Kinez Riza’s work is concerned with ideas regarding representations of reality and identity in relation to the natural world and lesser known belief systems. She embarks on artist-led expeditions to disconnected tribal communities and environments in the world in order to explore the baseline similarities consistent in human beings. She derives nature as an allegory to human experience, and explores the intimacy in our relationship with others and the environments we live in.
She portrays the tension between her emotive accounts with her rationale, and romanticizes exploration and discovery as a means to represent her images in a mystical, mysterious narrative. She references themes within the social sciences and literature, such as the relevance of myths and legends as effective lines of discourse in understanding knowledge.
Kinez has built a body of work for five years prior to being exhibited as an artist, she has participated in exhibitions within Indonesia and abroad. Her work has gathered the support of institutions in the natural and social sciences to assist in the development of her work.
Kinez Riza interviewed by Niccolò Fano
I encountered Kinez Riza’s work at Art Dubai in March 2013. The fair, arranged in two large pavillions inside the Las Vegas-like resort of the Madinat Jumeira, offered visitors everything from a revisited traditional souk to artificial rivers and gourmet restaurants. Although Dubai Art Fair proved to be extremely well curated, showcasing a varied range of mediums and artists from some of the best galleries across the globe, I struggled to find a strong body of photographic work by an emerging Artist; everywhere I turned was a Sugimoto an Abramovich or a Koons.
Kinez Riza’s Etherworld caught my eye at Jakarta’s D Gallerie. Etherworld includes large prints, text and journal entries, all accompanied by a discrete sound installation. It was through discussing the context of the work and the subject matter with Kinez Riza herself that I became fascinated with her very personal and unique approach the photographic medium.
Niccolò Fano: We met at Art Dubai so let’s start from there. You exhibited your series Etherworld at D Gallerie (Jakarta). How did this opportunity arise? Was this your first Art Fair?
Kinez Riza: Art Dubai was my first art fair, and the first time I’ve exhibited abroad. I had previously exhibited with D Gallerie domestically in Indonesia, so when Esti (the gallery director) heard I was developing Etherworld in an artist-led expedition to Kayan Mentarang rainforest in Borneo she thought it should make it’s debut in Art Dubai.
NF: Before discussing your photographic practice it is important to give our readers some background on your past and upbringing. Moreover, what made you decide to pursue photography and art as a career?
KR: I was born and lived in Jakarta until the 1998 crisis made it quite unsafe to live there as the situation was very volatile. My family and I moved to Singapore where I encountered an international upbringing for the first time. The cultural differences and the conflicts it often brought made the question of identity and reality an ever-present topic in my environment. I went to a school where its founder Kurt Hahn had a firm ideology in strengthening humanistic values starting from a young age. In this school I was given the opportunity to be involved in natural disaster relief efforts and conflict management conferences, I helped in post tsunami relief in Aceh and Pangandaran, facilitating conflict management conferences with Sri Lanka and East Timor as our focus, Merapi eruption relief etc. In these formative years I became very aware of the extent of loss and human brutality, with conflicts arising from differences in thoughts and beliefs. At such a young age and in the midst of a highly capitalist city, I had no inclination to really grow up, the polarity between great displays of wealth and great displays of sorrow made me pursue the ominous question of what is truth? My most rewarding academic studies were in literature and art, I found the nature of its expression comforting, different perceptions and perspectives were a conduit instead of having to define things in black and white; I didn’t really want to say ‘and so it goes’ to the things I cared about. I then moved to London to study in Chelsea College of Art and Design and London Metropolitan University for Educational Studies where Sociology was a major component of the curriculum. It was in this environment that my curiosity for perceptions in reality and identity was moulded into a specific line of inquiry. I found photography, art and literature a great outlet for the soul. I travelled extensively and sought interests in the natural and social sciences and built a body of work in the medium of photography and literature over the course of five years.
