Words by Gatari Surya Kusuma
CONFLUENCE: IN PURSUIT OF GOING BEYOND THE ROMANTICIZED ENCOUNTER
I will start with two artists, Moelyono from Indonesia and Alfredo Esquillo from the Philippines, because of the proximity of the issues they bring forward. Both speak about power and territory of their respective countries. Indonesia and the Philippines are not much different. Both are located in the same region, Southeast Asia. The works of these artists have many similarities in terms of the elaboration of the relationship between regions and identities. One of the factors that causes such similarities is the aftermath of colonialism. Colonialism operates to, among others, create segregation of different social classes through its particular economic system and repressive expansion of culture.
The local produce trade throughout colonialism era does not only leave horrifying memories about inhumane oppression, but also stigmatization and stereotyping imposed on certain parts of society, such as ethnic groups and social classes. Those kinds of values are a latent legacy that is hard to break. That is why it is an urgent and important matter to continuously talk about “finding identities” in the context of Southeast Asia.
Other than the complexity of their histories, the reason that urges the conversation about identities is the diversities found within the life, cultures, and daily practices of Southeast Asian societies. Mobilization and solidarities across Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines, can be easily found anywhere. The said aspects are highly dynamic and continuously changing along with the relevant sociological and political aspects. It goes the same with identities.
Therefore, conversation about identities and cultural products in Southeast Asia will always be relevant. The present cultural and political circumstances will more or less influence each other. Moreover, Indonesia and the Philippines share common experiences and memories of colonialism that shape parts of our present culture and way of life.
The above brief description of Southeast Asian circumstances suggests that identities cannot be examined through only the visible. Identities are never singular and confined to one certain time. Identities are cultural products constructed from various aspects, including histories and political dynamics. Therefore, to define identities, we cannot stop at the tangible. It requires a deeper investigation.
It also applies with the attempt to interpret the encounter of different backgrounds and identities presented in this exhibition. We need to refer to the artists’ previous works and even their cultural backgrounds. This is the way to go beyond merely celebrating the difference. By looking deeper, we are heading toward an understanding why this encounter is important and beautiful, going beyond romanticization.
Moelyono is an Indonesia-based artist working with realistic approach and the principle of art for society. His work represents how our present is constructed from our past, when Prince Diponegoro was victorious. He talks about land conflicts as we have now whose occurrences are similar to what Prince Diponegoro faced back then. Employing a realistic approach, he mostly uses prevalent symbols commonly found in Indonesian history. One of which is Ludruk’s character. Ludruk is a theatrical performance close to common people since long ago. It tells the everyday life and struggles of the society as a comedy.
Moelyono brings back the character of Ludruk into his realistic painting. To present the issues about land conflict occurring lately, the setting of his painting is the heyday of Prince Diponegoro. The fact that land conflicts remain a recurring issue until now shows that it is a long-lasting and deeply rooted problem related to power in Indonesia.
Meanwhile, Alfredo from the Philippines, talks about equally important matters of land and power conflicts, particularly relevant to the state sovereignty. He uses the metaphor of a split body to demonstrate the possibility of a state being divided into two parts. He puts a fairytale-ish dragon that is identical to strength and glory. This symbol represents the glorious aspect of what Alfredo calls as sovereignty.
Both artists are trying to convey that the problem of power (either related to figure or territory) is inseparable from the state. Such a problem will always be connected to history and identities. The realistic approach in their works even affirms that those problems are indeed factual and actual.
Talking about Life through Death
The Confluence exhibition presents the works of two Filipino artists, Marvin Quizon and Alfredo Esquillo. Marvin paints mostly semi-imaginary figures and symbols representing birth and death. He always depicts birth and death as vulnerable moments in life.
The similar tone is conveyed in the artwork he displayed in this exhibition, titled Symptom of Healing. He paints a drying corpse of a bird. From the corpse grows flowers. The corpse clearly symbolizes death, while the flowers represent the beginning of life. The artist believes and is trying to communicate his belief to the audience that with an end always comes a beginning.
Marvin pays close attention to every single line that results in a strong texture. His meticulousness in arranging the lines into a shape demonstrates his depth of understanding of the references. He believes that death and life are brought together in a cycle, thus inevitable.
Marvin’s concept of death and life is likely similar to the one presented by Ivan Sagita. In one of Ivan’s works titled Escaping One Death, Falling Into the Embrace of Another, he painted an old woman in three different styles, combined with two lifeless bodies. The woman’s facial expression shows resignation, surprise, and sadness over something unknown. The two lifeless bodies are represented with a human corpse wrapped in white cloth, but it seems like the burial ritual is not completed just yet. While in another work titled Earth and Air are His Homebody, Ivan painted two dead bodies lying on the ground while slowly being decomposed and united with the soil.
Ivan wants to talk about the essence of a human being that is tied to or united with earth. Consequently, death is not detaching oneself from earth. It is returning our physical bodies to earth. Or else, death is in itself the purpose of life. Life will undoubtedly meet death. In his previous research, Ivan investigated the infamous phenomenon of suicide by hanging in Gunung Kidul, the southern regency of the Special Region of Yogyakarta. It is locally known as pulung gantung. It is widely spread across the regency and reputedly contagious. Accordingly, finding hanged bodies becomes a common event for the local people.
