Hilda Soemantri in Victoria, British Columbia (1998)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 27 April 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post on 24 May 1998 with the title "Victoria’s peaks inspire pioneer Hilda".

Hilda Soemantri holds a long list of "firsts".

One is that she is the first Asian scholar to be Orion Program Artist-in-Residence, an exchange program at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria.

It is the second time in two years that Hilda Soemantri has spent the spring semester in the province dubbed "Beautiful British Columbia". This time, with only one course to teach, she is freer to concentrate on her own raku clay sculpture.

With its salmon-packed rivers, snow-capped mountains and once dense forests, now gradually disappearing into the world’s paper and saw mills, the environment is still very different than the metropolitan urban setting of Hilda Soemantri’s native Jakarta.

At home, she is best known as a senior faculty member and contributing artist at the Jakarta Art Institute.

With the distinction of being the first Indonesian woman sculptor to have a solo exhibition of her work (1978), it is possible that she is also the first woman artist in the history of modern Indonesian art to exhibit her work solo.

This distinction is all the more remarkable when one thinks how rare a medium ceramic sculpture is compared with painting. An awareness of clay as an aesthetic medium and not just a functional one is in its very infancy in Indonesia, where the appreciation of oil painting began in the early 20th century.

She is also the first Indonesian woman to hold a doctorate in art history, obtained from Cornell University.

Hilda Soemantri’s dissertation on the ceramics of the former Majapahit kingdom in Java has just been published in Indonesia. And as of April 3 this year, Hilda made art history as the first modern Indonesian artist known to have a solo exhibition in Canada.

The event follows the groundbreaking introduction of contemporary Asian art to Canada with the Traditions / Tensions exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in April 1996.

Here, American and Canadian art audiences became acquainted with the work of five Indonesian artists: Dadang Christanto, Heri Dono, Nindityo Adipurnomo, F.X. Harsono and Arahmaiani. These all belong to the younger generation of artists who have adopted installation as their main medium since the early 1990s.


American curators have yet to embrace the historical and more broadly representative presentation of modern Indonesian art attempted by the Festival of Indonesia curators in 1990-1991.

Hilda Soemantri’s art represents a pure sculptural tradition steeped in the sensibilities of a more senior generation of artists, whose work continues to change according to her own rhythm and not according to ephemeral art world fashions.

While a few group presentations of modern Indonesian art have been held in North America in the last nine years, it appears that Hilda Soemantri is the first Indonesian during this time to have a solo exhibition on the continent.

In 1990, the Affandi exhibition was in Washington DC, and several exhibitions by Sudjana Kerton in the New York and Connecticut area were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like Affandi and Sudjana Kerton, Hilda Soemantri’s show from March 26 to April 3 had works inspired by both her native and foreign perspectives.

Hilda Soemantri, Indonesia’s first professional and foremost ceramic artist, works in raku clay and glazes combined with mixed media.

She exhibited work created in Victoria in the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery at University of Victoria.

While her work from the 1970s and 1980s was abstract and conceptual, work created in the few previous months shows several important departures. It is more narrative, less abstract and incorporates other media than clay.

Inspired by the physical reality of snowy mountain ranges of the West Coast married to the symbolic, spiritual meaning of mountains in Indonesia, Hilda Soemantri also incorporates handmade fibers and branches of the arbutus tree into some of the works.

Coming from a metropolis of 10 million people, this is the first time nature was such a prevalent theme in her work.

“Actually, you were the one who pointed out to me the beauty of the arbutus tree’s twigs,” Hilda told me.

"I use them here not so much as a marker of a specific place, but more for their formal qualities."

Flat slabs of porous, grainy raku clay in various organic shapes lay or hang in the centre of the gallery. The slabs are orchestrations of earthen, smoky nuances alternating with rainbow iridescence.

The clay has been fired in earthen pits with burning hay. The firing has turned the glazed and unglazed clay surfaces into matte and shiny patterns, smoke and fire teasing out the hidden colours of different mineral solutions in ways that the artist can only partly envision beforehand and control during the process.

Each slab is shaped in such a way as to be neither geometric nor amorphous, with echoes of both types.

Roundish or oval-like, squarish or rectangle-like, each piece is set against a plaque of grainy, stained wood or handmade, roughly textured paper.

The clay surface has been pierced, cut into, layered, or folded back while wet, the fired product retaining the memory of moist plasticity and the interaction between human hand and liquid soil.


Seven of the 15 pieces exhibited were named Gunungan (Cosmic Mountain). These pieces are less abstract than the others, hovering between relief sculpture and clay paintings of landscapes. These depict the outlines of mountain ranges, with peaks rising over sleekly descending angles, one behind the next. In the small space of a few square inches of clay, the impression of vast distances of wilderness of a sky is conveyed.

In Gunungan I, the blue outline of the glazed clay peak is continued into the background, where blue handmade paper creates the rest of the mountain against white paper.

“One thing that impressed me about Victoria was the mountains, they are very impressive, visible across the waters. I didn’t grow up with an awareness of mountains— Jakarta is so busy, many tall buildings, so much pollution”, Hilda Soemantri said. “You have to go out into the Bogor area to see the mountains."

"I think there is a difference between the mountains here and the mountains in Indonesia. Here I was impressed with the real forms of the mountains, but in Indonesia, it is more the symbolic nature of the mountains that impresses me", she said.

"Somehow I cannot put the two together, the real and the symbolic, though in my work they are mixed.”

Hilda Soemantri’s works of 1998 are neither real portraits of mountains nor completely symbolic ones. “That’s why I named them Cosmic mountains”, the artist said.

While the works she created in Victoria in 1996 (exhibited in Jakarta in December 1997) all had titles like Postcard from Victoria, the recent works marked a step towards a more universal aesthetic statement, in this sense linking her earlier abstract work.

With this exhibition, Hilda Soemantri demonstrated once again that her relationship with clay is a direct and intimate one for her, not muddled by intellectual processes until the work is nearly done.

In contrast to many others in the post-conceptual era of art, this artist never starts with an idea of what she wants to make.

She lets the feel of the clay, the physical act of working it soft, and the particular texture of the moment in time determine its shape. Only afterwards do her thoughts enter into the process, particularly at the point of naming the piece.

Hilda Soemantri’s ceramic sculpture of the last two years shows a maturity of artistic vision already present in her earlier work.

What is new, compared to her work of the 1980s, is the higher degree of exquisite sensuality in textures and form, a far greater complexity in composition and idea, and a willingness to be more narrative.

The stringent, purist simplicity of earlier work has yielded to a controlled richness in dialogue between many layers of clay and glaze, and between clay and other materials.

The incorporation of paper and wood constitutes a new inclusiveness: in addition to earth processed by fire, more natural elements are present.

While Hilda Soemantri’s use of gold leaf is not new in her work, here it is no longer hidden in dry cracks of clay. It is used in greater abundance, as rich, abundant rectangular fields or as golden skies.

With the image of the mountain, the delicate framing, the use of soft and more ephemeral materials (like the batik slendang draped through one pieces) along with hard, more lasting ones, Hilda Soemantri’s recent work incorporates philosophical dimensions that are both universally contemporary as well as complementary to ancient Javanese traditions.

In short, her present work evokes a new and richer world of identity, pleasure and mastery of formal elements that embraces experimentation. Her work has achieved the tension of simultaneous arrival and departure, where pure abstraction and narrative concept keep each other in perfect balance.