and blooming. While Farah welcomes this development and thinks it is good for Indonesian artists to go international, she said she her primary concern right now was with how art is perceived by the Indonesian public.
“Committed artists can always find a way to make a name for themselves in the international scene,” she said. “Heri Dono, for example, was already known outside of Indonesia back in the 1990s. There are a lot of options for artists about how to position themselves.”
But Indonesian society still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to dealing with art in the public domain and appreciating the role it can play in society, she said.
“I think it’s equally important for Indonesians to know about art history and why it matters,” Farah explained. “Art is not like movies or music, where you can find the products anywhere or download them online. In art, you have to go to a museum or a gallery to see the object. It takes time.”
For Farah herself, there is no time to be idle. Besides trying to improve the infrastructure of Indonesian museums and educate a wider public about art preservation and the issue of fake paintings, she has also been appointed as artistic director for next year’s Yogya Biennale, a major art exhibition that happens every two years.
“In the art world, it is always like this,” she said. “It’s all about communication, and you always need to follow up, but at the same time take on new challenges.”
And judging by the content look on her face, Farah wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
For more information about the Indonesian Visual Art Archive and to view its online collection, visit ivaa-online.org.