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At Home with Srihadi Soedarsono

Indonesian art maestro Srihadi Soedarsono is introducing a new painting depicting Jakarta, a continuation of his legendary “Jayakarta” from the 70s

One of the things that defines Srihadi Soedarsono’s life as an artist, which spans over 70 years, is Jayakarta (1975). The big painting, 12 meters in width and three in height, depicts Indonesia’s capital (which was previously known as Jayakarta) at the time. The capital’s icons, including Tanjung Priok port, Monas and Bundaran HI, are among the landmarks in it.

Jayakarta is a major work requested by Ali Sadikin, the capital’s mayor at the time. Known to many, the request came after a misunderstanding and an apology. Sadikin was initially infuriated by Srihadi’s Air Mancar, which in his opinion was an endorsement to Japanese colonialisation. The mayor infamously wrote his protest with a marker on the painting, and signed his name at the bottom of his statement. Sadikin then came to understand the true meaning of the painting, which was a sound social critic from an artist. With a big heart, he arranged a meeting with Srihadi and asked him to create a new artwork for the City Hall. Srihadi, always known as a humble personality, accepted the request.

The artist was born in Surakarta 85 years ago. At 15, he was the youngest member of Young Indonesian Artists’ Association, an initiative of Sudjojono, the country’s Father of Modern Art. During the Revolution Era, Srihadi was officially a journalist whose work was to paint propaganda posters. He studied in Institut Teknologi Bandung, and received a grant to continue his Master’s degree at Ohio State University. His works are characterised by poetic figures inspired by Zen teaching.

Tonight, Jayakarta will be reintroduced. After years of missing from the market, the era-defining painting has been restored and will be exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramic, in Jakarta’s Old Town area. Not only that, the artist himself has painted his latest impression on Jakarta in a new work, From Jayakarta to the Glorious Maritime Nation (2017).

A day before the old and new paintings are unveiled, Prestige visited Srihadi’s residence in Kemang, and spent an afternoon with the maestro and his wife and creative partner, Farida Srihadi.

Your most recent painting on Jakarta is created over 40 years after the previous one. What has and has not changed about the city?

I saw Jakarta in the 70s, when the country was developing as a new nation, and now. An icon that stays on is the “air mancar” (fountain), but now it stands beside new developments like Simpang Susun Semanggi. The old and new depicts what time can do to a city.

Back then, people walked around the Ciliwung River for leisure, with Dutch forts on the background. Boats were used as public transportation. Both paintings reflect a vision for the future, but also a reminder that Jakarta is indeed an old town.

(Srihadi jokingly adds that he intendedly leaves out a few landmarks, namely the parliament building, from the painting). Even though the architect of the building is a good friend of mine, I purposely leave it out. It’s home of corruptors, why should I paint it?

In the late 40s, you were officially a journalist who painted propaganda posters. As an artist and journalist, how do you see Indonesia today?

As artists, we need to adjust and respond to the time we’re in. In the Revolution Era, I did what was necessary. Professionally, I sketched by government’s requests to deliver news to the people. For example, a military aircraft carrying medicine for the wounded was shot down by the Dutch, and I was called to sketch the event immediately. For five straight days after, the air smelled like chemicals.

As an artist, I saw human suffering and expressed my feelings for it through paintings. My artworks were social critic, but they were not political caricatures. They are two different things, although they might touch upon the same issues. What differentiates the two is the sense of aesthetic in art. As such, artworks are opened for interpretation. They might be appreciated or misunderstood. That was what happened to Air Mancar.

In the 60s, I created a series of paintings, Hunger, which were shown at a solo exhibition in Ohio. Back then, I was studying there. The paintings, one of them The Hungry People, were my cries towards the suffering of Indonesians. Soekarno’s governance was challenged and eventually came to an end, while people were hungry and homeless. On my way to Ohio through Kemayoran airport, I saw people sleeping on the airport floor. It was a paradox of my overseas travel.

The Hungry series is notably darker than Srihadi’s more renowned paintings of Balinese women. “His line became freer, the geometric quality disappeared altogether along with the subject; and on a more personal level, the expression of emotion was now being achieved through color (Couteau, 2003: 53).

You’ve been an artist for over 70 years. How do you see the art landscape then and now?

Back then, art wasn’t an industry. It was part of the society, and fluidly grew with it. Nowadays, everything is an industry.

How do you keep your mind and soul healthy?

I take care of myself, physically and mentally. I keep working so my brain doesn’t deteriorate.

Mitra Museum Jakarta will be exhibiting Jayakarta (1975) and From Jayakarta to the Glorious Maritime Nation (2017) at Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramic from August 24,

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