Parting Gift: Artist Leonard Suryajaya unveils photographic collaboration with Block Museum students

per·en·ni·al /pəˈrenēəl/: Enduring or continually recurring

On June 13, 2022 – Northwestern’s 164th Commencement Day – The Block Museum of Art is thrilled to unveil an original artwork created for the museum’s collection by Chicago-based contemporary artist Leonard Suryajaya in collaboration with the 2021-2022 Block Museum of Art Student Associates.

The large-scale photograph Perennial Blossom, 2022 from the artist’s new series Parting Gift emerges from the Block Museum Student Associates’ ongoing relationship with Suryajaya, which developed when the 2020-21 Associates proposed Suryajaya’s photograph Quarantine Blues (2020) for acquisition to the museum’s collection. Following the acquisition, the artist and the students embarked on a year-long dialogue about living in quarantine, art-making, and identity, a conversation which culminated in the artists’ extraordinary offer to create a new work with the students as the subject.

The resulting photograph is envisioned as a companion piece to Quarantine Blues, and a celebration of identity, of renewal, and of enduring through community support. The work was shot in front of The Block Museum on May 1, 2022 and features 13 Student Associates, and one Block staff member, as well as the artist’s sister and mother. The photograph was created with the generous support of the Alumnae of Northwestern and will be on public view at the Block in Fall 2022.

Left: Leonard Suryajaya (Chinese-Indonesian, born 1988), Quarantine Blues, from the series Quarantine Blues, 2020. Inkjet print, 50 × 40 in. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 2020-2021 Block Museum Student Associates acquisition, Craig Ponzio and Julie and Lawrence Bernstein Family Art Acquisition Fund purchase.

Right: Leonard Suryajaya (Chinese-Indonesian, born 1988), Perennial Blossom, from the series Parting Gift, 2022. Inkjet print, 50×40 in. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of the artist.

I strive to show that family, community and culture, ground us as human beings in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the world,

They are the training grounds in which we learn how to achieve our goals and fulfill our potentials.

In them, we got to be funny, messy, and unruly when we play, but we are supporting and learning about one another in the process.

And through our desire to connect and pride in celebrating who we are, we also develop the skills to face the world,

We are better humans when we celebrate one another’s specificities…

Leonard Suryajaya, Block Museum of Art (October 2021)

Preparing for the Photograph

In preparation for the work, Suryajaya tasked the students with reflecting on, and celebrating, their diverse and intersecting identities, and how they wish to be seen. The use of flowers, as objects with rich and diverse cultural meaning, was central to Suryajaya’s vision and sparked a collaboration with local flower design company, Flowerchild. With the help of Suryajaya and Flowerchild over the course of several meetings, the students crafted ideas for how they were to best present themselves in front of the camera through flowers, fashion, makeup, and personal props. The project culminated in a day-long photoshoot outside The Block, including Flowerchild’s flower truck. Though chilly weather brought its challenges the students responded with creativity that inspired the artist, the museum staff, and passersby.

I was not expecting the process to be as collaborative as it was, and it was surprising and wonderful to find out that we had a lot of creative input. I really appreciated how much Leonard trusted us all to decide what we wanted to show about ourselves. It was really interesting to witness the hours of planning and level of precision that made Leonard’s vision into such an effortless-looking picture.

Chayda Harding ’22, Block Museum Student Associate

Artist Prompts for Student Associates

How do you want to be seen?
What aspects of your identity do you want to make visible or amplify?
How will you communicate this through your costume/attire, skills, and accessories/objects that are meaningful to you?
What role will flowers have to disrupt or embellish this idea?

Exploring Perennial Blossom

The resulting photograph is a layered group portrait. The students sit and stand outside, looking in various directions and all adorned with flowers. Block staff member Isabella Ko peaks around a curtain on the far left and the artist’s mother Linda and sister Novi are situated inside, seen through the museum’s glass walls as a focal point of the image.  There is depth captured in the photo, inviting further close looking and movement throughout all aspects of the work. Surrounded by an eclectic mix of flowers, patterns, and colors, each individual in Perennial Blossom appears distinct and demanding of attention.

Through what they wear and hold, the students celebrate multiple aspects of their identities—hobbies, talents, cultural backgrounds, religious faiths, and genders and sexualities. Personal meaning is imbued in objects such as traditional dress, rosary beads, instruments, and baking utensils; they are complex reflections on personal background, family history, personality, communities of belonging, and aspirations for the future. In short, on who the sitters are, who they would like to be, and who they are becoming.

Solome Bezuneh
Communication Studies (2024)

Perennial Blossom celebrates the many aspects of identity within oneself and a community and represents the endless process of being/becoming, particularly during a formative time such as undergraduate study.

Isabella Ko, Engagement Coordinator  

Both in its collaborative process and outcome, this photograph centers around community. In stark contrast to Quarantine Blues—which focuses on a single figure surrounded by domestic objects in a confined space, Perennial Blossom depicts a dynamic coming together of people. There is a palpable feeling of community in the gathering of the BMSA cohort and in the embrace of the artist’s family members in the back, a result of teamwork by the people who worked on the photoshoot that day. Created two years after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the creation of Quarantine Blues (2020), the photograph captures the joy and precious gift of being able to gather with one another again.  

About Leonard Suryajaya

Suryajaya (seated front) with Block Associates Fall 2021

Leonard Suryajaya is a Chinese-Indonesian artist located in Chicago, Illinois. Suryajaya 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. He earned his BA in Theatre Arts and BFA in Creative Photography from California State University in 2013 and then went on to receive an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 2015. Suryajaya uses photography, video, performance, and installation to represent everyday life and the way in which it is layered with meaning. Selected exhibition venues include Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago; Benaki Museum, Greece; Photoforum Pasquart, Switzerland; National Library, Singapore; Wrightwood 659, Chicago; 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, Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection, Mana Contemporary, and Center for Photography at Woodstock. Awards: 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 (Artist Statement/Bio).

Guide to the Image

A) Isabella Ko ‘20, Engagement Coordinator
B) Solome Bezuneh ’24, Communication Studies
C) Katy Kim ’23, 2022-23 BMSA and Tour Coordinator, Art History and Political Science
D) Hank Yang ’24, Journalism and Political Science
E) Zeki Hirsch ’24, Art History
F) Joyce Wang ’24, Economics and Data Science
G) Bobby Yalam ’24, Comparative Literary Studies
H) Bengi Rwabuhemba ’23, Anthropology
I) Vitoria Monteiro de Carvalho Faria ’23, Art History and Economics
J) Nozizwe Msipa ’24, Communication Studies
K) Chayda Harding ’22, 2021-22 BMSA and Tour Coordinator, History
L) Mayan Alvarado-Goldberg ’24, Neuroscience
M) Carolina Carret ’23, Legal Studies
N) Karan Gowda ‘21, Biological Sciences and Global Health Studies
O) Leonard Suryajaya’s mother
P) Leonard Suryajaya’s sister

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