Red for a black May day
He was 700 kilometers from the action and wasn’t involved politically or ethnically. But Anthony Wibowo felt anger and a deep sense of injustice when he heard the TV news.
On 12 May 1998 riots had erupted in Jakarta. They followed similar outbreaks in Medan (North Sumatra) and triggered violence in Solo, Central Java and other cities.
The outrages preceded the 21 May resignation of President Soeharto, the end of his despotic New Order government and start of transition to democracy.
More than 1,000 looters and others are estimated to have died, and almost 200 women raped, triggering an exodus of Chinese families to Singapore and Australia.
“I felt mad because humanity was being wounded,” the East Java artist said. “I didn’t know the victims, but I got goosebumps when watching the news. I felt powerless. All I could do was paint. So I worked throughout the night and by dawn was exhausted.”
The result is Mei Merah (Red May) a large abstract canvas in pastel ochre and carmine (see above). It could be a vast jumble of body parts, the trash from an emergency operating theater – or maybe an orgy. Or, more simply, a jigsaw.
Individual clues, like fingers, limbs and faces are rare – and even when identified could be interpreted otherwise.
Overall it’s a powerful and chilling work, and the fact that it still hangs in Wibowo’s lounge suggests only an avant-garde gallery or overseas collector would want it on their wall.
Why red and not black? “It was certainly a dark moment in Indonesia’s recent history,” he said. “But black is the symbol of death – it means everything has finished.
“Despite all this I remain an optimist. I’m not worried if people like it or don’t. Whether it gets sold or not – well, I don’t care. I paint for myself.” However later he added: “I also paint to build a relationship with the viewer.”
Meanwhile upstairs in his studio only accessed by a hazardous staircase, a large portrait is being created of Siti Hartinah, otherwise known as Ibu Tien.
The second president’s late wife, widely believed to be the power behind the throne, died two years before her husband quit the Palace. Javanese traditionalists believe that her passing weakened the leader and opened the way to Reformation.
It’s a commissioned work and the otherwise open Wibowo either doesn’t know or won’t say where it’s destined to be hung. As it shows the dimple-cheeked lady looking empathetic, the buyer is clearly an admirer – perhaps hoping to do business with a dynasty that allegedly still retains authority and influence.
As a child Wibowo was a graffiti kid, obsessed with drawing on flat surfaces like hospital walls and roads. However in those days he was limited to charcoal so rain soon washed away his art.
When he got married to Endang Marhaeni 44 years ago Wibowo told his parents and in-laws that he’d be able to support his new wife and future family. (The couple have three children).
He wanted to do this through art but the elders reckoned this was a career with limited prospects. So he trained as an educator at what is now the Malang State University. He then used his pedagogical skills to teach art at private schools for about ten years.
He moved to Bali and returned to Malang in 1979.
Apart from stints in classrooms and a couple of years designing furniture he’s been able to make what appears to have been a reasonable living.
That’s the impression from the state of the handsome house he built in the village of Lesanpuro on the outskirts of Malang two decades ago. It doesn’t shriek wealth like the villas of business tycoons advertising they’re cashed up; there’s a motorbike in the yard not a Land Cruiser.
Writhing exotics, canopies and creepers share the garden with artefacts and statues – including one from the 15th century Majapahit era, blossom-strewn like a shrine. Twisted timbers on one wall – a plough, or a cross?
There are no buildings behind so unrestricted light floods his workplace. Future obstructions are unlikely, for the slope outside is a public cemetery. Proximity to the dead seems to spook Javanese, though not Wibowo despite one grave containing the remains of a relative.
The house is culturally nailed to the lower Western slope of Mount Semeru, Java’s highest peak (3,676 meters), daily dusting the lush landscape with fine volcanic ash. It’s close to the Luhur Dwijawarsa Hindu shrine deep in the forest, and many mosques. Altogether a multi-faith environment.
Wibowo, 70, is a jolly fellow, an elder of the energetic Malang Art Community, often acting as an adjudicator. He’s exhibited locally and in Surabaya and Denpasar.
His dad was a public servant, soldier and folk seer with a relaxed attitude towards organized religion. So when his wide-reading son decided to convert from Islam apparently few were fussed. “Father only said: ‘If you are going to be a Catholic, then be a good one’.”
Since then Wibowo’s faith has influenced his work though it would be wrong to label him a religious artist as his themes are eclectic, swinging from Biblical parable to comment on sexual stereotypes and references to Javanese mysticism.
“My artistic hero was Vincent Van Gogh (the 19th century Dutch post impressionist who also used color as emotion),” he said. “Fortunately I don’t suffer the turmoil he felt. Degas, Monet and Picasso have also influenced me.
“I’m not really a perfectionist but I know when my work is finished. I don’t keep revisiting and retouching. Nor do I like being put into boxes like expressionist or traditionalist. These are Western categories imposed by academics.
“The function of a painting is to reflect the reality of life, which includes suffering and beauty. I don’t want the viewer to talk about art, but about life. I hope those who see my work will feel and share my experience.”
Many of his subjects are women, young and old, and not always externally beautiful. He gets upset about their objectification by society and the way politicians propose laws that victimize females in issues such as pornography, but leave men alone.
“Maybe having artistic talent is a blessing because I can express myself when confronted by serious and unpredictable events, like the May 1998 riots,” he said.
“At least I can draw attention to the need for responsibility in society and how we can determine values.”
((First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2016
((First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2016