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, September 10, 2014


Releasing the imprisoned talent   

Releasing the imprisoned talent                          
Art as a career has a bad name in Indonesia. Across the archipelago the same story repeatedly emerges in profiles of creative people: Their childhood talents were acknowledged but the family forbade formal study lest it interfere in the real purpose of life.
That meant being educated for a conventional profession. This being a culture of obedience the smart kids dried their eyes and brushes, let the paints harden and clay crumble. They became bankers and teachers, doctors and public servants, earning money, raising families, being seen as respectable and responsible.
In the case of Tatik Simanjuntak this meant training to be a lawyer, though she has never donned the black cloak of jurisprudence.
Instead she wears workshop plain and practical, and does what she wants – which is paint exquisite designs mainly drawn on glass. She takes these from the Hindu / Javanese epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, using wayang kulit figures but providing her own subtle interpretations. 
Although the term is usually translated as ‘leather puppets’ wayang is closely related to the Javanese word for spirits – bayang. For some the puppets are grotesque two-dimensional figures who jerk and gyrate their way across a simple screen -  poor guys’ TV.  For others they are a glimpse into another ancient world of magic and mystery. Only a few can enter that universe.
Tatik’s transition to professional artist is recent. She felt she couldn’t move until her father passed away, lest he die distressed because his daughter had disobeyed.   It wasn’t until 2007 that she was ready to uncage her spirit. By then she was 40 and a late starter indeed.
Has this caused problems?
“No, I don’t think so,” she said in her Malang studio.  “That’s given me time to mature and know what I want. I’ve never had formal lessons in art.  I’m still developing and experimenting - I’ve destroyed work that I don’t like.
“My friends from law school days are always facing problems – I’m not.  I don’t have a BMW but I’m happy, and I want others to be the same. I hope that can be done through my painting.
“I wasn’t a good student, just doing enough to pass.  I preferred to write poems than take lecture notes. I didn’t rebel – in Indonesian culture that could lead to a curse.”
Instead she’s been blessed. Her 20 square meter studio at the back of the town hall, perched above the Brantas River slashed in the volcanic rock far below. She’s in a cluster of similar buildings provided rent free by the local government to encourage artists to develop their businesses.
It’s a good idea, though there’s little passing traffic.  Fine for a quiet work environment, but not as showroom.  Fortunately the few who have found her have been the right people, including officials from the Governor of East Java’s office who bought 20 original pieces as gifts for diplomatic visitors.
“As a child in an army family we were constantly on the move,” she said.  “I was often sick and raised by different relatives in different towns. I learned to adjust and adapt.
“I like working and being alone. At first I painted portraits, but then started to draw from our culture.  I realised the wayang figures were the first true art in Java, caricatures of characters.
“I didn’t feel that I could change their features but I could add different backgrounds and ornaments.”    
After graduating she worked in a shop making handicrafts before turning to her first love. Since then her art has been shown at exhibitions in Bandung, Surabaya and Jakarta as well as her home city.  Last year she sent more than 50 pieces to Jakarta anticipating the sale of a couple.  All sold bar four.  It seemed that the once unwell child left to her imagination had found her place.
“As a child I loved to visit galleries and look at art books by myself. I was attracted to the work of Rembrandt which is probably why my work is in sombre tones.” The 17th century Dutch portraitist was famous for his iconography, the careful inclusion of other images to strengthen the principal feature, a style also followed by Tatik.
“When I lived with my grandmother she used to listen to wayang stories on the radio,” Tatik said.  “I used to lie there awake, absorbing the tales and characters. I so wish that children today were interested in our culture.  Bimo is my favourite.”
Also known as Bima or Werkudara, Bimo is a frightening, but soft-hearted figure – which might explain Tatik’s other passion – teaching art to poor children.  She started doing this in Malang’s alun-alun, the town square used by hundreds every day for chatting and recreation.
This led to an invitation to teach at Sunan Kalijojo, an elementary Islamic kampong school where she works one day a week. Here she encourages students to use their imagination to turn objects they find, including rubbish like drinking straws and plastic cups, into art.
“I also tell them about the wayang and batik designs so these are not lost” she said. “I have talent and I think it is the responsibility of artists to try and pass their skills on to others, particularly if they wouldn’t normally get that education.
“It’s hard to classify my work, or the sort of artist I am. I find the medium of glass to be most satisfying, and it doesn’t matter if the surface is flat or curved (as in big jars). Special inks imported from Europe are used to make sure the pictures can’t be rubbed off. I’m still experimenting and developing.
“There are many challenges.  Unlike canvas, glass can’t absorb.”
Glass painting was popular last century prior to the Japanese invasion and is often classified as ‘folk art’ by gallery curators. A reverse form was introduced from the Netherlands during the colonial era.
“Painting is expressing the wisdom of the heart,” Tatik said. “There must be chemistry between the artist and the viewer. If I had children I’d let them decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives.”

First published in The Jakarta Post 10 September 2014)

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