Monday, January 17, 2011

Yogya, the Mural-hearted City

originally published in Jakarta Java Kini, 2007

Since the 1990s, visual artists in Yogyakarta have worked on creating murals throughout the city. Although in the beginning, mural emerged sporadically, since 1997 a group called Apotik Komik, which consisted of Samuel Indratma, Bambang Toko Wicaksono, Arie Diyanto and Popok Tri Wahyudi, started to look at their work on the city’s walls as an art project that can contribute to the city’s community.
    Starting the year 2000, the group worked on a wall beside the house of one of the artists in the group, Samuel Indratma, and later they looked for more spaces for the expression, particularly walls that were neglected. “The facilities were readily available since many of Yogya’s walls were not maintained well and some were even dilapidated, so we thought, there is space for our work,” explained Samuel.
    “In the beginning, we did not even call it mural, as we were not aware of the term,” told Arie Diyanto. “We called it simply, ‘comic for walls’!” he reminisced. “Our aim was essentially to decorate the city,” explained Bambang ‘Toko’ Wicaksono. “In the end, it became a forum that is able to gather people in the government who were so bureaucratic, architects who are so idealistic, and artists who wanted to be free to express themselves,” he added.
    Certainly the efforts of the mural artists were not always met with a positive response. Some people liked it, some people do not quite get it. Gudeg vendor Sunarto thought that the murals seemed to make the city appear dirty, especially since he did not understand what was being painted. Yet, he was open minded enough to realize that perhaps the younger people would understand. By contrast, becak driver Mardi thought that the murals really rejuvenated the city and was amazed at the visual likeness of the figures in the paintings to real human beings.
    The legality of the creation of murals certainly is an issue with which some artists have to deal. Many murals were done by “bombing” a wall during the night time, just like a guerilla attack. When visual artist Tatang wanted to strike on a site not far from the Yogya station, the security guards noticed, fired some shot into the air, but the young men could escape. However, when they tried to return not long thereafter, they were ambushed and the six artists in Tatang’s team were caught.
    Creating murals might of course be considered vandalism, but according to Samuel Indratma, the corporations using posters can be seen as greater vandals. He questions what the community benefits from the posters. “To be sure, the community does not get anything intellectually from the posters,” he said. Indeed, corporate posters can also be seen as making people become more consumptive, if anything.
    Mahatmanto, an architect and critical observer of urban issues, sees the murals are able to contribute to the community. He sees the potential of murals in forming the identity of a community. If people in the community and the artists are able to work together on the creation of murals, it can make people feel more at home in their community. Artists need to adopt a public strategy that would make the residents of the city participate in the process, which would them feel more comfortable and be able to better enjoy their city.
Living near a dam that extends through seven community groups, artist Eko Nugroho proposed a project to paint a mural on the walls of the dam. The community offered a positive response and even wanted to participate. Finally the project was approved and the district head provided some funds for the project, which was primarily used to buy paints.
    One of the residents offered the artists a modest amount of money if they would also paint his house. When he was asked what he wanted them to paint, the man told them that he sold dawet  (a kind of dessert that uses rice pudding immersed in a syrup drink of palm sugar or cendol as it is known in Jakarta) and perhaps they could paint something with a message telling people that they accept orders too. When the artists finished painting, the man’s wife thanked them for the nice picture, but expressed her complaint as well: she said that when selling dawet, she never wore a kebaya and sarong costume as was portrayed in the picture!
    In any case, she accepted the mural in front of her home anyhow, and now it is part of Yogya’s numerous murals that has turned Yogyakarta into a “Mural-hearted” City.

This article is heavily based on the interviews compiled in the Jogja Berhati Mural video produced by C Cinema. Copies of the DVD can be ordered from IVAA (Indonesian Visual Arts Archive, a non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation of Indonesian visual arts, based in Yogyakarta). Contact  HYPERLINK "" for futher details.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sudjojono Sketched, I Tweet

This is the original version of an article published in the December 2010 edition of Now! Jakarta
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

