Saturday, March 21, 2015

Artistic Gambling In “Three Characters, Three Colors”

"Prahara", lukisan karya Anang To2 Sutoto, Medan.

By Kuss Indarto 

Fine art is empowered to question itself and its community by searching for appropriate ideas. It develops on its own dynamics, including its own dialectic ideas. In other words, it is expected that it carries self- development, not simply following the development of fine art in a foreign country (the West).

~ Sanento Yuliman, “Fine Art in the Transition Period: Where does the Young Spirit Go? Kompas daily newspaper, 7 June 1987

Beauty is the infinite depicted in the finite.[Keindahan adalah ketidakterbatasan yang digambarkan dalam suatu batas]
~ August Wihelm Schlegel


FINALLY, the three fine art artists: Anang To2 Sutoto, M. Yatim Mustafa, and S. Handono exhibited their works together; the one which they had planned for a long time, the one with a variety of obstacles and ups and downs. The exhibition, at least contains some important and fundamental things. First, each of the three artists has their own different artistic tendencies. Sam To2 Sutoto has an interest in visual abstract works in all of his canvas. His abstract works recently focus specifically on non-figurative abstract or amorphic abstract (no tendency of certain forms). Mohammad Yatim Mustafa has been very well-known in Medan, North Sumatra as an artist who is faithful to the realist and naturalist works. And the last, S. Handono Hadi is a senior artist who devotes his creativity to paint with the art of Arabic calligraphy as its basis. The basic difference of the three artists’ creativity raises interesting contrasts and relatively gives enrichment in this exhibition. Each of the three characters attempted to grab attention, as well as collectively gave nuance -with their own strengths and weaknesses.

In the course of the art history, from the past till now, there have been so many fine art groups consisting of less than 5 artists who later joined in an exhibition. Their works contrast with one another because the characters (visual) of each artist’s works are different. I take an example of this kind of exhibition, i.e. an exhibition held by four artists which took place in 1960, at Kebayoran Art Gallery, Jakarta. The exhibition was held by important artists at that time: Emiria Soenassa, Trisno Soemardjo, Oesman Effendi, and Zaini. An art critic, D.A. Peransi, noted in Mimbar Indonesia magazine (May edition, 1960) that "... this exhibition gave a fleeting but memorable illustration of the growth of our up-to-date fine art with its various diversity. It shows our potentials in concocting and challenging any power that intends to dominate us in a transition where we also participate". I learned from D.A. Peransi’s statements that an attempt to bring together the diversity of inter-artists’ visuals has happened since 1960s – though they may have different visions and tendencies.

Another “small” example of this exhibition was held three decades later, in 1996 at Bentara Budaya Yogyakarta (BBY). The exhibition showed the works of two young artists, Nasirun and Putu Sutawijaya, who had visual basic contrasts which was very obvious at that time, even until today. Nasirun based many of his works on the philosophy of purwa puppets and his visual outputs highly were composed of his own version of puppet which was very personal, though still ornamental here and there. On the other hand, the works of Sutawijaya Putu were abstract expressionism that were adhered by Balinese artists who settled in Yogyakarta at the time. I would like to emphasize that the contrast in an exhibition does sometimes give a visual enrichment (and possibly a vision) that makes the exhibition becomes colorful. 

Second, for the three artists, this exhibition is an opportunity to alineate them from the local fine art map. It is important since it concerns with the existence of problem among the artists in their effort to process their "creative history recording" in their environment. In the culture circuit which includes fine art, there are three processes or stages that are commonly passed through, namely the production process, the mediation process, and the consumption process. 

Many artists work in the production processes to produce creative art works, discourse, and so on. In the subsequent process, i.e. the mediation process, many artists work with other parties, such as providers of areas for art work exhibitions, art curators, critics, mass media, art management, and others. At this stage, the production of discourse in the previous stage can be tested. The next is the consumption process, i.e. it is when the artists’ art works presented in the consumption area for public. At this stage a work of art will be appreciated by people. Appreciation can vary: value appreciation or price appreciation. The form could be a recreation for public, including being reproduced through reviews in the mass media, or a transactional appreciation that is when a work of art bought by a collector.

