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

Sunday, January 03, 2016


Chalk thief to gumnut gatherer                       

The Tugu Tani statue in Menteng of a sturdy farmer farewelled by his humble wife is one of the best – or worst - examples of Russian Realism beloved by the late President Soekarno.  The genre is now widely discredited – but what’s the scene now?  Duncan Graham reports from Perth and Yogyakarta.

It all started with nicking chalk while the teacher’s back was turned.

Fortunately when Ninus Anusapati (left) was a schoolboy in the 1960s, whiteboard markers had yet to be invented, so the raw material of classroom instruction was plentiful and wouldn’t be missed.

Most pupils dutifully copied their master’s blackboard scribbles, but to one naughty lad’s creative mind the gypsum could be better used.

Inside each plain stick of chalk lurked an image waiting to be born, wanting only the hands of the right midwife, or in his case, the subtle gougings of a penknife.

It was a rare though not a novel idea; at the time the young Javanese was unaware that the 15th century Italian artist Michelangelo is said to have entertained similar thoughts about beauty seeking release from coarse inanimate objects.

That knowledge and much more, would come later. The journey moved beyond carved chalk when the son of a customs officer resisted his parents’ plans for a career in the bureaucracy. 

 Instead he entered Yogyakarta’s famous Institut Seni Indonesia [ISI – Indonesian Arts Institute]. His parents should not have fretted.   Their creative son was rapidly recognized and is now the national president of the Indonesian Sculptors’ Association.

After graduating in 1984 he won a Fulbright Scholarship to the Pratt Institute and studied for two years in New York.  Now he’s back in ISI as vice rector, uncomfortable that his administrative duties are crimping his once substantial output.

“I originally thought I wanted to be an architect,” he said in a splendid new office on the old campus.   Surprisingly this demonstrates a concern for design. Most government buildings are concrete pillars with infill, as riveting as a stack of shipping containers.

Does this indicate a fresh approach to supporting the arts? ”I hope so, it’s overdue,” said Anusapati, 58, though he doubts that President Joko Widodo is an enthusiastic culture man. 

“Soekarno was interested in art, though he favored a Soviet style in public statues.  These were more political statements than art.

“Nothing cultural happened under [second president] Soeharto unless it was an attempt to legitimize his version of history.  As a country we’ve been constantly searching for identity – but finding nothing.” 

Yet Java was once a workshop of skilled artisans carving detailed frescoes on the splendid temples erected before the fall of the Majapahit Empire in the early 16th century.

Added Anusapati: “Though there are plenty of modern monuments I don’t know of any city in Indonesia that has a public sculpture park. That’s something I’d like to see introduced, like Gomboc’s in Western Australia.”  [See Breakout]

Apart from private commissions his work is in the National Gallery in Jakarta and in galleries in the Netherlands, Italy, the USA and Singapore. He has just returned from completing Sound Tower a commission in Japan involving wooden bells.

Critics trawling for a repetition of ideas and styles will be disappointed.  The man is versatile and his art resists easy assessments.  Much is abstract – it’s the form that seduces.

Anusapati is at ease with a casting on a coffee table that used bamboo in the mold, the carved roots of coconut palms, or a giant bronze of freedom fighter Ngurah Rai who died in 1946 in a battle against the Dutch. This artwork is at the new Denpasar airport named after the Revolutionary hero.

Naturally this eight-meter statue has the subject’s name as title – though labeling works is something Anusapati is reluctant to do. He believes art should speak for itself and let viewers determine their feelings without being guided by words on a plinth.

“The challenge is to think and not be told,” he said. “As artists we are dealing in symbols, not words.  Some people get it – others don’t.  It doesn’t really matter.”

But it does.  Exhibitors need a title in their catalogues. So reluctantly he adds labels, like The Journey for a small empty wooden boat floating in a sea of discarded wood shavings; the work is now owned by Western Australia’s Curtin University of Technology.

At the start of this millennium Anusapati was artist in residence at the university’s School of Art. Every year since an exhibition has been staged at the Gomboc Gallery in Perth’s Swan Valley featuring artists from around the world. However Anusapati remains the only Indonesian so far to have been invited.

“I was among about 14 international artists and we went to a camp deep in the forest,” he said.  “I was fascinated to discover different trees, particularly the hardwood jarrah and gum trees which shed large nuts.  I brought some back for a collection.

“Then, as now, refugee boats were sailing from Indonesia to Australia and getting arrested or turned back.  This inspired my work.  Humans are not goods that can be imported and exported.

