Colonialist Relations, A Symptom of Social Ill-health

Arahmaiani’s Memory of Nature and Flag Performance in conversation with The Golden Coach

For the exhibition The Golden Coach at the Amsterdam Museum, the pioneering Indonesian artist Arahmaiani -amongst several other artists- was invited to respond to the colonial past represented on the carriage’s side panel ‘Tribute from the Colonies’ and to engage with the question ‘What to do with this colonial past of The Netherlands?’ posed by the exhibition’s makers.[1] As her contribution to this discussion on Dutch colonial history, and the appropriateness of the Golden Coach as a national symbol, she responded by showcasing two artworks: Memory of Nature and Flag Project. Both works, ongoing already for several years, engage audiences in collective creative actions, whilst also facilitating dialogue amongst the participants.

Arahmaiani, environmental activism and creativity as a shared activity

A critical voice of Western commercial and cultural Imperialism, global industrialization and the oppression of people in the margins, Arahmaiani’s activist, awareness-raising art practice spans over thirty years. Working with the mediums of performance, installation, video art, and painting in contexts as diverse as international art- biennales and institutions, the streets of Java and communities in earthquake disaster areas, Arahmaiani’s work has consistently addressed and critiqued issues of social- and political injustices. Since 2006, after an earthquake in Yogyakarta, her practice has increasingly become focused on environmental issues and the responsibility that humans must take for human created natural disasters. Along with this shift towards an environmentally and ecologically expanded understanding of the role of her art, Arahmaiani has increasingly become more focused on creativity as a shared activity and a means to collectively bridging rigid, black and white, oppositional thinking, rather than being a means to expressing her ‘individual’ artistic vision. Despite this move towards environmental activism and ecological thinking within her art practice, the central concerns and focus of Arahmaiani’s art can be said to have remained the same throughout her long career. Namely, all of her art activities address situations in which hierarchical, dualist thinking has produced a lack of balance in our relations with others, causing social (and ecological) imbalance, injustice, oppression, and exploitation.

In her own words:

The basis of my thought is concern with balance, or the conjunction of opposites… In my opinion, the situation we find ourselves in currently, is one of imbalance. With one opposite being oppressed/repressed by the other: feminine energy by masculine energy, spirit by matter, nature by culture, the “weak” by the “strong.” [2]

Memory of Nature and Flag Project in conversation with The Golden Coach

Through their formal quality as ‘social sculptures’[3], both Memory of Nature and Flag Project require active participation and taking social responsibility for our actions in the present moment. This means not only thinking about unjust practices of oppression in relation to the past, commenting on them in the present, or speculating on them in relation to the future, but to collectively performing better and more just relations in the present, within the creative, potential space of the artwork.


Arahmaiani, “Memory of Nature” – installation (2013 – 2021)
Material: soil, seed and wood.

Memory of Nature, as seen in the image above is a living mandala grown from seeds in the course of the exhibition. Audiences are invited into conversation with each other around the mandala while at the same time collectively creating smaller seed mandalas, each one filled with its own latent, creative potential. The collaborative work addresses issues of interconnectedness and the creative potential present in all our interactions with each other and the world as an ecosystem. The Flag Project centers around interconnectedness as well, engaging audiences in dialogue, both with each other and the artist. Here the focus is generally on very specific community related issues arising from power imbalances caused by oppositional thinking within (and between) local communities, including environmental issues. Each community co-creates a new flag to manifest a concept, or a shared need, around which their community can unite. The flag then joins the collection of previously made flags which travel around the globe with Arahmaiani.[4]



The video presented above documents parts of the Flag Project performed in the courtyard of the Amsterdam Museum during The Golden Coach exhibition in the Fall of 2021. To the beats of contemporary Indonesian hip hop music by ‘JHF’ (Jogja HipHop Foundation), we see the performance participants in a chromatic procession carry flags created by members of different -often marginalized- communities from around the world. Of the nine flags seen here, four have words in Asian languages sown onto them: Aqal (Mind in Indonesian), Metok (Flower in Tibetan), Kuay Le (Happiness in Chinese), Rera (Earth in Ainu Japanese). Another four depict words from European languages: Vrouw (Woman in Dutch), Ame (Soul in French), Mut (Courage in German), Love (in English). One flag has an image of a heart to symbolize love.

Arahmaiani’s approach to engage with The Golden Coach exhibition’s central question with these specific works ground her counter-question to the exhibition’s makers on how to deal with the Dutch colonial past. Namely, she asks ‘what are we [humans] doing to end colonial power structures present today, not only in relation to The Netherlands and its (former) colonies, but as a world-wide manifestation of ill-health?’ [5]

As an Indonesian Muslim woman and a mother living in a socio-culturally hybrid region where multiple intersections of gender, religion, class and ethnicity breed their own brands of oppression and exploitation, – some of which have their roots in Dutch colonialist legacies, some of which are rooted in other human complications- this question is highly relevant in the exhibition’s context. In other words, the lack of balance in our human and non-human relations, that Arahmaiani’s work strives to highlight in The Golden Coach exhibition’s context, extends to a larger web of colonial relations than only those between The Netherlands and its (former) colonies. Whilst the exhibition asks us as a society an important and specific question, responding to the question must extend beyond the exhibitions duration and include engagement with all colonialist structures as a manifestation of social ill-health, beyond the The Golden Coach. This is what Arahamiani’s art works towards.


The exhibition The Golden Coach was on display at the Amsterdam Museum from June 18, 2021 to February 27, 2022. For more information on Arahmaiani’s work at The Golden Coach exhibition, please see here.

This text is written by Deirdre M. Donoghue (Pirkkala, Finland 1971), researcher at the Department of Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University. She has a practice as visual and performance artist and also works as a birth doula. In her artistic work she most often sets up social scenarios and specifically framed human encounters where multiple relations can be set into motion, through which the production of new knowledge systems via cross-disciplinary approach becomes mobilized. Her scholarly research engages with issues of aesthetics, ethics, relational matters, and New Materialist theory.

Arahmaiani (Bandung, Indonesia 1961) is one of the most respected contemporary artists in Southeast Asia. She has a versatile oeuvre and is internationally known for her performances. Arahmaiani addresses social and cultural issues around themes such as gender, religion, culture and environment. She often works with local communities.


[1] The coach’s left side panel, painted by the Dutch artist Nicolaas van der Waay, is entitled ‘Hulde der Koloniën’ (‘Tribute from the Colonies’). However, it is not clear, whether the views represented on the panel are the artist’s own (‘The Panels on the Golden Coach’, Maria Rey-Lamslag and Annemarie de Wildt in ‘The Golden Coach’, (exhibition catalogue), Amsterdam Museum and W Books, 2021, p.26.
[2] Arahmaiani, Artist Statement, Bandung, 1993.

[3] ‘Social sculpture’, is a term coined by the German performance artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) to express his view that life is a social sculpture that everyone helps to shape. This view on the role and responsibility of art and creativity, shared by Arahmaiani, holds a strongly political dimension in its simple and straightforward belief that people’s everyday actions, when imbued with creativity, can re-shape society.

[4] Since 2006, a total of 34 flags have been created by different communities and in different languages including Indonesian (various scripts), Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Hebrew, Tagalog, English.

[5]  Paraphrased from a conversation between Arahmaiani and Donoghue in October 2021, Rotterdam.