17 December 2018

Unconventional Family Portraits

17 December 2018 - Written by PhMuseum

Expressing his identity and family roots in a playful and fictional manner, Leonard Suryajaya's series Bunda presents constructed, colourful settings and unexpected portraits of relatives and friends.

Leonard Suryajaya uses photography to test the boundaries of intimacy, community, and family. His works show how the everyday is layered with histories, meanings, and potential. In elaborately staged photographs bursting with competing patterns and colors, Leonard creates absurd but affectionate tableaux featuring his family. Enlisting his loved ones into his photographic project, he encourages ever more wild combinations and poses as means for them to perform their loyalty. The results are photographs that are tender and critical, bound up as they are with the struggles of familial authority and self identity. He has recently extended this in his work with school children and the complex but fragile societies they form among themselves and in relation to cultural forces both popular and traditional, local and global.

Many of Leonard’s investigations are rooted in the particularity of his upbringing as an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent, as a Buddhist educated in Christian schools in a Muslim-majority country, and as someone who departed from his family and his culture’s definitions of love and family. Leonard explores these tensions in the everyday interaction, in the chance juxtaposition of culturally-coded objects, and in the disruptions stirred by queer relations. His works perform the ways in which life is soaked not just with one’s own emotional connections but larger, external histories of exile, religion, citizenship, duty, and belonging. His photographs work cumulatively to establish narratives, and he combines these images with videos that document family histories, that play out fantasies, that test group dynamics, or that use the format of the interview to turn his sitters’ gaze back upon his role as artist and facilitator. In all of these, we feel the push and pull of allegiance and autonomy in every odd detail that his works retain as reminders.

Pictures by Leonard Suryajaya and text by David J. Getsy, Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Leonard Suryajaya is an Indonesian photographer exploring intricate layers of selfhood in the context of cultural background, intimacy, sexual preference, and personal displacement. His work seeks to challenge and deconstruct the perspective we use to analyse and observe our roles in contemporary society. Find him on PHmuseum and Instagram.


This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PHmuseum curators.

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