John Navid on Urban Life Behaviors in His Solo Exhibition

Antique frames fill the RUBANAH Underground Hub exhibition space as part of John Navid’s solo exhibition, Menangkap gelagat (English: Capturing behaviors), curated by Grace Samboh. The snapshots of the day-to-day captured in the photographs taken by John—who is also known as the drummer of the band White Shoes & the Couples Company—spark awareness of the daily behaviors we encounter all around us. In the curatorial text of the exhibition, Grace writes, “We agreed on the word ‘gelagat’(behavior) because it best represents a majority of John’s photos. It’s easy to categorize John’s photos as street photography due to the impression clearly evident when examining John’s photos being ‘candidness’.” Furthermore, said curator also notes that she was unable to find an accurate translation for ‘candid’ in Bahasa Indonesia. Contextually, according to Grace’s explanation, ‘candid’ itself refers to photos taken informally or without the subject's awareness. Taking off from said context, Grace felt the impression of “things as they are” from candidness better encapsulates the works of John Navid than the literal meaning of ‘candid’ itself. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Central Jakarta during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, John Navid shared with Grafis Masa Kini the story behind his photographs and his love of all things vintage that influences his work.

On the topic of ‘gelagat’, in the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI), or the Great Dictionary of the Indonesian Language, the noun can be interpreted as ‘activities’—something very close to the everyday. As a photographer, John admits that he had long found joy in capturing activities by the street. On the other hand, John also produces editorial and conceptual photos like Calvin Klein’s collaboration with Monita Tahalea, the album cover for musicians Adhitia Sofyan, Indra Perkasa, Indische Partij, Good Ol’ Dreams, and his own band, white Shoes & the Couples Company. However, in this solo exhibition, John wanted to share the everyday moments he captures that are simple and as they are.

According to the photographer, there were nearly 1000 photos handed over to Grace Samboh to sort and curate into several segments of the exhibition space. Close to the entrance, visitors will be surprised by the welcoming statue placed in the corner of the room—guarding a table with an album placed on top filled with photos of people smoking. Shifting slightly, visitors can see a collection of half-body portraits. Next to that, there is a giant frame  with a black and white portrait depicting cuts of chicken being cooked. Closing the arrangement of photos on that side of the exhibition space is a collection of portraits of hand and leg movements. Across the room, John displays two big frames with anamorphic photos that he “cleaves” into two pieces. The objects of the photos are also quite eye-catching to anyone that sees them—residential buildings like apartments and a bald head with a fly latched on top. Shifting slightly again, John captures moments of people at their place of work. “Places of work aren’t limited to the indoors but also include outdoor spaces, that’s why there are portraits of people selling their wares. There are also photos of furniture stores, secondhand bookstores, locksmiths, bakmi places, and watch repair shops,” John explained. Closing off this section, John presents an array of portraits around human interaction. “Whether it’s rickshaw drivers and housewives, couples at karaoke, people playing chess, interactions at the goldsmiths, there’s also these two people glancing at each other on the TV frame,” John continued. If you don’t pay close attention, you may miss one of his pieces hidden on the ceiling of the exhibition space.

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There is one element in the exhibition that John brings up repeatedly: frames. The works exhibited in Menangkap gelagat are beautifully framed using frames from the photographer's collection. “All frames, except for the one when we ran out, are from my collection. Some are made of teak wood, aluminum, and old frames I was able to find at home. I previously collected vintage frames," said John. In the center of the room sits an empty frame hanging that visitors can respond to. John explained, "It was originally a frame for Chinese scroll paintings. But, here I use it as a photo frame. Collectors say this is the frame of Lee Man Fong, a Chinese Peranakan painter during the Soekarno era." Vintage items, including frames, are John’s trademark. In this solo exhibition, the photographer's character is reflected in the DJ booth installation in the corner of the room. Visitors' eyes are in for a treat with vintage items such as chairs and speakers in the shape of balls arranged to decorate a large photo frame of a clock repairman using a magnifying glass. "I gave him six hanging speakers to strengthen the area of the photo, as if he (the subject of the photo) was looking at the balls. "I also happen to like round speakers," explained John. 

