North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Doreen Lee is exam­ining broad social and polit­ical devel­op­ments in Indonesia through a nar­rowed focus — street art.

Through graf­fiti and murals painted on bridges, build­ings and other out­side sur­faces in major cities in Indonesia, the new assis­tant pro­fessor of anthro­pology is studying the emer­gence of new arenas for social and polit­ical commentary.

Indonesia has con­tinued to trans­form itself fol­lowing the polit­ical upris­ings of the late 1990s and the estab­lish­ment of a demo­c­ratic republic, said Lee. Street art can pro­vide evi­dence of this polit­ical change and the gen­eral mood of the country.

Lee, who lived in Jakarta in the 1980s and ’90s during Suharto’s dic­ta­tor­ship, said she always won­dered what would happen when the gov­ern­ment top­pled. After it did in 1998, polit­ical move­ments pro­lif­er­ated throughout the region — not just in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia, Thai­land and in other South­east Asian coun­tries. “It looked like an entire region was going through a polit­ical trans­for­ma­tion,” she said.

Lee’s interest in street art grew out of her Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion, which she plans to pub­lish in book form, about stu­dent polit­ical move­ments in Indonesia from the late 1990s to the present.

The activists came from a variety of back­grounds and dis­ci­plines, from engi­neering to the arts. They used per­for­mance art, street the­ater, giant pup­pets and hand-​​painted ban­ners to add visual impact to polit­ical demon­stra­tions, Lee said.

The con­nec­tion between her dis­ser­ta­tion and her second project on street art lies in the way artists today imagine their ties to the polit­ical move­ments of 1998 as one of inher­i­tance. “The social changes of 1998 enabled them to have freedom of (artistic) expres­sion, as well as the ability to approach more polit­ical sub­jects in their art­work,” she said.

You can think of this as the for­ma­tion of a new public cul­ture that’s mate­ri­al­izing after a period of polit­ical trans­for­ma­tion,” Lee said. “Now as things are set­tling and there is a new demo­c­ratic regime, what are people inter­ested in? What are they curious about? Are they making life more enjoy­able or rich or looking to tra­di­tions or looking to out­side influences?”

She’s found some of the art to be polit­ical, some to be exploratory or “art for art’s sake,” said Lee. But she’s also noted “rec­og­niz­able” inter­na­tional influ­ences, giving graf­fiti in Jakarta a striking resem­blance to graf­fiti in New York City or else­where around the world.

The sig­nif­i­cance of this resem­blance is one of acknowl­edging and assessing global con­nec­tions and influ­ences, she said.

Studying the growth of street art and the new art mar­kets in the region is a way to study global processes beyond the usual realms of economy, pol­i­tics and mass commodities.”