Deborah Iskandar was born in the United States but has lived in Indonesia for many years. She established the first Indonesian international auction house for Christies in 1996 before moving to Sotheby’s in 2009 to become their managing director. In 2013 she established ISA Art Advisory to provide clients with independent advice on building collections, either via private sale, auction, or directly from artists.

Astri Wright is an associate professor at the University of Victoria in Canada and a long-standing researcher of modern and contemporary Indonesian art. She has written and co-authored many essays and books on the subject, including Hendra Gunawan: A Great Modern Indonesian Painter and Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters. The following article is the result of several email exchanges and chats on Skype. Its title was “stolen” from one of Astri Wright’s essays.

Nindityo Adipurnomo, Post Tolerance #1, 2012. Gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Nindityo Adipurnomo, Post Tolerance #1, 2012. Gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Where would you like to start a discussion on contemporary art in Indonesia?

Iskandar: To understand the subject I think we have to go back a long way to Raden Saleh (1811–1880). He was the only Indonesian artist who was able to travel to Europe at the time. He travelled through the continent and developed a European painting style very much influenced by romanticism. I’m mentioning him because contemporary Indonesia art has developed through a complex exchange with other countries, beginning with the Netherlands.

It seems to me that Indonesian artists have a sort of love/hate relationship with the Netherlands and the way Dutch painters have influenced the local scene in the early times. Can you tell me something about it?

Wright: When the Dutch first came to Indonesia, they were struck by its beauty and only gradually did the economic and bureaucratic-military system come into place, bringing on the European rape of the land. In the wake of Dutch colonial officials, in place by the mid-nineteenth century, came the artists—Dutch painters who travelled the volcanic islands, capturing the dramatic-exotic scenery and influencing in turn local artists. They developed what became known as Mooi Indie (Beautiful Indies) art that for good or bad influenced local artists. This is something that many Indonesian painters perhaps prefer not to stress too much.

Do you think that the recent emergence of Indonesian art is a sign that things are changing?

Wright: Luckily more and more people are realizing that modern and contemporary art cannot be copyright-owned by a few cities in the Western Hemisphere. 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. 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.

Can you tell me something about the role played by Affandi, S. Sudjojono, Hendra Gunawan, and others in the drive to create a truly national art scene?

Iskandar: In 1938 Sudjojono formed PERSAGI (Indonesian Painters Association) which established a contemporary art philosophy against the Mooi Indie art. Their activity was part of a bigger movement to create a national identity. They wanted to show the reality of the Indonesian people through paintings made by Indonesians for Indonesians. It only lasted until the Japanese invasion in 1942, but people like Sudjojono, Affandi, and Hendra Gunawan went on to become internationally famous artists.

Dede Eri Supria, After Election, 2014. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Dede Eri Supria, After Election, 2014. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

 How did they differ, stylistically speaking, from the Dutch model?

Iskandar: Affandi, for instance, was a sort of expressionist. In the 1950s he would develop a style called “squeezing the tube” for he applied the paint directly from its tube. He later said he had discovered this method by accident, but the fact remains that this approach—using his hands instead of brushes—gave him more freedom and resulted in paintings full of spontaneity.

You have mentioned the Japanese invasion in 1942. We all know about the bloody trail left by the Japanese army in WWII. With the excuse of creating a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan replaced the European powers as the new colonial ruler and committed many atrocities. However, it seems Japan’s track record in Indonesia has been slightly better, especially as far as art is concerned. Do you agree?

Iskandar: Japan occupied Indonesia from 1942 to 1945, and yes, it’s true that it was actually the Japanese who encouraged local painters to develop their talent, first by providing studios and painting supplies, and later by actually exhibiting their works. In March 1943 local leaders created Poetera, a cultural center whose main teachers were future prominent artists S. Sudjojono and Affandi. During this period several Japanese teachers came to Indonesia and showed Japanese art and movies with a revolutionary tone. Among them there were Tsuguharu Fujita, Saburo Miyamoto, and Toshi Shimizu—makers of propaganda and film posters—who had a deep influence on such Indonesian artists as Hendra Gunawan.

Wright: This, of course does not mean that life under the Japanese was easy. Affandi has talked about how hard it was to make a living during the Japanese occupation, the war, and, later, during the struggle for independence.

Let’s talk about the postwar period. The first twenty years were a tumultuous time for both Indonesian society and the arts.

Iskandar: Yes, at the time future President Sukarno was a young nationalist and encouraged the development of the Seniman Indonesia Muda, or Young Indonesian Artists movement, whose works were strongly influenced by the revolutionary ideas of the time. His support was crucial—mainly psychologically but also at times materially. Unfortunately, after he became president his tastes changed and he reverted to the old Mooi Indie decorative style. He was, by the way, a noted womanizer, which is why his huge collection features many nude portraits. Sukarno was eventually toppled by Suharto, and between 1967 and the late ‘90s there was a vacuum in the Indonesian art world mainly because the regime only allowed the blandest form of creativity.