John’s interest in vintage items grew after he joined the group White Shoes & the Couples Company whose music took listeners back to an old era. As the group traveled to various cities and even countries, John found vintage items that he found captivating. "In my opinion, cool items are vintage items," he said. According to John, the design of vintage items is carefully thought out, so that the products created are long-lived or timeless. John said, “Vintage goods don't break down quickly. "If possible, I use these items for everyday life, such as old lenses, analog watches, old cars and chairs." The stories of John's encounters with vintage items vary, from WhatsApp groups to trips that brought him together with the various subjects of his photographs in the Menangkap gelagat exhibition. "The works in this exhibition are photos I took from 2015 to 2022. The process of taking these photos is my daily journey when looking for vintage items. "For example, when I went to Pasar Baru to buy lenses, look for food, I met the people in my photos which I took with an analog camera with a vintage lens from my collection and a digital camera," said John.

Every moment that John "preserved" through his photos also has a different story. The subjects seen in this exhibition are mostly strangers John met on the street. There are some people who question the process of photographing subjects candidly—as is—without crossing the line of privacy. For John, who carries a camera almost every day, his intuition regarding gestures of rejection and acceptance from the subject has been built and trained into him for a long time, so the process of taking pictures runs instinctively. “Most of the process is  straightforward. Their gesture was not to refuse to be photographed. I have my own feeling whether this (subject) can be photographed or not. Most people who realized they were being photographed actually asked to be photographed again," said John. The subjects of John's photos are also dominated by elderly people because, according to John, they are indifferent and more matter-of-fact. However, not all photo-taking processes are taken suddenly, some works are born as a result of conversation and comfort that grows between the photographer and the subject. “There are also those who chat first. "At that time he was fixing the camera, it turned out he [the subject] used to be a photographer at one of the best polaroid studios," he said. At that time, I happened to like polaroids. After chatting for a long time, finally I took a photo [of the subject]. There was also that time when we were eating at the restaurant, on the second floor there was a karaoke place filled with ladies and gentlemen who brought their own CDs. They pay 20,000 [rupiah] to sing as much as they want but take turns. Those who were waiting for their turn became the audience, those who were singing were also happy to be watched," said John, remembering the story behind his photos.

After touring the exhibition space and studying John Navid's works, there is a common thread that weaves the narrative of each segment and frame of the work: cities and urban life. “I'm more interested in urban life because I think it's more exciting. Like music, each city has its own tempo; some are fast, some are slow. In the city, the tempo of life is so fast, it can suddenly get quiet, suddenly busy, and suddenly the moment is gone. Well, these photos capture moments that cannot be repeated," said John. In his work, John has always liked the presence of human subjects in his photographs. As a photographer, John feels the energy of life and the breath that humans breathe into his works. The way John sees cities is also shaped by his daily life as an urban citizen. “This is my daily path, my daily life, and that's what I want to share. It turns out, every day my view is like this [urban]." Capturing everyday moments gives John a special joy. This process also allows John to immortalize things or moments that are now gone. "For example, the subject I photographed may no longer exist, a building that no longer exists, or for example, the existence of a Metromini that no longer exists. "I can also share this pleasure with people because that is the essence of documenting something," said John. The works in this exhibition are of course still a small group of the thousands of photographic works that John owns. In the future, John plans to exhibit the photos he has taken over the years, of course with a collection of different vintage frames. The Menangkap gelagat exhibition at the RUBANAH Underground Hub, Menteng, is open to the public until April 28.

Photo courtesy of M. Revaldi

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About the Author

Alessandra Langit

Alessandra Langit is a writer with seven years of diverse media experience. She loves exploring the quirks of girlhood through her visual art and reposting Kafka’s diary entries at night.