Extremely colourful, very busy and with a multitude of objects and textures. The images of Indonesian photographer Leonard Suryajaya are shocking at first sight, but they are even more impressive when you know their history. Behind a colourful aesthetic, there is a history of traumas, fears and aspirations: “I want the first impression of my work to be celebratory and ambiguously joyous. It is a rendering of hopeful progress without shying away from the mess of the current time or the past.”
Being in an extremely conservative and traditional environment made him move away from his home and family. But it was worth it, he explains. With the distance and the passage of time, he has been able to explain everything he lived through photography. And, although he recognizes that he is still “in the process of reconciliation” with himself, his experiences have helped him find his photographic style, capable of crossing borders: “Speaking about myself and being specific to my own experiences gets me closer to communicating my vision”.
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Your partner and family members star in your photographs. Were they comfortable with the idea of appearing in your works from the beginning? Do you feel that portraying them throughout time has made your relationship evolve in some way?
In the beginning, my family wanted me to accomplish what I set out to achieve in America. When I was just a student at school, having moved from Indonesia and learning about photography the first time in college, I relied on my family to sit in, exercise lighting and composition, and figure out what I wanted to do with photography. They were comfortable appearing in my works because that meant I could focus on developing my craft and worry less about finding subjects/people to photograph. I got to focus on topics and themes that I am passionate and curious about.
That was great because I am generally a shy person. Eliminating the social anxiety of approaching others to be in my photos meant that I would have an easier time getting good grades at school. This is all perfect for my family. Now, they’re a bit jaded and I am more experienced. They used to help me set up for my photos, which may take hours or days depending on the location, materials, ideas, limitations and timing. Now they say, ‘get me when you are ready to take a photo’. Portraying them in a continuous way has definitely evolved our relationships, mostly because I got to learn so much about myself.
Could you elaborate more on that? What things did you learn about yourself?
Growing up a closeted queer in an Islamic majority country, being a racial minority in Indonesia, feeling oppressed and suppressed – I was just a confused human. I felt small and unwanted. My life goal was to get away from Indonesia and work hard so that I could stay in America after my student visa expired. But when I got good at photography, I realized that I had developed my own language. My own codes and method of communication that honour my potential and me. I developed my own access and power.
With this, I started to see myself differently. It also changed the way I understood myself in relation to my family and my social and cultural background. It turns out that I am not the immoral deviant waste of a human I was conditioned to see myself as. As a result, it evolved my relationship with my family. I am capable of love and I want to learn how to be better at receiving and offering love.
Your pictures are usually crowded with people. However, they talk about your experiences as if they were a sort of autobiography. Do you think that because you talk about personal experiences, it is easier for you to use your family members than regular models and other people you don’t know?
Speaking about myself and being specific to my own experiences gets me closer to communicating my vision. My visual language developed from my inability to rely on verbal words to communicate my fears, my trauma and aspirations. It is definitely easier to use my family or people I have pre-existing relationships with because I tend to feel more in control. I strive to show that family, community, and culture ground us as human beings in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the world. They are the training grounds in which we learn how to achieve our goals and fulfil our potential. In them, we get to be funny, messy and unruly when we play. But we are supporting and learning about one another in the process. And through our desire to connect and pride in celebrating who we are, we also develop the skills to face the world. We are better humans when we celebrate one another’s specificities.
I also strive to show excellence and commitment to my craft. Put it in another way: I’m like a chef creating a dish that reflects the places and cultures I find myself in while revealing new possibilities through my pursuit of excellence in my craft. I begin with spices, ingredients and skills I am accustomed to, and then rely on local ingredients that are readily available to create a dish that I hope will mesmerize and give a lasting impression. The final product will only succeed if I am able to translate all of the different ingredients and influences into a coherent, strange yet familiar sensation to the taste buds.
I, of course, name the dishes I have created. But for me, it’s more valuable to introduce the ingredients, influences, and skills (as well as anecdotes and stories) that culminate in what I put forward, rather than telling you what kinda chemical reaction is happening or should happen in your brain. I do this to invite your own autonomy and authority while approaching my work. I hope my work gives inspiration and insight that would be helpful in shaping the way you experience the world.
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When taking your photographs, you use Indonesia’s transnational roles, relationships and elements. However, to get to know you better, have you ever felt influenced or even pressured by those roles and that prevailing culture in Indonesia?
Yes, of course. The worst is when I perceived those rules and customs as the only valid ways to be in the world. Being a persecuted minority, being fearful, living life as a means to survive living – all of those are products of the rigid norms that oppressed and suppressed my true potential. I am thankful that I have art as a medium to process my life experiences in portions that I can handle. I am thankful that I am able to find a sense of power and freedom by processing experiences that were hard or ones I tried to hide. I am thankful that the experience of making art allows me different perspectives in looking at the world.
Art-making shows me my blind spots, my strengths and limitations. I love Indonesia. But my life and my potential would be wasted if I lived there. I’m too fearful. I’m too afraid to imagine a possibility opposite of my lived experience growing up there. But I long for a possibility where I am fully accepted, no questions asked, nothing to prove, nothing to hide.
The fact that you were in an extremely conservative and traditional environment made you move away from your home and your family and flee to the United States. Could you tell me more about the process of reconciling with your surroundings (which had been repressive before) until reaching the point of making them the main protagonists of your work?