Was there some sort of repression of the arts at the time?

Wright: Yes. Hendra Gunawan, for instance, was involved in the Institute of Popular Culture (LEKRA), a cultural organization affiliated with the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). His jazzy, surreal paintings never fail to put me in a trance-like frame of mind. At the same time he had a lot of empathy for all the people who were enduring revolution and hunger, negotiating the relationships of daily life and celebrating its most intense moments, ritually and festively. Unfortunately he was incarcerated in the early ‘60s and was not released until 1978, only five years before his death.

Iskandar: It was only in the late ‘80s that things began to change with the establishment of Galeri Cemeti and the emergence of a group of young artists who opposed modern, in- dustrialized society and especially Suharto’s regime’s political repression and its attempt to eliminate diversity.

Haris Purnomo, Superhero, 2013. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Haris Purnomo, Superhero, 2013. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

 Who are some of your favorite artist of this period?

Wright: First of all, I’d say Nindityo Adipurnomo, a painter and sculptor who works with a variety of media, including wood, copper, and cloth. He exemplifies a certain trend in Indonesian contemporary art. At first his art was steeped in mythology and meditation, and he created his works with as little intent and rational control as possible in an attempt to work directly from the feelings located in the unconscious. But after spending some time in the Netherlands, he somewhat changed his stylistic choices, mixing Javanese spirituality and the traditional idea that color is a way to visualize music, with a new sensibility for such artists as Kandinsky, Schlemmer, and de Kooning. The Western influence, though, must not be seen as just copying, but rather as an affinity of “inner mood.” After all, many European artists were interested in mysticism, and Kandinsky himself wrote an influential essay in 1912 (On the Spiritual in Art).

Iskandar: Nindityo’s evolution must be also seen in the context of Suharto’s regime. Art for art’s sake was the safe realm while any involvement with critical political expression was not. However, in the early ‘90s installation art began to sweep through the contemporary Indonesian art world, inspired by the first, seminal experiments and exhibitions from the mid-’70s onwards by the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement). Nindityo was among those 30-something painters who joined in the installation fever. At the same time his work began to reflect the spread of discontent with the Suharto regime.

Wright: Another artist I really like is Dede Eri Supria, Indonesia’s most important urban painter. He takes photographic images of the metropolis apart and reassembles them into disconcerting but strangely familiar views, at times crossing the border to the surreal. In Dede’s landscapes of urban construction, people are the main feature, but instead of the cosmopolitan segments of Jakarta society, he prefers to depict becak (cycle rickshaw) drivers, laborers, poor women with children, etc. 

I read somewhere that you have defined Dede as a “Paul Gauguin in reverse.” What did you mean with that?

Wright: Gauguin was a European who was uninspired by his own culture and gave to the world beautiful, mysterious images of exotic people blending into equally unfamiliar landscapes. In Dede’s paintings, on the contrary, easterners can thrill to see their own world, the urban jungle, through the eyes of a tropical man come to “civilization.” His work is deceptively accessible to Euro-Americans but it is important to notice a tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

His works have a very photographic quality.

Wright: That’s because he first began to work doing cover illustrations for TEMPO (Indonesia’s TIME magazine) and calendars, and because he painted industrial interiors, machinery, and architecture all the time, he became very skilled at depicting objects, materials, and textures of all types. This mode of working, in turn, influenced his painting. He also began to follow news events closely and did his own journalistic research. In this way he came to understand the connection between art and socio-political and economic affairs.

I Nyoman Masradi, Oknum vs Residivis, 2012. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

I Nyoman Masradi, Oknum vs Residivis, 2012. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Is this style popular in Indonesia?

Wright: When he started it wasn’t popular at all. He studied painting at the Sekolah Seni Rupa Indonesia (SSRI) or Secondary School of Fine Arts in Yogyakarta, but his interest in realism elicited little encouragement or understanding from the teachers; the style was not deemed worthy of anything but a study tool. When a handful of students nonetheless persisted in pursuing it, they were mocked with statements like “realism is a dirty cooking-pot for rice.” It’s probably because of this not-too-happy academic experience that he considers himself a self-taught painter.

So it was just a matter of taste, so to speak?

Wright: Actually there was more. Before Dede and the emergence of the New Art Movement, realism had been the special preserve of LEKRA (Institute of People’s Culture), a literary and artistic movement associated with the Indonesian Communist Party. LEKRA urged its members to go out in the streets in order to better understand people’s conditions, but its forceful brand of patronage was such that for many people social realism became synonymous with party guidance, and hence usually showed no imagination. Dede’s art, on the contrary, can be ironic and dreamlike.

