A Dutch-Indonesian Artist Draws a Link between Clothing and Shelter with Her “Flexible Housings”

  • Image courtesy of Baik Art.

A human dwelling, whether a high-rise apartment building or a simple hut, protects and houses the body. The same could be said of human clothing. In a recent exhibition, the Dutch-Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma explored the parallel.

Step into “Carrier,” Jaarsma’s show at Baik Art in Los Angeles, and you’ll immediately encounter a concrete example of the comparison. From across the room, one piece looks like a smaller version—a model version, perhaps—of a military tent. Only upon spotting the nearby wall-mounted photograph, which depicts the same piece, will you realize that it also resembles a garment. After all, in the photograph, a pair of human feet stick out from the bottom of the fabric, and a pair of eyes peer through an opening in the top. There are no sleeves or pant legs, but, somehow, it’s not unlike a military jacket.

  • Image courtesy of Baik Art.

This is one of Jaarsma’s “flexible housings”—clothing constructions she pairs with drawings and photographs. Looking at the tent-like garment, you’ll find yourself wondering about tradition versus innovation, and how familiar or everyday objects might serve other purposes.

But the pairing of clothing construction and photograph also provokes a kind of discomfort in the viewer. What happens when one thing, an item you’re accustomed to, is suddenly employed in a different way? Take the military jacket, for instance. We’re living in a world where countless people are living (and in some cases, barely surviving) in refugee camps. What if that military jacket, for them, isn’t a fashion statement for fall, but a means of survival?

  • Image courtesy of Baik Art.

These questions of class and conflict, of colonization, oppression, and appropriation, are of particular interest to Jaarsma. She is, after all, a woman who had a comparatively comfortable upbringing in the Netherlands but decided to move to Indonesia, where she has lived and worked for more than three decades. “By choosing to live within a totally different culture,” she has said, “I became more aware of the values and norms of my own cultural background. This process made me conscious of differences between cultures and also taught me how to identify these differences. What we consider to be reality comes to us by means of contrasts in experiences.”

  • Image courtesy of Baik Art.

Additionally, as a foreign transplant, Jaarsma has long engaged with the concept of hospitality. Instead of fashion, many of her previous works explore food, another vehicle for her artistic and intellectual curiosity.

“I use food mainly as an idiom to communicate: through a confrontation with local food traditions, cultural differences can truly be experienced,” she has said. “Exchanging ideas about food and eating behaviors can open up a space for understanding personal, racial, religious and ethnic differences.”

Food, clothing, shelter: basic human necessities and, in Jaarsma’s practice, a helpful structure for asking questions about contemporary human life.

—Bridget Gleeson

Mella Jaarsma: Carrier” was on view at Baik Art, Los Angeles, Oct. 22–Nov. 30, 2016.

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