“I was born in Indonesia”, 2017

12 unsynchronized HD videos; wooden structure with transportation crate; pencil wall drawings; and 110 resin cast diorama figurines on trestle table.

Exh.: “I was born in Indonesia”, 28 March — 9 July 2017, Ian Potter Museum, Melbourne.


“I was born in Indonesia” continues Tom Nicholson’s ongoing investigation into monuments, memorials and other collective visual forms. The work attempts to figure the first fragments of a future Australian museum, articulating the narratives of refugees marooned in Indonesia by Australian refugee policies through a field of diorama figures that draws together 18 different diorama scenes. Developing out of a series of research trips to Jakarta over two and a half years, a key reference point for this multi-layered project is the extraordinary cycle of sculptural dioramas at Indonesia’s foundational monument, the Monumen Nasional (Monas). These dioramas visualise the coming-into- being of the Indonesian nation, and were commissioned by President Sukarno from an eminent Indonesian artist, the late Edhi Sunarso, in the period immediately following Indonesian independence. Sunarso travelled throughout the archipelago, visiting significant sites, interviewing participants in Indonesia’s recent history, and making extensive drawings based on these visits and interviews.


In the first chapter of “I was born in Indonesia”, Nicholson collaborates with the Indonesian curator Grace Samboh to create a single-channel video work based on two interviews conducted with Edhi Sunarso in mid 2015, Towards figures of dedication, and a flood. This work traces the dioramas’ processes, their coming-into-being (as visual forms) alongside a project of collective coming-into-being (forging a new sense of affiliation across a vast geography). Nicholson and Samboh’s work is set in the context of Sunarso’s studio in Yogyakarta, where the diorama figures were created in the 1960s and 1970s, and which, in 2015, was in the process of being transformed into a museum to Sunarso’s life work. It pivots on the remarkable way that Sunarso’s diorama-making programme was affected by events of 1965, when General Suharto became the military dictator of Indonesia, a critical moment in twentieth-century history and a seismic event throughout the Indonesian archipelago.


“I was born in Indonesia” then unfolds from Sunarso’s dioramas and their processes an engagement with refugees and asylum seekers marooned in Indonesia. Based on a sequence of visits and stays over two years, including research, interviews, filming and pedagogical workshops, this engagement centres on a community of refugees and asylum seekers in Cisarua, Bogor, a town outside Jakarta in West Java. In a set of interviews filmed during Ramadan and Eid 2015 by the young Hazara film-maker Khadim Dai (also an interviewee in the project, and the source of the work’s title), Nicholson talks with Hazara refugees and asylum seekers living in Cisarua, focused around their remarkable forms of political self-organisation, most notably through a Learning Centre they established and run for their own children, and the kinds of self-invention this self-organisation implies. These interviews culminate in refugees and asylum seekers describing diorama scenes from their own lives, descriptions which then become the basis of drawings and a diorama-making process, undertaken with diorama-makers in Yogyakarta at Art Merdeka, led by diorama-maker Nasikin Ahmad. The twelve videos of these interviews include footage from the lives of refugees in Cisarua, most notably at the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre, as well as from drawing and diorama-making workshops led by Nicholson with students from the Learning Centre, centred upon a drawing workshop amidst Sunarso’s Monas dioramas in November 2016.


The central form of “I was born in Indonesia” is its field of miniature diorama figures, their varying scales reflecting the perspectival illusions that would structure multiple diorama scenes. Following the visual language of Edhi Sunarso’s dioramas at Monas in Jakarta, these diorama scenes are based on moments described to the artist in the interviews with Hazara refugees and asylum seekers. Presented as yet unpainted , and as if awaiting their final placement into their respective diorama domes, in a future Australian museum, these figures entangle different perspectival systems and different stories.

“I was born in Indonesia” figures the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers at the centre of how Australia might re-constitute itself through a possible future Australian museum. This figuring posits learning – and the particular nature of possibilities of drawing – as critical processes in a new monumental language. Above all it posits Indonesia itself as a cue for how Australian might begin to re-imagine itself – and its relationship to the archipelago of realities around it – through acts of imagination and affiliation.



Tom Nicholson, “I was born in Indonesia”
10 unsynchronized HD videos; wooden structure with transportation crate; pencil wall drawings; and 120 resin cast diorama figurines on trestle table.