All of this is a "risk" that happens to most fine art exhibitions. The important value of an exhibition for an artist is the movement of the fine art social domain as a result of the dynamics of and is resulted from the production, mediation, and consumption processes. It is a historical norm.

Then, the third, this kind of exhibition— no matter what quality it has— carries a potential as an anchor to draw other "carriages", i.e. the artists and artist groups in Medan and North Sumatra, to move further and dynamically develop a more creative and advanced progress. This expression and hope can be exaggerating because other than this group there must be many artists and groups of artists who have and will move with their own point of views, visions, and operational motives. It can be observed, however, that the artists’ effort to exhibit their works in their own region is in fact positive.

We know that the world of art has been largely concentrated in Java, especially in Yogyakarta, Bandung, and Jakarta. This centralization can be recognized from such things as the completeness of the supra-structures and the infrastructures, the two of which have brought impact on the quality and the quantity of the artists, the discourse, and the art market. The areas other than those three, or generally within Java Island, in fact, only serve as subordinates of no importance at all. The efforts by those from other islands to serve as satellites or competitors are way too far from reality.

For instance, the effort to empower Biennale Sumatra or Exhibition and Art Performances of Sumatra (PPSS) along with the Exhibition and Dialogs among Artists of Sumatra (PDPS) has not been able to attract sufficient attention. The same is true with other areas. Such event s as Biennale Jatim (East Java) for the artists of East Java, the sporadic exhibitions in Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and the like are still way too trivial compared to such events as Biennale Jogja, ArtJog, Biennale Jakarta, Jakarta Art Fair, and others. Again, it deals with the center and non-center discourse which has in fact been an old issue not yet forgotten. 

The fourth thing corresponds with the effort of building power and collectivity. The integration of the three artists, Anang To2 Sutoto, M. Yatim, and S. Handono Hadi in the community that they has managed to build, TO2 Art Group, is in fact a common phenomenon. However, the interesting thing that people might raise for questions is whether this kind of community will last long or not. The thing that has been commonly well understood by the public is that the most challenge against the existence of this kind of community is twofold, loyalty and establishment to stay under one umbrella. The basic nature of an artist is that, based on experience, it is hard to be loyal to stay with one group, for they tend to be anti-establishment. Thus, the existence of the three artists within the community is indeed a try-out of loyalty and confidence to stay in one group.

In short, by indicating some issues above, I hope that the growth and the liveliness of arts in Medan, as seen in this exhibition, can serve as an indication that there is a strong creative passion worth a room of memory of the people. Even though not with a big magnitude, art in Medan is still alive and kicking!



Observing the three artists in this exhibition, those that have presented their own artistic tendencies, I would think that they deserve further attention.  This observation is indeed based on the existing artifacts, namely the physical works and their visual aspects, those that would move following the aspect of meaning. The distinct works of artists cannot be detached from the fact of “the artist as a free individual spirit” as stated by Anthony Forge (in the book of John Clark ed., “Modernity in Asian Art”, 1993, p.26). Artists are the owners of the spirit of individual freedom including freedom to choose their visual expressions. Forge’s statement cannot be separated from W.F. Hegel, a big philosopher considered to have put the important underlying principles for the development of the world of modern art. Along with other western philosophers as Rene Decrates and Immanuel Kant, Hegel’s perspective has inspired the ideas about art regarding the role of the artist as an individual subject (artist). Hegel states, “Art serves the development of mind”. So, art serves the development of human’s mind. Other people may not agree with Hegel’s. However, currently, people commonly agree that art practices are also the practices of improving one’s logic and mind.

Anang To2 Sutoto seems to adopt the perspective. His art practices or his creative processes are not simply to kill his leisure time amongst his all kinds of business in other disciplines, but in fact it is clearly observed that his works have been done with all kinds of calculation and intensity.  It is interesting to see that his works tend to appear as abstract works.  But, how can it be with full calculation? Isn’t it that spontaneity has materialized here? For me, this is indeed the interesting spot.

Within the world of abstract works, historically and in the subsequent progress, they are already many varieties and many renewals that have contributed to the internal dynamic. Wasilly Kandisky was the first artist who strongly declared as an artist tired of abstract works. In Germany, in 1911, he published a book, very important for his career as a world class artist, namely “On the Spiritual in Art”. In the book, he among others noted that “abstract is the term most frequently used to the more extreme effect of this impulse a way from nature”. This statement has been associated with his popular work called ”Spirituality in art”.