I was invited to present my research on the Indonesian pioneer modern artist Sudjojono for the launch on a new book about his sketches in Bandung, at the end of October. The most efficient way to get to Bandung, was to take what is popularly known as “executive limousines”. I would not have to get stressed out with the traffic, and so I could either nap a little bit, or do what seems to be my favorite pastime of late: tweet!
Yes, I tweet, and I don’t only tweet a bit, I tweet about 50 tweets a day, or about two tweets an hour. What do I tweet, you would ask. Well, I mostly tweet my thoughts and observations. Anything that comes to mind because of what I see during the two-hour ride to Bandung, I would tweet. I would tweet about the interesting designs of the new bridges crossing the toll road. I would tweet about what anything I observed about the rest stops along the toll road. I would tweet about the old rail road structures and bridges that could be seen from some parts of the toll road. I would tweet about how strange the Cipularang toll system was, as they needed to provide a booth where riders were required to exchange toll cards.
Twitter lets people share their thoughts, observations or even any information, joke, anger, or even random comments with anyone who care to follow and hence “listen” to them. The followers and/or other people can respond to those tweets in any way they want. I often find that people’s responses to my tweets helps me develop my thoughts. That’s what I like most about twitter.
The book “Sang Ahli Gambar: Sketsa, Gambar dan Pemikiran Sudjojono”, (“The Drawing Specialist: Sketches, Drawings and Thoughts of Sudjojojono”) written by Aminudin TH Siregar, was auspiciously launched on Youth Pledge Day, October 28th, 2010, at Bandung’s Institute of Technology (ITB). A select number of Sudjojono’s sketches and drawings were also exhibited at ITB’s Soemardja Gallery.
My book on the artist, entitled “S. Sudjojono, Visible Soul”, published in 2006, included about 400 of the master’s paintings. In the new book, over 200 sketches and drawings were elegantly reproduced. I have seen and studied many of the sketches when I did my research on for “Visible Soul”, but taking another look at them all compiled in a single book, made me realize what they meant in the oeuvre of the artist. While the paintings tended to be the artist’s finished, final product, the sketches and drawings revealed much of his artistic process and thoughts.
Over 30 of the sketches were studies that Sudjojono had done as part of his research to complete the monumental mural about Sultan Agung’s attack on Batavia which he did for the Jakarta Historical Museum on Taman Fatahillah. Prior to the Museum’s inauguration in 1974, he did various studies on the subject matter, and even spent time in museums and libraries in the Netherlands to study the psychological and philosophical aspects of the events around the attack, as well as various aspects of the way of life, particularly dressing and grooming, also architecture, social interaction and even fighting and warfare.
Through these sketches, we know that the artist had a thorough understanding about the differences in small details of the head attire of the Sultan’s troops, as he also did about the differences about the various kinds of sleeves and pantalons in the costumes of the colonial forces. Apparent from the sketches was that the artist went through quite a number of studies before coming up with the final composition of the war scene in the mural.
The artist often made sketches as studies, especially when we worked larged sized paintings or reliefs. When he did monumental paintings, sometimes he would use a grid system as a means to transfer the composition from the study drawing to the painting. This is apparent in his paintings entitled “Indonesia Tanah Airku, Tanah Tumpah Darahku” (“Indonesia My Country”) (1964), or “Achirnya Kita Menang Djuga” (“Finally, We Win”) (1966), “Orang-orang Mengambil Air” (“The Water Collectors”) and other sketches for reliefs.
Other than monumental reliefs, from the sketches and drawings, it is clear that Sudjojono also had several ideas for free standing statues, including the “Penakluk Alam” (“Conqueror of Nature”) statue (1958), which he conceived for the Cikalong dam. the “Wanita Pelempar Peluru” (“Female Shotputter”) (1961) which he conceived to be placed for the Kebayoran Electricity Station, built for the 1962 Asian Games. In the notes it seemed that he had received commission for the work from Prof. Dr. Sedyatmo, who was at the time the head of the Planning Bureau of the State Electricity Company. Several sketches and drawings also reveal that ince 1960 Sudjojono had been working on the Monumen Selamat Datang (“Monument of Welcome”) for the 1962 Asian Games which featured an atheletic couple, man and woman, dressed in sports attire. While the man and woman are posed in various gestures and poses, they both seem to carry flowers in their hands, so as to extend a warm and festive welcome.
The sketches often reveal the artist’s thoughts that do not appear in the refined, finished fine art work. The extensive notes that are written in some sketches of landscapes often provide tremendous insight into the commissioning, the discussions, thoughts and ideas that pertain to the painting, and reveal the working process of the art piece. Far too often, these notes are omitted from the final painting. leaving a beautiful painting, but devoid of the thinking and deliberations that the artist went through in its creation. Fortunately, a good number of the sketches have been salvaged to provide us with a different side of Sudjojono, a side that has been until now, neglected.
Rose Pandanwangi, Sudjojono’s beloved wife was a diva who continuously became the Radio Republik Indonesia’s “Radio Star”. As he was so enamored by his wife, he would take her to the radio station’s studio every time she had a rehearsal. Some sketches also show that he conceived or at least thought about some stage designs for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly Opera, in which Rose starred. Another sketch also showed the artist’s ideas for new awards or trophies for the Radio Star title.
Even when Sudjojono was not thinking about things as important as stage designs or trophies or awards, as he was waiting for Rose as she had her rehearsals, the artist would make sketches of anything he found interesting: the interior of the recording studio, the large television camera on a movable tripod, or even the vehicles in the parking lot, or the carriages and even attire of the street vendors around the area.
No wonder Sudjojono paints his plants and vegetation so masterfully. He made various study sketches of the plants in order to comprehend their structure, shapes and even colors. Among the sketches, there are renderings and studies of banana, mango and coconut trees. He even meticulously studied the parts of bamboo shoots.
As all these sketches of observations were so interesting, I wanted to share them with my twitter followers. When I took pictures of them I realized something: if Sudjojono were alive today, he would probably be tweeting all his observations instead of rendering them in his sketchbook. All the small details that he sketched were in a sense tweets of the past.
Taking that thought into account, the hundreds of sketches that have been compiled in this wonderful book, became so much more valuable to me. They not only provided wonderful insights the artistic process of a great artist, but also became priceless real artifacts that recorded a part of history. The sketches allowed us to know many things about what happened twenty five to over fifty years ago. Last but not least, the book also made me think: what will happen to our knowledge of the history and art of today in another fifty years?
Amir Sidharta