Contemporary art in Yogyakarta (August 1988)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 26 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, on 1 September 1988, p. 6 with the title "Yogykarta’s art world bustles with activity".

Contemporary art in Yogyakarta

The second week of August was a busy one for the art public of Yogyakarta. In a single week, five exhibitions were put on, an almost impossible feat in a city which usually saunters about its daily business to a slow Central Javanese rhythm.

While Bagong Kussudiardja’s exhibition showed at the Bentara Budaya, Mochtar Apin from ITB Bandung opened a retrospective at the ISI (Art Academy of Indonesia) campus.

The three other exhibitions were: Five students of ISI showing their work at Karta Pustaka, the Dutch Cultural Center; Ishendra Zaidun showing graphic works at Cemeti Gallery, and finally, the large exhibit Creation wayang at Gadjah Mada Campus’ Purna Budaya.

At Karta Pustaka four young men and a woman ranging in age from 19 to 21 and all still students at the Art Academy, showed their paintings. All five groups of work differed drastically. This could be taken as a basis for a theory of how individualism has replaced older Indonesian notions of social consensus and loyalty to a tradition; on the other hand, it could be taken as illustrative of the fact that in the art academies, art students feel pressured to choose a certain style as "their own" at an age when such a choice too often draws more on external than internal commitments. Since not enough time has passed for a personal expression to synthesize out of the various style / theme models available, the students’ paintings remain more or less well executed exercises within a certain style. This is not to say that age guarantees greater quality, but is one factor which may play a role. It so happens that it is the oldest member of this exhibition who shows the most mature and interesting work.

Pawit’s surrealist paintings of landscapes with organic forms; Fajar Iriadi’s decorative repetitive compositions of masks; Pramayasti’s deliberately child-like idioms and Melodia’s bleak, photorealistic street scenes all have clear prototypes both within Indonesia and without, prototypes which at the moment are extremely popular among a number of young Indonesian painters. Though well-executed, especially Melodia’s work, these paintings are only the beginning of a search for an artistic self.

The painter that stands out is Heru Daryatmo (29) from Jakarta. Although his paintings also carry echoes and associations to other artists, these are subordinated to each work’s own atmosphere and subject matter. Working with acrylic, oil or watercolor, Heru Daryatmo creates a fine and rugged texture. Within this neutral, textured space he places his people, always caught compellingly absorbed in the midst of an activity, playing music, singing Keroncong, painting Merdeka [on] a wall. Even when it is a group activity, each individual appears lost in concentration, as if each inhabits a separate world of his or her own.

From these intensely private worlds, large, dark eyes look out at us, Indonesian eyes but also archetypically soulful. In these portraits the timelessness of early Egyptian and Roman portraiture is given an Indonesian expression that reaches an almost existential level, and that is something many painters older than Heru Daryatmo have failed to do. His small boy lost in concentration before a solitary chess game, though a small canvas, attains the universal relevance of a statement about death.

At [the Cemeti Gallery], 14 graphic works by Ishendra Zaidun were displayed through the month of August. Ishendra has for a long time been fascinated by wayang mythology and the shadow puppets. Using silkscreen techniques, he placed the well-known forms of Gatotkaca, Arjuna, Srikandi and Shinta in semi-abstract landscapes. In the present exhibition, the brightly colored densely filled compositions contrast to Ishendra’s earlier Wayang paintings, where the figures were set against more empty space and subdued, near-monochrome colors.

One evocative image is Conversation with a fish, showing Srikandi— the prototype activist woman— at the edge of a blue lake, on the horizon of a slightly curving world, face to face with a shocked-looking fish whose eyes echo the green of the moon. The traditional Javanese male ego looking at the modern potential of a more assertive Javanese woman?

Besides the wayang prints, Ishendra Zaidun shows a number of landscapes in the same bright colors. These are fairly successful from the point of view of filling a space with overlapping, interesting textures, but I prefer the greater compositional and conceptual clarity of the Wayang prints.

Wayang and its shadow puppets made from carved and perforated buffalo-hide is the main theme of the exhibition at the Purna Budaya. The history of wayang kulit in Java is long— the first documentation of it is in an inscription from the 10th century. Although the themes were taken from the imported Hindu epics, the wayang kulit underwent a process of Javanization, both in the characterization of central figures as well as in the creation of new, peculiarly Javanese figures (survivors of pre-Hindu mystical cults?).

