Djoko Pekik: A painter of expressive empathy (1989)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 15 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, on 27 February 1989, p. 6.

Djoko Pekik’s work is unique in the painting world of Indonesia in the 1980s, both in regards to subject matter as well as to style.

Djoko Pekik paints what moves him, he says, and what moves him is the plight of those millions of Indonesians who are living under difficult circumstances, in regions infertile from century-old deforestation, erosion and overpopulation, where work other than farming is scarce and the livelihood the land can offer more than meager. People and landscapes are Djoko Pekik’s major themes— depicted in bleak tones dominated by moss-green, black, ocher and cream, enlivened here and there by a deep red or blue.

Here, in other words, is a painter who is neither painting pleasant, decorative landscapes and still lifes nor harmonious, bright-colored abstracts, who is not copying old mythological symbols or signs in paint without integrating into anything new, appropriate to new times and a new media, nor is he painting Balinese fishing boats, dancers, ceremonies or cock fights, which only the very greatest of Indonesian painters at times have succeeded in raising above the level of tourist painting.

Contrary, then, to mainstream Indonesian painting, which is harmonious and pretty and, seen as a whole, escapist in the sense that such a large part of everyday Indonesian reality is never depicted, in Djoko Pekik’s canvases we see and feel the hardship of the poor: The people who live in the depressed and infertile mountain areas along the southern coast of Central Java; unemployed rural men seeking work in the alienating city; the loneliness and fatigue of becak drivers and night watchmen and [women] carrying meager supplies for miles on end, to and from distant markets.

Apart from his unusual choice of subject matter, Djoko Pekik’s style is a highly personal expressionism not seen in any other schools or individual painters in Indonesia today. He treats the oil paints almost as watercolors, diluting them with ample oil and sweeping them across the canvas in broad, wet strokes. Here he has taken one of Affandi’s techniques, expanded upon it and made it his own. The difference is that Affandi’s use of highly diluted oils was done as a complement to his high impasto of oil squeezed straight from the tube, and it is the latter technique which is most immediately associated with Affandi. Furthermore, Affandi used his hands to smear the oil onto the canvas, while Djoko uses wide brushes.

This “wet” technique demands that Djoko Pekik work quickly and indeed, most of his paintings he finishes in a single sitting. Once the canvas is dry, he feels he cannot continue, because he will not get the desired effect. Thus, he spends a lot of time thinking about his subject matter and planning his paintings, whereupon he travels far and wide into the countryside along the mountainous coast on a racing bike, often carrying as much as six canvases on his back (“Sometimes these canvases get caught by the wind and suddenly my bike is like a boat with sails!” he laughs, rolling the ever-present cigarette between his fingers). Once he has found what he is looking for, the painting itself goes quickly, as long as he is not interrupted.

Djoko Pekik’s theme
Besides religious and mythological themes, the life of the working people has for millennia been one major theme of artists’ work throughout the world, often integrated into their panoramas of society, commissioned by the wealthy, the nobles, the rulers, and the powerful.

For the longest time it was the lives of the wealthy that was the focus, but the working people were as often as not included— the artist was supposed to depict the universe as a whole, in all its aspects and dimensions. More often than not, the secular and the sacred were not separated, either in art or in life; neither were high and low levels of the cosmic hierarchy— each was seen as an essential, ordered part to the whole.

Think of the rows and rows of slaves carrying food to the royal Egyptian banquet or the slaves working the pharaoh’s fields. Think of the farmers ploughing fields and planting rice in Chinese stone reliefs from the Han dynasty, or the hundreds of soldiers, from cavalry and archers to footmen, depicted in the heat of battle and in various stages of dying on the reliefs of Greek or Kampuchean temples. Think of the heavyset, hardworking farmers in the paintings by Pieter Breughel, possibly the first painter in the history of art to devote himself almost entirely to the life of the common farmer at work and at play, and that with a sharply journalistic as well as allegorical eye for truthful, realistic detail.

Throughout the centuries, and especially after the industrial revolution, the nature of work changed; so did the lives and hence also the image of workers. Roads, railroads, urban construction, mines and factories— especially the mushrooming factories— became the new work places. With the development of unprecedented social realities, new forms of thought and art developed as well. In all the European nations, as later in nations throughout the world, artists emerged who wanted to implement new ideas about democracy and social contract; artists who through their art wanted to bring about the necessary awareness of unprecedented social realities, in order to bridge the gap between the high and the low in society and create a better reality for all.

Some artists believed that art could be an active tool in reshaping society and set about to expose the poverty and inequality of the factories and the slums; other artists merely painted what they saw because it moved them so deeply they could not refuse. And besides the lives of the new classes of industrial and urban workers, the ancient themes of the farmer, the soldier and the victims of war remained important throughout: Think of Francisco Goya; think of Vincent van Gogh’s Potato eaters; think of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

Also in Indonesia there have been painters whose favorite theme was the life of the common people. The most notable of these is of course Affandi, who never lost his respect for the hard work of the farmer and the fisherman, and the late Hendra Gunawan, who never tired of painting guerilla-fighters taking a cigarette break in the midst of fighting the revolution or sensual women walking to market, selling vegetables on the beach, or dressing each others’ hair, always with a suckling infant at the breast. Hendra’s vision of Indonesia is a colorful, romantic image of the fertile, good land and a celebration of a resilient people who work, inter-relate and survive intensely.

