The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, January 30, 2007



It seems to be a particular Western hang-up, this need to label, compartmentise, catalogue.

However slippery the concept Europeans think creativity needs to separated, trapped and stuffed in a box: This is ART, over there is MUSIC and somewhere under the pile is DANCE. All under the rubric of CULTURE.

For those ineradicably infected by this disease the work of East Java artist Jumaadi fits nicely into the slot marked NAÏVE. But for this kampong kid there's no such pigeonhole. Only reluctantly does he offer INNOCENT.

Hardly. SURREALISM looks more appropriate, but we'll let his version stand before this story gets too esoteric and indigestible.

"This is my sub-conscious - the place I can visit only in my paintings," he said after launching an exhibition of his work at the French consulate in Surabaya called Alam Buatan (artificial nature). Around the walls were ghostly cows, two-dimensional figures with both eyes on the same side, phantom angels breathing spirit into mortals and checkerboard collages.

"Others need alcohol and drugs to find that space. I do it through art. At times I achieve bliss."

In his homeland there's no great appreciation of Jumaadi's work. If you buy paintings by the square meter and like horses in the surf and perky-bosomed maidens shouldering earthenware, Jumaadi is not your man.

Followers of contemporary art will see he's working at the edge of the medium, teetering sometimes as the cliff crumbles and the onlooker loses her or his hold on the artist's complex emotion-charged ideas.

But back in Sydney where he lives with his Aussie wife Siobhan Campbell the lad from Sidoarjo seems to be a discovery of the decade. He's been winning substantial prizes, selling through the galleries where patrons who ask 'how much?' soon know they're in the wrong place, and generally being a one-man ambassador for the archipelago.

At a time when relations between the Lucky Country and the Islands of Awful Disasters are bouncing around the floor of the Arafura Sea, Jumaadi is giving any Okker who'll hearken another view of Indonesia.

When not exhibiting he tours backblock schools (80 last year) to yarn about activities in his village where the divisions at the top of this story don't exist, and beautiful objects like rice straw puppets can be woven as a pastime using commonplace materials.

He explains that in Java someone can be an artist and a farmer – creating because that's an expression of their soul, not necessarily to raise cash. They might craft alone or, more likely, with others, work all night or dip in and out. Myths and magics, history and the present, fantasy and fact all blend into life.

For his services to international understanding Jumaadi ought to be put on the payroll of some Indonesian government Department for Dispelling Nasty Thoughts about Neighbors – though that's impossible. He's just a bit too much of his own man – a bloke who has found his way so far in a hit-and-miss fashion - and he isn't going to let those precious discoveries be neutered by mealy-mouthed diplomacy.

Jumaadi was born in 1973, the son of a farmer with a bit of paddy and a few prawn ponds in the village of Pecantingan at the edge of Sidoarjo. He seems to have spent much of his youth looking for ways to express himself without having to winnow rice and clean crustaceans.

"I tried a lot of things, and I failed a lot of the time," he said. "I wasn't thinking of being an artist – I was more interested in words."

He liked to write poetry and short stories, wrapped his tongue around English and developed a gift for the gab. He headed for Yogya where he sold jewelry on the sidewalks and chatted to anyone who stopped to sample. Many were Westerners.

He also spent time with art mates at Seloliman, the East Java environmental education project near Mojokerto set up by visionary conservator Suryo Prawiroatmodjo where they planned an art center. The idea was stillborn at that location, but has been brought to life at Pecantingan on the family farm in a converted 19th century Javanese timber house.

Also in Yogya and at Gadjah Made University was Siobhan, one of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies top students, later to become an accredited translator working for the United Nations in Timor Leste.

In the days before the Kuta killings and the explosion of distrust it wasn't too difficult for Jumaadi to move to Australia where he's been granted permanent residence. The couple have set up home in the Sydney seaside suburb of Bondi – and you can't get a more Australian address than that.

After a bit more knocking about with poetry, paintings, (including visiting the continent's Dead Center to look at Aboriginal desert art), plus working in a potato chip factory, Jumaadi got into Sydney's National Art School.

"I was really happy I did that," he said. "Suddenly I knew this was what it was about. Before it had all been dreams. Everything started to make sense."

He graduated with a fine arts degree and is now working on his master's thesis titled Mapping Memory. And painting. He gets back to Java for about two months every year for a creative refresher.

Jumaadi's work has the feel of Marc Chagall, the 20 th century Russian-Jewish painter famous for his airborne Eiffel Towers, flying cows and fiddlers on the roof. It's a connection the Javanese doesn't deny.

Like Chagall, Jumaadi turns to his religion (in this case Islam), the holy books, the lives of villagers, the cycle of rural life, the oral histories and natural things for inspiration and interpretation.

"A lot of my work is autobiographical and the search for identity, looking for my cultural roots," he said. "I think that everything in nature has a soul.

"Metaphors are important for me. I'm always searching for the perfect shape. I like to think of this as poetry. (His shapes tend to be a wavy-lined oblong, a sort of thought-bubble that might contain ethereal matter.)

"I paint small because that's a personal thing, like a wallet, something special, like a gift. I'm not interested in overwhelming people. You can see the power of God through the sublime."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 Jan 07)


aroengbinang said...

nice story of how life can change; it's not a matter of luck, it's years of works that makes a person can see that luck is passing by and grab it.

Anonymous said...

Sydney ,referred by the local Aborigines as "Warrane",has been inhabited for at least 50,000 years.50,000 year old grindstones been found in the area recently, predating any previous finds more

Alison said...

Was wondering if Jumaadi might be able to hold workshops in Wollongong as part of our proposed mini inaugural Indo fest in August this year? There is a fair bit of interest in the area though sadly lacking in schools. I travel to Sydney to teach at school.