Jogjakarta is a city of artists. On every corner of Central Java's ancient royal city there is an aspiring painter with good reasons to be hopeful. A handful of painters have sold their work at auction for tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Used to Being Stripped, a painting by Nyoman Masriadi, a native of Bali who lives in the city, fetched US$538,000 at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong in May 2008. ‘It used to be that parents cried when their children said they wanted to be artists, well not anymore,' says Agus Suwage, a local artist whose works have been shown internationally and now command hundred thousand dollar prices at auction.
Jogjakarta's art boom is part of an Asia-wide trend that has seen the value of contemporary art from countries like India, China, Vietnam and the Philippines as well as Indonesia soar to phenomenal heights on the back of fears about inflation and the security of more liquid assets. In May last year, the hammer went down on a painting by the popular Chinese artist Zheng Fanzhi for US$9.7 million at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong. The global financial crisis that set in towards the end of 2008 has badly affected the Chinese art boom, but dealers in South-East Asia say that so far prices for Indonesian art have held up well because art remains a refuge for investors fleeing stocks.
Jogja is a sprawling medium-sized Indonesian city of three million people steeped in the tradition of Javanese kingship. Sultan Hamengkubuwono X rules the city and its immediate area in one of the more bizarre autonomy arrangements – a feudal king holds sway over a tiny part of a modern republic. Indonesians don't see a contradiction; the current Sultan's father, Hamengkubuwono IX, played a central role in the anti-colonial struggle and was briefly vice president of the republic. The current Sultan has presidential aspirations. Although a thoroughly modern ruler in many ways – he is very fond of square dancing – the Sultan presides over a culture that resists change. The people of Jogja revere him, wearing traditional long batik sarongs with delicately decorated daggers placed in the small of their backs on formal occasions. They believe in the dark mysteries of Javanese mythology – that the Sultan communes with the Goddess of the Southern Seas to keep the forces of nature in balance. Yet this exquisitely preserved-in-aspic city produces some of the more avant-garde modern artists of South-East Asia and has turned some into relative millionaires.
Jogja is more than a relic. The city is one of the very few cities in the region with a heritage that is preserved – under royal patronage – with tourism in mind, of course. Restored Dutch colonial era buildings and old royal residences have become offices and hotels. This has helped sustain a lively artisan community. Mas Sugeng, who has meticulously created wayang kulit shadow puppets out of buffalo hide since he learnt the art from his father as a child, considers himself ‘a craftsmen rather than an artist' as I admire the breathtaking hand-painted colour and carved detail on his delicately created images of Rama and Sita.
The modern artists reflect a transition from the talent of artisans like Mas Sugeng to the modern art the world seems to want to buy – at ridiculous prices. Ten years ago, Jogja visitors were led down narrow alleyways to view stacks of unspectacular batik paintings gathering dust in disorderly garrets hugging the whitewashed palace walls. The motifs veered wildly from the earthy traditional to lurid pop; Hanuman and Arjuna rubbed shoulders with Bob Marley and Che Guevara. Serious painting was something young people went to Bali to pursue. Today, Balinese artists flock to Jogja, where artists' studios are now on the tourist map.
The boom came suddenly. Early interest in contemporary Indonesian art dates back to the go-go capitalism in the early 1990s. Indonesia was just opening up and a new class of wealthy private entrepreneurs had cash to spend. Many of the wealthiest people in Indonesia are ethnic Chinese. Buying Indonesian art was a way of demonstrating national loyalty. Galleries in Jakarta did brisk business; the art was mostly relatively conservative expressionists drawing on traditional themes – the whirling Balinese dancers of Srihadi Soedarsono, the demure Javanese maidens of Jiehan Sukmantara – decorative living room art, not the stuff of fortunes.
THE LOCAL ART MARKET COLLAPSED WITH THE 1997 ECONOMIC CRISIS. So did the political order. The seeds of the current art boom were sown in the political chaos and mayhem that accompanied the fall of Indonesia's strongman President Suharto in May 1998. Tastes in art changed, almost overnight. A fondness for decoration and curios was replaced by gritty, hard-edged socially engaged art. The movement reflected the profound changes in society unleashed by reformasi, Indonesia's transition to democracy. ‘Whatreformasi actually gave Indonesians was access to intellectual thinking,' Farah Wardani, a Jogja-based curator, told me as we sat in the forecourt of Indonesian Visual Art Archive, a foundation set up to document the development of fine art.
