In Indonesia, Knitting Gets Political

By Theodora Sutcliffe

Fitriani Dalay is challenging artistic censorship, one stitch at a time.

Public art like graffiti has long been used as a tool for political commentary and change. In the town of Makassar, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, that politically charged art is of a less typical variety: knitting and yarn-bombing.

The act of yarn-bombing — which involves wrapping structures in knits, essentially replacing graffiti paint with crochet — was first popularized by Austin-based artist Madga Sayeg, and made waves in Jakarta, Indonesia a few years ago, when it was initially used as a way to celebrate the country’s diversity. In Makassar, though, the act is being utilized by artist Fitriani Dalay for other ends: to challenge consumerism, censorship, and elitism in the political and art worlds, while empowering women.

Fitriani’s anti-establishment work has quickly gained attention; last year, her arts cooperative, QuiQui, was invited to create work for the Jakarta Biennale, Indonesia’s oldest and largest modern art event, alongside artists from as far afield as London, Copenhagen, and Colombia.

QuiQui created their first yarn-bombing event back in 2012. Featuring over 30 knitters who were funded independently and through crowd-funding, the small-scale wrapping project took off. Soon, Fitriani’s neighbors, at first confused by the bright yarns that were decorating trees and gates, began to wrap their own gates and trees.

The goal was simple: By decorating public areas in lovingly handmade, carnival colors, QuiQui sought to democratize the artistic process, while providing a counterpoint to rampant consumerism and throwaway culture in a fast-developing city. “It was a protest against visual pollution,” says Fitriani. “Billboards, banners, and pamphlets for elections were littering the city of Makassar at the time, and some of the billboards were nailed to living trees. Not only is it a visual violence, but it damages the trees.”

By decorating public areas in handmade knits, QuiQui sought to democratize the artistic process.

Today Indonesia is a democracy, yet much power, both at local and national level, still resides with representatives of the old brutal authoritarian regime. One year after President Joko Widodo, born into poverty on Java, made the cover of Time magazine, the Ubud Readers & Writers Festival in Bali was censored to exclude discussion both of historic massacres and a controversial land reclamation project.

In addition to challenging this kind of artistic censorship, Fitriani says she wants her work to rebuke elitist attitudes about art. “Good art is art that can touch and be useful for many people,” she says. “Today, the art world is not just about the artist and his work alone. But most people in Makassar believe that the art world is enclosed, that exhibitions should be exclusive, held in closed spaces with shiny floors and walls. We want to change this understanding.”

To democratize the making and consumption of art, Fitriani has also placed her 6-year-old daughter’s work on show in the gallery she runs with her partner. And QuiQui offers free classes to the public, not only on basic knitting, but on pocket book binding, printing, music, and more.

Though Fitriani doesn’t identify as a feminist, her work has focused on helping women. QuiQui has campaigned for safe, convenient, and free public spaces for women, and Fitriani has used knitting to provide support for postpartum mothers, a response to her own experience with having a child.

“People would comment on my body, and laugh,” she recalls of her post-birth experience. “It was impossible to leave the house as often as I could before because I had to take care of my baby. I felt helpless, almost useless.” Knitting with other post-partum mothers helped foster artistic empowerment and community — a link to the strong, tight networks of the Indonesian kampung (think “village” as in “It takes a village”) that have been increasingly lost in rapidly urbanizing Indonesia.

Good art is art that can touch and be useful for many people.

Fitriani works and lives with her husband and daughter in Kampung Buku (Book Village), a simple space that, in addition to including a reference library and space to showcase her exhibitions, offers a place for people to learn to knit. Through the village and QuiQui collective, Fitriani navigates the space between public and private, work and home, personal and communal.

“Both me and my partner are learning by doing,” she says. “It’s not necessarily easy to separate public from private. But it’s training us into people who are open to criticism, more empowered, and more confident.”

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