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

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


LAN ARTIST RELEASED (C) Duncan Graham 2008

One of the most overlooked of the Soeharto regime’s many transgressions was the suppression of artists.

I’m not referring here to the easy-come, easy-go pop singers and sinetron nonentities who have corrupted the word, but to intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to expressing their emotions and concerns through writing, music, film-making, sculpture and painting.

Most creative people aren’t motivated by greed; they have to put food on their family’s table but few are materialists. True artists are driven folk whose emotions are often in turmoil as they wrestle to express themselves, to produce works of perfection – yet knowing that state can never be achieved.

They feel deeply. They fight day and night with the demon demands they set for themselves. They strive to transform their spiritual concerns and observations into forms that we, the less-talented observers, may understand and appreciate. They show us windows into other worlds, but we have to open the glass.

In the dreary decades of the so-called New Order administration such people were viewed with suspicion because they’d been conscripted by their consciences, not by despots with corrupt agendas.

Independent thinkers are much feared by all authoritarian regimes, and with good reason; the army may have the guns and bayonets, but the artists have pens and paintbrushes, weapons that can pierce the soul.

We are lucky that Bambang Adrian Wenzel is still young enough to know that his best years still lie ahead and that he now lives in more tolerant times. Older artists haven’t been so fortunate; many were so crushed by censorship that their talents have been lost forever.

The gruesome state of the present Indonesian film industry is one legacy of Soeharto’s 32-year oppression of creative thinkers. The shallowness of much Indonesian literature as it flounders for identity after decades of fear is another example. Three generations of Indonesians have had their souls corroded because they were not exposed to the ideas of the nation’s best and brightest.

Bambang, and a small palette of fellow artists in Malang, have managed to sidestep those perils and are now enjoying an extraordinary freedom their brave predecessors could never have imagined.

Here’s a small, but significant, point. Bambang was born into a half Chinese, half Madurese family in the Java east coast town of Banyuwangi almost 50 years ago.

Being an artist with a Chinese background made him doubly suspect in the eyes of the authorities. Even when no criticism was intended, the New Order spies and censors were constantly alert, seeking symbols they could interpret as subversion.

So anything in Bambang’s art with a sniff of Sinology exposed him to risk. Now he can release that part of his once-imprisoned heart and let it roam free in his art, even sign his name using Chinese characters in red.

He can also relax in his large personal library amongst books on philosophy, politics, history and art where he draws much inspiration knowing that Intel (the sinister intelligence service) won’t be kicking in his door to check for forbidden words.

This means that after a long winter his art is now in early spring and budding brightly. He is moving into mixed media, trying new forms, experimenting without having to look over his shoulder or fear the denouncers. This is a time of dramatic social change with almost everything open to question, and Bambang is up there in front.

What he hasn’t lost is his spiritual search. He remains a Catholic but expresses his faith in the subtlest ways. On the sliding scale that has the religious kitsch of burning hearts and mournful heaven-turned eyes on one end, Bambang’s art is at the other pole.

He has also suffered a personal tragedy with the loss of his wife. It seems this has added sadness to his art, though it is never bleak or maudlin. Nor is it forced.

Because his work is so eclectic many will think it’s not Indonesian. I disagree. For too long Indonesian art has been defined by dancing Balinese maidens and landscapes of rice threshers, a school pioneered by the European artists of early last century and unashamedly plagiarised ever since.

In Yogya the tourist market has defined ‘traditional’ art and made an appalling fist of the job, with the magical and mysterious figures from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics reduced to factory-produced cutouts with all the charisma of sliced bread.

Meanwhile the lovingly rough-hewn carvings, the fecund earth ochres and lush greens of ancient Java have been rejected as too primitive.

Bambang’s work draws on so many themes that it continually challenges. He has chosen to live in Malang, at the heart of the ancient Majapahit kingdom, an area saturated in magic, pre-Islamic carvings and holy sites, a landscape of legends, curious customs and darkest secrets.

Here he is creating new Indonesian art determined by committed Indonesians proud of their ancient heritage. He’s blending ideas of the distant past, pulsating present and an uncertain future laced with personal trauma. He’s not beholden to mindless nationalism, business, the State or outsiders.
Don’t assume his art is insular. His concerns for human rights and justice aren’t confined to Java. They are global, gleaned through his extensive reading - though concentrating on Asia.

For the viewer, instant interpretations have to be discarded as new ideas are revealed, many through just a ghost of a hint, a slim key to open the imagination. Surely this is a major definition of good art: it forces us as onlookers to seek and think and open our minds.

Much of his life is spent articulating the plight of the downtrodden and oppressed, though never in a ham-fisted way. His personal quest to help the poor of Porong left landless by the mud volcano that erupted in May 2006 and hasn’t stopped since, is proof of his commitment to justice and social change.

Bambang Adrian Wenzel is an artist of our time setting new agendas for Indonesian creativity, setting a new dawn for the archipelagic arts.

(Published as programme notes for the Yogyakarta exhibition Floating Souls, May 08)