Videography: Khadim Dai, with Asad Shadan and Janbaz Salehi, and Ary “Jimged” Sendy; Editing: Alex Archer; Interviewees: Murtaza Ali, Asif Baba, Maliha Ali Changezi, Madiha Ali Changezi, Khadim Dai, Tahira Rezai, Mohsin Sahar, Janbaz Salehi, Farahnaz Salehi, Farzana Salehi, Asad Shadan, Wahida. Diorama sculpting and casting: Art Merdeka, led by Naskin Ahmad, with Eko Mei Wulan. Project management: Grace Samboh, Sakti Kurniawan, Ahadi Bintang, with support from S. Teddy Darmawan.
Tom Nicholson, with Grace Samboh Towards figures of dedication, and a flood 2015
single channel HD video, 24:49

Videography: Ary “Jimged” Sendy; Sound: Budi Setiawan; Editing: Nissal Berlindung; Translation: Elly Kent; Audio post-Production: Raden Anom Prakoso.
Tom Nicholson’s “I was born in Indonesia” began during a residency in Jakarta in late 2014 and early 2015, initiated through The Independence Project by Jacqui Doughty at Gertrude Contemporary, in collaboration with ruangrupa, Grace Samboh and Kristi Monfries. Its subsequent evolution was supported by a grant from Creative Victoria, in multiple ways by Monash Art Design and Architecture (MADA), and by members of the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre (CRLC), in particular Khadim Dai, Asad Shadan, and the Salehi family.

Its first chapter, in collaboration with Grace Samboh, was realised with support from, and first presented at, at Neither Forward nor Back: the 2015 Jakarta Biennale, curated by Charles Esche, at Gudang Sarinah, Jakarta, in November 2015. A second iteration of the project was presented as part of Frontier Imaginaries, at QUT and IMA in Brisbane, curated by Vivian Ziherl, in May 2016.

The workshops Nicholson conducted with students from the CRLC in November 2016, were supported by, and part of, Ekstrakurikulab, initiated by the artist collective Serrum at Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem, Jakarta, and co-curated by Angga Wijaya and Grace Samboh, and were organised in collaboration with the CRLC and its team of Tahira Rezai, Abdul Khalil Payeez, Farahnaz Salehi and Murtaza Ali.

The realisation of the diorama figures themselves was undertaken with Art Merdeka in Yogyakarta, and led by Nasikin Ahmad, as well as Eko Mei Wulan, and was supported by the Ian Potter Museum. The project would not have been possible without a Myer Fellowship.
The artist would like to thank, in no particular order:
Jacqui Doughty for her central role in The Independence Project, and for her hard work and thoughtfulness as curator of “I was born in Indonesia”; Grace Samboh, for her critical role in the project’s gestation and realisation, and her friendship; ruangrupa, for its generous hosting over two years of visits, especially to the important roles of Ade Darmawan, Mirwan Andan, Reza Asifina, Ardi Yunanto; other important interlocutors and collaborators in Indonesia, Ary “Jimged” Sendy, Hafiz Rancajale, Otty Widasari, Beng Rahadian, Lulu Ratna, Putra Hidayatullah, Riksa Asfiaty, everyone at Serrum especially MG Pringgotono, Angga Wijaya, Amy Simonyetbali Zahrawan, and Sigit Budi Santoso, Taka Gani; the late Edhi Sunarso; IVAA in Yogyakarta; for their work and skill in the production of the diorama figures Nasikin Ahmad and Eko Mei Wulan, as well as Sakti Kurniawan, Ahadi Bintang, and the late S. Teddy Darmawan; for their hospitality and love, the family of Janbaz Salehi; for their generous engagement as interviewees, and their eloquence, Murtaza Ali, Asif Baba, Maliha Ali Changezi, Madiha Ali Changezi, Khadim Dai, Tahira Rezai, Mohsin Sahar, Janbaz Salehi, Farahnaz Salehi, Farzana Salehi, Asad Shadan, Wahida; the CRLC and its community of extraordinary students, teachers, and supporters; Jolyon Hoff; Josh Milani; Alex Archer; at MADA, Ruth Bain, Callum Morton, Shane Murray, Jodie Clarke, Kathie Barwick, Athena Bangara, Daniel Palmer, Fiona MacDonald; at the Ian Potter Museum, Sam Comte, Kelly Gellatley, William “Ned” Needham, Adam Pyett, Nick Devlin, and the whole install crew; for their generous loan of electronic equipment, Monash Universoty Museum of Art, with special thanks to Charlotte Day and Francis Parker, The Margaret Lawrence Gallery, VCA, and MADA; for their many forms of support Mary and Peter Nicholson, Daniel Nicholson, Emily Nicholson, Clare Land, Shelley Marshall, Daniel White; to my children Luci, Jean and Joey, for their love and tolerance of absences; to a variety of interlocutors who have been important during the life of this project, Charles Esche, Christian Capurro, Libby Brown, Vivian Ziherl, Jumana Manna, Rosie Isaac, Camila Marambio, Helen Hughes, Nick Mangan, Kobra Moradi, Louise Olliff, Stuart Ringholt, Mihnea Mircan, Jamie O’Connell, Tara McDowall. Tom Nicholson acknowledges the Wurundjeri of the Kulin Nation as the original owners of the land on which he lives and works. This acknowledgement includes an understanding that the ramifications of invasion remain unresolved legally, economically and politically. "To find out more about the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre, or to make a donation, please visit: http://cisarualearning.com"


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