Knitting maybe identical to a mundane pastime. But in the hands of Mulyana, the age-old threading technique has been elevated into artworks worthy to be presented at Singapore Art Museum and collected by art patrons from Australia, France and the US.

For over 10 years, the Bandung-educated, Yogyakarta-based artist has dwelled with threads. It all started with boredom when part-timing at a book store in Bandung during his university years (Mulyana was studying to be an art teacher at Indonesian Education University). The book store owner taught him to knit, and he fell in love with it. Today, he creates life-sized installations with crochet, an intricate knit process. He is best known for creating underwater-themed installations, home to an octopus-shaped monster that has become his alter ego, called
Mogus. For each sold installation, Mulyana gifts his buyer a handmade Mogus doll, its colour coordinated with the specific artwork.

“When I started as an artist, I wanted my work to be appreciated as it was. I wanted people to judge my work as neutral as possible. So I created an alter-ego in the form of an octopus and called him Mogus,” Mulyana, who proudly describes himself as “a man who knits”, says. “I choose octopus because it has multiple ‘hands’. As long as I live, I want to be a helping hand for the people around me. The octopus was a symbol of my hopes and prayers as an artist.”

Mulyana’s octopus-shaped knitted monsters, nicknamed "Mogus"

Mulyana is preparing for his solo exhibition, in celebration of Mogus’ 10th anniversary

Mulyana lives up to his hopes. These days, he works with 12 housewives and transgender people in Yogyakarta, Kaliurang and Notogenen in creating artworks. He taught them to knit from scratch, and empowered them with practical skills to make a living. One of them, Tamara, went on to become Mulyana’s creative partner. Sparingly, they create collaborative artworks under the name “Marayana”.

“Working with the local community is a part of my identity as an artist. My artworks are not mine alone, but theirs as well.” To share his most recent proud moment, Mulyana brought his creative troop to visit ArtJog 10, where his Silent Prayers installation was displayed. On a curatorial note, all the hands that helped realise the artwork were credited by name.

Silent Prayers (2017), exhibited at ArtJog 10

Silent Prayers represents Mulyana’s reflections on life and death. Atypical of his colourful artworks, on the recent installation all corals appear in white, lit by yellow fairy lights that are timed to go on and off. “Before creating this artwork, I did a little research. I asked people: what do you pray for? The whole artwork revolves around prayers, something so often neglected while men are alive, and the depiction of death, a state that comes so suddenly,” says Mulyana.

Sending out sombre vibes, Silent Prayers is also a swansong to Mogus and his coral homes, the characters that have
defined Mulyana’s career for the past decade. “I’m ready to tackle other issues that resonate with me and the current phase of my life,” Mulyana says, although he remains secretive about the theme. Jokingly, he adds: “My team has been telling me that they were bored with making corals.”

While the installation is still on display, Mulyana is already hard at work for his next project. His next major exhibition is Jogja Biennale in November, as well as a solo exhibition at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung.

“An artist like me, whose work involves many other people, needs good time management. I can’t exhibit at short notice, or sell artworks anytime. Everything takes time, but I don’t mind it because I prefer to work with the people I work with today, rather than hiring faceless professional knitters. I’m an artist and a teacher, not an entrepreneur.”