Quiet Rooms

Figure 1: Quiet Rooms (2009) by Nadiah Bamadhaj. Charcoal on paper.

I was fortunate enough to have viewed works from Body Politic and the Body exhibition in Ilham Gallery just days before the first lockdown announced in 2020. One of the many installations that caught my attention under the Body Politic and the Body Exhibition is Quiet Rooms by Nadiah Bamadhaj in Ilham Gallery. As she created her artworks with charcoal on paper collage, they appeared muted and subdued amid the other works in Ilham Gallery. Despite their monochromatic colours, they stood out unassumingly among the rest of the gallery’s artworks.

Here is an excerpt of the description of the artwork that accompanied the artworks:

Quiet Rooms, which is rendered in Nadiah Bamadhaj’s characteristic technique of charcoal on paper collage, is a deeply autobiographical work. It stems from a period in the artist‘s life when she was living in a suburban village in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and attempting to start a family with her husband.

The Quiet Rooms is composed of six pieces of collages. On the top left, there is a roof, followed by a hailer at the bottom. In the middle of the artworks, a man’s head covered with snakes appears to look upwards. On the right of the man’s head, a uterus is next to the man. There is a cloud that is similar to the Mega Mendung cloud found in batik on the top right. On the bottom right, a woman is facing to the right, while her eyes are facing the front. Below these imageries, there is a phrase “Doa yaa”, translated as “You must pray.”

The artist used lights and shadows to create a three-dimensional effect on the six pieces of imageries. This technique is known as chiaroscuro, which uses strong contrast of light and colours to define three-dimensional objects. Furthermore, the use of gallery lights above the artworks emphasises the contrast between light and dark.

The use of light and shadow is portrayed through uneven and rough edges on the collages. Moreover, this technique is observed in the placement of the two faces in the artworks. The man’s face covered with snakes and appears to be facing the light, while the woman’s face is dark, suggesting she is under the shadows. Perhaps, the woman’s face in the shadows indicates that the woman is silenced or unable to defend herself.

Collage is a technique of sticking materials onto each other. Occasionally, these artworks appear uneven or rough due to the layers of paper stuck upon each other. Although the artworks are monochromatic, the uneven and rough edges of the collages appeared raw — exposing the different layers that are stuck together with the usage of charcoal. I suggest that this method uncovers the different layers of rawness and nuances of the artist’s emotions as she lived in Indonesia and attempting to start a family.

Figure 2: Close up of technical and anatomical drawings.

The large pieces are juxtaposed with smaller technical and anatomical drawings (Figure 2). Upon closer inspection, every piece except for the man’s head covered with snakes has tiny technical and anatomical drawings. Here are the following pairings of the large collages with the smaller technical and anatomical drawings, from left to right:

  • The roof and cross-section of the ear,
  • A mega mendung cloud with the illustration of a propeller plane,
  • A uterus with closed lips on the left ovary, and an architectural drawing of an apartment and the car park at the vagina,
  • Two loud hailers connected by an anatomical illustration of a skeleton of a four-legged animal, and
  • Technical drawing of what appears to be light refraction on the left eye and the drawings of a floor plan in the right eye.

Technical and anatomical drawings often depict the accuracy of the subject matter. Perhaps the technical and anatomical drawing suggests the unchanging structural and systemic values of the artist’s society. Together with large collages, I suggest that the combination of collages reveals the depth of emotions living in a traditional community.

As described in her works, the installation described the intense her life as a young couple in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The symbol used to highlight the location is the use of the Mega Mendung cloud, a visual motif used in batik, which is the common visual element used in Batik, a wax-resist dyeing method. The other symbols such as loud hailers and cross-section of the ears suggest people’s impertinence and suggest broadcast — perhaps alluding to broadcasting news or gossip. Finally, the uterus and the woman in the shadows suggest that women reproduction has always been a topic of conversation.

As the man’s head is covered with snakes, there is an inference to Medusa. It is crucial to know the story of Medusa to examine the inference to Medusa. In the story of Medusa, she was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Instead of punishing the perpetrator, Medusa was punished with snakes in her hair, and she has the power to turn men into stone when they look at her. Medusa is often highlighted in a negative light for scaring men. Rarely the narrative focuses on why she became who she was. Perhaps, this greek mythology also alludes to the society that often scrutinised women through gossips about women’s childbearing activities.

Personal thoughts

At first glance, Quiet Rooms are full of contrasts from the use of light and shadows, the sizes and the juxtaposition of the collage and almost precise technical and anatomical drawings.

Despite its contrasts, it formed a cohesive narrative of the artist’s life — from the location, identity, and society’s response towards women. As a woman, I do relate to artworks. A few weeks after viewing the artist’s works, there was an incident during the Movement Control Order. During that incident, the Women and Family Ministry several tips to women over social media to “talk with Doremon voice, giggling coyly and wear makeup at home.” The deleted social media posts were misogynic, and it reflects the narrow-minded perception of women.

I was supposed to finish writing about this last year, but I was struggling through the pandemic. I had to make final corrections for my dissertation, which killed any form of interest in writing for a while. This post is my initial assessment of Quiet Rooms after a long time, and I may update this post once I have found more information.