Leonard Suryajaya uses photography to test the boundaries of intimacy, community, and family. His works show how the everyday is layered with histories, meanings, and potential. In elaborately staged photographs bursting with competing patterns and colors, Leonard creates absurd but affectionate tableaux featuring his family. Enlisting his loved ones into his photographic project, he encourages ever more wild combinations and poses as means for them to perform their loyalty. The results are photographs that are tender and critical, bound up as they are with the struggles of familial authority and self identity. He has recently extended this in his work with school children and the complex but fragile societies they form among themselves and in relation to cultural forces both popular and traditional, local and global.
Many of Leonard’s investigations are rooted in the particularity of his upbringing as an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent, as a Buddhist educated in Christian schools in a Muslim-majority country, and as someone who departed from his family and his culture’s definitions of love and family. Leonard explores these tensions in the everyday interaction, in the chance juxtaposition of culturally-coded objects, and in the disruptions stirred by queer relations. His works perform the ways in which life is soaked not just with one’s own emotional connections but larger, external histories of exile, religion, citizenship, duty, and belonging. His photographs work cumulatively to establish narratives, and he combines these images with videos that document family histories, that play out fantasies, that test group dynamics, or that use the format of the interview to turn his sitters’ gaze back upon his role as artist and facilitator. In all of these, we feel the push and pull of allegiance and autonomy in every odd detail that his works retain as reminders.
– David J. Getsy, Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Influenced by the cultural milieu of experiencing inter ethnic relations in Indonesia, my work explores intricate and complicated layers of selfhood in the context of cultural background, intimacy, sexual preference, and personal displacement. By utilizing photography, video, along with elements of performance and installation, through the use of personal narrative and story telling, my work challenges and deconstructs the perspective we use to scrutinize and observe our roles in a transnational global world.
Oppression and suppression were the themes of my childhood. Events, such as my grandfather fleeing the communist regime, eradication of Chinese culture by the Indonesian government, and escaping genocides framed my upbringing. As a second generation “Indonesian Citizen of an Alien Descent”, I was raised to witness constant cultural and religious clashes.
Although my parents are Buddhists, they put me in Christian schools to ensure a good education. But it was largely a Muslim woman, my “other” mother, who raised me. Early on, this constant “placelessness” within paradigms of self-identification urged me to someday reconcile these discrepancies.The discovery of my sexuality also deeply alienated me from my home and family. My traditional family and conservative country didn’t permit fluid gender expression and homosexuality, so I suppressed my individuality and conformed.
I learned that my body, as the projection surface of my selfhood, is a battleground. Although it is a medium of my autonomy, it is also a medium of my oppression. I realized how my physical appearance and my cultural markings resulted in hostility against me. I realize that I was already queer before I was a homosexual.
Despite finding a new sense of freedom and agency in America, I understand that fleeing my family and country is not the solution to the ambivalence I feel about my upbringing. I am unable to fully desire this past, also unable to properly mourn its loss. Constantly placeless, confused about the validity of my familial relationships, and skeptical about the validity of my identity in the setting I am in, I never understood what sense of belonging is like.
Through an absence of physical and verbal affection in my upbringing, I use the visual medium to produce a new language of intimacy and longing. The desire for closeness, accompanied by apprehension, guides me in my exploration. I found myself using photography as an excuse to construct a new and more privately familiar world.
My work in Indonesia allows me to speak about social unrest, locally and globally. It gives me the opportunity to work with my family and host conversations with students and local youth about self-identity, discrimination, misleading notions of social superiority, and collective trauma. These conversations manifest themselves in photographic documents that reveal underlying power dynamics and the complexities of a diverse society. The photographs are the stage to act out their fears, hopes, joys, frustrations, and skepticism. Photography becomes an exercise in recognizing autonomy through participation. It is important that I don’t make photograph that socially profile my subjects and further strip the sense of autonomy they have.
From this experience, I’ve realized more fully that individual and social hardships do not exist in isolation. Regardless of their location in the world, oppression, ethnic cleansing, cultural distrust, and displacement are always present—as is the need to form a distinct identity in the context of changing cultures. It is a script that gets remounted year after year with new actors and different staging. Sharing my experience and the experience of those close to me not only give us a voice, but speaks to others around the world in similar situations.
Using my own confusing background as a primary source of questioning and aesthetic inspiration, I create visual experiences that provoke similarly personal responses from the viewer, while remaining rooted in the specificity of my experience and that of my subjects. Chaos, humor, submission, defiance, and play combine to prompt reflection on the viewer’s understanding of identity—and others’. My subjectivity is integrated into the image, which similarly calls forth and questions the subjectivity, personal experience, and perspectives of the viewer.
I use personal narratives and relationships to challenge the ubiquity of the lens based medium and exoticism in looking in creating visual experiences for the viewer to respond to. The possibilities and limitations of the lens-based mediums provide the perfect expression of an ambivalent identity. Photographs and videos provoke the viewer’s awareness of their own questions, and answer by revealing both more and less than what it is seen. It is my ambition to use my own confusing background in work that expands the viewer’s understanding of identity—both their own, and other’s. And in the process, I hope to challenge conflicting conceptions of personal and cultural identities, intimacy, physical boundaries, gender roles, sexuality, queerness and freedom.