Leonard Suryajaya (Chicago, IL) uses his work to test the boundaries of intimacy, community and family. He uses photography, video, performance and installation to show how the everyday is layered with histories, meanings and potential.
BA in Theatre Arts and BFA, 2013, California State University, Fullerton; MFA, 2015, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; 2017, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Selected exhibition venues include Art Institute of Chicago; Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; Benaki Museum, Greece; Photoforum Pasquart, Switzerland; National Library, Singapore; Wrightwood 659, Chicago; Now Gallery, London; Aperture Gallery, NYC; Barney Savage Gallery, NYC; Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago; Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago.
His work is included in collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Block Museum, Vontobel Art Collection, Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection, Mana Contemporary and Center for Photography at Woodstock. Awards: Chicago DCASE Esteemed Artist Award, Aaron Siskind Foundation Award, Artadia Awards, Robert Giard Foundation Fellowship, CENTER Excellence in Multimedia Award, New Artist Society Award, James Weinstein Memorial Fellowship, Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Prize for Emerging Artist, The Santo Foundation Fellowship.
Artadia: You received the Chicago Artadia award in 2018. Can you tell us what you applied to the award with and what receiving it was like?
Leonard Suryajaya: I applied with my series “False Idol” and some of my previous work. My previous body of work corresponds with my experience of coming out to my mom and coming out to my home-culture. My bodies of work are always connected to the period of time in my life in which I created it and what I was trying to make sense of. In 2018, I was working on my series “False Idol,” which is about my experience immigrating to America by way of green card. I started the body of work in 2016 and I concluded it at the end of 2019, which was about how long the process of getting a green card was.
Receiving the award was helpful because I used it to submit to the government agency to show I was validated by a nationally renowned organization. I could show I received $10,000 dollars that I had earned. It was a wonderful reminder that I was on the right track.
A: Can you talk more about your series “False Idol” and the narrative behind it?
LS: It was quite a monumental body of work in my career because I was a student in America and I didn’t have the security or safety to stay in the country. I got married to my partner maybe 6 months after gay marriage was federally approved, which encouraged me to apply for the green card. The process was very heteronormative and limiting because I was expected to submit and comply with what the American government saw as “worthy.” It was very challenging going through that process being a visual artist, because I don’t have an employer that can vouch for me. I had to prove my worth.
I grew up in Indonesia when anybody of Chinese Descent was not considered a full citizen, and was a persecuted minority. It wasn’t until the year 2000, when there was social reform, that Chinese were respected as full citizens in Indonesia, and by that time I was already 12. There was no way I could trust that the government would look out for me. When I was going through this process with the dreams of making a home for myself in America and processing through all of the traumas and unhelpful conditioning I had received in my early life, I used this body of work to work through those questions and challenges.
A: How important is it to you that the identity, relationships, or people within the image are recognizable elements to the audience?
LS: Early on in my career people have painted the work as “very Asian.” When that was expressed to me it was the time before Black Lives Matter, before anti-Asian violence, when people didn’t have any context for language to speak about diversity. Because I was “different” and “exotic,” it gave them the permission to dismiss me and my work when, in fact, I was trying to open up their ways of thinking. I don’t make work with the objective of explaining everything to people in a box that they could grasp. What I really hope is for people to experience my work through spending time with the layers and meanings and considering how they’re reflected in their own lives.
I don’t expect people to get everything that I went through. People are always [so] hung up on what each part of the image means that they don’t experience my work through emotions or empathy or humanity. If people are just stuck on the “pretty” that’s fine, if people relate to my work in the humor, great. The more that I spend time in my practice, I see that people who understand my background relate to my work and those are the people that make me feel encouraged in making work. The experience of a queer person, an immigrant, a minority or people who have experienced trauma in their life—they can relate to the sense of chaos.
A: Can you tell us about your photographic process? How do you organize the production of the image with all the multilayered elements?
LS: My process is very structured and improvisational. When all of the elements come together in front of the camera, that’s when I have to respond. I have a degree in theater, which I feel has been so helpful in the creation of my work. I photograph with a large format film camera, so that requires an extra effort when creating the images. I usually start with making a commitment to myself about the camera setup and the backdrop. From there I ask myself, “What elements do I bring in? What colors? What patterns?” I want to be inspired by life. A lot of the times I find inspiration in the people that I am working with. All of the people in my work are people in my life. I have a sense of knowledge of who they are, what their personality is like, what their sense of humor is, and that’s my source of inspiration. Everything that you see in the photograph is present in front of the camera, and I don’t do digital manipulation afterwards.
A: Your series “Quarantine Blues,” which was made at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, is an incredibly referential body of work. When many people were trying to distract themselves from the pandemic, you were creating representations of quarantine which processed it head-on. Can you talk about the decision to focus on quarantine in your art, while it already existed in your life?
LS: It was such a stressful time in my life. To give you context, I received my green card in 2019. So it really felt like the universe was like, “Okay, welcome to America, now this is what you deal with.” At the time I was also dealing with personal health issues which were a result of all of the stress and traumas I was going through. When COVID happened, I was scheduled to get surgery in April. Because of COVID, the surgery was pushed back, and the only instruction I received from my healthcare provider was “we don’t know how bad this is going to be, don’t expose yourself.” I needed artmaking to give me a sense of purpose and an objective. I was hoping artmaking could be the thing that got my mind off of all the uncertainties. “Quarantine Blues” was the proof of my existence during that period of time.
A: Your life experiences are so intimately reflected in your artmaking. Can you speak on this relationship and what your practice means to you?
LS: I have never had the luxury of having a private life. I was born with an extra ID card that said I was a second-rate citizen. When I immigrated to America, I had to give up all my private information to the government. I feel like my life is not my own, because other people have a say or they put limitations on who or what I can become in the culture. If the government is going to ask for photographs of me and my family, paperwork and background checks, I want to feel a sense of power by using those elements in my own work—and then transforming the visual into something that honors my humanity.
Yes, I want to make [my work] pretty, but I also want to make it more nuanced. I want to show allegiance to my culture, my home country, and America, while also pointing out the oppression that they are posing on people like me.
It wasn’t until I found artmaking that I started to feel more empowered. When I saw that artmaking was a viable medium for me to express myself and my experiences that’s when I started to see that all of those conflicting experiences and early challenges and traumas were really my special powers, because I am able to bring in conflicting elements and host them in one frame to create a sense of harmony and chaos. I received that gift from the challenges in my life. Everytime I make work I feel so alive, because I apply myself, I set a goal, and I use my experiences. Artmaking is a huge part of my life—it’s how I decompress, how I break down big questions, how I express my anger or emotions into something that can feel more transformative.
A: What’re you working on now?
LS: I am working on a new body of work called “Parting Gift.” It’s the body of work after “Quarantine Blues,” so it’s really me trying to use this new perspective that I gained from the pandemic and how I now think about the notion of family, community, friendship and love. I’m still in the process of figuring out where the project is going, but I will be sharing it later this year.
I am also working on a few public art projects. One is a photo installation at O’hare airport in Chicago. That’s been one of the more exciting yet challenging projects, because it’s new for me. It’s a completely different way of working because it’s no longer just making photographs. I have to manage relationships with fabricators in the city, work through bureaucracy, and figure out what I can do knowing that it’s going to be a permanent installation. I welcome it, and I am so thankful for it because it’s a new thing for my practice—and I see that as progress. Now it feels like I’m juggling a photography career and this new territory of creating public art, and I’m seeing where it takes me.