During his investigation of suicide by hanging, Ivan kept many memories related to death and loss. These experiences naturally influence him while painting the facial expression of loss or depiction of death. In his two said artworks, he presents one’s expression after a loss and lifeless bodies lying on the ground. To depict a clear facial expression is never an instant work. It requires long observation and reflection. It is because expression is a non-verbal body language with multiple interpretations. It is hardly lucid.
Manifestation of Personal Experiences
Other artists make use of solid colors to represent their process of encountering their present selves—the selves that are constructed from previous experiences since childhood. Those personal experiences are manifested in paintings containing solid colors and clear lines. Those artists are Abenk Alter, Addy Debil, Anton Afganial, Bernardi Desanda, Iskandar Fauzy, and Tommy Wondra.
Abenk Alter paints many lines that form certain shapes with solid colors. From several digital references I found, Abenk calls his painting style ‘fastline’. His two artworks presented in this exhibition employ ‘fastline’ technique with warm solid colors. To be able to draw these fast lines requires Abenk to possess strong confidence and connection between heart, mind, hand, brush, and canvas.
However, if we look at the details, the particular speed differs from the one used in expressionistic lines. Abenk’s fast lines occupy the canvas under a well-arranged plan, confidence, and connection between heart, mind, hand, brush, and canvas. Abenk might use this chance to imagine the infinite spiritual and mental world. Nevertheless, to be able to reach that world calls for a chance for reflection. Through these paintings, he manages to enter the said world—thanks to his cautiousness, meticulous strokes, and solid confidence.
Anton Afganial and Bernardi Desandra make similar attempts in their artworks. They utilize solid colors and clear lines, just like Abenk Alter. The difference is that Anton and Bernardi reprocess their childhood memories to create figures and shapes within their paintings.
Anton Afganial regards his paintings called Childhood Memory and Spring Waltz as the opportunities to express his imagination of life as well as the world he imagines. Such imagination rises from despair and anxiety he feels in his present state. The figures and shapes in his paintings are deeply rooted due to the work of his senses. He feels and experiences those memories happily while recalling the feeling of longing for the emotions he had in the past.
Bernardi Desandra does something similar. He employs Dadaism style to paint figures and shapes that look playful, childish, and even terrifying for some shapes. By this style, he describes the world he desires to live in. He is treating his disappointment over humans’ bad deeds based on his experiences. He wants to eliminate the dominating human power over the nature by presenting a different reality in the painting. That is the reason for employing Dadaism style. He is scaling down human domination and hands over the power to other entities.
We also have Addy Debil who brings out his two playful and childlike paintings. He paints figures that are closely associated with the imaginary outer space. Just like the three artists mentioned previously, he uses solid colors. By painting his creation of realities, Addy expresses his wish for the utopia.
Unlike Addy Debil who tried to construct new shapes for his utopian space, Tommy Wondra uses his canvas to deconstruct and unshape the established shapes. In his artwork titled De konstruksi, Tommy reverse engineered the established shapes into shapeless colors in a very detailed pattern that appears like going downward.
Iskandar Fauzy also applies a realistic approach to illustrate how an artwork is made within a studio. He reflects on the role of the studio for an artist like him. At the same time, he retells the values circulating around his work in the studio that give him his worth.
Going Beyond the Romanticized Encounter
It is safe to say that the artists participating in this exhibition have different ranges of artistic experiences. Borrowing the institutionalized terms, they can be classified as senior and junior artists. The senior ones are associated with more expertise and maturity compared to their counterparts. Such logic may arise because people tend to regard experience as the hierarchy of knowledge. The more experience one has, the more the public believes that one has much knowledge.
One thing to highlight, knowledge is not instantly acquired. It demands a process of internalization. It requires countless trials and errors. Experiences will never be transformed into knowledge unless there are adequate chances to reflect on them. Moreover, the different methods in narrating and creating are also affected by our current circumstances. Moelyono, Alfredo, and Ivan Sagita might have lived in certain socio-political circumstances that drive them to create artworks that are noticeably speaking about social issues since the beginning of their career as artists.
Meanwhile nowadays, when issues related to mental health become prominent and the spreading of information is barely controllable, it is difficult for people to look at the grand landscape of society. Consequently, people shift to an alternative route that starts at their personal experience. There grows the move to start every single thing from one’s self, within one’s smallest circle.
This smallest circle is not disconnected from the bigger ones. It is indeed necessary to draw many lines to connect between them. Therefore, the encounter between the senior and junior is no longer a mere celebration or a chance for competition. Instead, it should be a strategic opportunity to connect two different things that should indeed be connected. I hope that the Confluence exhibition can be interpreted as more than just a celebration of an encounter.
Butler, Judith. (2015). Senses of the Subject. New York: Fordham University Press.
Mulder, Neils. (1997). Agama, Hidup Sehari-hari, dan Perubahan Budaya. Jakarta: PT Gramedia.