I moved back to Indonesia in 2010 and eventually approached D Gallerie to see if my work could be exhibited. Having such a positive response from my first exhibition, my career as an artist began. Living in Indonesia was surprisingly perfect for my line of inquiry, I found the diversity in thoughts and beliefs in over 300 tribes in Indonesia a great field for study, it was ironically very accessible to reach these disconnected communities and environments. Despite the fast development of Indonesia as a country, the wilderness was very much there, and the final frontier was everywhere.
NF: Most of your projects are deeply embedded with themes that are determined and inspired by your surroundings. Your chosen locations and groups are rarely documented and showcased within the fine art photography realm, falling more frequently in the naturalistic and anthropological genre of the medium. What pushes you to focus on these particular places and groups?
KR: I had a ‘moment’ in the semi-desert of Little Karoo, South Africa, where the San people were traced back to have originated from. The land is very ancient, visible in the fossils dating back to the Cambrian period of about 570 million years ago, that well known phrase about Africa: ‘the Dawn of Man’ was most profound there and the familiar feeling of having been there before came to me. It was then that I thought the best place to start was at the beginning, where the extensions of man in the form of technology had not taken great effect, there was only the complexity of nature and the vital ingredients necessary for survival. In these places I found the human spirit to be more pronounced, and in the realm of the human spirit I discovered the things that bind people to together: our levels of consciousness. My interest has always been connectedness between all living things and the poetic nature of photography in the fine art realm allows for a different expression of my contextual findings. I could write a paper or I could tell a story, what tugs the heart strings more? Romance, freedom and adventure. How could I express purity and danger in a way that does not disillusion the need for growth? By bringing out those innate childlike qualities in us that once looked at the world with so much wonder, by highlighting those instinctive sovereign traits that enhance the mode of life within and through my fascination of those living in the same world with an entirely different perception of reality.
NF: Etherworld is an elaborate and striking body of work. It required you to travel in very particular conditions for a lengthy period providing you with a vast range of material to visually expand upon. Tell us about your journey and the focus of Etherworld.
KR: My work is based on artist-led expeditions, I embarked on a trip to the Kayan Mentarang rainforest in June 2012 with the intent of exploring one of the world’s oldest rainforests. Members of the Dayak Lundayeh tribe accompanied me throughout this journey, and their presence was integral to the underlying context within Etherworld. Their perception of the world was revealed to us very subtly over the course of many days walking through the forest floor. For example, their common sense and intuitive nature was expressed over the way they paced themselves in the forest, quietly alert and swift on foot. Their senses are heightened, listening for game and fell trees. They are also highly aware of people’s true characteristics, which became even more evident in the face of such an isolated environment. Our fears have a way of showing themselves, our dreams became more intense and elaborate and we started sensing the presence of ‘others’ who reside in the forest. It was bewildering to encounter strange things, but in many ways we welcomed it. Had we decided to shut ourselves to the things around us, our trip would have taken a different course entirely. I did have some preconceived notions that I wanted to expand upon while I was there, and certain ways in which I would like to explore visually. These did not turn out as I expected, ‘expectations’ were mostly obsolete, and constructing a narrative paled in comparison to what was actually there. I wanted to portray the tension between fantasy and reality, and instead of this being expressed as visually constructed narratives, the experiences themselves portrayed that tension. If anything, the ‘documentative’ approach in the work I produced was more relevant in the portrayal of that tension.
NF: It is evident that a great deal of preparation is required before embarking on a project like this. What are the steps you take whilst constructing the research and practical framework?
KR: Contextually, my work explores notions of reality and identity in relation to nature and lesser-known belief systems, so the framework itself was already quite a specific line of inquiry. I was given books titled The Pagan Tribes of Borneo written by Charles Hose and Home-Life of a Borneo Headhunter written by William Henry Furness published around 1902. It gave me detailed insight of their beliefs and their life a hundred years ago. Much has changed since then, but there are distinct parallels to their beliefs then and now. They are strong animists by nature, but monotheism by way of believing the ‘One Great God’ a hundred years ago has allowed them to ease themselves to their current Christian beliefs. From this, I was able to gain an understanding of how they perceive reality and identity. However, it is important to not abide by a grand social theory, in my work I aim to convey the human spirit, the intimacy between people and their environments and not their psychological or behavioural makeshift.
