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, January 28, 2015


The man behind a thousand masks                           

Djoko Rendy claims he’s not an artist. Frequently. Like the Player Queen in Hamlet, does he protest too much?
His rejections seem sincere, not a sly attempt to suggest the reverse rules. Self-taught Djoko, 55, has long worked in modelling, painting and mask making.  He favors the pirate-style bangles and beads fashion statements beloved by Indonesian creative males, but it’s clear he’s more a dabbler and dreamer than grand master of the palette.
Perhaps his denials have more to do with respecting champions of their craft whose work hangs on Djoko’s Malang studio waiting for the right buyer to appear.
That’s likely to take time for the dirt-floored exhibition space, originally landfill for a former trash  tip, is precariously perched down steep mossy steps above the litter-strewn Brantas River.  Recent flooding has already eroded the sidewalk outside and a chasm looms. 
Djoko, who is also a bush handyman with a neat style in bamboo pole lashing, knocked together the studio using money from a car sale.  He lives here with his librarian wife Maria Carmela and son Ndaru Lazarus, 8.  The couple are also collectors; their tastes are eclectic, ranging from sublime Mary, the mother of Jesus, to topless Ratna Dewi, one of founding president Soekarno’s nine wives.
Although located in the center of the East Java city, just a chirp and a splash from the bird and fish markets, the open-sided gallery with no humidity controls would drive professional curators to hang themselves rather than their art.
But it does show what can be done with little money coupled with a determination to inspire.
“It makes me so sad to see young people with such little knowledge of their heritage,” Djoko said. “I put several proposals to the mayor’s office for projects that might halt that trend and attract tourists.
“However all were rejected – until I had the idea of celebrating one of our great traditions that’s in decline – mask making.  Not just a few, but a thousand.”
Malang is Majapahit heartland.  The Hindu-Buddhist fiefdom ruled much of present-day Indonesia and nearby countries before collapsing in the 16th century, probably through family feuding. 
Most survivors moved to Bali though remnants remain in villages around Mount Bromo, along with some of the ancient myths and crafts that Djoko wants to celebrate.

The Nagarakretagama poem in the National Museum in Jakarta tells of King Hayam Wuruk [1334 - 1389] dancing with a gold mask.  It’s one of the earliest records of wayang gedog, the East Java mask dances that focus on the loves and adventures of the mythical hero Prince Panji.
Djoko said there were 84 different masks representing characters in the stories – other alleged authorities reckon there are only 60.  One of the delights in encountering East Java history is that facts are few and interpretations many.
This became clear on a Sunday morning this month (18 Jan) when hundreds of women, men and kids gathered to show off their culture, interests, talents and pride.  Djoko may lack the finest artistic abilities, but the upside is that he seems to inspire self-expression.
What organizing committee member Siti Hardiyanti described as “a genuine gotong royong [community self-help] event with minimal official support” soon became obvious.
There were no politicians making pompous speeches, which was a relief. But when the participants paraded past the town hall, down to the railway station and back again the roads – all major thoroughfares - stayed open.  Which created the unimaginable - chaos greater than usual.
Further proof of the event’s authenticity was its lack of political correctness.  Jovial salesman Rudi Yused 36, turned up as a Nazi SS officer, unconcerned that if he did the same in Germany riots would erupt.
What did this have to do with Indonesian culture?  “I just want to be different,” he said.  “I’ve got uniforms from many countries, including Japan.”
Others chose to represent the colonialists they overthrew almost 70 years ago, wearing sackcloth khaki, draping their onthel [vintage bicycles] with bandoliers of ammunition, scabbards and saddlebags.  In Europe they would have been arrested at gunpoint by anti-terror squads – in Malang they were cheered by unthreatened crowds.
Heading the parade were statues of King Brawijaya’s son Prince Bathara Katong and Princess Dewi Songgolangit, figures from legend and a real or imagined history.  They were shouldered by brawny men led by Ki Genter Pamungkas carrying a carved stick.
The 87-year old happily attributed his sprightliness and longevity to art, exercise, patience and smoking hand-rolled kretek [clove flavored] cigarettes in a holder carved from a cow horn.

Like stormtrooper Rudi, the yellow-toothed nicotine addict would have been rapidly evicted from a similar parade in Australasia by health and safety officials for setting a bad example. Particularly to the youngsters in the Drumb [sic] Band behind, led by baton twirling Nia Purwati. Though a year short of her teens she displayed all the confidence and flair of a veteran performer.
“I came because I want my children to know about East Java culture,” said food seller Panji, 28, with his six year old son Ananda riding pillion.  “I really enjoy learning about history and the old days.”
The lion-head, peacock-feathered seni reyog dance from nearby Ponorogo has been well documented in academic journals, but how the band and bull fights fitted in was another conundrum. 
The boys sweating under their black costumes were more interested in charging their bovine rivals than discussing anthropology.  Goring a few Hondas helped clear the road for performers. Which all goes to prove that culture which evolves is culture that thrives.
Sadly no Europeans were seen in the crowds lining the streets.  If there was any coordination with tourism officials the results weren’t obvious.
Concluded Djoko: “It was a great, positive, spectacular experience for everyone, participants and onlookers. About 240 children were involved. We didn’t quite reach our goal but we got hundreds of masks made.  I hope we’ll do it every year. I feel proud.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 January 2014) 

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