Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

Katherine Bruhn

University of California, Berkeley


Expressing Minangkabau Piety: Forms of Islam and the work of Handiwirman Saputra

What is Islamic art? Is it art that contains visibly Islamic forms like calligraphy? Is it art created by an artist that identifies as or comes from a region that is predominantly Muslim? Can the work of art be made Islamic by its reception and identification as such? How does the imposition of the contemporary complicate these questions? Centered around these queries, this paper takes as its focus the work of Indonesian contemporary artist Handiwirman Saputra. Originally from the region of West Sumatra, Saputra is Minangkabau, where Minangkabau refers to the ethnic group that is synonymous with this region. Described as the world’s largest matrilineal Muslim society, Islam is central to and cannot be detached from being Minangkabau. Further, because Saputra came to prominence nationally, in the 1990s, as part of a group of six Minangkabau artists, this identity has been continually attached to analyses of his large-scale mixed-media installations. At first glance, there is nothing identifiably Islamic about the product of Saputra’s practice. However, when read through the lens of Minangkabau metaphor that is itself, rooted in a relationship to the natural world and the history of Islam in West Sumatra, the argument can be made that Saputra’s art is an expression of his Muslim identity and thus a form of Islamic expression. With its focus on Indonesia, this paper offers a significant contribution that reflects the realities and possibilities of a part of the Ummah that is often marginalized or all together forgotten in discussions concerning Islamic art.


Katherine Bruhn is a PhD candidate in the department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests cluster around global modernisms and contemporary visual practices, subject formation in and through art, and creativity’s relationship to studies of the urban with a special emphasis on the history of Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art generally and Indonesia specifically. Her dissertation, provisionally titled, "Expressing Minangkabau: Art World Making, Indonesia and the Global Contemporary, 1993 - 2019,” examines the work of artists part of one of Indonesia’s many ethnic groups. This group, known as the Minangkabau, are today synonymous with the region of West Sumatra and are recognized as the world’s largest matrilineal Muslim society. Through a consideration of art works produced by Minangkabau artists, the dynamics of two communities comprised almost entirely of Minangkabau artists, and the position of Minangkabau artists within Indonesia’s national art world, Katherine asks how contemporary art production has acted as a platform for the negotiation of ethnic identity and subsequently religion leading up to and after the end of Suharto's New Order Regime, often for the promotion of one’s art in national and regional art markets. Along with her academic work, Katherine frequently curates contemporary art exhibitions in Indonesia and Singapore.

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