Another notable painter who takes the life of the people as his main theme, is Sudjana Kerton, who with humor and caricature depicts everyday scenes of street singers, becak drivers and farmers— without romanticizing them and without becoming too sweetly narrative, as the late Rustamadji tended to. Of the younger generation, only one or two painters have marked themselves as moved by these topics, most notably [Dede Eri Supria], whose favorite theme is the common people recently arrived from the villages of Java, trying to shape a life in the alienating urban environment of Jakarta, depicted in a photorealistic style tinged with surrealism.

All of the above painters have received a good amount of exposure in recent years, either from private collectors and art students or through public exhibitions. Djoko Pekik, on the other hand, who must be placed with this group of painters in terms of subject matter and originality, has hardly had exposure to the public at all.

Djoko Pekik, who has painted in isolation since he started studying at ASRI in Yogya thirty years ago, has supported his family of eight children by selling lurik woven on handlooms by old women in the areas of central Java where he also finds many of the motifs for his paintings. The choice of this as a livelihood illustrates how Djoko Pekik’s daily work and artistic work and ideals intersect and complement each other. Each of these aspects of his life form an integrated whole, based on a deep respect for tradition and work as well as a system of aesthetics, which no longer is paid much attention to, and which is rapidly becoming obsolete with the spread of machine made textiles.

The situation has spurred Djoko Pekik’s efforts to find out something about the history and meaning of lurik from the old women who still make it and spread an awareness about this art form, which has such deep roots in the working and clothing traditions of rural people, among students of textiles, art and the public in general. He has assisted in the writing of a thesis on the subject and he organized an exhibition of lurik at Taman Ismail Marzuki in March of 1987.

Speaking about this strong, striped cloth in his tiny but well-decorated shop in Jl. Wirobrajan in Yogyakarta, Djoko Pekik waxes enthusiastic: “Look at this piece”. He holds up a beautiful cloth striped in shades of blues, green and purples, juxtaposed brilliantly at asymmetric intervals along the length of the cloth. “This kind of work is done by old women who are illiterate, some of them almost blind! And they never make two of the same— they refuse to mass produce or take orders.” Pieces as good as this Djoko, in turn, refuses to sell; they go into his personal collection of lurik art.

”And did you know that the various combinations of stripes and colors all have specific meanings like this one with a stripe down the middle, named pass-me-by, is used to carry a baby whose older and younger siblings have both died and who therefore needs special protection; this cloth is considered powerful and protective enough to tell misfortune to pass this baby by.”

“And did you know that the lurik setagen they used to wrap around the waist of the women in the Paku Alam kraton was 21 meters long! Once you had wrapped a woman tightly in that, she looked as straight-backed and slender as a coconut palm, even if she had been fat to start out with!” Djoko Pekik laughs so his goatee quivers and his eyes glint behind round glasses, the cigarette already on its way to his mouth.

Djoko Pekik’s paintings
And it is this deep respect and empathy for the people who continue to work and survive, even with the odds of modern life against them, which emerges in Djoko Pekik’s paintings. Like lurik itself, his paintings are strong and simple: Simple figures in strong outlines set in simple, strong compositions. Like the colors of lurik, his colors are low tone and earthy; and like the repeated stripes in the cloth, his figures occur mostly in groups, in a choreographed repetition of rhythmic movement. The individual is not the focus of Djoko Pekik’s work.

Lurik does not have the splendor and luxuriousness of motif and color that so often characterizes batik or other types of intricate Indonesian textiles; Djoko Pekik’s painting are not frivolous or joyful. They are not humoristic, as Sudjana Kerton’s are, or romantically suffused with life affirming images of popular invincability and fertility, as Hendra Gunawan’s are. Djoko Pekik’s paintings are suffused with the pathos and struggle of living in a way often seen in the German expressionists, for example in Kathe Kollwitz, but his way is unquestionably and uniquely rooted in his own experience and a part of the Indonesian reality.

Above all, Djoko Pekik’s paintings are not sentimental or glorifying depictions of the small people; he also depicts the moral depravity that exists, as in his two canvases of the gambling and sexual liberties that take place on Gunung Kemuku. His compelling form of expression captures something more real than a realistic style often does; it captures the essence of an experience and not just its outer forms— an essence which transcends any didactic or ideological dimension.

Yet Djoko Pekik’s work is not all gloom: In a beautiful long canvas painted as a monumental frieze, he depicts the moment before the birth of his seventh child: We see Djoko himself, surrounded by six children, all looking towards a highly pregnant woman who sits facing them, dressed in a long red robe. Depicted as a larger-than-life figure that recalls personifications of mother earth, she is approached by the youngest of the six children, who embraces and kisses her ballooning womb where number seven, as yet unseen, is preparing for his moment of entry into this world.

And this world is what Djoko Pekik’s paintings are all about. Therefore it is high time that his canvases are now finally finding their way into the same world where their subjects live and breathe, and where there is an audience to be moved by them, in the way Djoko Pekik himself is.

Forty five of Djoko Pekik’s paintings will be on view at a Jakarta gallery some time during May of this year.