Jakarta Art Spot featuring public installations (all photos courtesy Art Jakarta fair)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Over the past decade, Southeast Asia (a region that reaches from Eastern India to China comprising eleven countries) has been trying to further its international art fair ambitions in an attempt to increase visibility in an international art world that barely notices its existence. Mostly, these attempts have been futile.

Yet, last month, this effort seemed to have hit its mark with the rebranded and revamped edition of Indonesia’s oldest and biggest international art fair Art Jakarta. The fair was held in the capital city of Indonesia, within a culturally heterogenous country comprising some 18,000 islands, spanning an area almost three times the size of Texas.

Over the past decade, the efforts to create a blockbuster international art fair have for the most part been focused in Singapore and Indonesia — not coincidentally where most of the private wealth in Southeast Asia is concentrated. Art Jakarta seemed to breathe new life into a region teetering on the brink of complete disillusionment with art market machinations and the global art-fair-industrial complex.

Image of the fairgrounds at Art Jakarta

This crisis of confidence arose mainly in Singapore. In January this year, Singapore, an island city-state with lofty cultural ambitions and the ability to put its money where its mouth is (the local government even has a Renaissance City Plan), saw the last-minute cancellation of its largest international art fair, Art Stage Singapore, due to the company’s financial issues and subsequent bankruptcy, (which left exhibitors without compensation). Its sister fair held in the capital city of Indonesia, Jakarta, also disappeared without announcement, after being postponed for one edition. Currently, Singapore has a one-year-old boutique fair, SEA Focus, which industry insiders such as second-generation Indonesian collector, and co-chair of Art Jakarta’s Young Collectors Board, Natasha Sidharta, whom I spoke to at the fair, describe as not sure “what kind of direction they are headed”. There is also the twice-postponed inaugural international art fair, Art SG. Art SG also faced a shake-up last November, when one of its original organizers, Art Basel owner MCH group pulled out of the fair.

The most successful and popular fair in Southeast Asia thus far has been ArtJog, an annual artists’ led fair held since 2008 in one of Indonesia’s established art centers, Yogyakarta, familiarly known as Jogja. More of a contemporary art festival with works for sale than the typical art fair format in terms of “gallery participation, booth architecture and biasness for elite participants and audience” according to newly appointed artistic director for boutique Indonesian art fair, Art Moments Jakarta, Khairuddin Hori, ArtJog draws praise amongst visitors from Southeast Asia, such as art consultant and curator Tanya Amador, for its “testament to the social power and ethos of the arts community in Jogja.”

In contrast, other traditional gallery format Indonesian art fairs such as newcomer boutique fair Art Moments and previous editions of Art Jakarta barely made a ripple regionally and beyond. In fact, at least one Southeast Asian gallery chose to not return for the 2019 Art Jakarta edition due to poor sales in previous editions.

This definitely proved to be a miscalculation.

Galleries from Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore reported being “happy with sales” with interest from Indonesian and Chinese collectors attending the fair and promised to return for the next edition.

From left: Art Jakarta Fair Director Tom Tandio, Indonesian collector Alex Tedja, and Indonesian art gallery ROH Projects director Jun Tirtadji

Regional fair directors and collectors I spoke to in Jakarta made positive comparisons to Art Basel Hong Kong and Hong Kong Art Central in terms of hustle and bustle. The fair definitely kept up its momentum during all three days when I was on-site observing foot traffic and speaking with cultural stakeholders. They noted that the works shown at the fair were new and different from the usual selection in other regional and international fairs — specifically referring to the diverse range of works from Indonesian artists on show that they were not likely to find at fairs in Hong Kong and Taipei. According to fair organizers, this was in part due to the efforts of the director to ensure the best Indonesian artists exhibited at the fair.

But the question remains how it is possible for an art fair to work in an Asian art market that is downbeat and global economy on the brink of recession. Also, while Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta might be looking all bright and shiny from its recent infrastructure redevelopment for the 2018 Asian Games and its economy is steady and set to grow, Indonesia, like most countries in the world today, is facing climate change woes, burning forests, excessive private wealth, corruption, dirty money, security threats, and conservatism. Prior to the fair, speaking with regional stakeholders involved typical complaints about dealing with inefficient logistics and bribery in the country. So how did Art Jakarta make it work in the midst of all this?

Image of the fairgrounds at Art Jakarta

Art Jakarta is homegrown. The fair is backed by the same company that produced previous editions: MRA Media Group, which owns Harper’s Bazaar Indonesia fashion and lifestyle magazine. Most importantly, this company is an Indonesian entity. Just as crucially, unlike its previous editions, the revamped edition is led by established names from the Indonesian art scene such as fair director and collector Tom Tandio and artistic director and curator Enin Supriyanto. This is a major distinction from most fairs in Southeast Asia and even Asia, where the making of an art fair with international ambitions involves a reasonably successful foreign company or director typically from UK or Europe, whether by invitation, or by their own urges of global expansion, or both, parachuting in to initiate and lead the fair.

One obvious example of imperialistic expansion in the form of art fairs is Art Basel Hong Kong. Another is Taipei Dangdai, a joint venture between four international art event organizers — all familiar names in the global art fair industrial complex and led by the highly successful Magnus Renfrew who is also behind Art SG. The failed Art Stage Singapore and Jakarta were also led by Swiss art dealer Lorenzo Rudolf and his company.

Art Jakarta feels like a welcome balm to visitors and cultural stakeholders from SEA and Asia because it has all the markings of an international art fair and more, but is wholly conceptualized and organized by people who know and live and breathe Indonesia. Granted that the bulk of the Art Jakarta organizing team did work for Art Stage during its heyday and may even have tapped into this experience, but their engagement with their local artistic communities echoes authenticity. In support of its local community, the fair had a designated space called Art Jakarta Scene, presenting local artist collectives and initiatives, with artworks and art objects for sale alongside information about their activities. Even the catchy bop that went into the marketing video for the fair’s rebranded look, which includes lyrics about the meaning of life, is written and sung by Indonesian musician Hindia.

The ticketing area at Art Jakarta

This on-the-ground involvement and nuanced understanding is important because art fairs and the art market play very distinctive roles in Indonesia, even in contrast to its neighboring countries. Sally Texania, Indonesian independent art curator explained,

Considering how minimal institution-based exhibition for contemporary arts in Indonesia, art markets have a distinct place in Indonesian context. An art fair functions not only as a trading ground for art works but also as a means to see the newest progress of local artists. In addition, events like this are also a means of education for the public to see the growth of art locally and internationally as not many international artists have exhibits in Indonesia.

While fair organizers understood the fair had to go beyond just selling art, making efforts to showcase many of the best Indonesian artists, in various public spaces around the fair, along with talks and a charity auction, there is still room to expand and diversify in terms of programming that makes it different from the usual international fair offerings. Yet, the fair succeeded where most in Southeast Asia have struggled, especially in the past year, because it eschewed the beloved model of relying on western expertise to jumpstart such initiatives and drew upon its own resources and talent. The fair seemed to pull in almost everyone from the various layers of the complex and vast Indonesian art scene to develop a renewed edition, and in that sense, it truly did feel like an art fair true to Indonesia and even the region.

The Art Jakarta fair took place in the Jakarta Convention Center Senayan in Jakarta, between August 30 and September 1. 

Reena Devi Shanmuga Retnam is a Singaporean journalist and critic who writes about the Southeast Asian art world for international media such as ArtAsiaPacific (HK) and Artsy (NY). Previously, she was...