Once upon a time in Rawalelatu: An attempt to reconstruct the past

“Identity is no longer experienced as something one inherits and life is no longer predestined by the fixed lane of the personal biography. Today, identity can be tested, changed, stylised and taken back”
(Ziehe & Stubenrauch, 1983)

R. W. Belk (1988), a researcher of psychology in relation to consumerism, described very well on how possessions (external objects, other people, groups, body organs, concepts, and ideas) acts as an extension of oneself (self-extension). His research unveiled five areas related to sense of possessions and self-extension. First, how possession constitutes the sense of self; secondly, the functions served by self-extension; third, processes associated with self-extension. Following the logic proposed by Belk, we have the ability to attach our identity to (anything) that belongs to us and vice versa -our belongings divide their identity to us. Through Rawalelatu, Maryanto tried to reconstruct his past with his perspective today.

This exhibition classifies Maryanto’s works from a certain period (2008 – 2011) into five arenas: Sketches, landscape, profiles, intrigue, and the archives (the last one contains our process as a group therefore I will not include it in this essay). The works exhibited are connected to one another. Maryanto is telling us a story. A fable of Rawalelatu and (his) past.

Common dictionaries translate fable as: Short story, usually with anthropomorphic animals as characters and convey moral values in its narration. For example, George Orwell in Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (1945). Orwell’s story which challenges our “moral consciousness” was as if approving the psychoanalytic –most extreme– view about fable; “[… fable,] by arousing anxiety, prevents us from acting in ways which are described as damaging to us —and others,” (Bettleheim, 1976). Maryanto’s fable was born from a background similar to Orwell’s anger at Stalin, with a strong influence of graphic novels.

In the realm of visual art, a number of fables are associated with Aesopica –the popular visual fable from the collection of Aesop, a slave known also as a popular narrator of the Ancient Greek era (approximately half a century BC). Artists who made these fables tend to use printmaking techniques for their works. For example: Gerhard Marcks, Antoni Frasconi, Pierre Alechinsky and Carl Olof Petersen. I think this trend relates to the fact that printmaking is a medium requiring extraordinary diligence in its process. Maryanto pursues almost all of these techniques, ranging from intaglio, planographic and relief print. Agung Kurniawan wrote in the introduction for Rawalelatu (Kedai Kebun Forum, Yogyakarta, 2008) that Maryanto is one (of a very few) artist using printmaking techniques to communicate his thoughts to the public.

All of the works presented in this exhibition shows Maryanto’s perseverance and tenacity in many forms. Starting from the four sketches of Rawalelatu which used intaglio and etching techniques; 10 sheets from the first series of Rawalelatu were made by scratching burnt photo papers; as well as the variety works on canvas which manifests his printmaking techniques. In order to do this, he coated the canvas with black acrylic paint similar to his way of using burnt photo paper, to later scratch the surface with lines to create images we see now.

Sketch: Early creation of Rawalelatu
Since early 2008, several elements had appeared in his works. Antropomorphic animal figures, factory workers issue, evictions in slum areas, until the daily lives of lower class communities in suburban areas. The sketch arena presents Maryanto’s works, which were already inclined to his explorations in Rawalelatu before willingly using it as a title.

Landscape: Rawalelatu vs. Jakarta
Rawalelatu is a fictional suburb brought to life in mid-2008. “Lelatu” (in Indonesian) means flashes of fire, sparks. The word “Rawa (swamp)” is deliberately attached in front of it over the familiarity in using the word to name places, for example Rawabelong, Rawamangun, Rawabuaya, Rawamalang and so on. Yes, the history of Jakarta and its displacement-in-the-name-of-city-planning underlies the idea that created Rawalelatu. Together with Pitra Hutomo and myself, Maryanto constructed this imaginary city; the geographical position, the characteristic of its inhabitants, the history of this kampong, all of which we consider applicable to a life in suburban areas.

Before being connected to the Satellite City, Rawalelatu was the land of handmade wooden furniture. Timber forest thrives along the Great Swamp of Rawalelatu. Big corporations began to occupy the Satellite City in the 1960’s, stimulating urbanization from people living in surrounding areas to work in offices inside tall buildings. A metropolitan was born followed with (hopes of) cosmopolitan living and endless employment. They who didn’t participate in the urbanization too became occupied as labours. Indeed the corporations built themselves offices in the metropolitan and their factories in the suburbs, close to the centre but far cheaper to operate.