I know that the past regimes have tried to eliminate diversity in the Indonesian racial and cultural mix and assimilate all minorities.

Iskandar: Yes, even my husband is ethnically Chinese, and his real name was changed to Daniel Faisal Iskandar, where Daniel is a Christian name and Faisal is Islamic. In other words, they tried to hide his Chinese roots as much as possible.

Has any artist addressed this particular aspect of Indonesian history?

Iskandar: Probably the best known is F. X. Harsono who was among the founders of the New Art Movement. Being ethnically Chinese, Harsono has strongly felt the government policy of assimilation. Until the end of the century, for instance, all Chinese had to change their names and were forbidden to speak their language. So the X in his name, like the one in Malcolm X, stands for his lost identity. One of my favorite works is an installation from 1994 called The Voices Controlled by the Powers. It was made in response to the Indonesian government’s banning of TEMPO magazine after it published an article exposing corruption in the Suharto regime. On a large black cloth, rows of traditional wayang masks with their bottoms half severed stand upward, looking inward toward their cut jaws that seem to emit silent screams. This work exemplifies Harsono’s belief that artists have a social responsibility.

Have things changed with the fall of Suharto?

Iskandar: Yes and no. The ethnic Chinese have always been victims during social and political turmoil in Indonesia. So even after Suharto was forced to step down in May 1998, violence erupted in Jakarta against the Chinese-Indonesian community. This has left a profound imprint on Harsono. A recent video (Writing in the Rain) shows him trying to write his old name on a transparent panel while water raining down from the ceiling keeps deleting the Chinese characters.

You have mentioned the relatively recent rise of installation and conceptual art in Indonesia. Is this the result of closer exchanges with the West?

Iskandar: Partly it’s because of that. Until the late ‘70s to ‘80s, painting, sculpture, and printmaking were the only disciplines officially recognized as fine art in Indonesia. This was changed by the New Art Movement that was established in 1975 by a group of ten art students from Bandung and Yogyakarta. The New Art Movement wrote a manifesto towards a new definition of the concept of art in order to expand the old definition. The group encouraged experimentation in the arts and tried to revitalize socially committed art. One of the best Indonesian artists of this generation is Heri Dono. He once had an exhibition in Atlanta and the Indonesian Ambassador criticized him because he showed a side of Indonesia that the government wanted to keep hidden from the outside.

Wright: The interesting thing about Dono is that he comes from a contemporary art background but later learned the craft of wayang kulit (shadow puppets). The Indonesian government invests in the past and encourages traditional forms of art in order to counter new ones. So he decided to exploit the situation, expressing his own thoughts without really spelling them out. Even in the past the wayang has often been used as means for indirect and allusive suggestion, which is important in Javanese communication and social intercourse. Different kinds of wayang are used as allegorical vehicles to praise or criticize leading figures in the community.

Iskandar: While in the West we are often very direct in expressing our opinions, many people in Asia—including Indonesians—prefer to criticize the status quo in a more roundabout way. In this sense many artists make use of humor to make their points, and Dono is a perfect example.

F. X. Harsono, Memories of Njonjah No. 3, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

F. X. Harsono, Memories of Njonjah No. 3, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

How do you judge the latest trends in contemporary art?

Wright: The New Art Movement of the ‘80s criticized the tendency of many modern Indonesian artists and critics to emphasize feeling and emotion, above all positive emotion, in romantic or lyrical visual styles. This has resulted in a new rational approach, which emphasizes ratio over rasa (intuitive or feeling-based insight, considered superior in Javanese thinking). This attitude may, in part, explain the difficulty of the acceptance of conceptual art in Indonesia as pioneered by the New Art Movement.

Who is in your opinion the most successful Indonesian artist of the last few years?

Iskandar: If you are talking about financial success and market value, I’d say I Nyoman Masriadi who, by the way, was born in 1973, so he fully belongs to the latest generation of artists. He is a real trendsetter and the first Indonesian contemporary artist to be recognized commercially and aesthetically. Fifteen years ago he was selling souvenir paintings to tourists in Bali for $20 each, and now his works sell at galleries for $250,000 to $300,000. He’s also the first living Southeast Asian artist whose work has topped $1 million at auction.

 Why do you think he’s been so successful?

Iskandar: I guess his work is very appealing and deceptively simple at first glance. It’s the right mix of avant-garde and pop culture. His style is a cross between DC Comics, which he acknowledges as an inspiration, and the Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, and features many macho figures often caught in candid moments. Content wise, he covers a lot of ground, from the usual political corruption to the joys and sorrows of modern life. Political cartoons, with their sharp humor and appealing style, are very accessible to the public and have enjoyed quite a following in Indonesia.