I learned that I carry the trauma of my parents. I learned that I carry the trauma of my grandparents. I learned that they too carry traumas that aren’t of their doing. My grandpa fled communism in China and settled in Indonesia when he was a kid before Indonesia became independent. It was not his fault that the world turned their hatred and dissatisfaction onto him and his family.
When the Indonesian purge on communism happened in the 1960s, being Chinese was not so much a fortunate thing. They assumed you must be communist because you are Chinese. After a horrible episode of genocide in Indonesia’s history, my grandparents had to prove their allegiance to Indonesia in order to stay in the country. This period of de-Chinese-ization forbade Chinese language and cultural expressions. All Chinese names had to be changed to Indonesian or Western names. You had to do all this or, as they said, ‘you go back to China where you come from’. Assimilation and civil obedience was the backdrop of my parent’s childhood.
And what about you?
I was born a second-generation Chinese-Indonesian. In 1998, we had to run away from Indonesia for a month because, in the face of economic collapse and ineffective government, people expressed their disdain for a broken system through xenophobia and harm towards Chinese minorities. During this time, it was ingrained in me that it was my life goal to leave Indonesia and never go back. My mom told me that if things were to get worse, she would arrange for me to go to school in Malaysia. I was 9 years old and she didn’t spare me all the details, but it was important to be optimistic, in which case she would send me to school abroad after I finished high school so she could have more time to spend with me.
I am truly so lucky. Things got better and we got back to Indonesia. I stayed there until I was 17 and turned 18 on the plane while moving to California for university. Distance is what I needed to fully understand the context of things and to truly appreciate my family. Early on in my artwork, out of fear of being shunned, I used the medium to communicate my queerness without saying a word. It was a chance for me to spend more time with my family during breaks from school. I had so much desire to be close to them. To feel loved and to communicate how much I loved them, but at the same time, I was working out different possibilities in my head how they would react, condemn, exile me for being queer.
“I strive to show that family, community, and culture ground us as human beings in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the world.”
Have those worries and concerns disappeared? Or are you still somehow fearful?
Honestly, I’m still actively in the process of reconciliation with myself. Life is hard. I have so many questions. I see so much injustice. I have so little power. But then I catch myself. Bitch, why you gotta make it harder on yourself for yourself? If we know life sucks already, why not use the little power you have to optimize what you already got and make yourself more susceptible for happiness? So, I guess out of respect and courtesy for myself, I learned to accept my family for who they are.
This means that I have to practice patience when I see that they are struggling and projecting it in actions they do or things they say. This also means that I get to argue and scream my head off at them when I experience disrespect and ignorance from them. My family is weird. We laugh so loud and we fight so hard. So dramatic. We are still learning how to be better at loving one another, but I know for sure I love them because I have this unshaken faith that they are good people, with good intentions, whose demise will be when I fail.
You are inspired by Indonesia’s culture and your personal experiences, but which artists do you have as referents – in any creative field, from cinema to music to painting?
Again, with the cooking analogy, if I were a chef, my work would be a fusion of Jackie Chan, Keith Haring, Lana Del Rey, RuPaul, Jordan Peele and my own fucking secret sauce.
At first glance, your images are somewhat joyous, but behind these colourful portraits, there’s a hidden story of marginalization and disengagement. Why do you go for this approach?
Plating is an important part of cooking. All of the elements are gathered together and placed in an intentional arrangement. The plate looks nice because it is the final arrangement of raw materials that have been put through a series of deconstructing, reconstructing and polishing. Putting something into a frame is like plating to me. I want the first impression of my work to be celebratory and ambiguously joyous. I do this by hosting both elements of harmony and chaos. It is a rendering of hopeful progress without shying away from the mess of the current time or the past.
Do you think that most people get to see past this apparent joy?
Uhm, it’s hard not to be cynical or curious about the elements/decisions that go into my work when you really spend time in front of it. I believe when people look at my work, they will get my humour, my seriousness, my wacky-ness and my persistence. I’m not a documentary photographer or a journalist. If people only get stuck with the surface layer of my work, that’s a success for me too. Because I put effort and dedication in the pursuit of my aesthetic.
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After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, you did art residencies. Some of them have resulted in such formidable photographs, like Lakeside Offering. How necessary do you think these experiences are and what do you think they have brought to you on a personal level? Are you more inspired to create by being surrounded by other artists?
Residencies are so fun, terrifying and refreshing because it’s a playground, a retreat, a necessary intervention to prevent monotony. On a personal level, residencies are the time that I often use to find a clear distinction between my work-self and my not-doing-anything-just-enjoying-being-alive-in-the-world-self. Doing residencies keeps me on my toes. It helps me to get closer to figuring out what I want to achieve in my career and in my personal life.
You change the locations, the subjects that appear in your portraits, the costumes, the elements you introduce into the scene… However, your images have a similar essence. What are the elements you constantly turn to that make your images recognizable? Is it something sought after or has it come naturally?
My work is an extension of my ability as a human to process experiences and information. Through practice, I learn to develop my distinct personality to go with these codes of information I have processed to best communicate them to the world.
Having developed such a personal style, do you sometimes feel limited? Don’t you feel the need of trying new things?
No. On the contrary, I feel very empowered. I got my visual language down. Now, my concern is what kinda poetry, what kinda song, what kinda stories, what kinda dreams I want to accomplish with it.
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