Dede Eri Supria: Urban chronicles (1994)

Excerpt from Astri Wright’s book Soul, spirit and mountain: Preoccupations of contemporary Indonesian painters.

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 25 October 2011
This essay was previously published in the above-mentioned book, by Oxford University Press (1994), pp. 224-32, chapter 12: From Photorealism to cartoon, under the sub-heading "Urban chronicles: Dede Eri Supria".

Dede Eri Supria

Dede Eri Supria (b. 1956), Indonesia’s most important urban painter, takes photographic images of the metropolis apart and reassembles them into disconcerting but strangely familiar views, at times crossing the border to the surreal. In Dede’s landscapes of urban construction, people are the main feature: not the cosmopolitan segments of Jakarta society, but becak drivers, bajaj drivers, [1] labourers, poor women with children, shoppers, lost children, and unemployed men— people of Javanese village and small-town life uprooted, hustling to and from their destinations. They are isolated, hurried and often obstructed in their progress by the machinations of the city— barriers of chrome, glass, and steel, a locomotive roaring by in a whirr of motion, or the never ending traffic which leaves no alternative but to cross the avenue on an overpass. These often harsh depictions of two contrasting modes of life— animate and inanimate, urban and rural, machine and human— reflect “the peculiar personality of Jakarta, its sense of solidarity vis-à-vis the provinces and the brutal, commercial power-oriented cynical character of its everyday life” (Anderson, 1990: 142).

By concentrating a high proportion of elements familiar to urban Western eyes on his canvases, Dede Eri Supria ironically reverses the role of a Gauguin going to the tropics. Gauguin, a European uninspired by his own culture, gave to the world beautiful, mysterious images of exotic people blending into equally unfamiliar landscapes, filled with strange gods and primal forces repressed or forgotten in his European bourgeois background.

In Dede Eri Supria’s paintings, Westerners can thrill to see their own world, the urban jungle, through the eyes of a tropical man come to “civilization”. Westerners can see “their” environment, celebrated by well-established painters from the early twentieth century on, never more sensationally than in the various movements following pop art, but in Dede’s work populated with anachronistic and "exotic" villagers. A tension is created between the familiar and the unfamiliar, which gives one of those little sensational thrills, the gratifying emotional experience of recognition which an encounter with the completely unknown fails to yield. In this way, Dede’s work is deceptively accessible to Euro-Americans who, for the same reason, can more easily accept his work as modern than the work of many other Indonesian artists.

I was born and raised in Jakarta, a city which not only inspires my work but more than that. Jakarta offers all of life’s possible problems and enjoyments, so I have a certain sentimental feeling about it. The situation in Jakarta is created by the thunder of traffic and the smoke from factories that never stop, the building of the city which continues ceaselessly, the increasing number of inhabitants, and its tumultuous daily life which has become extremely complex. [2]

Dressed in overalls, Dede Eri Supria wanders through construction sites, his leisure and his camera distinguishing him from the workers hauling, pushing, lifting, carrying, and hammering together yet another part of the city’s scenography. Later, he secludes himself at home in his small loft-studio. Seated cross-legged on the floor, he sketches directly on a large canvas, either from an on-site sketch or from photographs, before starting to paint. He remains absorbed until his participation is demanded in the world down below. The greater part of the first floor is dedicated to a gallery where his works hang; dozens more, which find no place on the walls, are stacked against each other in a corner.

The seventh of eight children, Dede Eri Supria learned to be a photographic draftsman from primary school age, when he started helping his father do enlarged drawings of photographs on commission. Even at that age, he was closely involved with his family’s economic survival in the city: his father, a teacher and one-time director of the Budi Utomo Technical School (STM), could not single-handedly support the large family (TEMPO, 1978). At first, Dede sold comic books and ice-cream in his spare time— something which, he admits, inspired him to take up cartoon drawing. Later, he took drawing lessons from Dukut Hendranoto (“Pak Ooq”), a local artist who, non-dogmatically, encouraged his students to get in touch with their own selves (Maksiani, 1988). By junior high school (SMP), Dede had already founded his first artist studio with three friends (TEMPO, 1978). Having decided he wanted to be a painter, he applied to the secondary school of fine arts (SSRI, Sekolah Seni Rupa Indonesia) in Yogyakarta.

