HUNTING IDENTITY, SEARCHING FOR SPACE © Duncan Graham 2006
Memo to Philanthropic Culture Vultures: Modern performance space and dedicated gallery urgently required to showcase East Java talent. Help struggling artists get the audience they deserve.
Rewards guaranteed: Your name will ring from the rafters and your reputation chanted in every quarter where the creative gather. Well, at least until the next financial crisis.
“It’s a serious problem,” said Farid Syamlan, manager of Galeri Surabaya in the heart of Indonesia’s second biggest metropolis.
“We keep asking the city council for a good place to hang paintings, but they keep saying there’s no money.”
So this month’s Jambore Kebudayan (Cultural Jamboree) is being squeezed into some hot little rooms centred around Balai Pemuda (Youth Hall) in Jl Gubernur Suryo, the nearest thoroughfare Surabaya has to a boulevard.
The overall location could hardly be better; it’s easy to see and access. There’s plenty of parking. However the facilities will deter all but the most hard-wired devotees of culture.
Sadly the casual visitor will rapidly decide that viewing art is best done outside a sauna and head for the nearest shopping mall and a fix of iced coffee. They won’t be intellectually challenged, but they will stay cool.
So all applause to the artists who are determined to exhibit their skills and display their ideas whatever the conditions.
People like Novita Sechan, 27, from Sidoarjo whose acrylic abstracts have style and depth, the colors good enough to eat. The mother of a young baby, Novita finds time not only to paint but also to take visitors around her works and explain her obsession with form and color. She’s also the exhibition’s producer.
Then there’s the versatile Thoyib Tamsar, 58, who works in coarse fabrics to create mythical three-dimensional monsters. He’s also at home with oils portraying Biblical scenes, like Noah filling the Ark to save wildlife from the rising flood.
His work has an apocalyptic feel with great creatures wrestling to the death as in sci-fi fantasies, but he handles light well and offers canvases that aren’t easy to pass by or forget.
Novita, who studied at the State University of Surabaya, agreed that most of the 11 artists featured were drawing on European styles and subjects. She could offer little explanation, other than the dominance of Western art and the globalisation of culture.
It’s as though the conventional art schools have said the norms of Paris and London determine what is or isn’t art. But this approach cramps the experimental that might find root in the fertile lushness of East Java. It takes courage to be different in art, as in politics.
The exhibition has the usual look-alike Balinese maidens flaunting their smooth shoulders and plump breasts, and still life from the salons which could have come from any era. Only some angular kampung children by Fauzie Muhammad, 49, carry a sense of place and a whiff of Java.
“In Indonesia Yogya leads with original work,” said Autar Abdillah, secretary general of the Surabaya Arts Council. “After that comes Bali, Jakarta and Bandung. Surabaya is way behind.
“It wasn’t always like this, but the arts scene has been slow here for the past decade. We can use some lovely buildings but have to compete with handicraft exhibitions, educational seminars and traders from Yogya who book the space.
“So we’ve nothing really dedicated to show art except a few rooms at the side.”
The multicoloured domed Balai Pemuda can seat 150 people, the theatre alongside 300. Both are relics from the colonial past, jolly on the outside but acoustically flawed. (The larger Taman Budya (Culture Park) in Jl Gentengkali is used for dance and wayang.)
The Dutch Club (“forbidden to natives and dogs” according to an historical plaque) once dominated the Balai Pemuda. But this has been demolished. A local government tourist office uses one part of the complex and keeps to itself. There’s a cinema alongside showing the standard gorefests.
Integration and coordination of history and modern culture, plus a bit of landscaping to create a real arts centre would make the site a splendid attraction.
Despite these drawbacks a special quality of this event (and many others staged in the same spot) is the willingness of the artists to relax and reflect on their work.
Unlike many exhibitions in the West where the drawcard vanishes to his or her hideaway once the first night drinks have been drained, East Java artists are accessible. So the visitor can actually sit down (usually on the sidewalk) and discuss the aesthetics without feeling pressured by a gallery owner desperate to put a red dot on the frame.
After the art comes theatre, with six campuses putting on short plays. The Gresik based community Teater Payung Hitam (Black Umbrella Theatre) that has performed in Australia will stage workshops; the company is supported by a cement manufacturer.
The ticket prices won’t rip your wallet. The best seats in the house cost only Rp 30,000 (US $3.20) and students get in for half price.
Again there’ll be plenty of opportunity for interaction with playwrights and performers at the end of the shows. Surabaya’s creative folk tend to be humble and introspective – sinetron poseurs they are not. So whatever you think of the scripts and direction you’ll get a chance to question the creators and stir their ideas.
Try doing that on Broadway or the West End.
(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 22 April 06)