Newfound Infatuation With Indonesian Art Brings Mixed Blessings

  • Javanese painter Agus Baqul Purnomo between brush strokes at his studio in Yogyakarta.

    Javanese painter Agus Baqul Purnomo between brush strokes at his studio in Yogyakarta.

  • A recent show by Agus Baqul Purnomo.

    A recent show by Agus Baqul Purnomo.

  • Canvases in storage at Tembi Contemporary in Yogyakarta.

    Canvases in storage at Tembi Contemporary in Yogyakarta.

  • Outside the gallery, which occupies a Javanese-style house.

    Outside the gallery, which occupies a Javanese-style house.

  • Balinese painter Putu Sutawijaya at work.

    Balinese painter Putu Sutawijaya at work.

  • Taking a break in his basement studio at Yogyakarta’s Sangkring Art Space.

    Taking a break in his basement studio at Yogyakarta’s Sangkring Art Space.

  • Inside the strikingly modern Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung, with Gandhi An Angel by Heri Dono hanging in the foreground.

    Inside the strikingly modern Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung, with Gandhi An Angel by Heri Dono hanging in the foreground.

  • Mohammad Yusuf of the Taring Padi group with a recent painting.

    Mohammad Yusuf of the Taring Padi group with a recent painting.

  • Rudi Mantofani on a chair of his own design outside his Yogyakarta studio.

    Rudi Mantofani on a chair of his own design outside his Yogyakarta studio.

  • An unfinished painting by Putu Sutawijaya.

    An unfinished painting by Putu Sutawijaya.

  • Beatrix Hendriani at work in her studio-cum-bedroom in Bandung.

    Beatrix Hendriani at work in her studio-cum-bedroom in Bandung.

  • A bamboo installation by Eko Prawoto at Cemeti Art House.

    A bamboo installation by Eko Prawoto at Cemeti Art House.

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Above: Purnomo’s rich palette of acrylics.

From Jakarta to Yogyakarta, contemporary galleries are selling their inventories faster than they can restock them. But will collectors’ newfound infatuation for Indonesian art last?

By Jason Tedjasukmana
Photographs by Martin Westlake

Earlier this year, Tembi, a sleepy village in central Java, made its debut on Indonesia’s contemporary arts scene. Located on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, the ancient royal city that is home to some of the country’s finest traditional arts, Tembi Contemporary gallery opened its doors with an inaugural exhibition featuring five of the hottest young talents in the local art world. Within hours, the show had nearly sold out.

If “irrational exuberance” once described an unhinged stock market in the United States in the 1990s, the same could be said of the Indonesian art market circa 2008. That Tembi, a community of several hundred villagers engaged mostly in making Javanese handicrafts and knickknacks for export, could become the base for a progressive gallery says a lot about the lengths art collectors will go to seek out fresh talent—and the allure of picking up their works at a fraction of the price they might fetch in a big city. Call it bargain hunting or just savvy business. Either way, Valentine Willie, one of Tembi’s founders, has made it clear that he’s striking while the iron’s hot. “We’re not really cashing in,” the renowned Malaysian gallerist explains. “But the time is right.”

Indeed it is. At nearly every major Asian art auction since early 2007, a new record has been set for thirtysomething Indonesian artists like Rudi Mantofani and the prolific, ponytailed I Nyoman Masriadi. And the trend doesn’t show any sign of slowing. At Christie’s Hong Kong in May, a Masriadi painting—Sudah Biasa Ditelanjangi (Used to Being Stripped), which depicts an overweight man with a pair of pink panties around his ankles—sold for nearly US$540,000; not bad for a work completed just a few months earlier by an art-school dropout. Agus Baqul Purnomo, one of five artists exhibited at Tembi Contemporary’s opening, sold 10 of his 12 paintings the first night, and would go on to sell 17 more at a solo show there a few months later. And in August, Sotheby’s held its first exhibition in Indonesia, an event that also marked the opening of the auction house’s Jakarta office. Deborah Iskandar, Sotheby’s local consultant, says the prices fetched by Indonesian art are ideal at the moment, “high enough to keep things interesting, but still relatively cheap compared to Indian and Chinese art.”

With such a meteoric rise in the value and stature of domestically produced works, many observers are asking if the boom is sustainable, a factor that very much will be determined by the small number of art collectors in the country, estimated at around 300. “We need to support Indonesian artists so that the bottom doesn’t fall out of the market,” says Djie Tjianan, a prominent collector and former owner of the CP Foundation in Washington, D.C. “But it’s like any new bar in Jakarta; you never know if it is going to be around in six months.”