Apart from informal studies with Pak Ooq, whom he remembers fondly, Dede Eri Supria considers himself a self-taught painter. He admits that he probably did learn something about painting technique in Yogya, but he dropped out of SSRI a year before graduating. His interest in realism elicited little encouragement or understanding from the teachers; the style was not deemed worthy of anything but a study tool, or as one of the preparatory stages to creating “real art” which must be expressionistically or decoratively distorted. When a handful of students nonetheless persisted in pursuing it, they were mocked with statements like “realism is a dirty cooking-pot for rice” (Dede Eri Supria, 1979).

After returning to Jakarta, Goenawan Mohamad, Chief Editor of TEMPO, hired Dede Eri Supria to do cover illustrations for the news magazine. [3] Dede also did illustrations for calendars, some of them industrial. These two modes of working, in turn, influenced his painting. In order to be able to paint a relevant, visually catching, and communicative cover, he followed news events closely and did his own journalistic research. In this way, the idea that art was firmly connected to socio-political and economic affairs was solidly exercised. By painting industrial interiors and machinery, architecture and oil-rigs for calendars, he further trained his skill at depicting objects, materials, and textures of all types and on all scales. Both work methods involved drawing from photographs. Supporting himself in this manner, Dede continued to paint on the side, at his own rate, and in his own way, without interference.

In the mid-1970s, Dede Eri Supria became involved with the New Art Movement, which experimented with Western avant-garde art and ideas, applying them to Indonesian realities. He shared the New Art Movement’s preoccupations with contextualizing art and bridging the gap between élitist definitions of fine art and popular images created by commercial, mass-producing technologies.

Dede Eri Supria received much attention in the context of the New Art Movement. In an article entitled “Realism after Sudjojono”, the reappearance of realism in the work of a handful of young artists, foremost of whom was Dede, was the main subject of discussion (TEMPO, 1978). The anonymous writer of this piece noted that the last time realism was popular in Indonesia, was under LEKRA’s “forceful” patronage. [4] The writer argued that ensuing generations, however, have benefited from the realization that “social realism” depended on party guidance, and hence usually showed no imagination. Comparing the present neorealism with Sudjojono’s, the writer notes that Sudjojono was “rather too serious”, whereas “Dede’s generation in contrast knows how to play, be ironic, be ‘just like normal’ (biasa-biasa saja), with no deeper intent; they can also be dreamlike, skirting the boundary to surrealism” (TEMPO, 1978).

At the time of this exhibition, Dede Eri Supria’s entire oeuvre consisted of eighteen paintings. Five of these were self-portraits— according to the artist, an exercise in how to paint skin, hair, and facial features. The photograph of Dede in the TEMPO article shows a young boy with long hair, leaning against a canvas depicting the bare legs of a girl in a minimal miniskirt, staring at the photographer with a glum face. Dede is quoted as saying that he opposed the idea that a painter must specialize in a single mode. Consistent with the scandalized reporting of the New Art Movement’s frankness, Dede was also quoted as saying that lust was the main obstacle to his work, while the most important inspiration came from music.

Dede Eri Supria held his first solo exhibition in 1979, and by 1989 had held three more. He had also participated in numerous national and international group exhibitions, such as the Indonesian and the ASEAN biennials. In the decade following his first solo exhibition, Dede has developed new ways of approaching the translation of subject matter on to canvas. In the 1970s, he worked directly from slides, photographs, or images he clipped from magazines. These he projected with a slide projector directly on to the canvas before painting. His work thus consisted, to a greater degree, of straightforward “painted photographs” (Bambang Bujono, 1985: 56).

In the early 1980s, Dede Eri Supria painted numerous studies of form and texture. This is evident in an enormous chrome and lacquer motorcycle set against the sky, and a series of paintings of a striped mattress (1981). [5] His colours here are low-key, understated, at times nearly monochrome; the themes are deliberately lacking in any narrative or human element. The presentation of the object being his main goal, Dede’s connection both to a Western-style commercial art world and to leading abstract movements is here felt the most strongly. His interest at this time lies in form and texture as autonomous elements and not in communicating any immediately decipherable message.