NF: Your presentation at Art Dubai included a sound installation and transcriptions from your journals alongside the images. How important was it for you to give the viewer extensive material as additional tools for the comprehension of the work?
KR: I was attempting to express the instantaneous nature of the experience in a multidimensional platform. This refers to our relationship with technology, where ‘no detachment or framework’ is possible. With the swift advent of technology in the past few decades, the world that we live in is increasingly smaller, our notions of distance and communication experienced a paradigm shift, we now become more aware of others and that awareness has a sense of detachment to it. My work attempts to portray this relationship with technology although I am not trying to convey the skepticism surrounding technology’s negative impact on our lives, I feel that our relationship with technology is a conduit to better understand our nature. I found art to be the best discourse to dispel myths about that skepticism; through art we can express our human characteristics by using technology as the various extensions of man. With this in mind, the visual expression of subjects that fall into the naturalistic or anthropological genres of the photographic medium are adjusted and divulged through transcripts of my journals and the sound installation. I attempt to convey that, through meaningful interaction with others, we are able to get to know ourselves and through looking at the world, we are able to look within. The journal transcripts are the extensions of myself manifested in my work and an expression of the mode of life within, as is the symbolism of the deer.
NF. Tell us about the deer, its symbolism and the spiritual and physical manifestations of this particular animal in relation to your experience whilst creating Etherworld.
KR: This part is funny, I met a man who was sensitive to all sorts in Bali; we were talking about the ritual of Ayahuasca, something he had previously done, and his propensity to hearing word associations or visualising images when he comes across people. He saw a deer flash across his mind when he met me, something he didn’t express at first, so after a while of getting comfortable talking about these things with each other he told me what he saw. ‘It might’ve been because you went to Africa though’ he said. I looked up the notion of spirit animals without putting too much weight into it, that is, until I was in the forest and the deer became an ever present symbol for me during my time there. It was absolutely everywhere, we hunted deer for food (we did not pack meat into our supplies) and I heard its bark, a calf crying for its mother, its terrified squeals after being caught. It was very much a strange feature of my time there, walking through the forest did not feel frightful or disconcerting in the slightest. I found my steps to be quite nimble and felt completely at ease, walking through this harsh terrain felt natural to me. We would cut ourselves on sharp barks and got bitten by leeches, we slipped on rocks and were pricked by nasty thorns, we bled to the forest and the forest bled for us when we caught a deer. It was an oddly intimate way of consumption, we were lucky to have deer for dinner and the process takes great effort and patience; bringing it down the mountain to camp, washing, skinning and cutting the meat, just moments after it being alive. Every deer we caught tasted like the life they had, one was scentless, another had a strong gamey flavour, it turned out that one of the deer was lactating with breast milk, they were either tender or muscly, each and every one brought their own character and story to the way they tasted. The deer’s presence became the symbol for all that is real to me and despite the goriness of it all. I acknowledged the divine in nature through this animal.
NF: You are showcasing GAP some new images from your project Edens, is this body of work now ‘closed’? How do you envision the presentation and showcasing of these photographs?
KR: I never get to a point where I consider a series completely finished or ‘locked down’, it always connects to the next one, there is always a timeline that binds the works. Most of the prints are on diasec whist two are on duratrans lightboxes. The nature of them being such constructed narratives with a composition and structure that doesn’t feature juxtapositions and relates prevalently to the wide-angle landscape aesthetic made me decide to present them this way.
NF: The deer, its spirituality and symbolism provides a perfect segway to my next question and topic, your long-term project Edens. When did you start this body of work and what is thought process behind it?
KR: I didn’t realise for so long that symbology and iconology, metaphors and allegories are consistent traits in the way I think of and see things. It’s funny how I pick up on very specific symbols when I’m out exploring, nothing is ever an anomaly and this is something I learned whilst doing this project. Everything has a meaning to the people in question from the manta to the shark to the deer. One of the groups I focus on in Edens call themselves the Lamafa hunters; I wouldn’t describe them as traditional fishermen as they are much more feral and vicious in their approach, the simple fact that they leap off the end of their boat holding a four meter sharp tipped bamboo stick to kill their catch gives you a glimpse into their approach. They believe that everything they receive from the sea is ‘knato’ which means subsistence, a gift delivered by god.
