Jakarta. The picture of Sukarno looks out earnestly toward the viewer. Decked out in his iconic tailored military uniform and velvet peci, or brimless black hat, the portrayal of Indonesia’s first president commands the passerby’s attention in much the same way that his charisma and nationalist fervor kept millions of people in Indonesia and the rest of the world in thrall of him for more than two decades.
“I made this youthful painting of Sukarno to show how his idealism and vision motivated Indonesia to win its independence in 1945,” says painter Patrick Wowor. “The picture, which is actually called ‘Bung’ [‘Big Brother’], is also a slice-of-life work that conveys something of the man behind the myth.”
“Bung” is one of dozens of works being shown in Patrick’s exhibition, “Open Studio.” Held at the Balai Budaya art gallery in Menteng, Central Jakarta, the exhibition seeks to turn events of its kind on their head.
Patrick says his exhibition is designed to bring him and those viewing his works closer; he wants to break down the distance between the artist and the audience. Standard exhibitions usually impose barriers, where artworks are usually catalogued, labeled, framed and put up on a wall. In “Open Studio,” some of these works are unlabeled, which compels the viewers to come up to the artist and ask what the works are called.
A set of three different paintings highlights this concept. The first features a gaunt figure, with his head and shoulders bathed in a halo of yellow light. The second shows a young man disdainfully smoking a cigarette, masking whatever thoughts or feelings his eyes might give away behind a pair of sunglasses. Only the third painting is more recognizable, as it feature none other than Indonesian independence icon Tan Malaka.
The first figure is Henk Sneevliet, a Dutch socialist who founded the Indies Social Democratic Organization, or ISDV, which was the antecedent of the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, and the Indonesian Socialist Party, or PSI. The halo is a train’s headlight, in line with Sneevliet’s job as a railway worker; but it can also be a metaphor for an important but otherwise unknown figure to emerge from the shadows of Indonesian history.
The figure with the cigarette is Wikana, a youth activist who kidnapped Sukarno and took him to the town of Rengasdengklok to coerce him into declaring Indonesia’s independence in 1945.
“His efforts paid off, as he was named Indonesia’s first minister of youth affairs and sports, from 1946 to 1948,” Patrick says. “Tan Malaka seems the most recognizable of the three. Yet he’s the most enigmatic of the trio, due to the enduring controversy about his legacy and the mystery surrounding his life before his death in 1949.”
It would be all too easy to assume that Patrick is giving a visual history lesson that covers ground skirted by the Indonesian school curriculum. But the artist insists that he is doing so much more.
“As figures from Indonesia’s independence era, the subjects remind us that winning freedom isn’t enough,” he says. “One constantly has to make efforts to maintain freedom and keep it alive.”
Patrick does so through his paintings, and creating them is a reminder for him of his reason for being.
“If we won’t do so, then there is a steep price we have to pay,” he says.
He makes the point in his painting “Pemerintah” (“Govern”). The work, which depicts an armed soldier intimidating an unarmed civilian, alludes to the army takeover after an bogus coup attempt blamed on the PKI, as well as other human rights violations perpetrated during the 32-year rule of the strongman Suharto.
The theme is one that has struck a public chord recently, amid concerns that victory in the presidential election for Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era general and the former son-in-law of the late ruler, might throw the country back under authoritarian rule.
Patrick’s perception of history also played a role in holding his exhibition at Balai Budaya, a preeminent art gallery and cultural center where great Indonesian artists like the painter Affandi and playwrights Rendra and Goenawan Mohammad made their debuts. He hopes his exhibition will help raise the gallery’s profile.
“Its the least I can do to this cultural edifice and the major role it played in the development of the arts in Indonesia,” he says.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 21, 2014