DRAWING THE PAIN OF PORONG © Duncan Graham 2007
The pain of Porong seems never-ending. Transport routes have been damaged and traffic disrupted, but the East Java village drowned by the continuously erupting Lapindo mud volcano has taken the biggest hit.
Though the villagers' problems haven't been resolved their plight doesn't pass unnoticed. There's a regular parade of impotent officials, gawkers and picture snappers, tut-tuting about the unstoppable outflow of gas and grime, and the anguish of the unfortunates caught in the environmental and bureaucratic mess.
Not all outsiders bemoan their inabilities to assist. Bambang Adrian Wenzel is a regular visitor from Malang. He's neither a geologist nor a desk jockey, but he's doing what he can to make a difference – as an artist.
He's sketched the faces of scores of children, emotionally crippled by a disaster that's already displaced an estimated 25,000 people. They've lost their homes, land, jobs, places of worship and schools.
It's a distressing environment. Many have also abandoned hope as the promises of help drown in the slime. The reality has been caught by Bambang in the kids' doleful eyes, disconnected from the carefree youth they were enjoying before they were prematurely forced into adulthood, trapped by the agonies of a problem they didn't cause.
"They're the innocent victims who have lost so much – including their childhood," Bambang said. "I first went to Porong last year with two artist friends from Jakarta.
"We decided that I should keep returning and drawing. Later this year we'll have an exhibition and sale in Jakarta where people will get a better chance to understand what's happening here in East Java.
"All the proceeds will be used to buy books for the children so they can keep learning. We certainly won't be handing out cash to officials."
For Bambang books are as important as canvases and brushes. He draws much of his inspiration from the Greek philosophers with Plato a favorite source.
"I'm interested in the ideas of democracy and human rights. Art is an offering to God and humanity," he said.
Bambang was born into a half Chinese, half Madurese family in the Java east coast town of Banyuwangi almost 50 years ago. After a short spell of formal art studies in Surabaya he moved to Malang "because it's a cultural city with a good artistic environment."
Since then he's maintained himself as a professional artist – a rare feat in an economy where there's little surplus cash for unconventional artworks. He's done this without having to compromise his time with other work, or corrupt his creativity by mass-producing touristy pictures.
The problem in keeping the rupiah river running is that much of his art doesn't fit neatly into the much-favored horses-galloping-in-surf or colorful-fishing-boats-in-harbor genres.
Nor does it meet the overseas visitor demand for soft-hue paintings of languid Balinese beauties. These are the standard lines that have kept his famous cousin, artist Huang Fong, well employed for the past half century by satisfying tourist fantasies of life in the tropics.
"I don't want to do this sort of work," Bambang said. "I'm trying to give more meaning to life. I mostly sell to collectors in America and Jakarta. I've exhibited in Australia and China, and Jakarta galleries handle my work.
"I enter a few exhibitions; I'm currently being shown in the traveling show A Beautiful Death that's been touring Bali and Java. But there's not a lot of interest in my art in Indonesia."
Probably because it's enigmatic, sometimes disturbing and wouldn't fit easily on the wall of a lounge where visitors are invited to relax. It's clear his Chinese antecedents are slowly pushing themselves into the foreground as his work moves from simple to complex and now includes oriental symbols.
A good example is a large picture (few of Bambang's paintings would fit in a Mercedes, though you'd need to be in that class to afford his art), of a broody hen, two freshly hatched chicks peeping from her fluffed-up feathers.
At first glance it's an image of warmth and security. Then you notice the tiny McDonalds logo reflected in the chicken's eye. This theme gets a more brutal treatment when the faces of beautiful women are eliminated in hardedge brush strokes that suddenly run out of paint – like TV images electronically smudged to mask the faces of the guilty or innocent.
Now he's working in multi-media, using slabs of stone to give a three-dimensional effect. He's much influenced by the confrontationist Lithuanian-Polish poster artist Stasys Eidrigevicius.
There are many Javanese cultural icons in his art, and images drawn from the old Buddhist-Hindu temples that surround Malang. These are mixed with religious symbols (he's a Catholic) and social commentary. He blends realism and the abstract.
One installation has a series of blurred monochrome photographs showing sacred texts surrounding a bright multicolored in-focus shot of a shopping mall. He's used this as a stimulant for discussions on the way religion and culture are being drowned by the neon-lit lure of materialism.
"During the Suharto era I felt constrained," he said. "It was difficult to express myself freely. I couldn't develop my creativity and had to be careful, particularly because I'm part Chinese and it would not have been wise to include that part of my culture in my paintings. Now I feel free. I'm learning Mandarin and I sign my art with my Chinese name.
"I could probably make more money overseas, but here I feel in touch with the environment that I love so much. I'm not money oriented. I believe that if you're an artist and serious about your work, good fortune will come to you."
(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 June 07)