Mohammad and Me: Three Views of Life within Indonesian Muslim Society
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Let me start with a very trivial story about Indonesia and Islam.
One afternoon in Jakarta, in a car stuck at a traffic-light intersection, a collection box for building a new mosque was suddenly thrust at my foreign friend who sat next to me. Without thinking, he replied: “No, too noisy!” I laughed at his response, and in retrospect was myself astonished to realize that I had never had that particular reaction myself. I would always give money, or quietly refuse rather than protest, when in fact, I sometimes do complain about the excessive noise issuing from the loudspeakers of the neighboring mosque when the calls to prayer are broadcast.
This moment of realization, together with many other seemingly insignificant experiences, inspired me to investigate the subject further. Having no clue where to start, I went back to the art institute in Jakarta where I taught, and asked my photography students and photographer colleagues a question that we had never thought about seriously before: What do you think about Islam in Indonesia? The usual replies to this question were either “What do you mean?” or “I don’t know, I never think about it.” The people that I knew, myself included, had never considered this question, and when we did ask it, couldn’t answer because we had never cast our experiences in those terms. As a non-Muslim and secular Indonesian living in the cosmopolitan context of Jakarta, I did not identify as an individual who lived in a “Muslim society.” However, I continued to circulate this question and began to put it differently: “What does it look like to live in the world’s largest Muslim country?” (Some of my colleagues replied: Are we the largest Muslim country in the world?). This question of “looking” allowed the photographers I approached to begin a project of representing their personal experiences of living in a Muslim society, an everyday condition that had been largely invisible to us.
What follows is a photographic series titled “Mohammed and Me”, an intentionally self-conscious, exploratory, and in some cases, cheeky look at the presence and role of Islam in the daily environment of our three photographers, all of whom studied at the Jakarta Art Institute: Arief Kamaludin Rahmat, Mohammad Revaldi, and Paul Kadarisman. All three have very different photographic styles and aesthetic inclinations, on top of their different religious and political views. For biography’s sake, it might be pertinent to note that two are officially Muslim, one is officially Christian, and all are varying degrees of secular and religious in their views and in their lifestyles. Yet in all cases, class and urban attitudes also constitute important aspects alongside the religious backdrop that guide our reading of these images. This project intends to continue asking the question of “What do you think about Islam in Indonesia?” as a way to interrogate preconceived notions of a country that has alternately been labelled a Muslim democracy, an increasingly Islamicized country, and the world’s largest Muslim population. Our growing awareness of the place of religion in public and private life reflects global trends and anxieties that affect other regions outside of Southeast Asia as well. Instead of presenting an ideologically defensive or avowedly secular viewpoint, Mohammad and Me invites nuanced views and speculation over how religion is experienced, thought about, seen or heard, practiced, sublimated, signalled, and signed in Indonesia today. The photographs are mainly from 2004 - 2005, and capture a time that represents the political and cultural trends of the last decade. The three photographers are:
Arief Kamaludin Rahmat
After graduating from the Jakarta Art Institute Photography Department, Arief Kamaludin Rahmat worked as an in-house photojournalist at a radical hardline Islamic magazine. The images shown here are all from the “reject pile” of his photos, previously unseen because they were rejected by the editor for publication. Out of this reject pile, he compiled a body of work that articulates his personal view of the radical and conservative Muslim groups in Indonesia, including photographs of the Abubakar Ba’asyir, the ex-leader of the Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia) and the Al-Mukmin Islamic Boarding School di Ngruki, Central Java, shown here besieged by reporters over for his alleged support for terrorist activities. At a photo festival in the Netherlands in 2006, Rahmat’s work received immediate intention. Viewers paid the most attention to Rahmat’s series, perhaps because it fit a common understanding of what radical Islam looked like. The fluttering Arabic letter flags and the open Koran have become familiar symbols of radical Islam all over the world. In this case, it did not seem to matter to the audience that these photographs in some way were deemed unsuitable for publication in the magazine. The photographer’s potential intervention in showing what had NOT made the cut makes use of what were perhaps troubling images in two senses – as images of radical Islam that conformed to Western (and globalized) stereotypes, and as images that troubled a hardline Islamic magazine and therefore were not the correct representations of their politics.
Mohammad Revaldi presents a much different version of Islam in Indonesia. Known as a commercial and fashion photographer and dark room instructor at a number of photography institutions in Jakarta, Revaldi is in tune with the popular and urban aesthetics outside of the spiritual visual economy. Here, Revaldi does something unique by Indonesian standards; he presents his insider’s knowledge of the “Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufi Order” community, a charismatic sect influenced by Arab culture and popular among an elite group of wealthy Indonesians. These photographs are joyous and harmonious portraits of an exclusive religious community, one that seems to have a mass following, and yet is private, contained and protected within the marble homes of its sponsors. Being a member of this group, Revaldi’s photographs are fluid and relaxed. They never suggest that he was searching for a particular kind of iconic snapshot; rather, they suggest that he happened to be passing by. And this is precisely why, even though the subjects are familiar to him, the images still communicate a kind of coincidental encounter, without the formal tricks of studio work or staged photos.
