Ican Harem is shirtless, sweaty and wearing a pink BDSM mask.
He’s screaming over a rapid and jarring electronic beat. A strobe light darts around him and incense smoke wafts through the room. When the audience are given rolls of duct tape, they use it to tape him to the wall.
At this venue, which is one of Bali’s most popular tourist bars, this brand of performance art is especially confronting. There’s a local crew of Ican’s friends and fans who get it, but the tourists who came for Bintangs and mojitos don’t know what to make of it. That’s probably the point though. It lasts for 45 minutes, then Mike D from the Beastie Boys takes the stage for a DJ set and things seem normal again.
“They call it ‘happening art’—that’s the term—it’s when everything is spontaneous and interactive and it just happens,” Ican (pronounced ii-chaan) explains. “It’s really raw. You just look at the audience and then respond.”
What were the audience doing? I ask him. “They were freaking out; they enjoy the freak shit,” he says. And there’s no doubt that some of them do. While BDSM and duct tape are undeniably confronting, the people who can appreciate Ican’s art tend to really appreciate it. Having done international art residencies, worked with musicians like King Gizzard and Ho99o9 and garnered a 24k-strong Insta following, Ican has earned a platform to push his message.
The performance piece was called “Slavery” and it was partly about the horror and abuse that exists in the garment factories of the third world. “Lately I’ve been really interested in the big industry of fashion and the dark side of that is slavery,” he explains. “I kept yelling and shouting ‘Slavery is society!’ and shit like that until someone taped my mouth shut.”
Most of Ican’s art is dark, somewhere between psychedelic and satanic. It’s not exactly the aesthetic you’d expect from a guy who lives in Canggu, a town that might be described as Indonesia’s version of Byron Bay, and is known for it’s crowded beachbreaks, rice paddy vistas and trendy cafes. “The tourism also has a dark side to it,” Ican warns, but he goes on to explain that this isn’t really what his art is about either. Rather, it’s inspired from a combination of growing up in Banda Aceh, under Sharia law, and his love for punk and metal.
“I studied in an Islamic boarding school for six years, bro,” he says, clearly aware that this is not an environment I can easily comprehend. To illustrate the point, he tells me a story about being 13-years-old and getting busted for having a Guns N’ Roses poster in the closet of his dorm. The teachers staged regular inspections and when they found the cover-poster for Appetite for Destruction—a crucifix adorned with four skulls—they were particularly dismayed by the Christian symbolism.
“In Aceh, you get punished, you get the whip, man,” says Ican. “They punished me and shamed me, I lost my confidence but that triggered me to be like, ‘Fuck this.’” He soon took to locking himself inside the cupboard and listening to Sepultura on his Walkman. “I loved that platform of extreme expression… I didn’t know what they were saying, of course, but you could feel the anger in there,” he says. Punk and metal music were his first passion and eventually they inspired him to start creating art. “The music was the trigger and the visual came after that.”
Ican eventually escaped the conservatism of Banda Aceh to attend art school in Yogyakarta, a city he describes as “very comfy”. After seven years though, he moved to Bali, the only majoritively-Hindu island within the archipelago. “The good thing about Bali is that people are really open-minded,” he says. “They’re not fanatics. They don’t attack you for doing something different.” And for someone who makes a decent chunk of their living by performing in a BDSM mask and painting satanic stuff on jackets, this is important.
Ican’s art studio is in Kerobokan, overlooking a field of rice paddies, and in the distance you can see Mount Agung, which has been threatening to erupt for months now. On the bottom floor, there’s a clothing rack full of jackets that he’s been commissioned to paint, a length of chain hanging from the ceiling and a large desk cluttered with his paints. Upstairs is a balcony and a bar where we sit and drink shochu (Japanese liquor). “I guess you’re not a practicing Muslim these days,” I say, nodding to the drink. “I grew up with that culture, I can’t abandon it,” he says. “If I tried to deny it, it would just make me more crazy, I guess.”
Ican seems to have reached a point in his career where people not only trust him to make progressive art but they accept that it will be weird and dark. The 30-year-old makes most of his living by selling hand-painted, one-off clothing items in shops across Bali and online. It’s all recycled stuff, so he buys all the gear from op shops, then paints custom designs on them.
“The process is really like with a tattoo,” he explains. “I ask (people), ‘What do you want? What music do you listen to?’ Then I make something really personal for them.” Usually people wear the merchandise, but sometimes it ends up in frames. Cult hip hop/hardcore duo, Ho99o9, found Ican through Instagram and commissioned him to paint custom jackets for them to wear on stage.
But Ican hasn’t always painted on clothing; back in 2009 he did the cover art for King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s first recordings. He met the guys from King Gizzard during his first residency in Geelong when he was 20. “They played the opening of my exhibition and I think it was their first gig or one of the first ones,” he recalls. Afterwards, Stu Mackenzie (King Giz lead singer) asked if I wanted to do some illustrations for the band. These would later become the cover art for Willoughby’s Beach. “I remember they paid me, I’m not sure how much, but they gave me some drugs also. Sick deal,” Ican recalls. “What else do you need?”
Years later, Ican was in Melbourne and he got to see Gizzard play a sold out show with Goat, a psych band from Sweden that he really liked. “I’m this random dude from Indonesia who came to this sold out show with Goat and King Gizzard and I got like, VIP shit,” he laughs. “They’d become rock stars. It’s funny because I was part of the process with them and they treated me really special.”
After a few more glasses of shochu, the sun sets and we move down to Ican’s studio space. The interview loses its structure and becomes a fast-paced, semi-disjointed conversation about the local punk scene, Bali’s rapid-paced tourism and the fashion industry. “Aren’t these jackets a bit hot for Bali though?” I ask, pointing to a leather motorcycle coat with the words “Death Crush” painted on the breast. “Yeah, a bit hot,” he considers, “but fashion is sacrifice.”