Jogja's artists were already socially engaged but no one took them seriously enough to buy their work, which was considered risky and troubling before Suharto fell. Many of the artists were part of the student movement pushing for political change. Cemeti Art House, established in 1998 by Dutch artist Mella Jaarmsa and her Javanese husband and collaborator Nindityo Adipurnomo, played a critical role in fostering these politically engaged artists. Mella, a practising artist who specialises in installations and performance art, and Nindityo encouraged many of the artists who are major names today with exhibitions from the late 1980s. Their ability to fly under the official radar for performances and exhibitions that were plainly subversive can be attributed, Mella says, to poorly educated intelligence operatives who didn't understand what they were looking at.
Their politically engaged art broke with the decorative and traditional past. Art was no longer for tourists. It drew inspiration from the angry graffiti scrawled on city walls, was transferred to gritty comic books, circulated in crudely stapled photocopied editions of a thousand or so and finally ended up on the canvases of students at Jogja's prestigious Indonesian Institute of Art (ISI).
Popok Triwahyudi is typical of the socially engaged Jogja artists. Many started out on the streets sketching for a living, touting tourists and singing themselves hoarse in rowdy late-night gatherings over a shared bowl of noodles and endless cups of insipid Javanese tea. Popok still looks like the street artist he once was. His tangle of curly black hair hasn't been brushed in days and he sleeps on a bed that he folds up and puts away. Popok studied painting at ISI in the 1990s. His first solo exhibition, Shut Up, was held at Cemeti in 1997. His cartoon-like figures depict grim and unrelenting repression. There is something Breugel-esque in the way Popok conveys the darkness and despair in people's lives – and then, with a touch of Roy Lichtenstein, he draws speech bubbles and his characters express this despair.
When I met Popok he was at work in his studio on a cartoon series on intercultural misunderstanding developed in collaboration with a German art house. Before he sold his first painting in the boom market, he rented a single room; today he has taken over the premises and installed a heavy press so he can roll off graphic prints. A new Powerbook is perched on a desk in his studio, bought by the Germans. Popok looks perpetually surprised, as if he simply can't believe that he can now indulge his creative urges and make a living.
A little further out of the city, near the old Dutch sugar factory, Eko Nugroho's modest little home in the middle of a farming village is hardly evidence of his remarkable success. Like Popok, Eko studied at ISI in the late 1990s. His father was a newspaper delivery man for Jogja's daily newspaper, Kedaulatan Rakyat. Eko's first drawings were published as cartoons in the paper. His family was so poor he only found the money to pay for his first year at ISI by winning a local cartoon contest.
Eko's style is distinctive. Like Popok, he draws inspiration from cartoons. His characters, usually etched in black on coloured backdrops, are disembodied creatures, part-machine, part-animal, rarely unambiguously human. ‘People lost in freedom,' his website declares. Like Popok, Eko also got his break at Cemeti. ‘There used to be a lot of galleries, but they only catered to traditional art and weren't interested in what I had to say through my paintings,' Eko says. ‘Cemeti did the avant-garde stuff.' By 2005, his highly original caricatures were selling for upwards of US$2,000. By the beginning of 2008, quite modest-sized canvases were selling for more than US$30,000. Eko, who is thirty-one, has been invited to art fairs and residencies in Europe, China, the United States and Singapore.
MOST OF THE BUYERS OF THIS MODERN ART, by comparatively young and inexperienced artists, are still Indonesian – especially wealthy Indonesian-Chinese business people. Many are not Jakarta based, but from East and Central Java, home to some of the richest Indonesian-Chinese families. One major collector is Dr Oei Hong Djin, whose family owns the profitable Djarum Group – producers of a variety of consumer goods like clove cigarettes, televisions and spectacle frames, and owners of a major retail chain. Oei Hong Djin has been collecting Jogja artists for years – a sizable caricature at a major city intersection honours his continued patronage.
In part because Indonesian-Chinese interest in contemporary Indonesian art was the principal driver of the boom, there is a suspicion that what lay behind the soaring prices was not the intrinsic value of the art. Farah Wardani, who trained at Goldsmith's College at the University of London, is frankly appalled at the prices. ‘Look, I don't mind poppish eye candy, but not for US$20,000. It's becoming more expensive than Prada.' Old Indonesian masters like Affandi and Hendra Gunawan fetched high prices at auctions, but some of the young Jogja artists are selling for more. ‘It's scary,' says Farah. Odeck Ariawan, a Balinese friend of mine who collects art and was also spooked by the boom. ‘I have no way of telling whether what I am buying is going to be worth anything in the future.'
Farah's frustration as a curator and Odeck's caution as a buyer are driven by Indonesia's paucity of established art criticism. Most curators work for private galleries where commercial, not critical, considerations prevail. ‘It used to take an artist twenty years to reach an established level,' Farah says. ‘Today you have young artists selling their first paintings for thousands of dollars.'
