Sudjana Kerton at the Mexican Embassy, Jakarta (2000)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 23 February 2012
This article first appeared in the Jakarta Post on 8 June 2000, p. 6, with the title "Modern master drawings Indonesian style: Sudjana".

Residents and visitors to Jakarta can now see an exhibition of the late Sudjana Kerton’s art which is quite different from earlier exhibits in Jakarta.

Exhibited through the end of this week at the Mexican Embassy residence is a selection from last year’s major exhibition in Yogyakarta that includes drawings, watercolours, and graphic prints by the modern nationalist Indonesian painter.

In a climate where artists here are striving to figure out who they are, their identity as Indonesians in a global market (including the international art market and exhibition circuits), and how to make it economically at home during the ongoing krismon (economic crisis), this exhibition offers a different artistic profile.

In a current art culture where painting as a medium has become heavily commercialized, and “serious contemporary artists” work in multi-media, installation and performance media, visitors to this exhibition can here see “serious”, non-commercially produced works on paper and on canvas.

At a time when many Indonesian artists are desperately trying to learn how to work within the commercial gallery system in Indonesia’s largest cities, here are works that was created without the thought of how they would be sold, but created with other, larger goals in mind. This historical perspective is once again an issue of relevance to Indonesians and Indonesian art today.

This exhibition features several different aspects of the complex personality and biography of this important painter of the nationalist and revolutionary era. Like Affandi, Sudjojono and Hendra, Sudjana Kerton began his career in the throes of the birth of the nation, at the end of the colonial era and during the Japanese occupation.

While living in Bandung, interacting daily with Dutch residents, Sudjana Kerton also came to realize that the colonial era had to come to an end. While he counted many Dutch people among his friends, and painted portraits of many of them, he knew that history now demanded that the Dutch as a group would have to give up their power in Indonesia.

To help the colonized peoples of the archipelago achieve this end, Sudjana Kerton joined his talents with those of other artists working with the new national government of Sukarno and Hatta and he became an artist journalist, documenting in his drawings Indonesian independence efforts on the battle fields, at the negotiation table, and in secret underground government meetings.

Moving from Jakarta to Yogyakarta with the underground after the proclamation of Independence in August 1945, Sudjana spent the years leading up to 1950 there, years which were so formative both for the Indonesian nation as well as to modern Indonesian art history.

Sudjana Kerton’s work exhibited here this week spans many rich aspects, thematically, stylistically and media wise. Here are drawings, graphic works, watercolours, and oil paintings.

Furthermore, adding to this richness, the exhibition’s 45 works were made in many different geographical locations. Themes range from Indonesian drawings from the 1940s, studies of nudes and of people in public places, in Holland, France and the US in the 1950s, and several oil paintings and sketches made during a visit to Mexico in the early 1960s.

These are the works that prompted the Mexican Embassy to open their charming exhibition space to this revered Indonesian nationalist artist.

The exhibit presents works of the greatest historical value to the Indonesian nation. Here are rapidly, confidently executed pen and ink sketches. Here we encounter both people on the street, going about their lives, as well as the historical figures— Indonesian political leaders, Dutch military and colonial representatives— who made the treaties and agreements that shaped the nation.

Particularly noteworthy for their expressive line, superb composition, and handling of ink lines and blots, are a sketch of a seated soldier (a psychological portrait of weariness, perhaps mixed with reflection or memory), a river view of people bathing, the scene of a historic moment in the negotiations between Indonesian and Dutch, and a donkey before a cart.

Another body of work was made in the USA, during Sudjana Kerton’s years studying at the Art Students’ League (watercolors, graphic works, two oil paintings— cubist nude and a cat reaching for a fish). The sketch for his large mural, Tanah Airku (My Country) commissioned by the Indonesian Embassy in Holland, is a particularly richly orchestrated watercolour, no less interesting than the large original, despite its small size.

The location of the exhibition is itself interesting. It reminds us that the Indonesian artists of the 1940s and 1950s were internationally-minded people. Many of them— including Affandi and Hendra Gunawan— hoped to visit Mexico because of their great respect for Mexican artists, particularly the muralists, and their role during the Mexican revolution.

While Hendra never did have the chance, Sudjana and Affandi did visit and paint in Mexico. Two wonderful works made in Mexico can be seen at this exhibition: one drawing, a sketch of a village market scene; and an oil painting of a Mexican family. Reproductions of two other Mexican paintings are exhibited, as well.

In this exhibition, we encounter an earlier generation of Indonesian artists, who, like many of the artists today, struggle for the creation of a better nation for themselves and their compatriots, though the shape and methods of the enemy back then was different.

In this exhibition, we encounter an artist of a generation that was globally aware, politically active, and intensely involved with aesthetic and formal questions.We also have a chance to view art works of a more spontaneous and personal nature than oil paintings, which in most artists’ cases take so much longer to plan and execute than drawings.

Here are examples of a class of art works that have not yet achieved recognition in Indonesia: the nation’s Modern Masters’ Drawings.

The exhibition is showing at the Mexican Embassy Residence, Jl. Panglima Polim III, No 1-3. Hours are 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. every day, through Saturday June 10th.