This fact has been close to the tendency of his creative works, those that carry, “The freedom of art the expression of art which is understood to be able to externalize the growth of the spirit of the subject”. Kandinsky is considered as an artist that has created abstract works that correspond with the ideas concerning with human’s spiritual life.  Some research findings have indicated possible reasons underlying the creation of his abstract works. The findings have shown that Kandisky’s interest in the spiritual world has been triggered by the idea that he would withdraw from or get himself alienated from the worst situation of the modern world, which is shallow and which he indicated as “the dark picture of modernity”. Kandisky understands the process of the journey to “the inner world” spirit as the form of self- alienation from the world uncertainty, which is external in characteristic as stated by the findings of sciences, religious rules, and the reference of human morality values (read Pam Mechan & Julie Sheldon, “Retreat from the Urban”, in, “Modern Art: A Critical Introduction, 2000).

Things happening with Kandisky and his works are more or less similar with those happening with an Indonesian abstract artist, Fajar Sidik (late). After years being a realism artist, he decided to make his works abstract; those that he had planned to create. However, when he came back to Bali, in his adolescence, the sceneries had far changed. Industrialization and mechanization in all kinds of walks of life had occurred.  The beautiful panorama had changed. He thought that it was no longer worthy to show the exoticness of the nature in his works. As a result, what then appeared were the works that carried “the dynamic of spaces/spatial dynamic”, very simplistic, representational, tending to be abstract.

The episode of Kandisky’s experience or Fajar Sidik’s above should serve as references for the creative process among artists, including Anang To2. On Anang’s works there seem to be the process of execution preceded by the technical stages that are not simple at all. In it, there is an effort of creating a visual design crated through the technical stages of coloring with not only one layer but many. There is also the stage of collage, in which he adds other materials on the canvas of the photos of so many certain figures. Technically, this material concoction involves the problem of technical expertise of the artist that carries certain ability to fine-tune the composition of colors, spaces, lines, textures, and so one and so forth.

Meanwhile, from the perspective of his theme and the substance of the works, there are several notes to attend of Anang’s work. In his Picture of Figure (560x264 cm, acrylic & oil on canvas, 2015), Anang seems to have revealed humanity values that create problems. It is true that the arrays of the scattered pictures do not really attend a certain theme, but indeed they enigmatically (puzzles) create speculation of a complex problem. Is it about human with their values, which are now only an array of lines of barcodes codified using computer (computerized)? Is it about a stretch of human faces that now are simply the keypads on a gadget in our hands that are easily found, and that are easily changed, deleted, and forgotten? Are all the human faces simply visual codes of contemporary robots whose culture has faded away? No idea!

However, in some of his abstracts currently presented, Anang frequently puts big strokes that could be “the keystroke” or “the final stroke” on his canvases as seen on the work Prahara,Badai, and Picture of Figure, also on other works. It helps visualize to the appreciators that among the lines, sprinkles, and the strokes of colors that (in some works) tends to show as the arrangement of expressionistic abstract works, those that visually are not well-patterned and will look more structured because of the “final stroke”. His works, of course, still belong to an abstract choice that is ammorphic in nature (not indicating a certain object).

In general, Anang’s works are interesting. However, there is one thing to attend; abstract works of Indonesia needs the supply of strong newness, both from the visual aspect and the aspect of ideas. Of late, even though the number is not as dominant as it was in the 1990s, many artists of abstract works feel gloomy. In the previous era, abstract works got booming. For this, Agus Dermawan, a critic,  as quoting Fadjar Sidik (a senior artist and a lecturer at FSR ISI Yogyakarta), in Kompas of 23 November 1998 said,   “Now, the art of abstractism and abstractionism, the works of which are intended to be socially contextual and chaotic, has tended to become the choice of many young artists.  When carefully observed, this phenomenon should be worrisome, not to mention when it has become the mainstream”. His note and Fadjar Sidik’s worry, I think, can be contextualized with the abstract works today: they need some strengthening upon the theme to be more contextual and more understanding regarding the basic philosophy of abstract works. Lacking of the underlying principles, the abstract art work is still growing but without strong characteristic.