There is a lot more than art appreciation involved. One theory is that the buyers were looking for a safe place to park their money in an inflationary environment, another that paying cash for art requires less scrutiny than buying property. There are stories of buyers who arrange for a painting to be put in an auction, and bid up the price to raise the value of the artist – having first bought up the rest of the artist's production. The process is called goreng goreng – Indonesian for ‘to fry'. ‘This is moving in the direction of becoming an industry,' Farah complains. ‘Artists are being asked to produce on demand.'
The way the market works outrages many curators, who like to think they are the arbiters of fine art. Even artists are discomfited. Putu Sutawijaya was one of the first young artists to see his work reach phenomenal prices at auction. Putu has the friendly nonchalance of the Balinese. He struggled for a decade after finishing his studies at ISI. By 2003, he recalls, he was selling paintings for two thousand dollars at most. Then in April 2008 one of his paintings sold at an auction in Singapore for fifteen times its expected price. Looking for Wings was bid up from a reserve price of eight thousand Singapore dollars to reach one hundred and twenty thousand. Putu responded to his sudden wealth by rolling up his paintings and hiding them. ‘I was worried. I felt all this pressure to sell for the same high price but what if my work is no good? That's why I put away some paintings, just in case.' Success has brought new opportunities undreamed of in the local context. He spent two weeks in Beijing last year with his own booth at a major art fair and has secured a residency there. He is one of the top five painters in Jogja but fame and status have brought stress. ‘Before, I dreamed of being a well-known artist. Now I'm afraid of disappointment and failure.'
Valentine Willie, a Malaysian art dealer whose auctions in Singapore helped spark the boom, echoes these concerns. ‘When these artists were unknown they could experiment. They were free to make mistakes. Now they can't afford to disappoint their buyers and this means they cannot change their style. It puts limits on their creative spirit.'
The art is losing its political edge. Popok's social tableaux seem more optimistic and Eko's fantastic automatons are becoming less menacing and cuddlier, set against warm pastel shades. Agus Suwage's early work was intended to shock, like his inspiring installation The Final Journey which featured pigs' skulls on roller skates. Today his themes seem almost sensual: a foot-sucking self-portrait in pink. A lot of the large Masriadi canvases going for high prices tend to be more or less variations on a standard theme – a procession of muscular bodies, male and female, in lurid outfits and provocative poses – a distant cry from his earlier socially engaged work. The art is also growing in size. Collectors like to buy big and the painters are obliging, with Masriadi's, Agus Suwage's and Putu's canvases often more than four square metres.
The once socially-engaged artists are slowly becoming financially engaged to their buyers. There is a downside. If you ask Agung Kurniawan, an artist who is emulating Cemeti with his own art space supporting young artists, the boom was bad, creating as many bankrupts as it did millionaires. ‘I have known many people suddenly get very rich and then just as suddenly they are poor again,' he tells me as he prepares for his own solo exhibition in The Netherlands. But while I failed to meet any victims of the boom, most of the beneficiaries expressed concern about the future and humility that is characteristic of mainstream Javanese culture.
PUTU BELIEVES IN GIVING BACK TO THE LOCAL COMMUNITY. He and his Malaysian-Chinese wife Jenny have established an Art Space in the Nitiprayan district of the city where young artists can exhibit. ‘People struggle to find wall space in this city,' says Putu, who has bought another piece of land nearby to expand.
Eko Nugroho takes his modesty to absurd lengths, but then his poor boy roots taught him to start sharing the wealth as soon as he earned it. One of the first things he did was to rebuild his neighbour's house. Eko's fondness for large, elaborately embroidered tapestries means he now employs dozens of skilled weavers. He has several assistants who help him with sculptures and installations. ‘They are not just helpers, I train them too,' he says with an honest smile. ‘I like working as a team; I find painting is too solitary.' Eko is also the founder of a photocopied biannual art journal called Daging Tumbuh, which offers struggling young artists a chance to have their work showcased for free. He distributes the journal to galleries and dealers in Jakarta as well as Jogja.
Flipping through Daging Tumbuh brings home another stark reality of the art boom: in a country regarded by most outsiders as sliding inexorably towards Islamic conservative rule, the young artists of Jogja are moving in the other direction. Agus Purnomo's abstract canvases use all sorts of numeric and alphabetic symbols but he is reluctant to use Arabic calligraphy. They are catering to a non-Muslim market, but to be among them and see their art and how it has progressed is more of a challenge to one's knowledge of Japanese and Western pop culture than the finer points of Muslim culture – more Ultraman than Mohammad.
