Recovering missionary-suppressed art © 2007 Duncan Graham
Tomohon isn’t a place you’d normally bracket with the internationally known arts centers like Ubud in Bali and Yogyakarta in Central Java.
That could change if poet and painter Arie Tulus succeeds in his campaign to put the North Sulawesi hill town on the Indonesian cultural map.
Sulut (Sulawesi Utara, North Sulawesi) is already well established as the Republic’s most Christian province through its status as a missionary hive.
It has also been dubbed the ‘city of flowers’ though that’s nothing special. There are many garden centers throughout the archipelago, usually just outside the bigger lowland cities and at the higher altitudes that favor floriculture and horticulture.
Tomohon is pretty in a haphazard way, though not for its slab-concrete and toilet-tile architecture that’s elbowing aside the lovely old traditional two-storey timber houses. The charm comes from the flower sellers that line the main road from the capital Manado, 45 minutes drive distant.
A few overseas tourists, mainly backpackers attracted by diving on the reefs off the nearby islands occasionally detour to the cool hills. But apart from some historic sites including caves built during the Japanese occupation to store ammunition, peak-and-lake scenery that’s easy on the eyes, and the chance to hike without sharing the track with thousands, there’s little to keep visitors.
“We used to have a rich artistic heritage,” said Arie. “You can see this expressed in carvings on the ancient above-ground stone tombs known as waruga. (The images on these sarcophagi are unique, showing jolly, saucer-eyed faces and frock-coated figures.)
“However much of this was lost when the Dutch banned burials in waruga because they feared the spread of disease. The missionary influence was powerful and suppressed our pre-Christian animist culture.”
The Minahasa and other tribal groups in North Sulawesi are unusual because in the early 19th century the people made a wholesale switch from animism to Christianity, primarily Protestantism.
This gained them job and education benefits from the colonists, but it didn’t make them popular with the Muslim Javanese. Soldiers from Manado condemned as ‘Dutch dogs’ were used to put down dissent in the Java War that started in 1825.
After independence there were ill-fated bids to go it alone that resulted in the Indonesian air force bombing Manado in 1958, but if there are any remnants of separatism left they are well hidden. Now the bid is to promote a local identity within the current political structure.
“The character of the Minahasa people is open to all,” said Arie. “We are tolerant and friendly, and although we want to see the renaissance of our art we are not closed to outsiders, though we don’t want to see Bali-style development.
“So if Indonesian or European artists want to come here and work, well that’s fine. We are trying to develop the Mawale (home-coming) Art Community that will reflect this land and its people and inspire others. I have no real fear that newcomers will change the quiet character of this place.”
Arie, 45, is a multi-skilled craftsman, as artists must be to survive in Indonesia where patrons are few and governments great with supportive rhetoric though not with rupiah. “I paint because I enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t do it to make a living.”
He was educated in the local Christian schools, then studied art at the Manado teachers’ college under the late Johny Rondonuwu who used the waruga motifs in his work. Arie later took a degree in management and now teaches art at the University of Manado.
Just up the road and across a fast-running stream is the Pniel church where a large and busy mural created by Arie above the timber-framed altar draws parishioners’ eyes during dull sermons. It shows Jesus in a landscape of Old Testament scenes, including a guilty couple making a dash from the Garden of Eden.
In the maze of his little studio in the farming village of Kakaskasen, close to the home of his parents, Arie has been preparing a set of seven life-size statues. These were commissioned by the relatives of a local family wiped out in the Flight 574 Adam Air crash of 1 January this year.
All stand in formal black and white Western wedding dress, the spooky figures staring blankly at the goose-bumped onlooker. When there’s no work underway Arie wisely shrouds the statues’ faces lest they unnerve visitors.
Then comes the contrast: In the front room are stark, simple-line semi-abstract nudes that might well offend conservatives elsewhere. Arie claims no problems – maybe because he’s a well-regarded local known for his faith, or because Sulut is more tolerant.
Round the corner are shrill acrylic landscapes in the style of the European impressionists, some stacked by the walls, others tacked to the ceiling, for this man is prolific and painting himself out of space. The troubled Dutch expressionist Vincent Van Gogh is one of Arie’s art heroes, along with the American splash-and-smear abstractionist Jackson Pollock.
Elsewhere are large collections of miniatures he’s done of village life; bullock carts rocking and rumbling over the potholed roads, kids reluctantly dragging themselves to school, dancers rehearsing. Five books of poetry, all illustrated. Love is a constant theme.
Arie’s self portraits are mildly schizophrenic. Some show an unkempt Salvador Dali-like wildman, others a neat monkish figure praying (or wringing his hands) over a Bible, titled Prayer for Indonesia. Coming to terms with an intolerant Christianity that tried to eliminate art considered pagan takes some intellectual gymnastics.
With a group of like-minded friends he started the Mawale Art Community this year. The MAC publishes prose and poetry, and runs readings and workshops on Minahasa art, culture, music and history. Some members’ work is on the Web at www.sastra-minahasa.blogspot.com
About 200 meters beyond his studio rise the foothills of smoldering Mount Lokon, its green slopes giving no hint of the rumblings within this active, 1580 meter-high volcano. It’s another source of inspiration in a hugely rich and little exploited environment.
“We should never try to limit ourselves in our expression,” Arie said. “My hope is that the influence of Tomohon can help lift other artists to express themselves.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 Nov 07)