The problem related to the demand for a strong character also apparently exists in the fine art world which is assumed to have a high potential of homogeneity, including in the art of calligraphy. The chance of homogeneity in art, I guess, is due to the existence of standardized, institutionalized, and patterned rules. In the art of Arabic calligraphy, at a glance, it appears in almost all the works of S. Handono Hadi; the rules and standards are in fact so numerous, complicated, and have become patterns for centuries.

The rules are made up of the types of khat (handwriting) or visual styles in the art of writing Arabic calligraphy that "must” be obeyed. One of the examples is the khat of Diwani. This khat was first created by the people of the Ottoman Empire, and the pioneer on the rules of the letters was Ibrahim Munif. This khat was popularized around the year of 875 H after the conquest of the city of Constantinople by Sultan Muhammad al - Fatih. The basic character of the khat of Diwani’s lies in its rotation, in which each letter must have arches. The flexibility and softness of the scratches complement the character of the khat of Diwani which is, therefore, able to adapt itself to any kind of writing. The khat of Diwani’s also has three forms, namely: Diwani ‘Adi, Diwani Mutarabit, and Diwani Jali.

In addition to the khat of  Diwani, there is the khat of Tsuluts, which produces the following "children": the khat  of Tumar, Muhaqqaq, Raihani, Tawqi', Riqa' or Ruqa', Tsulusain, Musalsal, Tsuluts 'Adi, Tsuluts Jali, Tsuluts Mahbuk, Tsuluts Muta'assir bil Rasm, Tsuluts Handasi, and Tsuluts Mutanazhir. Then, there is the khat of Naskhi, which is divided into the khat of Naskhi Qadim and Naskhi Suhufi.

But, I guess, the rules and standards are of no obstacle, for S. Handono Hadi "ignores" them all. When in front of a canvas, he does not seem to be making a work of Arabic calligraphy, but instead, he is painting and reciting the Qur'an. These are two states related to the worldly problems and religiosity or spirituality, which are both undertaken in one catch of breath. That the various kinds of khat which have become the standards in the Arabic calligraphy and that they are more or less connected with or have a visual resemblance with his paintings may be true. However, from the beginning, Handono has not had any strong tendencies to write calligraphy. His paintings are the results of a series of prayers said with sincerity and bridged by his hands and his artistic technical skill.

Handono’s tendency to paint and pray, and not to write Arabic calligraphy, is also visible from the achievements of his works - at least from the works which are exposed in this exhibition. The work entitled Ka’bah (200x145 cm, oil on canvas, 2015), for example, can provide further description about the practice of painting style by Handono Hadi. In the canvas there is a dark little box right in the middle of the canvas. On the outside of the first layer, the box is "besieged" by white/bright boxes. In the next layer, the reddish orange color dominates the canvas surface, in addition to gray or other colors in the outermost layer. Beyond the issue of colors and space that dominate the canvas, there is a visual material that is far more dominant and becomes the spirit of the work, that is, the text in the Arabic language and letters which reads: Allah.

Handono admitted that he could no longer remember how many times he had incised and concurrently mentioned the name of Allah in his canvases. Allah, Allah, Allah. The word, the name, and the prayer are incised with hand - and concurrently with heart – in layers with various color changes harmonized with the background. Handono, once again, does not pay attention at all to kinds of khat that his incisions belongs to because. This is between the option of "typography" and the substance of the text that he creates seems to have already been harmonized in his artistic practice. Thus, in line with the Latin phrase, ora et labora, Handono (always) prays while working (painting). The text of Allah or the extracts of certain letters in the Qur'an are made as visual elements that are integrated into the canvases,  not the texts that are "too holy" which cannot collide with each other, or cannot be covered by other colors or by other texts, etc.