A few of Dede Eri Supria’s paintings from this period are figurative and conceptual, foreshadowing the more socially engaged, and allegorical work to follow in the mid-1980s. The large canvas entitled Mother Crying shows Kartini, her hair dressed and face made up in traditional Javanese fashion, sitting under a hair-drier, a large phallic lipstick dominating the foreground. [6] As a large tear falls from her eye, Kartini holds a revolver to her head. This painting can support numerous readings— anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, feminist, or general socio-political, any and all aiming at the nebulous space where tradition and modernization intersect.

In 1984, Dede Eri Supria visited the United States on an international visitors’ programme sponsored by the United States Information Service. After three months in a new and artistically challenging environment, his palette changed. From his low-key earth tones and greys, he started working in stronger and more vibrant colours: brilliant blues, purples, and reds now mixed with his browns and whites. At this time, he stopped painting from slides projected on to the canvas. Although the separate pictorial elements are still painted photo-realistically, Dede’s work increasingly employed fractured images, prismatically or chaotically rearranged across the canvas.

Despite his obvious involvement with his subjects, Dede Eri Supria paints with the emotional detachment of a photo-journalist:

Most of my paintings carry symbolic meanings with humanitarian themes or themes about the environment in which I live. My paintings are not at all meant as social criticism, because truly the themes I take from the life of the people are in themselves stark facts... The way I paint is determined by what I think is artistic. Whatever I do, it is as if I always have a feeling of moral responsibility towards life such as you find it here in Jakarta... Maybe I hope that, besides the artistic quality and beauty of a specific painting, people will also be drawn into thinking about the fact that all around us there are many problems which need to be faced. [7]

In his writing and painting, Dede Eri Supria treads the fine line that separates reportage from social criticism. The fact that the visual riddles depicted in his photo-realist style do invite thought has earned him the criticism of being "cold" and "technical". A 1985 review expresses disturbance at the lack of emotion in Dede’s work. Discussing a particular painting, in which the inhumanely stressed and mechanical existence of factory workers is depicted in a surreal factory landscape where the walls consist of giant cardboard boxes and where oversized alarm clocks line the roads, the critic writes: "Unfortunately, this story reached me, not through touching my emotions, but via my brain" (Bambang Bujono, 1985).

The tendency of modern Indonesian artists and critics to emphasize feeling and emotion, above all positive emotion, in romantic or lyrical visual styles, whether representational, decorative, or abstract, was one of the central criticisms levied at Indonesian art by the New Art Movement. This attitude may also explain Bambang’s discomfort with what he calls a rational approach, one lacking feeling; an example of the lesser value traditionally given to ratio versus its opposite, rasa (intuitive or feeling-based insight) considered superior in Javanese thinking. This attitude may, in part, explain the difficulty that conceptual art, pioneered by the New Art Movement, has had in being accepted in the Indonesian art world.

In 1990, Dede Eri Supria wrote:

I am aware of the limitations of the media of the canvas, of space and time. These imprison one; I try to break through them with the use of symbols. With colours, nuances, and various techniques, such as arranging the composition, the one thing that I emphasize amidst all these methods or techniques is symbolism— a simple choice, but one nevertheless full of meanings and complex parables about the life around us which I record. For example, a narrow road which turns and bends, like a labyrinth— many ideas and problems arise in my mind from such a motif. I see people around me becoming apprehensive, anxious, frustrated, feeling a loss of identity. People become very lonely in the midst of the flow of life— therefore a work like "Labyrinth" is born: a description of urban people who face a life situation which is bitter and tortuous. [8]

Dede Eri Supria’s Labyrinth shows the iron rails of a staircase descending into a maze of giant cardboard boxes, depicted as towering walls. Dede plays with the strange effect of greatly enlarging something small— a heritage of both surrealists and post-modernists, mixed with a touch of Indonesian sarcasm vis-à-vis spiritualist clichés about microcosm mirroring macrocosm. Again, he posits something fragile as an unbreakable barrier. In the distance, the shining, mirror-glassed boxes of corporate high-rise buildings dominate the horizon.

