Eko Nugroho Uses Cartoon-Like Figures to Probe the Political Status Quo

Enter one of Eko Nugroho’s exhibitions and a cast of characters jumps out from every angle: hooded, rebellious figures, amorphous bodies cloaked in graphic patterns, and headless mutants, all culminating to form an atmosphere of political upheaval. It’s a sort of bizarre, cartoonish wonderland, though one that is distinctly revolutionary. 

Nugroho dabbles and excels across a wide range of media, from public murals to animation to textile works, all the while reflecting the changing political climate of contemporary Asia. He emerged from the “2000 Generation” of artists in Indonesia, a group that at the turn of the 21st century felt compelled to address current socio-political issues in the wake of the financial crisis, the fall of the Suharto regime, and the rise of democracy.

One way Nugrohu does this is through Daging Tumbuh, a biannual underground comic book that he began circulating in 2000, comprised of submissions from the public. He first emerged on the international scene at the Lyon Biennale in 2009 and has since become one of Indonesia’s most promising contemporary artists; in 2013 Nugroho was one of five Indonesian artists selected to participate in the Venice Biennale, and in 2014 his “Burning Down the House” banners were featured in Korea’s Gwangju Biennale. 

His work incorporates elements of street art, graffiti, and the comic books of his childhood, as well as traditional batik and embroidery. His recent series “Just Pretending to Understand Politics” depicts figures masked by monstrous hoods, sometimes only partially hiding their identities—a nod to the masking of political protesters as well as the masks of traditional Java culture.

“Many of the figures in my work … are masked in some way,” Nugroho has said. “By changing the heads of the figures I convey my interpretation; this is the picture I end up with.” Themes of violence and chaos abound throughout his work, but in “Just Pretending to Understand Politics,” destructive weapons are replaced with art supplies—in one piece he portrays a figure with a glue gun to the head—suggesting that creativity, rather than brutality, is the way to make political impact.  

Sola Agustsson

Discover more artists at Lombard Freid Gallery.