In later centuries, Islam’s arrival caused further, minor modifications, and thereafter the main outlines of both the stories and the puppet-figures stopped developing and became "classic". The art form never stagnated, but resisted major changes until this century.

It is a tribute to the force of this tradition and the great respect it is held in that the Purna Budaya, in introducing the exhibition, admits how controversial any modernization of the themes and puppets is, and makes a strong plea for the possibility of greater creativity— in the modern sense of potential originality— also within this traditional art form.

The exhibition succeeded in showing a wide variety of non-traditional variations on wayang: The historical theme of Prince Diponegoro’s struggle against the Dutch and the Java War is depicted by the late Kuswadji, in classicizing style but with 19th century costumes and slightly more realistic features (Dutch generals with large noses and bulging eyes denote a foreign type, nonetheless they are still depicted with elegant hands in Javanese dance-postures!). Stories out of A thousand and one nights were illustrated by Sunarto, with simplified outlines and Turkish costumes; Members of the Bamboo studio offered their collectively created "cartoon wayang" which would fit right into the Los Angeles scene; and Heri Dono showed for the first time the most untraditional puppets of all— his insane-humorous cardboard figures for "legend wayang", created especially for the performance of Batak folktales.

The two dominant contributors to the exhibition were the most senior artists still living. Sukasman (51) is a master of the wild and modern imagination who more and more has adopted the philosophy and elements of the classical idiom, creating a strong and elegant synthesis. Furthermore, he has pushed his shadowy actors into a world beyond light and dark: Painting his figures with poster colors, which are transparent when light is shone through them, Sukasman’s wayang figures move across the screen in luminous colors. He also employed two dalang (puppet masters), one in front of and one behind the screen, narrating in Indonesian instead of in Javanese.

Less elegant, more literal and wide ranging in his themes and styles, branching into history, everyday life, animal tales as well as traditional wayang was Ledjar Subroto (50). With his Sultan Agung wayang, commissioned by the Westfriest Museum in Hoorn, Holland, he presented a cartoonish panorama of early 17th century Java, complete with Dutch barons, officials and their wives in splendid Renaissance costumes. One delightful figure showed a delegation of 6 blue-eyed Dutchmen seated in audience, one of them smoking a cigar.

In his wayang Kancil, Ledjar Subroto has recreated the well-known folktales about the quick and clever little mousedeer that manages to outwit all the fierce and hungry carnivores of the jungle. Both this zoological gallery as well as Ledjar’s rich gallery of people and types in his "life environment wayang" are vigorously carved portraits, located between cartoon and caricature— a modern Javanese answer to animated film.

At the Wayang performance marking the closing of the exhibition August 14th, Purna Budaya’s theater was filled with an audience consisting of young and old Indonesians as well as an unusually large number of foreigners. The reason was that the narration was going to be in Indonesian, and that it was a performance of Sukasman’s wayang which is more accessible to a non-Javanese audience, both at home and abroad. Furthermore, his visual idioms are more up-to-date, as is the pace of the performance, where the long dialogues have been cut down and the action emphasized.

The audience waited in anticipation before a stage filled with gamelan instruments and an unusual-looking screen. On each side of the screen, which was not as wide as traditional screens, beautifully carved elephant heads in profile, with trunks undulating upwards, framed the white surface which soon would become a window onto another realm. At the top of the side-panels framing the screen, delicate peacocks in carved leather, dancing in a circular space stood out in silhouette against the stage-light.

The musicians and singers arrive, wearing traditional Javanese clothing. The two dalang arrived, one to disappear behind the screen, the other to take his seat before the screen, back to audience, and proceed to attach his kris to his waist-sash. After organizing his puppets, he opened the performance to a burst of music by moving two unpainted gunungan across the screen— pale leather against a pale screen— when from behind the screen a carved, round moon-shape appeared as a sharp black shadow-outline, but from its center grew a glowing blue light, which grew into a tunnel engulfing our vision, leading the audience through it into a mythical time and space.