Malcolm Smith

Copyright 2007-2012
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Obat Kuat
25 May until 25 June
Krack Studio, Yogyakarta

The Obat Kuat project is part of a larger project called Tanah / Impian (Dream / Land), which Krack Studio has been working on, intermittently, since 2014. Tanah / Impian explores the history of printed advertising in Indonesia, and looks particularly at how these advertisements reflect and construct cultural imaginaries in Indonesia.

For this new version of the project we have chosen to focus on advertisements for Obat Kuat (strength medicine); a medicine that has various compositions and applications, but is popularly understood today as a tonic to increase virility in men. Obat Kuat can include Javanese Jamu (traditional medicine) produced locally, or medicines imported from other countries, including China, India, Europe and America. Viagra is a popular contemporary Obat Kuat.

Obat Kuat has been advertised in Yogyakarta newspapers at least since the beginning of the 20th Century. The earliest images in this research come from Retnodhoemillah, a surat kabar (newspaper) published in Yogya from 1895 until 1920. More images come from Boedi Oetomo which was later renamed Sedyo Tomo and later again Sedya Tama. This newspaper commenced publishing in 1920 and continued until the mid 1940s. Advertisements from 1945 until the present day come from Kedaulatan Rakyat, the current local newspaper of Yogyakarta. A few advertisements have also been included from national publications, when they provided context in a relevant way.

These advertisements can’t tell us about individual men’s desires or aspirations. But coming from newspapers with high circulation, that broadly represented the ‘status quo’ at the time in Yogya, they reflect how gender, sexuality and desire was understood by the local community. These understandings were always influenced by the prevailing institutional ideologies of the time, and this is a key issue that will be explored in this project.

Like all of the advertisements in Krack’s broader Tanah / Impian project, these Obat Kuat advertisements reflect the political and social changes that Yogyakarta has undergone over the last century. But because Obat Kuat was a product aimed at male consumers, they can also tell a more specific story about how social and political changes have produced different constructions of masculinity in Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta is currently undergoing a dramatic social upheaval. At major intersections in the city there are banners sponsored by conservative religious groups proclaiming that homosexuality is a mental illness that must be eradicated. Recently a Women’s Festival organized by a leftist arts organization was closed down by a paramilitary religious group and the organisers evicted from their home.

The reasons for this are very complex, and can be read from many different perspectives. However one thing is clear – Yogyakarta is increasingly polarized between conservative religious ideology on one side and Western ‘liberal’ ideology on the other. Sexuality is emerging as one of the key areas of contestation.

So now seems like a good time to look at what sex, gender and desire means in this city. These Obat Kuat advertisements provide an opportunity to review how these discourses have evolved in Yogyakarta, the power relations that have been embedded in them, and the ways by which individuals have embodied them.

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