Problems peaked when a highway was built in 1995, dividing the kampong into two sides. The highway prompted Rawalelatu’s major changes not just because of its physical existence since the exit had also evicted one corner of the city’s old square. Beavers were suppressed for their logging business, rabbits for their obedience, donkeys are all about securing their families, the lion is thirsty for power, while dogs and hyenas remain in their love-and-hate relationship.

In Suharto’s regime, Jakarta built its identity in absurd yet consistent methods. Foreign Investment Policy in 1967 occurred just before massive evictions and re-occupation of kampongs, mangrove forest and wastelands, which was transformed into highways, tall buildings and luxury housing complex.  (Such as: Kebon Kacang in the 1970’s, Pesing in the 1980’s, Kebon Nanas in the 1990’s and Pantai Indah Kapuk in the 2000’s) Maryanto experienced his childhood environment around Kebon Nanas – Simprug being evicted. After the eviction his parents moved the family to their present residence at Duren Sawit. Their old house was formerly known as Patal Senayan -now Jalur Putri Hijau (passage from Senayan to Arteri Pondok Indah).

Maryanto claimed this 1991 eviction ruined his happy childhood. He had to give up his playground, his friends at home and from school since the moving. Depiction of this period and what it means to Maryanto can be found in his print series titled The British International School. The kampong where he was raised was next to The British International School’s concrete wall. He reckoned the period as his first interactions with modernity, precisely when he found out distinctions between him and students of the well-facilitated international school (he had found remnants of Lego, drinking water dispenser, swimming pool, etc.)

To his opinion, Jakarta is not a metropolitan city as depicted in advertisements and what  we recognize from soap operas played in television in the living room of almost every home in Indonesia. Jakarta for Maryanto consists of kampongs and all of the things taken away from him. He admits that even after moving from Kebon Nanas, he would go see his childhood friends to visit areas where they used to play -which of course have been transformed into housing complex and highways. Until recently he had me preoccupied with stories of his Facebook “findings”: Friends from his childhood. I often stunned (between awe and wonder) while listening to his childhood romanticism.

Maryanto is able to retell events from his childhood with remarkable spatial and social details.  For example: “My kampong was more similar to Bantul (a small town in Yogyakarta) despite the fact that it was in Jakarta. I experienced a time when there was no electricity until it was finally installed (within the kampong). I remember clearly [as Maryanto reached a pen and start sketching], there was this vacant area where a haunted Kecapi tree grew. It belonged to a creepy old man whose name I can’t remember. He had a fishpond, we call it “empang” filled with beautiful fishes and never left the house. So when he did came out it crept all of us out wouldn’t it? That was until the house was evicted and they built a wall back to back to my family’s house. Well, his was one of the first evicted houses. So if you look at the position, my family’s house is facing this way, next to it was another house, kampong situation, and here was a house belonged to a local (Betawi) whom my parents bought the land from, then there’s another house next to an alley, houses surrounding this alley were small, shabby houses. Here was a wall, really really high. Out here was already the (fancy) housing complex and so was here. Around here were houses. You see, my family’s house was quite mysterious; if you get in from here you’ll find some sort of an oasis. There were trees, many trees! And here was the oldest land in the area. He [as Maryanto pointed to a spot on his sketch] was the owner. A butcher, local guy whom we called Bang Niman. You see at that time, you could just walk through this area [Maryanto continued to point at his sketch]. Then next to my family’s house was a rented room. Right here was the yard and here was the playground. Over here was an area where thieves would get lost.[…]”

Profile and intrigue: Among Rawalelatu inhabitants
Let us look at Maryanto’s romanticism as a form of desire to perpetuate his memory. After several experiments in making illustrations (mentioned in the sketches), he chose fable to be the tool to retell his childhood experience. More than a century ago Freud (1900) underlined fable as an adaptive illustration about the struggle of daily life that are closely related to the instinct of survival (self preservation). The little girl as a figure in his first work on canvas (Musim Bunga or Season of Flowers, 2009) soon replaced into Amanda-the rabbit who fought for fellow workers of Rawalelatu Tex.

