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Art History

Indonesian Art and the Evolution of an Artistic Culture

Neil Sefah

Apr 26, 2017

Cave paintings depicted approx. 400 years ago on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Photograph by Maxime Aubert, Griffith University, Australia. Image courtesy of the photographer and National Geographic.



The arts of Indonesia are amongst the most varied and unique in the world. From paintings from the oldest members of their society scrawled out on the walls of caves in Sulawesi, the beautiful, highly narrative paintings well known for their unabashed expressiveness in Bali, to the deep connection to sculpture since their times in the Iron and Bronze ages and the strong culture of artisans that persists even today, Indonesia has always had a great deal of history with the creation of evocative artwork. These well-grounded foundations in the world of art has, over time, developed into even more interesting and diverse subsets of different genres, with the rise of globalization and tourism only bolstering the large reputation their work has garnered within the art community. One of these, the world of contemporary art, is by far one of the most striking. Having its roots in these great artistic phenomena of the past, it has since grown to be one of the most interesting phases of Indonesian artworks, an incredible feat in a rich history of artists in the country. In the current era, the list of featured Indonesian artists are lined with some of the most experimental and innovative artists in the world of the abstract, modern and classical fine arts.


The impetus for the artistic spirit of the country came in many different forms over the years. Artisanry and the creation of crafts for personal use has been the most resounding cause in every time period, while some works were produced for use in courts in the kingdoms of Bali, or for religious ceremony within the Hindu faith. Islam affected the development of the arts in Indonesia too, with their intense focus on the figure and on decorative elements added to their illustrations. The political climate of Indonesia in the later half of the 20th century had also served to have a profound effect on its artwork and the goals of the artists. In the 1960s and 70s, a great of Indonesia’s artists felt the goal of their work was to provide opposition to the pre-existing Communist regime which had a great deal of control at the time, with movements like the Gerakan Seni Baru, the Semsar Siahaan and the Tari Padi serving as anti-establishment movements that dipped their fingers into making moves within the pre-existing art industry, pushing to broaden the horizons and aspirations of what their country defined as effective artwork. The lack of support for more structure learning for artist also led to a stronger connection to cultural roots instead of following the doctrines or being confined to the more prominent of the western development of art. However, despite this, contemporary Indonesian artwork has continued to persist and remain a staple of the community due to the efforts of the people and of local galleries willing to showcase the work.



Siahaan Semsar, Mengapa?, 1988, Oil on canvas, 140 x 140 cm. Image courtesy of the artist



In one of the exhibitions we currently have on display, Indonesian Art in the Twentieth and Early Twenty First Century courtesy of the Art1: New Museum, the world of contemporary art and it’s becomes very apparent that the [connections] to painting and have not been lost. Featuring the works of many prominent Indonesian contemporary artists like Abdullah Suriosubroto, Wakidi, and Frederick Kasenda, the works on display here show so much brilliant thought, imagery, collage and mixture of medias. Pieces overflow with energy, atmosphere and play with means of application, mark making and composition. Ranging from full on abstraction with pieces using brave strokes and generating palpable emotion to some of the most defined and sharply constructed realistic landscapes or figures, the exhibition is a great joy to sift through, new elements of pieces showing themselves with each pass. Sculpture is still on full display here as well, interesting forms and shapes that have been pulled out of the metals they’re composed of, with the work of artists like Sunaryo. While lines can be drawn from these works to those of the past, there is still a very clear sense of individuality between each of the artists whose work adorns the pristine white walls of the exhibition.



Abdullah Sudjono, Market under the Flamboyant Tree, 100 x 150 cm, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist



Another exhibition we have on display that showcases Indonesian art is an exhibition named Beyond the Mooi Indië, another showcase belonging to Art 1, which focuses more on pieces that feature the landscapes, peoples and cultural mainstays of Indonesia. The key note here is that there are more artists that are foreign to Indonesia featured here, and the profound influence the environment has on their work is very clear. The term Mooi Indie (Beautiful Indies), which has had a mixed connotation in reference to Indonesian art, both seen as a positive term for the depiction of Indonesia’s beauty, and a term that promoted trite work due to the popular attempts to capture similar subjects between many artists, a view popularized by S.Sudjojono, who felt the work only captured the interest of tourists, and did not truly capture the reality of the country. But in the current age, the term Mooi Indie has now come to refer to all of the artwork inspired by the environment of Indonesia as a whole.



S.Sudjojono, Preparation for Guerrilla, 1964, Oil on canvas, 149 x 175 cm. Image courtesy of the artist



Given it’s popularity and far reaching appeal upon the rest of the world once it was seen by foreigners, it had the potential to simply become a commodity, solely repeating the same styles, compositions and subject matters in order to appeal to the growing market for it, and become fully commercialized. Instead, it still proves to create new experiences and inspire audiences to this day.


I’d implore you to view the collections of the work we have on display, you will not leave disappointed.