At first glance, the human element seems completely lacking in this picture. On second thought, the viewer realizes that he or she is incorporated into it by the illusion of being positioned at the top of the staircase, about to descend into the maze, in an attempt to reach the prosperous fortresses in the distance. The viewer is posed as a poor person, for in Jakarta only the poor embark on any quest on foot: those for whom the high-rises are built travel in cars. Hence, Dede Eri Supria is working with a symbolism of materials, where cardboard represents the lower classes and glass, chrome, and steel represent the élite. Confusion, the lack of overview (in opposition to the equation of Sight = Insight = Power), the idea of being packed into boxes like commodities, one’s physical energy the only marketable commodity in this capitalist city, are feelings and associations that overwhelm a person ("You!" says Dede) trapped in this maze. The feeling of being helplessly caught and controlled is further strengthened by the severe consistency of the vanishing perspective; all the lines in the painting converge on the high-rise buildings.

Most of Dede Eri Supria’s work of the last seven years concerns people caught in the midst of an unaware moment: crossing the street, waiting for a long-distance bus, pushing a heavy load on a bicycle through an urban maze. The occasional surreal elements are handled with greater sureness. A large number of his works depict people sitting or standing alone, waiting for a means of livelihood to appear, or lost in troubled thought. Depicting a solitary figure in a culture where it is virtually impossible to be physically alone or separate, and where it frequently is considered suspect when one is, in itself amounts to significant commentary. Even where more than one person is shown they are just coexisting, not relating; everyone is in the same isolated, desperate situation. Two becak drivers sleep in their pedicabs in the shelter of an imposing glossy wall which is really a bus, the modern threat to their existence. A bajaj driver swelters in the heat, waiting for a customer. A bus station is devoid of passengers; the only people present are the vendors of sweets, drinks, and cigarettes, waiting, impassive, in the heat. A solitary man in a sarong stands watch over his load of papayas, half-shaded from the noonday sun when the shops are closed and the streets empty. An ageing man stands, confused and aimless, in the midst of a blur of urban movement. Small and apparently insignificant dramas of underemployment and severely limited livelihoods are played out in a context of concrete, steel, glass, and exhaust fumes.

Dede Eri Supria’s style, choice of setting, and emphasis on working people recall the work of S. Sudjojono from the 1950s and 1960s (see Holt, 1967: 198, Pl. 160). One major difference lies in the relationship between the human figures and their environment. Dede’s people are passive and powerless victims to the politics and economics of urban culture. Sudjojono’s people, on the other hand, are people who feel as though they have the power to participate in the shaping of their world. [9] Dede says:

At this point we can see that "development" is not a simple issue. Everything is being developed. Land is cleared, housing developments are built, factories are built, then crushed to bits, destroyed again. More things are built, then destroyed (Zaman, 1985: 26; author’s translation).

These portraits of development truly leave a bundle of wrinkles on the brow. Up to the farthest reaches of the sky, you have only the impressions of high-rises, deserted. And in the empty alleyways, a man from the village pushes a heavy burden on his bicycle; who knows where he is going in this silence... (source unknown; courtesy of the artist).

Dede Eri Supria is an example of an Indonesian artist who disclaims any connection with mysticism. [10] When contrasted with ancient Javanese ideas about man’s power to attain some degree of psychological and spiritual harmony, Dede’s work becomes all the more bleak with its depictions of man as powerless to improve either his material surroundings or his mental situation. His work proclaims how traditional modes of seeing are no longer relevant to urban Indonesian life. His art offers more questions than answers; the way he develops his visual language and contrasts may indicate that there are indeed no answers.

In 1989, listing an estimated 250 paintings, Dede Eri Supria has increasingly caught the eye of Indonesians and foreigners alike, especially Japanese collectors. Highly respected among younger generations of artists and art students, he stands as something of a legendary rebel against the institution of the art school. [11] Many attempt to paint in the same style, but no one manages to copy successfully his powerful combination of stylistic and thematic elements and colour.

Dede Eri Supria: 1 | Footnotes and references: 2