The last series was done by the only non-Muslim photographer in this project, Paul Kadarisman. Kadarisman has done advertising photography and editorial work for art magazines, and exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in various galleries in Indonesia. His approach could be considered the most individualized out of the three. Kadarisman poses himself in a series of relaxed portraits with photographer friends who are all, not coincidentally, named Mohammad. “Mohammad and Me” literally puts Paul in the picture with Mohammad. He answered my question “What does it look like to live in the world’s largest Muslim country?” by saying, “If you live in a Muslim society, naturally you have friends named Mohammad, just as you will have friends named Christian in Europe or the United States.” (This assumption is an interesting elision, as the name “Christian” does not operate in the same way “Mohammad” does.) We see, for example, Paul Kadarisman and the photographer Mohammad Iqbal. Iqbal seems to be wondering what this project is all about. We also see Paul Kadarisman and Mohammad Revaldi proudly showing off the newest photography equipment in Revaldi’s studio, and finally Paul Kadarisman and Mohammad Firman Ichsan, whose Siberian husky had just given birth to some puppies. These relaxed urban poses are full of pop cultural references. We can see that Indonesian photographers like trendy computers, for example, or that, despite the Muslim taboo on owning dogs and the tropical weather, one of the photographers owns several big Siberian Huskies and puppies. We can consider the paradox that within Islam, visual iconography is forbidden, and yet everyday life in this Muslim society makes room for these photographic practices. Being the only consistent presence in these staged shots, Kadarisman, who is a non-observant Christian, deliberately acts cold and unfriendly, whereas the three Mohammads are smiling, friendly and appear harmless.
In this project the name “Mohammad” is a personification of Islam and Muslim society, while “Me” refers to the photographers’ self-conscious visual exploration of their life experiences in a Muslim context. The “me” then turns into an “I” of the audience’s participation in this process of social identification. By exploring Mohammad AND me, rather than training the camera’s eye onto any one or all Mohammads, a fuller picture emerges of the relationships between subjects in Indonesian Muslim society.
The situation has changed since this project was developed. The 2009 general election showed a significant decrease in votes for traditional Islamic parties and an increase in votes for the new Islamic politics manifested in the middle class, urban, and doctrinally conservative Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS). Another pile of rejected photographs by Arief Kamaludin Rahmat would be an interesting continuation of the project. Mohammad Revaldi’s focus on the growing popularity of Haqani among upper middle class youths and pop-rock musicians has become an ongoing personal project. Meanwhile we wait for Paul Kadarisman to make new friends with people named Mohammad.
The Prince Claus Journal published a preliminary part of Mohammad and Me in April 2006. In September 2006 the Noorderlicht Photo festival in the Netherlands exhibited Mohammad and Me for the first time in the “Another Asia” photo festival. After these exhibitions, I asked the three photographers about the possibility of exhibiting this project in Indonesia. They all had different responses. Mohammad Revaldi immediately agreed with the idea, while Arief Kamaludin Rahmat was worried about losing his job. The most surprising response came, as usual, from Paul Kadarisman. He simply replied: “Are you out of your mind?” indicating his unease. “Mohammad and Me”, together with other elements of the Another Asia Photo festival was shown at the Goethe Institute Gallery in Jakarta in July 2008 to a public but self-selected audience of middle class, educated, intellectual urbanites.
As a curatorial project published in September 2010 by the TAP Review, “Mohammad and Me” is now permanently available to an international audience.
Arief Kamaludin Rahmat was born in 1977 and graduated in 2004 from the Jakarta Art Institute Photography Department. Arief Kamaludin Rahman’s diverse work includes a photo-project on the street entertainment of trained macaques found in the neighbourhoods of Java. He currently works as a photo editor at an Islamic weekly publication.
Muhammad Revaldi was born in 1977 and studied photography at the Jakarta Art Institute. He is better known as a commercial and fashion photographer today. He continues to teach at a number of photography institutions in Jakarta.
Paul Kadarisman was born in 1974 and graduated from the Photography Department of Jakarta Art Institute in 2000, and is currently working as a freelance photographer. Paul Kadarisman was selected as the best photographer in the first Jakarta International Photo Summit in December 2007. In February 2010, his work was featured in a solo exhibition entitled “Boring Happy Days” in Jakarta.
Alexander Supartono is an independent curator and a lecturer in the Department of Photography at the Faculty of Film and Television, Jakarta Art Institute. His exhibitions have been showcased at the Goethe Institute and at international festivals. He is currently pursuing graduate work at Ohio University.