Mella Jaarsma & Nindityo Adipurnomo (1990)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 19 January 2012
This article was previously published in theJakarta Post, on 28 May 1990, p. 8., with the title "Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo: 2 artists, 2 bridges, 1 world".

Mella Jaarsma & Nindityo Adipurnomo

The forces of history roll ahead, leading men and women into the unknown; the lives of people and nations turn out in ways that could not have been predicted. But the unknown of time and space has become a smaller entity than it once was, and more men and women choose to make foreign people, customs and ways of thought familiar parts of their lives.

There are not yet many of them who seek out the other as a respected equal, but there are some. There are some men who realize a woman is the embodiment of the microcosm in as much as they are, and there are some Westerners who realize that Asia was not created to be their kingdom or playground on earth. And there are some artists who realize that modern art cannot be copyright-owned by a few cities in the Western hemisphere. This article is about the art of two people who are unusual in all the above-mentioned ways.

The reductionist notion that contemporary painting in Haiti, China, Brazil or Indonesia is merely derivative of Western art has as much truth to it as the idea that European civilization originated in China. When the Dutch first came to Indonesia, they were struck by its beauty and only gradually did the economic and bureaucratic-military system that facilitated the European rape of the land come into place.

In the wake of Dutch government officials and bureaucrats, in place by the mid-nineteenth century, came the artists— Dutch painters who travelled the volcanic islands, capturing the dramatic-exotic scenery on canvases which were bought by home-bound colonizers, nostalgic for the vistas of the land and people that had served them so well during their stay. And the first native painter of stature, a Javanese prince, toured the courts of Europe, amazing everyone with his exquisite refinement, easy mastery of languages and superb painterly skills. He became bored with life upon his return to his native land which he found backward.

A hundred years later, a Dutch woman named Mella Jaarsma is deeply involved with things Indonesian, but is not painting "Beautiful Indies" pictures. And a Javanese man named Nindityo Adipurnomo is interested in the art and thought of the West, but is not rejecting his own culture.

The circumstances of history might have caused Indonesia and Holland to be cut off from each other, poised as enemies after their goals emerged as undeniably separate in the early decades of the twentieth century. Fortunately, artists have often risen above the schisms wrought by the wars and exploitation of power holders. Even as the Indonesian nation in 1945 was proclaiming its independence from Dutch colonial rule, Dutch cultural organizations were offering scholarships for art studies to promising young Indonesian artists, some of them ex-guerrillas. In this way the relationship between the two parts of the world was continued, though on a different basis.

And today a true marriage of opposites does, at times, take place. Old boundaries and definitions are blasted away, new ones are put in their place, and the comings and goings between the self and the other have the potential of becoming a mutually fertilizing, growth-enhancing dialectic. Many areas of modern Western art today owe as much to African and Asian art as areas of non-western art owe to the West.

Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo have been attracting attention ever since they first exhibited together in the Netherlands in 1987, first in the Garardus van der Leeuw Museum of Anthropology in Groningen and then in the Museum of the Tropics in Amsterdam. They have been highly visible both in Yogyakarta, where they, since February 1988, have run Central Java’s most active and best-organized art gallery, and in the nation’s capital since December 1988, when they had their first joint exhibition in the Dutch Cultural Center in Jakarta. They are currently exhibiting their works at the Mitra Budaya Gallery at Jl. Tanjung 34, in Central Jakarta through May 31.

Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo combine highly individual approaches to their separate spheres of art production with the ability, as partners, to seek out contexts, activities and ideas that inspire them both and which at times result in collaborative work. They share a fascination both with local and with international cultural expression, and like modern artists elsewhere, they see the inherent contradictions in this bifocal approach as sources of dynamic growth rather than as problems of logic.

The paths of these two young artists, crossed when Mella Jaarsma came to study painting as an exchange student at the Indonesian Institute of Art in Yogyakarta in 1985. A year later, Nindityo Adipurnomo got a scholarship to study art in the Netherlands for a year, after which Mella returned with him to Yogya as his wife, to continue their respective artistic careers in a small house nestled in the outer palace city, between the Sultan’s court and the Taman Sari Water Castle.