Then there are those artists on the way up. I arrive at Stefan Buana's modest home on the outskirts of the city. Canvases litter every room and an assistant is busy stretching fresh canvas on wooden frames. Stefan has a show in a month and is feverishly finishing a new collection of paintings. The West Sumatra-born painter has spent a long time toiling for success. Now his paintings fetch enough to pay for his collection of antique Harley Davidson motorcycles. Yet Stefan isn't so popular that he is a prisoner of the style that sells. He experiments with texture and material, plastering his canvases with sawdust, creating relief images with staples, cotton thread and even heavy pieces of scrap iron.
Politics is an enduring theme for artists like Stefan, whose studio is littered with the broadly smiling visage of former Indonesian President Abdurahhman Wahid, who is fondly known as Gus Dur. Stefan beats old frying woks into the former president's round faced image because, as he puts it, ‘Gus Dur believed in equality and welfare for all'.
Former President Suharto is another surprising theme. Putu Sutawijaya is planning a series on the late dictator, who died in February 2008. Stefan Buana has created a two metre high stencilled image of Suharto by punching through an inch-thick iron sheet with a blow torch. The image is oddly flattering and recalls the contemporary Chinese love affair with pictures of Mao. This fascination with political leaders is a by-product of the politicised student activism these artists experienced. Perhaps in the new era of genuine democracy, they miss having someone to pillory.
Young artists like Lugas Syllabus make success look easy. This fresh-faced native of Palembang who turned twenty-one in 2008 was about to embark on his first solo show in Singapore and looked forward to participating in the Brisbane Art Expo ‘Exist in 08' that took place in October 2008. He is drawn to performance art and talks excitedly about his installation ‘Pinky and the Bush'. The pop culture Lugas grew up with infuses his imagery but then collides head on with the anti-Americanism spawned by the Bush administration's war on terror. Fibreglass models of Pinky the white rat, from the cartoon series, and a smaller rat with a Bush-like visage are packed in Styrofoam and ready to be shipped for his show. On his brand-new laptop, Lugas excitedly describes how the Bush-faced figure dances around a lit globe to the original Pinky and the Brain's soundtrack. A series of images flash on to his laptop screen: a killer whale in the desert, an ostrich in a snow drift. The images are edgy and expressive; the colours vivid, almost fluorescent. Nothing is meticulously drawn or detailed. There is something hallucinatory about them. ‘I like contradictions,' Lugas says simply, toggling between the laptop and a brand new mobile phone.
There is more, much more to see in Jogja; daily exhibitions and performances are announced on notice boards at Cemeti or Kedai Kebun, where Agung Kurniawan has his space. All this activity has generated a need for management. Most of the artists are either too young or too overwhelmed by rapid success to figure out the complexities of commissions and handling their collectors or dealers. Heri Pamed, a Jogja-based dealer, says that one of the artists he helps, a stick-thin character covered in tattoos who calls himself Bob Sick, isn't much of a help. ‘Bob Sick sells everything and then gives a lot of his work to friends, so his prices are coming down.'
Help is on the way. In a back room of a spacious house in the south of the city, several young boys are attaching brightly coloured lace brocade to small fibreglass replicas of Michelangelo's David. It is laborious work and for Titarubi the Bandung-born artist who calls her show ‘Surrounding David' it appears to represent a significant statement on manhood. When not wrapping David in coloured fabric, Titarubi – who is married to Agus Suwage – is setting up iCan, Jogya's first arts management company. iCan has only been operating for a month, so only two artists have signed up but Titarubi hopes to attract the younger talent eager to cash in on the boom more efficiently.
By now I am feeling a little bit like Farah Wardani: I'm not sure all this art is going to make it and is worth the asking price. The real test will be how many of these artists will we be hanging in national galleries and museums in a few years. Until Indonesia acquires a more respected track record of critical appreciation and better museums and galleries, it is unlikely that any of them will be revered and remembered – some of the best works by Raden Saleh, Indonesia's nineteenth century virtuoso portrait painter, hang to this day in The Netherlands. The dealers and collectors I meet suggest that only a handful, no more than five of the fifty or so currently enjoying success at auction or through gallery sales, stand out as artists of lasting value.
Jogjakarta may be a city of ten thousand artists, but five is not a legacy in a country of more than two hundred and thirty million people. Back in his little house behind the palace, I ask Mas Sugeng the puppet maker whether he sees his craft surviving. ‘Oh yes,' he answers quite emphatically, ‘but not at quite the same level of skill. People simply aren't willing to pay as much anymore for handicrafts.' ♦