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, January 16, 2013


Buy local – before it goes global       

Next time you’re shopping for something to cover plaster blisters on the wall consider contemporary Indonesian art.

Prints of stallions pounding through the surf (much beloved by a certain class of businessman) and the inevitable pale-skinned nymphs cheerfully harvesting rice under a furnace sun may be risk-free choices because they’re everywhere.

To really stand out take a look at where the young palettes are pointing.

Like Nugroho Wijayatmo, whose powerful and enigmatic portraits of women’s faces will attract more attention than any clichéd picture of a pool of colorful koi.

Diligently enquiry is needed to find his work.  Try Singapore, then Taiwan, even Europe.  If that’s too difficult, seek a simple furniture-free house down a gang on the outskirts of Yogya, narrower than a cab.

Not that many try because few know where he lives and works, or, sadly, care.

”Indonesians find it difficult to interpret paintings,” Nugroho said.  “Overseas it’s easier to value and appreciate art.  One reason is because it’s not a topic taught in our schools.

“I’ve had few exhibitions in Indonesia, though one in Jakarta next year is being planned.  There are so many good artists here (in Yogya) but they are not getting the publicity.  My agents are all overseas.”

Originally from Bengkulu in Sumatra, Nugroho’s early life mirrored that of so many creative young people battling common perceptions that archipelagic artists may not starve in garrets, but they’re likely to go hungry in a bamboo shack.

His mother taught Indonesian, his father was a public servant; their son didn’t want to his Dad into uniformed oblivion or become a lawyer or doctor.  Status and money were not the issue.

“I just wanted to draw,” he said.  “So did my father who used to copy images from diorama of Indonesian revolutionaries defeating Dutch colonialists.  I was more interested in features, emotions and character.”

In 1999, aged 19 and alone, he moved to Yogya with a bag full of his self-taught art.  It took only two examinations of the lad and his portfolio by the admissions committee of the prestigious Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI) (Indonesian Institute of Fine Arts) to be convinced the man had the spark that might ignite. 

Most candidates undergo five tough trials to test their worth.

“At that time it was very difficult to get into ISI,” he said. “My work was mainly still life and sketches.  In class I was inspired by my teacher, Edi Sunaryo. 

“I  discovered artists like Salavor Dali (the surrealist Spanish artist) and the poetry of Chairil Anwar.”  A large portrait of Dali by Nugroho has just been sold to a Singapore couple where it dominates their flat.

Anwar was a prominent and prolific writer of Generation 1945.  His work stressed individualism and was often bleak. 

Yet these influences aren’t apparent in Nugroho’s work where inquiry trumps anger.  It’s exploratory and analytical, inviting rather than confronting, more like the work of another unlikely hero -  the 19th Century Pre-Raphaelite English painter of wistful women, John William Waterhouse.  He also featured large canvases.

Nugroho is friendly, low key – and cautious.  For the past two years he’s been a full-time professional artist earning serious money abroad but asked that figures not be quoted for fear of arousing jealousy.  A recent Taiwan auction would have helped pay for his motorbike and much of a new house. 

He got into the overseas galleries through introductions from another accomplished Yogya portraitist with a realistic pop-art style,  Dani ‘King’ Heriyanto.

But Singapore agent Watson Tan, who handles the work of both men, warned that the market was tough and crowded  and “only the fittest will survive.”

“Some artists are too demanding with prices even when they are young,” he said. “They need collectors to start their careers. Collectors or art agents these days are not naive about pricing.”  To tell it straight, greed kills.

Nugroho’s  only social comment was to deplore the anti-pornography laws which he claimed are curbing creativity.

The more significant impact on his style came from Sunaryo, a hard- edge painter and teacher at ISI, this year (2012) awarded a doctorate for his contribution and scholarship. His art has been widely sold overseas, though Nugroho’s work has yet to venture into the abstract world of his teacher.

“There are two types of artist,” said Nugroho.  “Those who copy and those who use their imagination.   I can copy, but I’m not very good.  Sometimes I use a model, other times not.  The inspiration can come from anywhere.”

Although unmarried he seems to understand some of the complex emotional inter-twinings of intimate relations.

“I like to paint the faces of women, they show so many conflicting moods,” he said.  “Her face may be sad but her heart happy.  It’s very complicated.  The  emotions of men  can be read more clearly.

“I sketch the original idea on the floor (he has no easel), then start to fill in with acrylic and water, layer by layer, sometimes up to seven, and then at times finishing in oil.  I think my technique is unique.”

In his village studio he’s still struggling to get two three-square meter canvases just right.  Both are of strong women, perhaps in their 30s whose faces seem to tell stories of experience and regret, yet tinged with remembered happiness.

A veil of horizontal lines, as though raining in one portrait, and a light horizontal mesh of twigs on the other, adds impact.  There’s sex aplenty, but not the sort that would arouse fundamentalists more concerned with body parts than soul.

“I want my work to be realistic, but decorative,” he said. “I’m still developing.  I fear getting stagnant if I stick to one technique.  I want the viewer to experience the emotion.”

Commented Watson Tan: “I do see Nugroho as a young emerging young artist on the Indonesian contemporary art scene.  I would love to see his work having deeper emotions which Nugroho will develop throughout the years.” (First published in The Jakarta Post 15 January 2013)


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