Rise of the Indonesian Art Dragons

*Jakarta Globe, Nov 2011

For centuries, the international art scene has been dominated by European and American art. But with countries such as South Korea and Indonesia now entering the playing field, the hegemony of the West is slowly dissolving.

Art and money make a fine coupling, evident in the fact that trends in the art market trot close behind that of a country’s gross domestic product. In the art capitals of New York, London and Hong Kong, galleries and auction houses are now expanding their collections geographically to welcome a potential new cash cow: Asia.

Indonesia is proving to be a leader of the art world’s geographic expansion. In London, appetites were whetted for Indonesian art when the work of 17 of the country’s contemporary artists were featured in “Indonesian Eye: Fantasies & Realities” at the Saatchi gallery in September. The following month, Yogyakarta artist Heri Dono’s premiere solo show, “Madman Butterfly,” opened in London at the Rossi & Rossi gallery in Mayfair, London’s prime art district.

This month, a slew of sales are expected as international art buyers and collectors flock to the British capital for the 13th Annual International Asian Art Fair. During the 10-day event, which runs until Saturday, museums, leading art dealers and major auction houses across the city are highlighting a selection of Asian antiques and contemporary art.

The latest Indonesian arrival is the “Indonesia’s Crouching Tigers & Hidden Dragons” exhibition at ArtSpace Galleries in Mayfair, which opens today.

The show is the brainchild of Daniel Komala of One East Asia, an international art management company founded last year that aims to promote Southeast Asian art.

With British arts journalist Vivienne Lawes as his co-curator, Komala selected 25 works by 22 masters, established artists and future art icons to present a visual timeline of Indonesia’s art development from the mid-19th century to today.

Komala and Lawes explain that in art, as in life, you have to go back to the beginning to understand the end. While accepting that a country’s vast art history cannot be explained in a few dozen works, Komala stresses that a significant line of connection is still visible in the exhibition.

“At least you can see the founding fathers of Indonesia’s modern art,” Komala said. “You can see why certain artists are creating certain things today.”

Komala pointed to the examples of Bandung artist Hendra Gunawan, whose influence is discernible in the works of contemporary artist Nasirun from Cilacap, Central Java, and the work of East Javanese artist Ivan Sagita, whose precise technique can be traced back to Dutch painter W.G. Hofker.

Lawes added that context is needed to fully understand any contemporary work — something that art galleries do not always provide.

“Telling the story behind the painting and why it looks as they does, the folding of continents onto each other and the context of the art, adds another dimension to the art,” she said.

Their exhibition traces the tale of Indonesian art back to its colonial roots. In the country’s art timeline, Javanese nobleman Raden Saleh was the first and foremost figure in Indonesian art. He was followed by Hofker, who made Bali his home. Juxtaposed against one another, the work of these two pioneers makes for interesting viewing.

“The West was seen through the Eastern canon of art with Raden Saleh, while Hofker was the West looking at the East through tales of exoticism, fitting into the genre of orientalism,” Lawes said. “The challenge is to transmit Indonesian art to [British viewers], because it is not ingrained in our history.”

With “Crouching Tigers,” Lawes and Komala endeavor to cross that colonial divide and familiarize the British public with Indonesian art. Komala’s rationale is simple: London, he said, is the capital of art in Europe.

“The gods of contemporary art achieved their status in London,” he said.

However, Indonesia’s golden boy Heri Dono, who is present in all three current London exhibitions of the nation’s art, established his credibility through the non-commercial route.

“Heri is one artist you cannot escape,” Komala said. “He connects the past with the present. You can love or hate him but you cannot ignore him.”

Rossi & Rossi gallery owner Fabio Rossi said that Heri’s upward trajectory was a result of being selected by curators.

“He made it not by selling work at the market,” Rossi said. “Artists have to build up credibility and their track record, which is built in museums and by international curators. This is a more solid way into a long-lasting career.”