Such an artistic behavior is interesting because Handono often does it very seriously, exceeding other life rituals. His seriousness is demonstrated when he works on a particular painting one especially aesthetic momentum and on a special spiritual momentum. He once said that one time he made a painting in an open studio in the backyard of his home, exactly in the silence of midnight. As he could recollect, the dzikir text LaaIlaaha Illallah (There is no god but Allah) was incised to the canvas from the tip of the brush in his right hand. This activity was perfected with the movement of his lips which were also saying the same dzikir. His voice was soft, but it was quite audible because of the tranquil atmosphere of the night. In the next minutes, after he felt that the dzikir that flowed from his mouth had rolled rhythmically, gradually there was a mother voice that followed the rhythm of the dzikir.  Stunned, because there was something strange, Handono then stopped his dzikir. And a few seconds after his dzikir was over, then the voice that followed his dzikir also stopped. The night turned silent again, without any rhythm of dzikir, but it left a terrifying sensation. Perhaps the genie or the spirit that accompanied Handono that night was embarrassed because its voice was too loud.

The story behind the practice of creative work by Handono is interesting because there is creative energy (as well as other energies) that connects and unites the natural state with the supernatural state, the physical state with the metaphysical state.

Within a broader perspective framework, the creative activity of Handono is worth discussing, in connection with art and the spirituality, not with religiosity. We understand that the relation between art and religion has shaped our attitude and belief since long time ago. The expression of "art" has been linked to the attitude of worshipping the power which is superior over men, even before the scientific research managed to collect the complete data that questioned the development of religions in the world. But when the conception of modern art was formed – at least since the time of the Western Renaissance – and since the discipline of philosophy of art (aesthetics) began to develop the 18th century, the relation between art and religion has no longer been considered weird. Each religion has never specifically discusses the particulars of artistic expression, unlike the study of art and aesthetics that actively try to find a typical formulation for the sake of assessing and explaining the relation of both art and aesthetics with religion.

In the next stage, at least since the days of modern art until now, an expression of art has been considered more "advanced" because it is believed to bear spiritual values rather than religious values. Here, there are differences in perspective and understanding of the spirit and spirituality by modern society and by traditional community (East). For modern society, the study of the spirit is considered to belong to the knowledge of the psychological science (psychology), while the problem of spirituality which develops as a form of knowledge of "secular spirituality" is to be distinguished from the type of "old spirituality" or "religious spirituality".

From the glimpse of the review, again we can assert that Handono Hadi’s works apparently express the problem of spirituality, not of religiosity. They may even belong to the category of "secular spirituality”. Here, his stance is clear. What Handono has stated is an expression of art and spirituality, not an expression that bears a religious aspect. Of course, this is an interpretation which can be rejected or accepted.



Unlike the works of Anang To2 Sutoto and S. Handono Hadi which tend to be non-representational, the works of M. Yatim Mustafa tend to highlight a realistic depiction – as he is still devoted to the visual style of realism and naturalism. The realism itself in the tradition of the art world (especially in the West) has a special place because it has a long history with all its ups and downs. We know, for example, the ongoing discourse that follows the journey of realism, such as the Courbet realism (related to the manifesto of Realist Gustav Courbet which was declared in 1861), the fascist realism, the social realism, the magical realism, the neo realism, and so on.

In Indonesia itself, the realism has been flourishing from time to time with its ups and downs.  The practice was commenced by such artists as Raden Saleh, Sjarief Boestaman as the Father of Indonesian Modern Art, S. Soedjojono and his PERSAGI, Wakidi, and Affandi at the beginning of his creative quest. Then it was followed by Hendra Gunawan, Trubus, Djoko Pekik, Basoeki Resobowo and from proponents of social realism, from Srihadi Sudarsono, Hardi, Dede Eri Supria, and so on, to the generation of Ivan Sagito, Agus Suwage, Sigit Santoso, Melodia, Bambang Pramudyanto, and to such figures as Azhar Horo, Agus Triyanto BR, Eri Eriyanto, Nano Warsono, Agapetus Kristiandana, and many other names.

Although its historical chronology is much different from that of the West, the world of realism art in Indonesia actually has a wide variety of visualization, basic ideas, discourse, and dynamics. Unfortunately, there is no sufficient record maintained by the supporters of Indonesian art, so that the artists who are relatively often exposed publicly are those who settle in Java, especially those in Yogyakarta, Bandung and Jakarta.

