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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


A Turtle called Democracy                                     

He’s huge as befits a sprawling archipelago of many parts – and like the nation’s political system is still a work in progress.
But by the time the new President is inaugurated on 20 October, Malang metal sculptor Ono Gaf’s monster Democracy Turtle should be close to completion.
“I don’t want to rush it,” he said.  “This is not an exercise in speed – every cog, wheel and gear, spring and sprocket has to tell me where it wants to go.
“I like turtles.  I kept them as a child so I know their characteristics. They move slowly but methodically. They’re strong and can take hard knocks.
“They are wise and quiet.  They are determined and they persevere.  They never bother people and are always going forward. 
“There’s a Javanese children’s story [much like Aesop’s Fable of the Hare and Tortoise] about a race between a kancil (mouse deer) and a kura-kura (turtle).  The faster animal loses because it’s arrogant and doesn’t take the contest seriously. These are all qualities I respect and for me they’re present in our new democracy.”
Ono pedals a bike around scrap dealers and workshops where old vehicles – mainly busses – are broken up for spare parts.  He selects what appeals, already knowing where they’ll fit, and hauls them in sacks to the construction site using public transport.
“Some passengers think I’m a gombel (scavenger),” he said. “But it would cost a lot to have truck loads delivered.  They’re my treasury.”
The three-tonne monster is being constructed for a retired doctor who is also an artist, though specialising in small and delicate plant arrangements.  He owns a restaurant in the hill town of Batu outside Malang in East Java, though Democracy Turtle is hidden from street view at the back of the property.
Ono said the doctor, who shied publicity, had been unable to buy the self-taught artist’s sculptures at exhibitions so had decided to commission for an undisclosed sum.  Work started in May and Ono lives on site during weekdays.
Some restaurant staff help with spot-welding at Ono’s direction.
There are scores of other sculptures by Ono at gated upscale housing communities and outdoor theme centers in East Java.  The Eco-Green Park in Batu displays his scrap metal birds alongside the feathered varieties.
Democracy Turtle has attracted widespread interest, with bus loads of international tourists and tertiary students coming to watch the three-meter high terrapin grow. Visitors who reckon they’re mechanically smart try to identify the parts – others are overawed by its complexity.
“I’m 66 and I want this sculpture to be my masterpiece,” Ono said. “This isn’t just about welding metal – for me it’s spiritual.  That’s why it’s taking time to get established, just like our democracy.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 August 2014)

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