Sculpting questions about human rights © Duncan Graham 2007
In most Indonesian cities the principal crossroads are graced (or disgraced if you like) by statues in the style known as Soviet Realism.
These show muscle men snapping their manacles, thrusting forward, determined to engage with some enemy. They are valiant, determined, aggressive and always triumphant.
There’s a not-so-jolly quartet of giants in beanstalk green just down the road from sculptor Djoni Basri’s home in Malang, East Java: A soldier, farmer, student and Muslim cleric stand tall, arms linked. Their concrete features confront the future six meters above the fume-filled intersection where limping beggars tap windscreens. It’s an unsubtle reminder to the masses below revving at the red lights that they too must strive in harmony to develop and prosper.
This is the sort of propaganda sculpture Djoni despises, though he also makes groups. One of his latest has a life-sized cluster of adults standing around, aimless. A child plays in the foreground; a dog sniffs one man’s trousers. A couple of women (rare in public art) look nonplussed.
“They are like politicians,” Djoni said. “They’re elected to lead, but they don’t know what to do other than argue. They’re supposed to help the poor, but they do nothing - though they want others to think that they’re doing something.”
It’s called Para Pecundang (The Losers) and you can see it and other works of this passionate man early next month (Nov) at a solo exhibition at the Galeri Cipta II in Central Jakarta.
All are of people. Djoni is a flexible artist who can create soft finger-size babies in hardwood and Styrofoam though to big fellows in bronze. The most notable in this metal is a larger-than-life statue he made of first president Soekarno for a North Sumatra commission. Like all true artists he’s never fully satisfied with his work, though in this case the disappointments are more acute.
The current trend seems to deify the revolutionary and much art shows little resemblance to photographs of the man. Djoni wanted the features to reveal the real Soekarno, the womanizer and economic fumbler along with his qualities as an intellectual and charismatic leader.
But others who had a say in the job sought to downplay these leveling human traits in favor of the look of the mesmerizing orator chosen by destiny. Inevitably the result is a compromise.
In his publicity photos Djoni strikes the authorized up-you pose of the wild Indonesian artist, unkempt beard, street-cred cap, sucking a fag to show he couldn’t care a damn.
Up close in a neat suburban house shared with his government veterinary surgeon wife Herliantien and university student son he looks tamer, more like a public servant on leave, though that impression is rapidly cut away once he starts talking.
“What’s my message?” he asked, whacking his right fist into his left hand. “Human rights, human rights, human rights!” When he gets animated he chisels into his sentences, showering chips of consonants as though language is timber to be tamed.
“All my work is a form of protest at what is happening all around. I want to show the reality of life, the poor who have been ignored or forgotten. I want people who see my art to think about what’s happening and ask – ‘what can we do?’
“Consider the plight of maids sent to countries where they are exploited and abused. We export our young women – what nation can be proud of that? When I look at what’s going on I feel despair because I know it wasn’t supposed to have been like this.”
This makes him sound like one of those creaking figures in the new democratic Indonesia - an unreconstructed Soekarnoist who now feels free to bemoan Soeharto’s demolition of his predecessor’s social engineering: “I’m a universalist, not a nationalist,” he proclaimed. “Nationalism solves nothing.”
One of ten children born in Surabaya Djoni took off for Yogyakarta as soon as he could fend for himself. It wasn’t a question of his parents having other plans for their talented son – life was too much of a struggle to be worried about career paths.
Once in the heart of Javanese culture Djoni knew he’d discovered the right place: “It was a rich environment both on and off campus,” he said. “I learned how to express myself, socially and in art. I was like a fish that’s found water.”
The place to swim and frolic was the Yogyakarta Art Institute. At that time it was the pre-eminent art school in the nation, attracting the best and brightest.
After studying sculpture idealism yielded to the pragmatic need for income. He worked for TV station SCTV where he eventually became art director doing everything from set design to the finished glitzy, garish facades used in this make-believe world.
Djoni doesn’t need to verbally chainsaw that period of his life before he turned full time professional artist, his feast or famine income supplemented by teaching computer graphics. He says it all in a little sculpture showing a small girl pulling her reluctant infant sibling away from a TV set. It’s titled Television to be Telepoison.
Potential buyers beware. His work doesn’t come cheaply and he’s as reluctant to put price tags on his works as he is to put labels on his style. One of the dirtiest words in his lexicon is ‘commercialism.’
“My art hero is Rodin (late 19th century French realist sculptor Auguste Rodin),” he said. “If you have to call me anything I’d accept being an impressionist.
“I have to work fast because the ideas come quickly and can go just as easily. I have to follow what God points out to me. It’s like a calling. I do what I want to do. It’s up to others to judge my work. I just want my family to be proud of me and my work.
“I draw my ideas from my observations of daily life, my experiences and the culture of East Java.
“I’m still looking for the right beliefs in God, the right tools and the right knowledge. I want to stimulate thinking. Art is the only way to touch people. Is it wrong to be an idealist?”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 October 07)