Visual Art Performance Opens Eyes to Religious Diversity in Multicultural Society
It was a casual Thursday night and an unusual sighting occurred at Potato Head, one of the hippest pubs in the capital. Among the crowd of young Indonesians and elite expatriates, 12 figures wearing what looked like miniature houses on top of their heads were spotted across the bar, blending with the pub’s patrons.
Birdprayers, an art installation collaboration by Indonesian and Belgian visual artists Arya Pandjalu and Sara Nuytemans, made their way to Jakarta after holding exhibitions in Bali, Jogjakarta and several European countries.
The project was initiated from a mutual interest about differences in both artists’ cultural, religious, societal and geographical backgrounds. Sara was raised in the Netherlands in a Catholic environment, whereas Arya was born in Indonesia and raised in a Muslim family. Their fascination for diversity grew through discussions of their different backgrounds. Hence, the idea for their project, Birdprayers, was born.
Launched in Ubud, Bali, the concept of Birdprayers grew when Nuyteman and Arya assigned four people to station in various locations across the town, masking themselves with custom-made birdcages on their heads. These bird houses were constructed in the shape of religious worship houses to symbolize the four dominant religions in the world: Islam, Catholicism, Judaism and Hinduism. Such creations illustrate how the human minds are often restricted by walls. Walls, according to the artists, shaped how you were raised, taught and believe.
Nuytemans and Arya, through Birdprayers, aim to spread the message: People should not fear difference. Diversity can become a strength, a power. Diversity is beautiful.
Since the first project rocketed in Ubud, Nuytemans and Arya have traveled around the world from expanding at a pasar burung (bird market) in Jogjakarta, to walking by the colosseum in Rome, commuting on a subway in Turkey, to standing like statues in the streets of Slovakia.
Birdprayers focuses on more than only one disciplines: videos, performances, installations and other forms of communications. Birdprayers then was screened inside Potato Head, serving as a back story as 12 performers wearing masks, appearing in a single line before eventually dispersing among the crowd, positioning themselves subtly next to people — you wouldn’t even notice they were next to you. The performers also performed a mix of hand gestures — taken and created from various religious rituals.
The performance represents the diversity in society. You are aware of the others’ existence, but as long you as don’t disturb each other and don’t recognize them as a threat, then only opposing religious groups can live in harmony.
“All religions and cultures are brought by universal ideas. Expect that there’s a difference and you must not see things with a narrow mind. You mustn’t be too dogmatic” said Arya after the show.
Unlike their past performances, Birdprayers at Potato Head deployed 12 people instead of four to adjust to the spaces and to insert an element of entertainment to the event.
“We were invited to hold the exhibition at Potato Head. This is our first exhibition in Jakarta, the setting is completely different. We were used to public spaces, so we had to make a few changes to the concept,” said Nuytemans. “The setting is more intimate, unlike the usual public spaces where people just past by. There’s interaction at Potato Head.”
“The directors of Potato Head — Ronald Akili and Jason Gunawan — are avid art collectors and have been supporting artists in their other vocation. We really like Sara Nuytemans and Arya Pandjalu’s works and we thought Birdprayers would be suitable to be showcased at Potato Head,” said Emmelyn Gunawan, Potato Heads’ public relations manager.
“The Birdprayers performance does not invade your personal space. It brings curiosity to the audience while they are enjoying their meals. It was suitable to be held at a restaurant or a bar,” added Emmelyn.
A country as rich as Indonesia must learn to cope with its own diversity and use it to unite its cultures, languages, faiths and ethnicities. Indonesians must learn to accept the differences it has, just as how the messages conveyed by Birdprayers intended to raise.
“Everything is relative: What’s in your mind, your background, your experience, your ideas, how you are raised; there’s no objective truth,” concluded Nuytemans.