Indonesian Heri Dono’s biennale work dismantles clichéd ideas of East and West

Kochi, Feb 8: Heri Dono is known for his spectacular installations that combine popular the folk art and myths of his native Indonesia with Western concepts of visual art. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is showcasing two of his works at the Pepper House venue.

‘The Trojan Ships’ and ‘Smiling Angels from the sky’ grace the vintage building that stands facing the Arabian Sea, which has itself historically served as a cultural link between the oriental and occidental worlds.

As for ‘The Trojan Ships’, the installation features three hanging boats. It is inspired by the ancient Greek story of the Trojan Horse’s deceptive entrance into the city of Troy. Dono, 58, seeks to interpret the episode with three flying boats carrying figures on peace missions rather than as agents of war. “The work is an attempt to break down the binaries of the East and the West,” he says, noting how these stories are significant in different locales and several traditions.

‘The Trojan Ships’ was a big hit when it was presented in 2015 at the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest contemporary-art festival (then into its 56th edition).

‘Smiling Angels from the Sky’ features hanging sculptures with ten “angels” who don pleasant and enthusiastic faces that resemble toy airplanes. “The angel is a universal symbol of hope for the future, you know,” says the Jakarta-born artist, who studied arts at the Indonesian Academy of Arts (ASRI) for seven years before dropping out. “It isn’t tethered to any singular tradition or religion, and can therefore be appreciated by any who comes across their winged forms.”

Dono’s art practice emerged from his training in Indonesia’s Wayang puppetry that evolved from the eastward spread of Hindu mythology. He has also learned southern India’s Tholu Bommalata storytelling, where Andhra marionettes are moved in ways that cast engrossing shadows on the screen to the accompaniment of music with dialogues.

Further, Dono studied painting for seven years. But his studies under renowned Javanese puppet master Ki Sijit Sukasman (1937-2009) taught him something unique. “I found that traditional art had no internal formal division between the arts: dance, music, theatre, fine art, handicraft and literature,” explains the middle-aged artist, who won the UNESCO Prize at the Shanghai Biennale in 2000.

Dono takes narratives from a range of mythological or historical references for his sculptures and paintings on view. His style of art combines the Hindu Javanese culture with other theatrical styles and figurative elements from popular illustrations. “It helps me present cultural and political references accessible to viewers,” says the artist, based in Java’s Yogyakarta, known for its traditional arts and cultural heritage.

The artist is known for being critical through favorite folklores that are also thick in sociopolitical commentaries states. “The humour, folk elements and characters present in the works expand beyond the conventional pretexts for Euro-American visual art,” notes Anita Dube, curator of the fourth edition of India’s only biennale (on till March 29). “His interdisciplinary foregrounding of music, storytelling and commentary on sociopolitical issues provide a starting point for viewers to interpret his work from diverse backgrounds and geographic origins.”

For Dono, artists have the moral responsibility to showcase the reality of life. “Art is not just about exploring the beauty or the aesthetic, but to give awareness to the audience.”


“The fourth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale runs from 12 December, 2018 – 29 March, 2019.“
Venues are open every day from 10 AM – 6 PM.
Tickets are available for purchase for ₹100 at Aspinwall House.

Universal free entry every Monday.


By Air: Fort Kochi is 45 km from Kochi International Airport, Nedumbassery.
By Train: Fort Kochi is 13 km from Ernakulam Junction (South) Station and 16 km from Ernakulam Town (North) Station.
By Boat: Fort Kochi is 20 mins from the Ernakulam Boat Jetty and 10 mins from both Willingdon Island and Vypin Boat Jetty.
By Bus: Fort Kochi is 15 km from the main bus station in Ernakulam.

Many of the locations of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale are walking distances from each other (most are around 10 minutes or so).


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