Embodying the notion that human beings see themselves and their culture better through a process of comparing and contrasting, Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo distinguish themselves among young Indonesian artists by their willingness to talk about the often complex ideas that inspire their art. Cemeti Gallery, a meeting place for young Indonesian and foreign artists, is a natural extension of the personal voyages they embarked upon when they met.

The work of these two artists cannot be classified as visual exploration for the sake of formal qualities alone. Their work is about something beyond its own existence as compilations and reworkings of matter. Each of the artists has created a personal language of symbols concerning life and spirituality. In different ways, they both search into questions about the material world and the immaterial, consciousness and the subconscious, movement and stasis. Death and dance are central themes in the work of both Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo.

Mella Jaarsma, coming from the West where the social and moral emphasis is on the individual, and where social etiquette prescribing the individual’s behavior is both less strict and generally less observed than in Java, was struck by the different quality of life in Java. From the beginning of her stay there, she tried to give artistic form to these differences in a visual language.

Body posture and movement through the space surrounding the body, which in Java is not seen as belonging to the realm of the private, in Mella Jaarsma’s work becomes significant on the level of symbolic action, pointing to a process of spiritual development. Thus in her work we see a fascination with Indonesian ritual arts like wayang (shadow puppet theater), dance, the seated postures of shared time and food, and most recently, the contrasts between the living and the dead. Her fascination with the human figure as a vehicle for spiritual potential runs through all of her work at different levels of abstraction.

Nindityo Adipurnomo, who sprang from community-oriented Javanese life, where each person’s business is mostly everybody else’s business as well, and concepts of privacy take on more internal shades of meaning, and where the individual is mainly seen in terms of his / her part played in the overall picture, is searching in the direction of a Western-inspired individualism to create a synthesis with his own roots.

Writing about the process in Javanese culture by which an individual’s emotions get suppressed by social requirements, Nindityo Adipurnomo says: "The clods of emotion that get buried in this way are the basic force that pushes me to dig deeply into and vomit up my individual, personal values in my art." In his art his fascination with themes from Javanese mythology and their relevance to his own psychological / spiritual make-up and development, is clear.

Contrast and synthesis are key ideas to the understanding of the work of Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo— an understanding one develops after the initial, purely visual encounter and communication with their art. While Mella’s work is lighter, cooler, more intellectually controlled and the presence of the idea behind it is stronger, Nindityo’s work is hotter, denser, the connection to the emotions more clear.

The art of Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo have common roots, combining in different ways traditions of European modernism and Javanese life. Their stylistic choices, with echoes of among others, Kandinsky, Schlemmer and de Kooning, as well as traditional Indonesian arts, spring not from external copying, but rather from the similarity of “inner mood”, ideals, sympathies and affinities that Kandinsky writes of in his influential essay On the spiritual in art (1912). The interest in mysticism of many early twentieth century abstract artists in Europe, documented in the 1986 Los Angeles County Museum exhibition The Spiritual in art: Abstract painting 1890-1985 centered around ideas compatible with major themes in Javanese spirituality, such as laws of duality and correspondence and the idea of [synthesis], the overlapping of sense-perceptions, where for example color is seen as music visualized. Most immediately, the art of Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo springs out of the extensive and intricately interwoven partnership their married, daily, and artistic lives constitute.

It is inevitable that two artists living and working so closely should influence each other, but it is clear that these two artists also challenge and give each other the space to grow and search separately into their own private selves. It is therefore impossible to say, from looking at their work, who influences the other more or to see any direct formal links other than a creative use of many different types of materials and an urge to break up the rectangular and two-dimensional format of the canvas

From the work of these two artists it becomes clear that Indonesia, with its rich web of sub-cultures, can offer something to artists and the artistic process which may no longer be found in Europe. An organic-holistic worldview where, at its best the imaginative is wedded to the rational, and an original, still dynamic practice of nature-based spirituality is visualized.