The Australian profiles Jogjakarta and the Indonesian art boom that created Masriadi, Suwage and a slew of other successes. This is a condensed version of the Australian’s story but the original is well worth reading.
“It used to be that parents cried when their children said they wanted to be artists; well, not any more,” 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. [ . . . ]
The boom came suddenly. Early interest in contemporary Indonesian art dates back to the go-go capitalism of the early 1990s. Indonesia’s new class of wealthy private entrepreneurs had cash to spend. Galleries in Jakarta did brisk business; the art was mostly relatively conservative expressionists drawing on traditional themes: decorative living room art, not the stuff offortunes.
The local art market collapsed with the 1997 Asian economic crisis. So did the political order. The seeds of today’s art boom were sown in the political chaos that accompanied the fall of Indonesia’s strongman 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. “Reformasi gave Indonesians access to intellectual thinking,” Farah Wardani, a Jogja-based curator, told me.
Jogja’s artists were already socially engaged but no one took them seriously enough to buy their work, which was already considered risky before Suharto fell.
Cemeti Art House, established in 1998 by Dutch artist Mella Jaarsma and her Javanese husband and collaborator Nindityo Adipurnomo, played a critical role in fostering these politically engaged artists. No longer for tourists, their art 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 still looks like the street artist he once was. His first solo exhibition, Shut Up, was held at Cemeti in 1997. His cartoon-like figures depict grim and unrelenting repression.[ . . . ]
“It’s scary,” says Farah. Odeck Ariawan, a Balinese art collector, is 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,” he says. Farah’s frustration as a curator and Odeck’s caution as a buyer are driven by Indonesia’s paucity of established art criticism. “It used to take an artist 20 years to reach an established level,” Farah says. “Today you have young artists selling their first paintings for thousands of dollars.”
Even artists are discomfited. Putu Sutawijaya was one of the first young artists to see his work fetch phenomenal prices. In April last year one of his paintings sold at an auction in Singapore for 15 times its expected price. Looking for Wings was bid up from a reserve price of $S8000 to reach $S120,000. Putu responded to his sudden wealth by rolling up his paintings and hiding them. “I was worried. I felt all this pressure to sellfor the same high price, but what if my work is no good? … Before, I dreamed of being a well-known artist. Now I’m afraid of disappointment andfailure.”
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.” [ . . . ]
The real test of this art will be how many of these artists are hanging in national galleries and museums in a few years. The dealers and collectors I meet suggest that only a handful, no more than five of the 50 or so now enjoying success at auction or through gallery sales, stand out as artists of lasting value.
Jogjakarta may be a city of 10,000 artists, but five is not a legacy in a country of more than 230 million people.
Riding the Tiger (The Australian)