Are there any differences between the art scenes in Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, etc.?

Iskandar: You don’t have many artists living in Bali. I think the big city and the expense is not conducive to a creative environment. Yogyakarta, the traditional center of Indonesia art, is in Java, where 70% of the population lives. I find Yogyakarta is more expressive and free. The ideas that are born here are very contemporary, but the atmosphere is also different. ASRI was traditionally focused on thoughts, policy, contemporary expression, and creative ideas. Bandung, on the other side, used to be the Dutch holiday center because it is up a mountain and it is cool, and it was there that

Western ideas and technique arrived in the country. The focus is more on the technique of creating art, formalization, shapes, and forms. In the past it was more influenced by Western ideas such as abstraction. So you have this dichotomy between the traditional school and the Western school that according to its detractors was an imitation of foreign ideas. Finally there is Jakarta, the country’s capital, where most collectors are based.

 I understand there is a lack of infrastructures where one can see contemporary art. Even in the bigger cities there aren’t any major public museums where one can actually see all these works. Is that right?

Iskandar: Yes, that’s true. Also, differently from other countries, Indonesian artists don’t work exclusively with one gallery. We go back to the issue of underdeveloped infrastructure. When you have an exclusivity contract with an artist, you have to invest and make sure you get a return, which means you have to cultivate a group of collectors, place your works in the museums, etc. But because galleries seldom have loyal customers who will buy again and again from them, it doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of money in the same artist(s).

Wright: For many years Indonesian art professionals and the public didn’t develop clear contractual habits or rules. You could have speculators put “SOLD” tags on as many as thirty paintings at a large, important exhibition, without being asked to sign any agreements, or place any deposits. In Indonesia, art auctions and galleries began to multiply quickly in the late ‘80s before there was any broader understanding of the principles and practice of art history or art criticism. It is still not possible to get a PhD in art history in Indonesia, and only a few have pursued PhD degrees in art history abroad. Historically, the European art market in the so-called pre-modern world came into being just after art history developed as a discipline. So art historical analysis has laid the foundations for the monetary values placed on art. This is the partnership that Indonesia is lacking: here, there is no solid tradition of knowledge and practice in art history and art criticism. As a consequence, unlike older centers for modern art, such as those in Europe and America, Indonesia’s art market is the dominant institution in the art world that operates on a basis that combines artistic ignorance and profit-making desire.

Deborah, you have lived in Indonesia for many years now. What major changes have you witnessed, both from an artistic and an economic (i.e. the art market) point of view.

Iskandar: When I started in the art world in Indonesia, there were a handful of collectors who attended the auctions and very little in the way of contemporary art. The focus was solely on the masters. It was only after 2000 that we had the first generation of what I would call “contemporary art.” Prior to that date, only Heri Dono, Eddie Hara, and perhaps Dede Eri Supria could be considered as contemporary artists. After the fall of Suharto and Reformasi [the reformation], it was like a breath of fresh air in the art world. You had artists like the Jendela Group and Agus Suwage exhibiting, and the establishment of Nadi Gallery, who represented most of these artists. In contrast to the Chinese boom, which was driven largely by foreigners, the demand for Indonesian art has been a mostly homegrown affair. That’s changing, now that collectors in Hong Kong, London, and Berlin are training their sights on the country. The problem remains, though, that the Indonesian Association of Art Galleries consists of only 18 dealers, and there are no public contemporary art museums.

I found the Yogyakarta Jogja Biennale mentioned somewhere, but little else. Can you tell me something about this event and the role (big or small) it plays in the local art scene?

Iskandar: I think it has a huge impact on the art scene as all the galleries get involved and host exhibitions wherein each artist only has one work shown during the fair. This attracts a lot of Western curators, collectors, and artists because they can view so much contemporary art in one city. This year was one of the strongest I have seen, as I think the artists really pushed themselves to create their best works.

Would you like to add something? 

Wright: I would only like to stress once again that contemporary Indonesian art reflects a different set of conditions, challenges, and preoccupations than contemporary Western art. This fact is often neglected by Western art critics, who usually measure contemporary “non-Western” culture by their own Eurocentric standards. In their eyes contemporary Indonesian (or other non-Western) art is often labeled either as derivative or decorative (i.e. too traditional). I think we should understand Asian art in its own right. Only in this way will hidden meanings, that would otherwise be overlooked, be grasped. We can’t deny that the role of the Dutch influence in this process, through its colonial education systems, has been considerable (a fact that, as I said, many Indonesian painters perhaps prefer not to stress too much). However, the mystical and social aspects that constitute the most important poles inside Indonesian contemporary art today derive from a long intellectual search for an Indonesian identity that started during the ‘30s and is still going on.

S. Sudjojono, Rontok, 1978. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

S. Sudjojono, Rontok, 1978. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.