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, November 14, 2017


The art of seeing faith through art

Burial of the artist Henkus' father

Edwin Koamesah had a great idea.  That’s his assessment and maybe it will all turn out OK.
But maybe not and the news pages of The Jakarta Post and other dailies will have tales of real or confected outrage as protestors misinterpret motives and try to trash his dream.
For the record the Surabaya engineer, art collector and businessman says:  “Of course I’m confident it will work.  Why not?”  Others have their private doubts and mutter “it’s risky.” Which is probably correct.
So here’s the plan: To hold a travelling art exhibition called After Three Days.  It will open later this year in Surabaya and feature 20 large canvasses painted by artist Slamet Hendro Kusumo (Henkus).  These are being created in his studio called Omah Budaya Slamet (Slamet’s Cultural Home) in the East Java hilltown of Batu.
So far so good.  Now to the tricky part: Koamesah (right) is a Protestant, Henkus a Muslim; the pictures focus on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and what the Bible says happens next.  However there’s little in common with the art that features in churches across the archipelago.
A canvas of the Last Supper has the disciples ready to slice the top off a tumpeng, the yellow rice mountain served for special events.  In another Jesus seems to be a T-shirted preman (street thug) while his followers are more hoodlums than holies.
Thomas the kissing betrayer wears glasses. Features are Arabic, Indian, European, Chinese, Javanese and a mix. As there are no known portraits of Jesus made during his life, artists have developed their own images.  These usually show a slender, handsome bearded man who looks more Caucasian than Jewish.
Henkus rejects that standard, making the man republican, not regal.  He’s a bit plump but certainly human and ordinary, though the events are extraordinary.  The pictures may be cursed as sacrilegious by the orthodox who want trumpeting angel choirs and sunbeams shafting through clouds.
In the West this would be a yawn. The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar broke the blasphemy barriers 47 years ago. But Indonesia is different.
Some Muslims will be upset that a man of their faith is interpreting Christianity (Islam forbids portraits of Mohammad) – but that strengthens the impact, according to Koamesah who commissioned the works.  
 “We want these pictures to appeal to the young,” he said “We’ve developed the themes together, but these are Henkus’ paintings – and they go far beyond my expectations.
“It’s the strength of his interpretations that’s important. His art is powerful, it makes you think, and it stimulates discussions.”
It certainly did during three open-studio days.  Among those coming to peer and ponder was Anik Lailatul Muniroh, 21, (left) studying English at a local Islamic university.

“I’m a pluralist and like the idea,” she said before stating her position firmly:  “But don’t call me a liberal.”  When told the ruling group in Australian politics is called the Liberal Party and its supporters button-down conservatives she was even more confused.
“’Liberal’ in Indonesian means things like free sex and a bad lifestyle. But no-one is perfect in any religion.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  We should be searching for goodness.”
Many find the idea of valuing other religions difficult if it means diluting her own commitment. Henkus had no such concerns:
“Before starting work I had to research the life of Christ.  That included reading the Bible, Stamford Raffles’ History of Java and scholarly texts on Christianity.  I’ve questioned much, learned a lot and respected what I’ve read.  But Islam remains my path to God.
“It hurts me to hear people saying their belief is the only one. Every religion teaches the same thing – love.  Humans invented religion and we should keep open minds about other people’s beliefs and opinions.”

The artist (right) was born and raised in Batu which is the weekend refresher for weary Malangites as Bandung is for jaded Jakartans. But Henkus looks beyond the hotels and hedonism:
“You see the traffic and the crowds seeking fun but away from the roads is a community of artists sustained by the collective values of Indonesian village life.
“It’s the ideal location for anyone concerned with spirituality; it’s surrounded by the ancient kingdoms of Kediri, Singasari and Majapahit.”
When reminded that most of the known temples are in Malang’s flatlands he responded: “Those are only the ones known so far. There are more to be discovered, and they are here.”
This suggests Henkus, 58, has his head in the saturated clouds that drop onto the peaks in the afternoons but the man is well educated with a higher degree in sociology.  His mother was Chinese and his father from Java; they had no known artistic talent. Likewise his three children.
His parents let their son extend his inquiries into philosophy.  He’s assembled a complex set of ideas exploiting the paradoxes of religions where no-one knows the certainty of any statement said or written centuries ago, but instead mold texts to fit their outlook.
He populates his canvases with faces that look startled, dismayed, confused, never triumphant but not defeated. Sadly most are men, which fits the time-toughened narrative that women belong in the background as supporters not activists.
 Sometimes he adds words like Democracy Zero; these tend to diminish the effect by disallowing viewers the chance to make their own interpretations of the ambiguities. But these are minor gripes.
Henkus is a humanist not confined to religious art. His secular pictures are social commentaries - a group of mourning men burying his father knowing they will follow - a cluster of bemused middle-aged workers realising that the old ways of farming can no longer sustain their families.
“We can find our own faith through art,” he said. “Mixing the modern with tradition in subtle ways makes the point that some messages are valid whatever the place and time.  I hope that my work can lead to better understanding of the mysteries.”

 First published in The Jakarta Post 14 November 2017

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