That has certainly been the case with artists like Ivan Sagito, Erica Hestu Wahyuni, and Made Sukadana, all of whom have seen their prices level off, if not fall, over the past few years. “There is a lot of overvaluation in the market,” explains Agung Jennon, a curator at the strikingly modern Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung. “Indonesian buyers are boosting the prices, but if they ever pull their support, the opposite could happen.”

In anticipation of that day, more and more artists are beginning to show their works overseas. Rudi Mantofani, a hot-selling painter and sculptor from the Yogyakarta-based Kelompok Jendela (Window Group), is preparing for solo shows in Singapore and China, while puppet master Heri Dono is gearing up for an exhibition in Chicago. International dealers are also taking notice. Francois Grossas, a Jakarta-based banker, believes so strongly in the market that he is cashing in his chips at the International Finance Corporation to open a gallery of Indonesian art in Singapore this October. “The base of collectors is expanding,” Grossas says. “The Koreans and Japanese are also looking at Indonesian art, so the interest is definitely there.”

As galleries open at an unprecedented clip in Jakarta, dealers are scrambling to find enough art to cover the walls of their new ventures.

Most look to Yogyakarta—known as Yogya (pronounced “jog-juh”) for short—and Bandung, arguably the country’s top two cities for contemporary art today. But even veterans there complain that stocks are limited. “It’s difficult for us to get works even from our old friends,” says Nindityo Adipurnomo, cofounder of Yogya’s legendary Cemeti Art House. Nindityo and his wife, artist Mella Jaarsma, helped launch the careers of such luminaries as Heri Dono, Eddie Hara, and Agus Suwage and have been at the vanguard of the country’s art scene since Cemeti opened its doors in 1988.

So what makes Bandung and Yogyakarta such fertile creative ground? The answer lies in the leafy campuses that dominate these student towns, each of which tends to produce a distinct style and sensibility. Yogya, a one-hour flight from the capital, is best known on the tourist trail for its 18th-century keraton (palace) and the nearby temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Once the seat of a powerful sultanate, the city enjoys a rich legacy of court-sponsored arts and crafts, spanning dance, puppet theater, batik, and the making of wavy-bladed keris (ceremonial daggers). Little wonder then that it was also home to many of Java’s great 20th-century masters, including Widayat, Trubus, and Affandi, who died in 1990 and is possibly the country’s most famous painter internationally.

Today, dozens of universities and tertiary schools in Yogya attract kids from across the archipelago. The primary magnet is the Institut Seni Indonesia, or Indonesian Institute of Arts (ISI), where artists from Bali, Sumatra, and even the eastern Indonesian island of Sumbawa have all made their names. It doesn’t hurt that some of the country’s most influential collectors, like Dr. Oei Hong Djien and Deddy Irianto from nearby Magelang, are also based in the area.

One ISI graduate describes Yogya as a place “where one can still survive as a pure artist.” Yet he also says that the standards at his alma mater have dropped since he graduated in the 1990s, largely as a result of the school easing its enrollment criteria to capitalize on the boom times. “They don’t have as many tests and you don’t need to prove you have the money to attend,” concurs painter Mohammad Yusuf, cofounder of the Taring Padi artists’ collective. “It’s like they’re creating robots.” The political “protest art” of the Taring Padi members—aimed at furthering the causes of democracy and farmers’ rights—may not be representative of the more cerebral and conceptual art coming out of Yogya, but it is dedicated to the same agrarian ideals that attract many young artists to the city, where the cost of living is in any case a fraction of Jakarta’s. “This was a place that I knew would help me develop as an artist,” says Putu Sutawijaya, a Balinese native who studied and met his wife at ISI. “It helped me stand out from so many other great Balinese artists. It helped me find my own style.”

That style, often depictions of genderless torsos twisting across a canvas in a Matisse-like rhythm, has become one of the most sought-after at auction. Before 2007, paintings by the 37-year-old sold for a few thousand dollars; last May, the gavel came down at more than US$70,000 for one of his paintings on the block at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Sutawijaya has used his newfound fame and fortune to create the Sangkring Art Space and the Sanggar Dewata Indonesia, a collective of Balinese artists based in the ancient city.

“Yogya is the best place to meet others from around Indonesia,” says I Nyoman Adiana, who sometimes shows with the Sanggar Dewata. “The competition is good for stimulating ideas.”

An equally charged creative milieu has taken root in Bandung, a city of two million people set high in the salubrious Parahyangan Mountains behind Jakarta. You wouldn’t think that a place with such relentless traffic could be a hotbed of artistic foment, but Bandung, the provincial capital of West Java, does have its charms, from the Art Deco colonial-era buildings that line its downtown streets to the lush highland scenery that lies beyond them.

