Community, love, isolation and health in Leonard Suryajaya’s Quarantine Blues

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Laced with humour and tragedy, Suryajaya’s ongoing project charts the erratic tempo of his psychological landscape over the past year

In a year of tragedy and isolation, inhabiting a fraught psychological space has been perhaps the most unifying experience of living in a global pandemic. We ricochet between emotional extremes, caught in a state of constant confusion. Fact and fiction dissolve into one another as the world desperately tries to grapple with this relentless unknown in real-time. From the moment we heard about the virus our nervous systems went into overdrive, and we are yet to recover.

This sense of embodying ongoing trauma is painfully familiar to Leonard Suryajaya. Growing up as a second-generation Chinese-Indonesian in North Sumatra, he lived a life of oppression and fear. When Indonesia became independent in 1946, the status of Chinese immigrants became volatile. Suryajaya’s parents were instructed to abandon their Chinese heritage; they were denied certain privileges, and made to adopt Indonesian names. In a country that still threatens the lives of the LGBTQI community, hiding both his Chinese heritage and his queerness was a matter of survival.

© Leonard Suryajaya.

The artist, now based in Chicago, makes photographs with a transformational quality, validating trauma to enable him to occupy a space of strength, power and optimism. “I’ve lived in a state of suspension for so long. You’re always in fight or flight. You can never sit back and relax,” Suryajaya shares. “When the pandemic hit I just thought, on top of all that baggage, there is more strain to process.” 

Before the pandemic, the photographer was recovering from surgery, and finally received his green card after being held in a four-year holding pattern. The significance of this change in status did not just signal stability in his new home, but offered protection for the artist, who makes political works that could see him criminalised in his home country. 

“What I’ve learnt from managing PTSD and trauma is that it requires constant upkeep. It’s a form of mental training. After two months of dealing with the toil of quarantine, I needed a better activity to work through my anxiety. I wanted to focus on fantastical possibilities that I had never considered before.” 

“I don’t normally work with strangers, but so much camaraderie and friendship grew from the connections we made. After months of isolation, we were all craving the presence of other people and being able to connect in the safest way possible”

Jacob and Maddi posing with their favorite cereal at South Loop Strength & Conditioning gym in Chicago, IL, on Sunday, August 9, 2020. © Leonard Suryajaya.

Suryajaya’s ongoing project, Quarantine Blues, acknowledges his experiences of the last year, charting the erratic tempo of his psychological landscape. His tone is somewhere between overwhelm and bemused. Laced with humour and tragedy, he speaks to notions of community, family, love, isolation and health, as well as the exhausting endeavour of trying to make life feel more hospitable in lockdown. Using hundreds of everyday objects and materials, these rich and detailed photographs are an intrepid quest to examine the ways we have been activated during this period of unknowing and uncertainty. 

Divided in two parts, the first made in Surajaya’s apartment with his boyfriend Peter and the second a collaboration with people from his neighbourhood Printer’s Row, he began to untangle the contradictory ruminations of pandemic life. Using local gyms as a location, many of which remained closed due to indoor capacity restrictions, Suryajaya created elaborate scenes with people he had never met. Together they would have long zoom calls to collate inspiration and direction for the photographs. Each collaborator would find and customise materials for the set and feature as characters within the work. “I don’t normally work with strangers, but so much camaraderie and friendship grew from the connections we made. After months of isolation, we were all craving the presence of other people and being able to connect in the safest way possible.”

© Leonard Suryajaya.

Suryajaya’s mastery is rooted in his ability to acknowledge and metabolise trauma through picture-making. The work is both the method and evidence of his process, a potent manifestation of his resilience.  While the project’s baseline is a response to the innate threat of Covid-19, its driver is the growing incidents of anti-Asian violence and the crisis of silence around it. While the photographs do not address his pain and grief directly, Suryajaya channels this into seeking and building an alternative future. 

“I wanted to challenge this horrendous discrimination and injustice by gathering the extra courage and strength to show that this limited perspective will not define me. I want to put forth my excellence because that is the best way that I can show what people like me can do in the world.”

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.