The acrylic sailing boat on the canvas carves a path through the dark seas. The prospect of going astray seems to be a very real possibility for this vessel, though the crew deftly navigates the nearly pitch-black waters.
Yet the vessel seems to find its way back not through any compass or feat of seamanship, but by the talismanic properties of the Arabic calligraphy adorning its sail. The notion of using faith to get on the right path — divine intervention to get back on track — are skillfully alluded to by the creator of the work, artist Kurnia Agung Robiansyah, who titled the painting “Dia Ciptakan Bintang Sebagai Petunjuk Arah” (“He Created the Stars as Beacons”).
The painting is one of 36 works currently being exhibited at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center’s annual calligraphy exhibition, held during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan.
Taking on the theme “Kaligrafi: Hikmah Ramadan” (“Calligraphy: The Blessing of Ramadan”), the exhibition seeks to explore Koranic calligraphy and contemplate on the meaning of Islamic faith through various artistic mediums.
“This exhibition tries to raise public awareness and appeal of calligraphy through contemporary aesthetic and artistic means,” says Bambang Subekti, the director of the event that is now in its third year.
“We also hope that the medium will encourage the artists by stimulating a sense of spiritual and artistic give and take that will spread from them to the wider public.
“I also hope that the artists will make the most of calligraphy’s creative potential, as the medium has tremendous metaphorical meanings.”
Curator and artist Dick Syahrir agrees. “Many of the works are inspired by life and spiritual experiences, particularly if the latter is touched by the divine,” he says.
Artist Hardiman Radjab gets this across with his work, “Number Five,” the name a likely allusion to the five pillars of Islam. A mixed-media piece, it features a turntable with a miniature version of the Ka’bah (the black cuboid at the center of Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site), the circular motion emulating the path of the pilgrims as they circumambulate the Ka’bah during the hajj.
On the other hand, Agus Salim’s “Bulan Penuh Berkah” (“Month Full of Blessings”) draws its inspiration from medieval Islamic art. It features an ornate brass globe resembling a giant incense holder, adorned with prayers welcoming Ramadan. Agus’s other piece, “Syahadat” (“Witness”), derives its spiritual and artistic character from its simplicity. Looking almost like a fragile twig, the calligraphy of the statement affirming the faith seems to mystify as it hangs in the air.
Munadianur Husni, a student at the Jakarta Fine Arts Institute (IKJ), takes on a similar but less austere path, with his mixed-media piece “Belajar Menulis” (“Learning to Write”). The 23-year-old superimposed a neon inscription of the word “Allah” onto a prayer, underlining his message that the ultimate written word is the word of God. Munadianur, who already has a number of exhibitions under his belt, also seems to see writing as a metaphor for greater spiritual awareness.
While most of the works allude to faith, other pieces like Yana W.S.’s “Second God” are a scathing indictment of contemporary life. Yana presents the Golden Calf, parts of it ripped away to reveal smartphones and other consumer devices.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 24, 2014