Graduates from the Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) say their city channels its artists in directions other than just fine art. “In Bandung the scene is very individualistic and artists don’t mix as much as they do in Yogya,” says Beatrix Hendriani, a graduate from ITB’s Faculty of Art and Design. “Because we don’t have as many shows here, there is less chance to get ahead and many just choose to work in design fields.”

Bex, as she is known in the art world, says that the emphasis at ITB is more on research, while Yogya’s ISI stresses practice. “At ITB, everything is based on reason,” adds curator Rifky Effendi, who also went to school in Bandung.

The melding of art and commerce is evident throughout Bandung, which is trying to establish its creative credentials through annual festivals like Helarfest, a monthlong summer showcase of homegrown talent. Distros (distribution outlets) have emerged as rivals to the cheap factory outlets that Jakartans flock to when they invade the city every weekend. The tiny boutiques carry the clothing, shoes, jewelry, and other creations of young designers who look to the streets for inspiration as they try to make their name while setting new trends.

Willy Himawan, another ITB graduate, says Bandung artists are moving away from the abstract art once championed by Sunaryo, A. D. Pirous, and the older generation of artists that once defined the city. “Contemporary for us is what is happening with today’s technology, like digital imagery,” explains Himawan, 25, a member of the influential Abtstrax group of artists that graduated in 2002. “Reality is a product of images so we just expand it.” Himawan and his group, all under 30, cite Gerhard Richter as a major influence and their images, often blurred and detached from their natural surroundings, echo the brilliance of the German master.

So what is reality at a time when fresh graduates can ask for US$5,000 per painting and get it? And how long can prices continue to rise in the absence of institutions that historically have helped determine the value and importance of painters in Europe and the United States?

Success may be overdue for the country’s promising young artists, but distortions in the marketplace could prove perilous for those without a track record. The right provenance—or history of exhibition and ownership—is a critical measure by which most works of art are valued in the West, in addition to rarity, condition, and price history. But it’s hardly a consideration in a market where, in absence of long-established galleries like New York’s Gladstone, Castelli, or Gagosian, the auction system dominates.

“Auction houses are going directly to the artists and this is distorting things,” complains Tita Rubi, an artist and head of the Indonesian Contemporary Art Network. “They don’t care about an artist’s development, only the prices they fetch. It’s a dangerous situation when some paintings go up for sale just two months after they’ve dried.”

For David Klein, a dealer based in the United States, the marketing knowledge and reach of major houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s play a crucial role in Asia’s contemporary art scene. “The direct-to auction model is attractive because a local, mature gallery/dealer system is currently almost nonexistent,” he says. But Klein also notes that once a work “buys in” (auction parlance for failing to sell) two or three times, an artist could lose favor with collectors for good. “If an artist’s works bomb, that could spell the end of his or her career at auction, a primary vehicle for selling art in Asia.”

With dozens of Indonesian artists now breaking sale records for Southeast Asian art, that advice might sound alarmist, yet many worry that the recent boom in Indonesian art is not only transforming the art market but the art itself. Yogya-based artist Arahmaiani has witnessed the change first-hand around her, particularly near the ISI campus. “In the village of Sewon behind the campus, sculptors are turning into painters and painters are creating bigger canvases to fetch higher prices,” she says with dismay. “People are even going around in pickup trucks asking kids if they’re painters and making them paint them something they can try to sell.”

The stratospheric prices of Chinese art only add to the pressure to commercialize.

“Chinese art is very influential right now,” attests Balinese painter I Nyoman Adiana, 32. “Young artists see what’s out there and what is selling, and it affects them.” If that weren’t bad enough, works on display at the Yogyakarta Art Festival this summer were already looking like knockoffs of Rudi Mantofani and other stars from the Kelompok Jendela. “The market can only accommodate works that look a certain way or are visually pleasing,” Arahmaiani adds. “More challenging works are just not selling.”

That may hold true for some, but don’t tell that to the artists finding buyers for paintings that can be as dark as the Kiefer-like canvases of Stefan Buana or as demented as the childlike scribblings of Bob “Sick” Yudistira. Each artist has seen his works reach new heights at auction, and Yogya-based Buana nearly sold out his show at Jakarta’s National Gallery in July. “The boom this past year has been crazy,” says Amir Sidharta, whose eponymous auction house has joined an increasingly crowded field. “Before, we had trouble selling anything.”

Such a predicament was nowhere on display at Tembi Contemporary or at the four other galleries that held openings on the same evening—all in or around Yogya. “The wealth of talent in Yogya makes it the undisputed artists’ capital of Indonesia,” adds Kadek Krishna Adidharma, who curated the show at Tembi. As the canvases flew off the walls, it became clear that this young gallery was about to transform the local landscape as much as the local market has been reshaping the world of contemporary Indonesian art.

Originally appeared in the October/November 2008 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mixed Blessings”)

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