“An ethnographic portrait photograph is not merely evidence of character of a person or the ethnicity which has been represented. It performs to disembody the subject, and remove the subject from the actual reality. 

It is performative and still performs to distort actual reality today. It distorts relations between people from different socio-cultural backgrounds as well as the reality of the self, just like the mechanisms of colonial power.”

(b. 1982, INDONESIA)


2018, Screen Print and Fresh Water Pearls on Fabric, 112 x 116 cm

West Java-born artist Octora similarly draws attention to the moral and ethical weight attached to historical photographs, focusing her oeuvre particularly on ethnographic portrait photography of Balinese women taken circa 1910 to 1930. As she encounters and sources these portraits online through the Leiden University website, she is highly sensitive of not falling into the cycle of violence attached to making and consuming of these photographs—though she admits it is not easy, as ‘looking’ can also be entertaining, even fetishised, despite her best intentions. She thus takes a self-reflexive approach throughout her process, constantly questioning what attracts her to these images—whether or not she is participating in a voyeuristic act; or falling into the trap of a colonialist, exploitative mindset.


Octora knows that though the functions of these images have evolved over time, the past acts done onto these subjects—othered, fantasised, exoticised—can never be erased. These photographs, to her, ultimately disembodied their subjects; damaged relationships between the people of different socio-cultural backgrounds involved; and removed the subjects from their contexts and realities—thus distorting even the ‘reality of the self’.  

2018, Embroidery and Screenprint on Canvas, 163 x 114 cm

In her art, Octora wrestles with the tensions in these photographs by reconstructing them, and obscures the original ‘reality’ in which they were made by casting herself as the subject. It was important for her that the images were restaged in Bali, where the original portraits were shot, and taken by a Balinese photographer. Octora then similarly participated in the performative act of being in front of the camera, taking control of how reality would be distorted and altered. 

In Give Me Pearls Necklace, she wears a traditional Balinese headdress and gazes straight at the camera—yet her face, dotted with actual fresh water pearls, is not fully revealed to the viewer. In Mevrouw Paradiso, Octora erases one subject’s face completely with an opaque red mark, which sharply stands out amid the monochrome work—thus drawing attention to the erasure, and imbuing that erasure with subtle power. 

Injecting these vivid, deliberate marks, she radically intervenes the dominant narrative that had long surrounded these images—challenging viewers to question the way they will now view and understand these photographs when certain ‘truths’ are manipulated and stripped away. In doing so, Octora opens up an important conversation on the complicated relationships between image, history and identity. She questions how these images had once been, and perhaps persist to be, deemed as a way to define Indonesian identity—when in reality, identity is infinitely more complex than the narrow, often untrue, narratives that had been attached to these images. 

Thus, in manipulating them and centring herself as the subject and director of the photograph, she makes a powerful statement that removes the making of history and identity from the hands of external powers—taking that power instead onto her own hands, and defining history and identity on her own terms.