Bandung-born, Yogyakarta-based Mulyana creates colourful Coral Islands - pieced together from yarn pom poms and knitted shapes. After coming up with a design, the artist works with members of the transgender community to execute the individual 'corals'.
A former art teacher, the 32-year-old came up with his crocheted alter-ego in 2008: The Mogus - short for Monster, Gurita ('octopus' in Bahasa Indonesia) and Sigarantang (Mulyana's clan name) - is a cephalopod which has since gone through many incarnations and variations. When we meet Mulyana at Art Stage Singapore in January 2016, he is holding a sky-blue Mogus with pink tentacles and what look like yellow antlers.
While Mulyana says he did not set out to overtly make a point about gender and sexuality with his art, it is possible to read the Coral Islands as an attempt to negotiate the fluidity of bodies and identity. Floating on invisible seas, yet anchored to one another, Mulyana's corals represent the desire to move beyond arbitrary labels that devalue us as human beings; in favour of a useful, multi-armed, multi-gendered to do something useful with the people around us.
What inspired you to make the Coral Islands?
It's tightly tied with The Mogus. The Mogus is an octopus and octopus lives in the sea. Where would an octopus like to live in the sea? Coral reefs!
How long does each Coral Island take to complete?
It varies according to the size and shape of the corals. Usually three to four months.
How did you start working with the transgender community?
I had just moved to Yogyakarta from Bandung in 2014, and was trying to find something interesting for a community-based project, for an exhibition.
I was introduced to a transgender community in Sorogenen village. This community is very, very small, but, unlike in Bandung, its members seem to be well-accepted by other people. Unlike in other regions, where the transgender community often bask on the streets or have to resort to prostitution to survive, transgender people in Sorogenen hold steady jobs in restaurants, hair salons, etc.. That was why I was interested to work with them. I wanted to show people that the transgender community has a voice and are able to channel it.
How do they feel about making the art with you?
It was difficult at first. The first time, they were more interested in a work that could produce money instantly. They were questioning the merit of working on an art project. It needed a lot of convincing before they were finally willing to work with me.
Tell us more about the women you work with, and their stories...
One of them is Tamara Pertamina. I met her while helping her translate subtitles for the documentary Paris is Burning, for Makcik Project, a collaborative art project in Yogyakarta in 2013 . She moved from West Java to Yogya because she was mocked for being a transgender in her home town. In Yogya, she felt she had finally found her place - she could express herself as a transgender.
One of the most interesting transgender women I met was Ibu Marian, who unfortunately passed away recently. Bu Marian actually runs pesantren (Islamic boarding school in Indonesia) for young transgender women. She herself has gone to the haj as a woman.
Why did you decide to use knitting/crochet as a medium?
To put it simply , knitting and crochet are very portable. I can work on a project wherever and whenever I want. It also does not need cleaning up and the process does not take up a lot of space.
What sorts of stereotypes have you come up against as "the man who knit" [sic], the hash tag you've given yourself? Knitting is traditionally seen as a woman's thing...
It is! Usually people are baffled when they see me crochet or knit, but I never feel ashamed. Instead, I feel very proud, especially when I give a workshop, and the participants are amazed to find that it’s a man conducting the workshop, but are still willing to finish the workshop. I also belong to a group called “The Men Who Knit” in Bandung. It makes me feel very proud to be working with my hands!
How do you negotiate the idea of bodies and gender/sexual identity in your work?
This is kind of hard to answer. I don’t feel that there’s an idea of bodies, gender or sexual identity in any of my work. If it’s somehow percieved, it’s mostly not intentional. The Mogus is based on my wish to be useful and give more.
- Interview and photographs by Clara Chow