Heri is a name that the executive director of the Indonesian Visual Art Archive, Farah Wardani, listed as a must-have for the “Indonesian Eye” exhibit. She said that Heri, among others such as Yogyakarta artists Mella Jaarsma and Jompet Kuswidananto, were chosen not only for “their aesthetic value but their political messages as well.”

At the Rossi & Rossi gallery, 12 of Heri’s sizable paintings stand to be reckoned with. In one work, “Garuda Extraterrestrial,” the eagle of the national emblem wears earthen army tones and sports several severed limbs.

In the painting, the mythical bird is transformed into Batara Kala, the god of destruction in traditional Javanese and Balinese mythology. Currency, dominoes and guns in midair represent corruption and violence. Those familiar with Indonesia’s political history can easily decipher the social commentary behind the various objects strategically scattered over the canvas.

Komala said the challenge for any artist is to turn a local issue into a global one. “Indonesian contemporary art has that universal language in it,” he said. “People say there’s no substance, only face value. But if you understand a little bit about Indonesian culture and history, you can see it from a different perspective.”

“Indonesian Eye” curator Serenella Ciclitira believes Indonesian art has a rich palette, laden with themes and stories that reflect modern ideals. “It’s a form of storytelling and that’s what they do,” Serenella said. “They connect the national spirit and community. There’s passion and darkness, pain and a form of religion.”

Working under the oppressive Suharto regime, an opinionated artist such as Heri had to be wily in expressing his dissent. He drew from a wealth of classic and contemporary symbols, from the Hindu Mahabharata epic to George Orwell’s “1984,” from French painter Edouard Manet to cartoon animation. In “Merdeka atau Belum” (“Independent or Not Yet”), his depiction of Suharto, the “Smiling General,” is represented by an ecstatic little boy on a sofa, equipped with machine guns. His face resembles that of a grinning pig.

In Indonesian art, humor and satire have often come in handy to veil commentary. These elements also break down barriers. “Comedy is universal,” said Martin Clist, the exhibition coordinator for “Madman Butterfly,” and therein lies Heri’s international appeal. Clist said Heri does not try to fit into the international art continuum.

“His local voice is true to him,” Clist said. “When something is true, it is beautiful. He’s not trying to make it look like anything else. He’s not looking at other artists.”

In Komala’s opinion, Heri’s local appeal may have helped build his international one. Indonesia has a strong and active domestic art market fuelled mainly by private galleries and collectors.

“A strong domestic market is very appealing,” Komala said. “An artist can become big internationally if the domestic market is huge. If our own people are not interested in our art, it’s a telling factor. It is an important ingredient for the market to expand internationally. A good eye goes to where the money is.”

Clist agreed. “Art is economy-led. That’s why civilizations become rich. People want to buy the art they relate to, very often the art from their own countries. In China, it is a patriotic duty to buy Chinese art. Art is about stapling bank statements on the wall — putting up their [Andy] Warhols or Jasper Johns. It is about status.”

Displaying a condensed version of Indonesian art is certainly a novel idea, but there may also be monetary gain through this approach.

“Most people who come to an art exhibition know very little about art,” Komala said. “They tend to have money and don’t wish to look stupid. If the domestic market is huge and followed by collectors and the prices are increasing, all of a sudden, the art looks better.”

Lawes said that understanding artwork makes people feel safe and, therefore, more comfortable about buying. In this way, encouraging better understanding of Indonesian art history may work to the gallery’s advantage in establishing a long-term relationship with buyers.

With “Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons,” Komala hopes to fast-track cross-cultural exchange between the art worlds of Indonesia and Britain.

“What we have is very relevant to the West,” he said. “We’re connected. History shows that we have all these little pieces you connect together. If I wanted to sell the artworks, there was no need to bring them here. I can sell them over the Internet. This [exhibition] is more than selling. This is us trying to bring history, artwork and beauty to people’s doorsteps.”

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