Despite dating back to around 900 CE, wayang puppets continue to be a wildly popular and respected art form throughout Indonesia.
For wayang painter Agus Nuryanto, his work including “Di Bawah Payung Cinta” (“Sheltered by Love”), and other motifs touching on life and spirituality, are examples of the art form’s relevance today.
“The works here are my way of sharing my love of wayang and their role in forming my outlook on life. They are also my way of spreading awareness about this iconic Indonesian art form to the Indonesian public, particularly young people,” he said.
“Di Bawah Payung Cinta” is part of “Spirit of Wayang,” one of 148 works by Agus currently showing at Jakarta’s Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center.
While paintings like “Di Bawah Payung Cinta” and “Cinta Kasih” (“Love and Care”) explore the various forms of wayang, starting with the most common style of wayang kulit (leather wayang)known as wayang purwa , others highlight puppet types that are more obscure to the casual observer.
“Many of the wayang here are of the wayang beber and wayang klitik or wood wayang type. The former is an ideal bridge between wayang and paintings because they are painted in a scroll-like manner,” Agus said.
Wayang klitik are named for the clattering sound the figures make when worked by the puppeteer.
While Agus nods to wayang conventions by taking scenes from the classics including “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata,” he also uses them as allegories for current issues.
This is particularly the case in his “Dasa Muka,” which portrays the antagonists from the Mahabharata.
“Like the many faces of the painting, there’s more than one way to interpret ‘Dasa Muka.’ On one hand, it can be seen as a symbol of flexibility and adaptability,” Agus said. “On the other hand, it’s also a metaphor for opportunism and lack of principle.”
Agus referred to a similar theme in the work “Wakil Rakyat” (“The People’s Representatives”). Made in the wayang beber style, the painting evokes similarities to George Orwell’s sinister classic on a totalitarian future “Animal Farm,” at least on the surface.
“As the name implies, ‘Wakil Rakyat’ shows parliament to be little better than a zoo. After all, the legislators seem to forfeit their humanity as they give in to their greed and jostle for gain as well as power,” he said.
This motif of greed is also explored in “Tetap Semangat” (“Keep Your Spirits Up”). Depicting a wayang figure clutching a football, the painting could be seen as a commentary on the infighting that has long paralyzed Indonesian soccer.
Made during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the work jibes on the mismanagement of then Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) head Nurdin Halid and his associates. The figure’s greed and venality is all too obvious with his paunch and unfeeling stare, while the World Cup on his nose seems to take on the PSSI’s delusions of grandeur.
On the other hand, Agus also seeks to show the wayang’s resilience and adaptability in Indonesian culture through works like “4 Bulan” (“4 Months”) and “Restu Ibu” (“Mother’s Blessing”).
Meanwhile the wayang klitik-themed paintings depict guardian angels in the style of traditional Islamic art, as if to affirm the religion’s place in Indonesia.
“Kemakmuran Telah Tiba” (“Prosperity Has Arrived”) depicts the eruptions of Mount Merapi in recent years. “While volcanic eruptions are rightly seen as disasters on one hand, they are also blessings in disguise as the lava fertilizes the soil,” Agus said. The work and its theme is not unlike a phoenix, as seen in the figure emerging from the volcano and lava.
Agus closes out his collection with several wayang beber motifs including “Cheng Ho’s Return,” which touches on the Chinese explorer’s stopover to Indonesia during his voyage around the world in the 16th century, and “Pasti Jaya” or “Bound for Greatness.”
“‘Cheng Ho’s Return’ takes on Indonesia’s rapid development, as seen by the skyscrapers on the horizon,” Agus said.
“On the other hand, ‘Pasti Jaya’ indicates what Indonesia can achieve if the country follows the precepts of Pancasila. But since the country hasn’t done so, promise and potential is all we ever have.”
Agus said he wanted to spread the word about wayang, particularly to young people, whose have low awareness about the art form. Whether he will make headway in his cause remains to be seen. What is for certain is that his vision of wayang in contemporary Indonesia is worth checking out.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on October 11, 2013