Weaving Light and Culture in a Celebration of Rich Cultures

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For Indonesian painter Rasmono Sudarjo, portraying Mount Bromo and its neighboring peaks of Semeru and Tengger in a new light is all in a day’s work. Instead of taking the higher ground to show Bromo’s iconic crater or the green ridgelines ubiquitous to the three peaks, the 67-year-old chose to portray the “Sea of Sands” in the painting “Bromo.”

Sunlight washes over the volcanic sands, giving a golden hue to its fine black texture. Rasmono’s ethereal use of light also extends to “Melasti,” his stark yet sensitive look at the traditional Balinese ceremony of the same name. Beams of sunlight shine on the ceremonial procession, affirming the participants’ belief that a divine presence is heeding them. Rasmono also pays tribute to the age-old ceremony for its timelessness, and how it and other traditional religious ceremonies seem to confirm the Balinese people’s identity.

“Bromo” and “Melasti” are part of “The Charm of Cultures,” an exhibition of 30 paintings made by Rasmono over the past two years. Held at the Kunstkring Paleis in Menteng, Central Jakarta, the works depict an idyllic view of life in Indonesia and China.

“Culture and nature are recurring themes in my work. I’m fascinated by places like Bali because of their staunch hold on their culture,” says Rasmono, a Surabaya-based notary and owner of an art gallery. “I find the beauty of cultural objects and costumes as well as nature’s splendor to be equally fascinating. So whether it’s people going about their daily routines or a slice of life from nature, I always try to highlight them with lighting and vivid colors, a method I learned from combining photo and painting techniques.”

In “Long Ji,” Rasmono vividly captures details like the scarlet shades of the girl’s traditional costume and the intricate weave of her basket. The yellow-green colors of the rice paddies more than give viewers a better idea of her world; their undulating lines also provide an aesthetic balance to the painting.

“Overall my art falls under the realist genre, as I go into details such as lighting and color. I also opted for realism as it makes my work more accessible to the wider public,” says Rasmono, a graduate of the Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology (ITS) in Surabaya.

“But unlike photographs that seek to portray what the eye sees, I seek to capture the essence of my subjects. Painting also gives a different perspective through its use of shades, an element highlighted and counterpointed by light.”

This is seen though his paintings “Tugas Pagi — Xia Pu, China” (“Morning Duty — Xia Pu, China”) and “Perjalanan” (“Journey”). The motes of sunlight shining through the trees in both paintings seem to guide the farmers to their future, while also affirming their identity. The sun can also be a metaphor for increasing awareness about them by outsiders. 

Rasmono also uses lighting to highlight the drama behind Indonesian traditions in paintings like “Makepung Lampit — Bali” (“Lampit Race — Bali”) and “Makepung Kerbau” (“Buffalo Race”). The racers put their gaudily decorated oxen through their paces to an unseen finish line. The strain as they try to control their oxen is obvious, given the breakneck pace. The animals can be an apt metaphor for Indonesia, due to the similarly mind-boggling changes in the country.

But Rasmono’s dynamic use of light and vivid colors can apply equally well to the spiritual world, as seen in “Tari Kecak” (“Kecak Dance”) and “Sinar Harapan” (“Ray of Hope”). The former alludes to the trance-like hypnotic state the dance is known to induce, while the ray in “Sinar Harapan” is a metaphor for the enlightenment and spiritual quest that we seek in our lives. But regardless how one interprets Rasmono’s work, what’s for certain is that the thoughts behind it, like his methods, are wholly his own.

“I’m disinclined to do paintings on order, because doing so kills creativity,” he says. “If one does commissioned paintings for one’s livelihood, one will be known as a hack instead of a true artist.”

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 25, 2014

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