M. Yatim (along with his Sanggar Rowo community) is one of the artists who is "hidden" behind the roar of the Indonesian art world. He is not (or not yet) phenomenal and he can not be said to have a significant achievement in artistic and aesthetic aspects, but at least his activities and  role have given a considerable contribution in the scope of social field of art (art world) in Medan and in North Sumatra. If the motion of an activity in a society almost always presents a phenomenon and agent, then some social and artistic phenomena in the field of art in Medan emerge from Sanggar Rowo community, with M. Yatim as its main agent. This opinion may be fallacious, far from 100% correct, but in the actual social reality the public has witnessed that M. Yatim has shown his consistency as artist with full devotion. He not only maintains his artistic ritual and is loyal to the visual style of naturalism and realism – which are now sometimes considered obsolete – but also revives the spirit of creativity of young people as a (prospective) artist. The young people who come to him are mostly students or alumni of an art faculty of a campus in Medan. These young people are trained again with technical ability on realism style and at the same time they are supplied with insights based on Yatim’s empirical experience for years as an artist. This is, I think, the achievement which has not likely be done by several artists with big names and reputation in this country.

In this exhibition M. Yatim offers a concept which is not so popular and it has been executed in his three (3) paintings. I would say, it is not popular because his subjects are connected with trash and tombs, two subject matters which are barely touched by the mind and the understanding of the majority of artists. They typically explore or even exploit the subjects which are beautiful, exotic, and absent from negative risks when they are offered to the market (art market). This may be an attempt to "fool around”, small experimentation in the world of ideas, and it becomes a part of the spirit of an artist who in a normal condition tries to find "another form and another idea of art(s) ". The rejection of the mainstream idea is being presented by Yatim.

There are two works that make tombs or graveyard as their visual theme in this exhibition. Their titles are not directly "the window of ideas" of the works, namely "Still Life I" (150x200 cm, oil on canvas, 2015) and "Still Life II" (145x285 cm, oil on canvas, 2015). Then, there is another work that makes trash as its subject entitled "Still Life III" (145x285 cm, oil on canvas, 2015).

In "Still Life I" there appears a composition of a row of tombs, with blue as the main color on the top and red at the bottom of the canvas.  There are a few excerpts of poetic sentences or words of wisdom written in Chinese alphabet on the tombs. Such a visual text has demonstrated a particular identity (occupants) of the tombs, which are presumably the graveyard of the Chinese people.

This work has a strong message. For me it signals how death is one of the mysteries of God that is still worthy to be discussed in our daily practices. Death is a certainty which is undeniable and inescapable; therefore, it deserves to be continuously discussed, as reminder for us.

In many traditions and cultures in the world, the problem of death has become so common that it continues to be discussed, not to be feared. Javanese culture is one of many cultures that discusses it; it has even been enshrined for a long time in Serat Centhini II, precisely in pupuh 64, stanza 234, which is arranged in the Dandanggula song. The sentence reads: 

Sing sapa kang ngeling-eling pati
ingkang bisa mati jroning gesang
tinetah supaya teteh
titah ing Hyang Mahagung
kudu eling ing dalem pati
petitis ing kasidan
uripe linuhung
sebab uripe prasanak pati
lawan pati urip tan kenaning pati
lawan pati urip tan kenaning pati 
yeku dat ing hyang Suksma

(Whoever remembers death
whoever can die while living
whoever receives guidance in order to become enlightened with
all regulations of the Supreme Being
whoever perceives perfection clearly
that person lives a sublime life
because his/her life is associated with death
and he/she lives to submit his/her life to death
which is indeed the nature of the Supreme Being)

The quote of the Serat Centhini above gives an illustration and concurrently the assertion that "death is present in the life of "all human beings. Death is part of the perfection of human life. So, every human being must always be ready and sincere to face death. I suppose, the works of M. Yatim, with the graveyard as their visual subjects, are the implementation efforts over the text and philosophy (in Javanese culture) about the death that indeed has to be approached.

Another interesting thing about the works is the heading which is simple but tempting to be disclosed. The title "Still Life" is not really a choice of words that indicates a small window through which the appraisers can look inside and see its contents. In the tradition of painting, the still life refers to a view of the objects which are laid out and arranged beautifully and then are transferred to the canvas just as they appear to be.  In this context, there are puzzles in the concept of M. Yatim’s works: Can the death – beyond a matter of time that is the prerogative of God – be "managed, organized, and arranged"? Maybe. That is another mystery that is seriously annoying M. Yatim’s mind. Who knows! ***

Kuss Indarto, art curator and editor in chief of