MEGAN NUGROHO: GHOST DRAWINGS
The supernatural. That which exists beyond understanding. It is the spiritual, the mystical, the magical, the unknown. Often when we think of supernatural beings (ghosts or spirits), we assign an ominous, frightened emotion. Haunting and possession are the cornerstones to any good ghost story, but does fear limit what the supernatural realm has to offer?
Artist Megan Nugroho was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia and is currently living in New York. Her recent works consider the supernatural, individually and culturally, as a tool to try to understand the unknown and to reconcile the past with the present. Her drawings use the idea of animism to create narratives of previous ownership and history in a way that is both childlike and mysterious.
“Recently, I've been collecting a vocabulary that describes the supernatural world. Whether it's Indonesian, like the stuff that I grew up around, or ghostly or spiritual words and terms in general. I've been trying to figure it all out myself. What do ghosts mean to me and what does the supernatural world mean to me? And I guess with the ghost drawings, it's been more related to animistic properties and animating an object through stories from when I was growing up.”
Under the Rug, 2020 is a colored pencil drawing based on the supernatural ideas of Nurgroho’s childhood. “My mom would always say, ‘be careful with furniture or old items that you buy because they might contain spirits’ and they could be nice or malevolent. I just always thought that was interesting.” Under the Rug shows a rug lying on the floor near an electrical outlet. Sprouting from its sides are anonymous, shadowy figures in dark and light hues of blue. What resembles a head and two arms is stretching out from beneath the rug towards the left side of the drawing. Its claw-like hands make it seem as though it is trying to crawl out from under the red textile. The shadows in the upper-right side of the drawing are less developed and defined. Though there is one dark blue hand reaching up towards the pink striped wall, the light blue form is hardly anatomical.
Rather than being spooked by these ghosts, this composition leaves the viewer asking “what is happening under that rug?” Has the rug exceeded maximum ghost capacity? Are they being squeezed out everytime someone steps on it? Whatever the answer, there is no fear that the ghosts are there, just an acknowledgment. Perhaps the ghosts are the spirits of the craftsmen who made the rug, or its previous owners. This unknown leaves the door open for narrative within the object's history, which Nugroho states, can help heal from darker, traumatic pasts.
Nugroho’s piece The Relic, 2020 elaborates on that concept. Also done in colored pencil, this drawing is composed of a blue hand extending from the lower left corner to the middle of the drawing. Placed right above, but not necessarily in the hand, is a dagger with curved edges that is bloodied on the right side. On either side of the dagger are red almond shapes that line up diagonally. The background is made up of diagonal hatching in red pencil. In the center, rays of yellow and curved white create a halo-like atmosphere behind the blue hand.
The dagger, Nugroho informs me, represents the keris of Prince Diponegoro. Prince Diponegoro was an Indonesian Prince and revolutionary figure who fought off Dutch rule for five years in the Java War. The war ended with Diponegoro’s surrender of his keris to the lieutenant general of the Dutch East Indies in 1830. The Javanese prince was exiled and died at the age of 69 in Makassar. His keris was given to Nethertherland’s monarch, King William I, in 1831 and was eventually transferred to the Museum of Ethnology.
Indonesia became independent from the Netherlands in 1949 and in 1975, the Dutch finally followed through with their promise to return Diponegoro’s objects. However, the keris was missing. Forty-five years later, and after a two year intensive search by the Museum of Ethnology, the dagger was found and returned to Indonesia in March 2020.
Nughoro’s The Relic takes into account the life of this dagger; the battles fought, its capture, and it's unknown location. As it was returned to Indonesia, it was reunited with the hand of Prince Diponegoro. This reunion serves as a reminder of the cultural trauma that took place under colonialism, but it is also a healing celebration of Indonesia’s past.
“I don’t want my work to only be about colonialism, but there is a lot of erasing of a people’s history and so it could be healing to talk about ghosts and things that are now gone, and in the past that we’ll never be able to get back.”
Megan Nugroho is currently a MFA Candidate at New York University. She was an artist in residence at In Cahoots Residency in 2021.
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