For Novi, Dear, a new exhibition opening Thu., Oct. 31 at the Silver Eye Center for Photography, artist Leonard Suryajaya investigates the conflicting facets of his life and identity. His website details his upbringing as part of the Chinese-born minority in Indonesia and as a Buddhist educated in Christian schools in a Muslim-majority country. As a gay man living in Chicago, he also explores his estrangement from his culture and immediate family, who still live in Indonesia.
“The discovery of my sexuality … deeply alienated me from my home and family,” Suryajaya says in an artist statement on his website, adding that his traditional family and conservative country didn’t permit “fluid gender expression and homosexuality.”
While this is heavy material, Silver Eye executive director and Novi, Dear organizer, David Oresick, describes the displayed images as “joyful, fun, energetic, and beautiful,” all with a touch of silliness.
Those qualities are evident in the way Suryajaya uses his family and partner, Peter, as subjects in striking, pop-culture infused tableaux. In "Wrecking Ball," a female relative becomes a surrogate Miley Cyrus in an image inspired by the singer’s hit song and music video. In the background, various other female relatives in vibrant floral dress dab as a man with an American flag draped over his face kneels, his hands tied behind his back.
“[Suryajaya is] a person who has found a way to visually activate his communities,” says Oresick.
This extends to naming the exhibition after his sister, November, who, as Oresick explains, was the first person Suryajaya came out to, a moment captured in a video project playing at the gallery.
Oresick says they chose to showcase Suryajaya because, even as a young artist, he clearly had confidence in his “unique vision.”
“[Suryajaya] had a pretty complete vision of what the show was going to be,” says Oresick.
It also fits the gallery’s mission of showcasing emerging artists who would otherwise never be seen locally. While Suryajaya has had solo exhibitions in Chicago, California, and his native Indonesia, this is his first such show in Pittsburgh.
But while Suryajaya’s vision may come off as playful, it’s clearly driven by dark experiences that influenced him. In his artist statement, he says, “Oppression and suppression were the themes of my childhood.” This refers not only to hiding his own sexuality, but to events his own family experienced, like his grandfather fleeing the communist regime, genocide, and the eradication of Chinese culture by the Indonesian government.
His approach to art appears to defy those themes; he holds nothing back. Oresick says the exhibition is a “visual overload,” with images crammed from corner to corner with flowers, layers of draped fabrics, and loads of props.
Subjects adorned in costumes, jewelry, and makeup strike exaggerated poses, such as in "Red," a work depicting a woman — most likely a relative — seated upon a partially nude man’s back, her eyes and mouth opened cartoonishly wide and her tongue sticking out. In "Musing," makeup is switched out for what appears to be a lunch meat face-mask on a young woman, who splays across a bedspread and looks blankly at the phone at the end of her selfie stick.
As if to complement this outrageousness, Oresick says the show will also feature what he calls Silver Eye’s “most ambitious installation to date,” with 50,000 mirror balls affixed to the gallery walls, which he believes will make space feel “really immersive.”
Not to be lost in all the elaborate staging and big, bold displays, however, is the desire for physical and emotional love, both romantic and familial, at the core of Suryajaya’s work. His images communicate a yearning for a connection between his two distinct worlds, including in "Mom and Peter," a photo showing his mother and partner cuddled up underneath a blanket.
“Through an absence of physical and verbal affection in my upbringing, I use the visual medium to produce a new language of intimacy and longing,” says Suryajaya in his artist statement. “The desire for closeness, accompanied by apprehension, guides me in my exploration. I found myself using photography as an excuse to construct a new and more privately familiar world.”