NF: This term and concept is very interesting to me and ‘Knato’ seems the driving dynamic in this project. How important is tradition and what are it’s day to day manifestations?
KR: The day to day manifestations are extremely interesting… You go out to sea and it is vast and volatile, currents flowing in and out. It’s also very deep, almost 2500 meters. You’d imagine that in these conditions it would be extremely hard to catch anything especially because the whales, oceanic sunfish, mantas and dolphins are very smart and elusive. Instead, as a surprise to me they seemed to pop up next to our boat. The surfacing and proximity of the animals reinforced and exemplified the idea of ‘knato’, interpreted by the Lamafa as a sign that this was indeed a gift and that the animal had readily given itself up to be hunted. ‘Knato’ is strongly tied in with their belief system; they seem to have an interpretation for every single movement the animal makes, something that is then translated and tied into an ancestral narrative or story in order to assign meaning. I actually just met with one of the Lamalera’s representatives and he told me that the other day there were so many whales out at sea that the they could actually walk on top of them from one boat to the other. It must have been extremely beautiful, but at the same time he told me that one of the hunters had speared a whale in proximity of his boat and when the whale thrashed he was catapulted onto the boat and broke some ribs. Their translation of this accident was fascinating: what happened was not considered accidental but was traced back to a mistake made by his ancestors and interpreted as a painful retribution for what had occurred many years before.
NF: Give us a backdrop to where these images were taken.
KR: I went to the Lesser Sunda islands and started out by going to the Komodo Islands. I then moved east to Maumere and continued towards Solor and Lembata where I stayed in a Lamalera village with the Lamafa hunters. The Lamafa hunters are very unique and I was very lucky to be introduced by them to a completely different and singular view and approach to the world, especially because of the difference I found between their animist faith and the prevalently Muslim and Catholic communities of the region. Arriving at the village was a unique experience, nothing had changed from the images I studied of the same village taken decades before. The place itself was dauntingly beautiful, the sea changed from green to misty grey depending on the shadows of the overcast and crashed violently onto the volcanic rocks that shaped and characterised the surroundings. It was very strange… Arriving there, when I looked down at the sea from the boat I could clearly see hundreds of skulls and bones from their catch, littered on the seabed and beach; they were everywhere. The most interesting and humbling aspect was their lack of attachment to material possessions; the term ‘knato’ similarly to the catch was also applied in principle to the land and the sea. Nothing in nature is yours or mine; it’s simply gifted by god. This doesn’t mean they don’t protect their way of living and traditions, they do; fiercely. In essence the material that I had viewed and looked upon whilst doing my research could have never really prepared me for what I encountered. All the preconceptions that one might have are instantly nullified by the personal and physical experience of this place. The only leg I had to stand on was my studies on structural functionalism and myth analysis developed by Lèvi Strauss.
NF: Some of these images are shot underwater. How did you approach this and how did you prepare?
KR: I have a very elaborate underwater camera case, being a good diver helps and was accompanied by a very experienced diver who had been at those sites before. We agreed with the hunters that we would jump in once the catch had been speared; lengthy discussions ensued between the hunters on how this was actually going to happen. Once there, after the catch was speared and I was in the water, the whole thing became both electrifying and scary at the same time. Whilst they were hunting with a spear, I was hunting with a lens. We were in open water in the middle of the ritual for almost half an hour, the sea was very rough and the boats moved menacingly with the waves as did we with the currents, the light changed rapidly with the passage of clouds making the whole situation extremely tough to photograph and quite frightening. Underwater I had no sense of gravity and nothing to hold on, visibility was poor and in the back of my mind I knew that something could come out of the dark at any point. The varied ecosystem and wide range of shark species made everything even more daunting, I felt helpless, disorientated and excited.
NF: How was your presence and role perceived by the Lamafa?