“I’ve always been interested in natural objects – and also those from industry, how the two can be together or apart.  Sculpture has gone through many changes – the term now embraces all materials.

“You can use anything, paper, cloth, found objects, waste - that would not have been allowed when I was a student. Other barriers have come down, though sculpture remains a minority and male interest – we get few female students.”

Despite the building changes on the ISI campus there’s an avenue of deans, a parade of roman-style busts of worthy academics.

 These seem to fit into the traditional role of Indonesian sculpture – honoring the past rather than exploring the future.

“But I am optimistic,” said Anusapati.  ““The dominance of Western art is vanishing. So are boundaries. It’s now difficult to tell whether this is a Japanese piece of work or European or American.  I like that.”  

The bronze visionary of the Swan Valley

During more than 30 years of running international programs, sculptor Ron Gomboc, 68, has hosted scores of overseas artists – but only one Indonesian, Anusapati – at his Sculpture Park, the largest private gallery in Western Australia.

“We’d welcome interest from the Archipelago,” Gomboc said.  “Please apply. We’re neighbors.  We should be sharing.  Where’s the new generation of Indonesian sculptors?”

Since 1984 Gomboc has been funding an annual sculpture exhibition inviting overseas artists to work and exhibit. It’s an opportunity Japanese, South Korean and Chinese artists and their governments have seized with enthusiasm.

In the creative arts, skills alone are not enough to turn talent into business.  You need a champion, like Vincent van Gough’s brother Theo, to attract the buyers and keep the accounts.

The right name is also important.  Gomboc Gallery is alliteratively artistic, while Sculpture Park suggests open air and little chance of being buttonholed by a curator talking down her nose at a Philistine who’d strayed into an elite environment. 

The gallery is located in Western Australia’s Swan Valley, 40 minutes from Perth’s Central Business District, so no great effort is required to discover the site – an important factor to remember for any Indonesians planning a similar venture.

Ratimir Marijan Gomboc sounds exotic but the man is unpretentious, ruggedly Australian. The Slovenian labels given by his parents didn’t roll easily off the tongue, particularly when the users are monolingual. So his forenames were mangled to become Ron.

Gomboc wasn’t going to let anyone make him an outsider.  Instead the teen who arrived from the former Yugoslavia with his family enthusiastically embraced his new country and made it his own.

He was conscripted and served for two years with the Royal Australian Engineers, putting the time to good use.  During his service with the Army he studied painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. 

So he was well prepared in the 1970s when the arts flourished with backing from a reform government and a booming mining industry with cash to spare for culture.

Gomboc didn’t just start to sell – he became an entrepreneur for sculpture.  He’s won more than 20 international and local awards, including WA Citizen of the Year.

He’s succeeded by creating the 4.5 hectare Sculpture Park with around 100 pieces, and making it open to the public to encourage creation and appreciation.  However he attributes much to his wife Terrie.

“None of this would have happened without her support,” he said, waving his hand across the plantation of steel, bronze and concrete sculptures.

“You can’t do something like this alone.  You need support.  I also thank everyone who’s bought or commissioned my work.”

Two years ago a cultural exchange exhibition was organized with the United Arab Emirates, and Gomboc sees no reason why a similar program can’t be run with Indonesia to the benefit of both nations.

Unlike many other artists Gomboc doesn’t design and get others to make his creations. After leaving school he worked with his builder father so learned engineering skills.

Gomboc is a polymath and can turn his hand from abstracts delighting the avant-garde through to religious figures that traditional conservatives would appreciate.

“I’ve only contracted out once,” he said.  “This was for Northern Spirits ordered by the iron ore company Fortescue Metal Group and now standing in Port Hedland.

“It stands 12 meters and was just too big for one man so I had to get in made in an engineering factory.  But everything else I’ve done myself.”

His other commissions have included a memorial to film actor Heath Ledger [Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight] who died in 2008 from a prescription drug overdose, and the Australian Academy of Cinema and TV Arts awards, Australia’s Oscars.

The Gomboc workshop behind the park is a sculptor’s paradise, equipped with welders, cutters and presses, hoists and pulleys – and a foundry.  There’s all the equipment to handle aluminum, steel and bronze, Gomboc’s favorite metal though like Anusapati he’ll work in anything, including wood.

This makes it an ideal one-stop workshop for visiting artists.  There’s even self-contained accommodation.  All it needs are creative Indonesians.

First published in J-Plus - The Jakarta Post 3 January 2016

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