New Leaders Forum

Leveraging Contemporary Art

The work of artists like Nyoman Masriadi have huge potential for diplomacy. Does everyone recognise this?

By Eddie Walsh for

Earlier this year, the Paul Kasmin Gallery presented the first solo exhibition of Nyoman Masriadi in the United States. Still in his mid-30s, Masriadi has emerged as one of the best known Southeast Asian contemporary artists of his generation. Influenced by TV, new media, and video game culture, he has broken the mould for Indonesian contemporary artists who too often produce works that fail to connect with a global audience.

With a major exhibition underway, and seemingly destined for further international acclaim, Masriadi should be on the radar of the Indonesian diplomatic service, particularly Foreign Service officers tasked with public diplomacy and cultural relations. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case – at least in the United States – where the embassy failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on his work.

This raises an important question: Why would the Indonesian Embassy, particularly public diplomacy and cultural relations diplomatic staff, not prioritize leveraging contemporary artists like Masriadi to improve the country’s prestige and influence abroad?

To some analysts, the answer lies in the embassy’s focus, which appears instead directed at promoting traditional arts (i.e. batik, puppetry, martial arts, and traditional Javanese music).

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While traditional arts feature prominently in the DC embassy’s programming, the embassy fails to make a similar investment in contemporary art. This is in stark contrast with the United States’ embassies abroad, which have long featured contemporary art prominently under the Art in Embassies program.

Given the increasing exposure of Indonesian contemporary artists, I went directly to Masriadi to get his view on why the Indonesian government fails to promote contemporary art:

As an internationally recognized artist, have you seen Indonesian diplomats express interest in leveraging contemporary art exhibits to promote Indonesian influence abroad?

From my point of view, I haven't seen the Indonesian government promoting contemporary art abroad. Perhaps, the understanding of contemporary art is beyond them, or they see traditional arts as being the entry point for what Indonesia has to offer. Also, contemporary art, in my opinion, goes beyond Indonesian borders and doesn’t necessarily address issues about Indonesia. As such, it may be beyond their scope.

When you work with patrons and private collectors in Indonesia, do you feel that there’s a sincere interest in using their collections and private museums to promote the country's cultural influence (ex. the patrons of Renaissance Italy)? How important are these private museums to the international profile of Indonesian artists?

Within Indonesia, where there isn’t much government support for contemporary art, it’s the galleries and the patrons that do most of the promoting of Indonesian art overseas. There are significant handfuls of collectors who are passionate about seeing Indonesian artist make a significant contribution to the art scene within Asia and beyond. As to how successful they are, it remains to be seen.

Do you see Singapore emerging as the cultural centre for Southeast Asian art?

Well, it seems that Singapore is the only country with a budget and a vision in promoting contemporary art within the region. I suppose other countries are trying as well, but I think they lack the budget and the infrastructure to make a significant impact.


Eddie Walsh is The Diplomat's Pentagon (accredited) correspondent. His work has been featured by Gulf News, ISN Insights, CSIS, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe and The Journal of Energy Security. He blogs at Asia-Pacific Reporting, can be reached at [email protected], and followed @aseanreporting.