Rabbit has always been a symbol of an innocent and almost helpless creature. I can hardly imagine anyone who dislikes rabbits. Moreover, rabbits are also known as the most adaptable animals. Rabbit is considered a social animal. In fact, since the 1970’s, pet rabbit has been used for psychological therapy for adults and children –the Delta Society now develops such. Amanda’s struggle in building alliance for the welfare of her fellow workers is moving as well as suspenseful.

Indeed Amanda and Adjeng were the two main characters whose role is to narrate Rawalelatu. The more similar these characters to our (human) behaviours, the easier it is to accept and familiarize ourselves to the story; such positivist hypothesis was applied by psychologists to gauge public acceptance over a hospital receptionist robot dressed up as a nurse. (Currently more than 10 hospitals throughout the world ‘employs’ these robots; doing tasks ranging from welcoming guests, bathing patients, as well as assisting the process of giving birth.) Meanwhile the less-humane depiction of hyena and beavers made them appear even more animal-like.

Maryanto had carefully picked the characters based on its role. Beavers as locals were opted because Rawalelatu is surrounded by a river and forest; hyena represent thugs because of its hideous looks and its frequently changing sexual organs is associated with its infidelity and hysterical image; dogs were opted to represent police over its loyalty and persistence (regardless right or wrong); lions as rulers for generations; and donkeys which represent civil servants for its ability to do the same thing over and over following its laziness. All of the characters were adjusted to its natural behaviour. Since Maryanto had no necessity to engage communication through other characters, all of the characters presented in Rawalelatu are increasingly stereotyping each animal visually.

I noted a very interesting transformation. The little girl in Musim Bunga later (I believe) become Amanda, the tough rabbit in the early series exhibited at Kedai Kebun Forum, October 2008; though Maryanto constantly denied my suspicion. However, I find the appearance of Amanda is getting more humane day by day. Check out the illustrations.

The need to ‘humanize’ Amanda derived from Maryanto’s passion to talk about many things. Aside from gestures (which he’s been exploring intensely from the beginning), Maryanto developed a need to depict human facial expression Look at the pictures below. Psychological research about human behaviour states that something acting similar to human (whether it’s about the attitude, movement or even expression), has a potential to create an idea that is accepted-and later-understood by the public. Dijksterhuis and Aarts (2000) assert that a person was born to automatically perceive a moving object as a living being, especially human. It is (as if) Maryanto had chosen Amanda as the story’s narrator.

Amanda may be just another labour in Rawalelatu Tex, but you should never underestimate her intelligence. Like most commoner in Rawalelatu, television is one of her major source of knowledge. Unlike her childhood friend Adjeng, she had no experience of college life. I have absolutely no other idea about her unless I expect she does not watch soap operas. Amanda’s point of view consciously depicted by Maryanto; as if Amanda is describing his consciousness. He created Amanda, gave her parts of his own identity and, in the end, allowed Amanda’s identity to grow along with the story of Rawalelatu. Finally, through Amanda, Maryanto is able to retell his childhood with his perspective today.


  • Ap Dijksterhuis & Henk Aarts, 2000. “Attitudes and social cognition habits as knowledge structures: Automaticity in goal-directed behavior,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol. 78. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/journals.psp on 10 September 2009, 13:17 WIB
  • Bruno Bettleheim, 1976. The Uses of Enchantement. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
  • Carl DiSalvo, Francine Gemperle, Jodi Forlizzi, 2005. “Imitating the Human Form: Four Kinds of Anthropomorphic Form”, an article for the seminar Cognitive and Social Design of Robotic Assistants. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from http://www.anthropomorphism.org/ on 9 Oktober 2008, 06:11 WIB
  • Lea Jellinek, 1991. The wheel of fortune: The history of a poor community in Jakarta. Sydney: Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd.
  • R. W. Belk (1988). “Possessions and the Extended Self,” in the Journal of Consumer Research vol. 15. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/55127008/35/Possessions-as-an-Extension-of-the-Self pada 15 April 2010, on 19:11 WIB
  • Sigmund Freud, 1900. “The interpretation of dreams,” in Standard Edition 4 & 5. London: Hogarth Press.

Once Upon a Time in Rawalelatu
Solo show of Maryanto
At Jakarta Art District’s Main Hall
Organized by Semarang Contemporary Gallery
11 – 29 June 2011

Click here to see the show.

About Grace Samboh

Believes in unicorn, conviviality and the struggle towards collective subjectivities—even temporarily.
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