KR: I’d say they were diffident at first. When I got there I didn’t feel very welcome, no one knew why I was there and what I intended to do. This originates from the recent exposure the village has received in the past few years where the tribe itself, its traditions and methods have been heavily questioned. Cruelty and violence in regards to their approach to hunting have been called into question making them extremely protective. The ice was broken one evening soon after my arrival when we all sat down and I had the chance to have a long chat with them about my intent, practice and persona. We ended up talking extensively on a vast range of topics, once they understood that I was there as an observer rather than an active disruptor everything seemed to get better and my presence there was accepted and embraced. They were as fascinated by me as much as I was for them. They were amused by this ‘small girl’ coming from the outside and diving in the open sea with bulky equipment and surrounded by a trail of blood during their hunt. They were confused to say the least but comfortable with my presence.
NF: All your photographs in Edens are tied together aesthetically by the green and blue hues, a low saturation and the animals as central figures in the composition. How much, if any post-production is present in your work?
KR: Quite a bit, in the sense that my initial photograph is different from what you see in these final images. In the beginning I had a very naturalistic approach to photographing, what I shot in the moment was intended as the final image; I wouldn’t intervene on the photographs in order to leave them untouched and natural, reflections of my surroundings. I sensed that this approach, although extremely faithful to the ‘truth’ about the place and people I photographed, did not convey the narrative and personal experience I longed to express. I am heavily inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and their masterful use of cobalt blues and dark colours employed to convey their stark romanticist moods. This reference enabled me to achieve the right balance between dark and light, mystery and allure. My presence as an active creator in the image is very prominent. I’ve decided not to distance myself from my photographs by consciously engaging the timeless issue of the operator’s interference with the subject of the investigation, something that in photography is rarely eluded. The consistent repetition of the deer, as you can gather from my previous description in Etherworld, is the perfect example of my presence in the work, the visual evidence and symbol of my personal journey and experience.
NF: What is next for you?
KR: Time is such a luxury, I really hope I can be back in Lamalera for the Baleo Festival but I will need to fit this in with my residency with The Arctic Circle Org and the Paleontology Department of the Geology Museum, Bandung. The Arctic Circle residency programme is a platform provided as a nexus between the arts and the sciences, we will sail the high arctic waters on a Barkentine tall ship from Longyearbyen, Svalbard. The residency with the Paleontology Department of the Geology Museum, Bandung, takes place on excavation site in Bajawa, Flores. It is part of their Blora Mammoth project, we shall expect to find a number of prehistoric mammal skeletons, my role in this is to interpret these findings visually through my work as an artist. At some point, I will surely be back in Lamalera as I’m preparing another new series. This body of work will dwell deeper in the concept of ‘knato’. The working title is Always Come from the Sea and You’ll Always be Welcome, to the people of Lamalera you are, regardless of species, considered a gift from god with good intentions if you arrive to their village from the sea. I hope to be able to show you the images very soon.
Kinez Riza’s work questions notions of reality and identity based on trans-disciplinary themes in the social sciences in relation to the natural world and lesser known belief systems in tribal societies, as well as the study of exploration and discovery. She composed a body of work over the course of 5 years prior to 2012, which is the year she started exhibiting her work as an artist.
Kinez’s fascination with notions of reality and identity became apparent throughout her formative years, she left Indonesia during its civil unrest in 1998 to Singapore, where she encountered an international upbringing and became aware of various cultures and belief systems different to the one she had known. The question of identity was an ever-present topic in her environment, along with the conflict different belief systems often brought. She participated in humanitarian efforts for disaster relief in Aceh after the Asian Tsunami, as well as conflict management conferences highlighting the issues in Sri Lanka and East Timor. It was here that she perceived every individual she met had a unique perception of reality.
Since then she has conducted many expeditions around the globe. Her work with tribal communities aims to best understand the core beliefs apparent in smaller communities detached from modern day civilization. This is to understand whether or not there are humanistic values or patterns of behavior, which appear consistent in all human beings. Her work often results in providing a conduit to better understand the factors contributing to determining human behavior.