A Small Window Into Stately Frames

The colorful state of Indonesia turns seventy-one this month. As countries go it’s not that old, yet thanks to the tragically poor teaching of history, the earlier decades are starting to fade. Many Indonesians don’t quite know their history and don’t even realize they don’t know.

Art is one of the tools to tell history and preserve memory. Another problem for Indonesia, as art also hasn’t been taught adequately beyond simple drawing or watercolor painting. Our art museums are mostly uninspiring. Children’s artistic talents are often squashed early by parents who prefer professions with a clear career path in this country with high unemployment. Our failure to appreciate art has led many Indonesian masterpieces to find secure home overseas.

Grim? Yes. Is all lost? Perhaps not. There are still places in Indonesia, beyond the vault of private collectors, though far from public eye, where masterpieces have been stored; State Palaces, scattered around Java and Bali.

We really should be grateful that founding father Soekarno was a true intellectual with a keen love for art, for the artworks obtained or commissioned during his administration made up the good base of collection from which next presidents have expanded and preserved in different degrees, reaching now to over 15,000 items. A small fraction of it is displayed now to public for the first time ever.

28 paintings, 4 ceramics, 100 photographs and a handful of art books from State Palaces are exhibited in Galeri Nasional throughout August, curated in the theme of patriotic struggles against colonialism to commemorate the 71st Independence Day, billed the 17/71 Exhibition.

There was Basoeki Abdullah’s ravishing painting of Pangeran Diponegoro during 19th c. Java War, Affandi’s tossed-away “poster” to fire up independence guerillas that Soekarno quietly picked up for safekeeping, Henk Ngantung’s bold strokes that provided the backdrop of independence declaration press conference, or S. Sudjojono’s melancholy illustration of families fleeing Solo and Yogya on foot as Dutch & Allies bombers returned post 1945 independence. And of course, the piece de resistance—Raden Saleh’s masterpiece of the dramatic capture of the proud Pangeran Diponegoro, painted over 2 decades after the actual event and as a rebuttal, if you will, to Nicholaas Pienemaan’s 1830 painting of Pangeran Diponegoro meekly surrendering to the Dutch. Raden Saleh might’ve spent most of his adult life in Europe but you can’t say the man wasn’t patriotic.

Speaking of foreign artists, there was a handful of delightful works from foreign artists on display. There was certainly a little bit of what one might consider as the “Mooi Indie” romanticism, yet brilliant paintings remain brilliant paintings. While Walter Spies’ 1930 rendering of what 9th c. Buddhist settlement around Borobudur Temple might’ve looked like is my favorite in terms of visual, the best background story laid in the acquisition of Diego Rivera’s 1961 depiction of a Malayan girl holding flowers, where Soekarno’s relentless pleads over what was then a part of Mexico’s presidential collection eventually led to President Lopez issuing a decree to release it outside Mexico. Men, women, presidents—clearly Soekarno knew how to charm them all.

Criticisms, I have a few. Some of the painting captions don’t properly cite provenance, some have typos. The photographs were too small for many people to truly enjoy. None of the ceramics had caption at all. I briefly met the curator who humbly acknowledged that disciplined art archiving hasn’t been enforced within State Palaces. On the organization side, the ushers forbid women carrying handbags inside while men clutching male pouches entered smoothly, prompting me to protest.

Yet as a small window into the treasures that help picturing the country’s early history, it’s a good exhibition. Bar the argument with ushers over bags, I had a lovely time. The guidebook said the idea was initiated during Megawati’s presidency, and Yudhoyono started lending out several pieces for public events, but it’s only now a curated collection is brought out from State Palaces to be displayed for public benefit, and for this gracious gesture I sincerely thank President Jokowi.

Next step, hopefully, is the opening of all State Palaces for history & art tours. White House’s such tour is so interesting and well-organized people would line up under scorching summer sun for an attendance. I heard the Bogor Presidential Palace now starts to run a guided tour, hopefully all Palaces, including the two sharing that vast compound in Central Jakarta, will follow soon. If Jackie Kennedy managed to reorganize White House’s art treasures during her husband’s short presidency, without the help of computers or Internet, I trust Indonesian art scholars can do much more than that if welcomed and given latitude to do so.

So yes, bring you family and friends to see these treasures. If you’re enchanted, I suggest a day at the Southeast Asia wing of National Gallery on your next visit to Singapore, where numerous Indonesian art masterpieces including Raden Saleh’s biggest painting hangs proudly. If you’re also into contemporary art, Jakarta Art Stage opens this weekend, giving a merry addition to a weekend spent well catching a glimpse of gilded, stately frames.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/08/06/urban-chat-a-small-window-stately-frames.html

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