Jakarta. Jumaldi Alfi doesn’t like explaining the meaning of his paintings. He believes the artist is dead after his work is completed, and that explaining things will interfere with people's attempts to interpret his art.
That was what Alfi said during an Artist Talk last month at Latar Art Space in Kuningan, South Jakarta, in which his "Blackboard" series of paintings were on display.
Alfi was born in Lintau, West Sumatra, but has been working as an artist mostly in Java. He did live in Padang for six years with his uncle, who was an expert in traditional customs.
Alfi grew up reading his uncle’s picture books about Minang culture. The bakaba (oral tradition) was also a big part of his life because his uncle often read him Minang folk tales.
"I learned about local legends from these ancient Minang stories. I already liked to draw, so I fantasized about these stories and turned them into pictures," the 46-year-old artist said.
Alfi moved to Yogyakarta to continue his studies at Yogyakarta’s Art High School (SMSR) before going on to the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI Yogyakarta).
In Yogyakarta, Alfi's academic training taught him mostly Western techniques. But Minang culture, which has stronger literary roots than visual art ones, continued to influence his art, especially his use of metaphors.
Alfi is now considered a senior artist and has had numerous exhibitions locally and overseas, including in Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Singapore and Milan.
His pieces often comment on and criticize the practice of making and appreciating art. Again, he mostly lets viewers interpret his works and refuses to feed them ideas.
Alfi's best-known work is his "Blackboard" series. Some of the paintings in it appropriated "Mooi Indie" techniques and themes to criticize them.
It also questions the "inlander" mentality that considers mimicry of the West the ultimate goal for artists.
The paintings often also featured quotes by artists such as Ed Ruscha, Douglas Huebler, Daniel Richter and even lyrics from Pink Floyd. Alfi's intention was to question how artists can learn from the manifestos of their colleagues and reflect on their own.
From Recluse to Family Man
Alfi’s style has gradually changed. He said his works now have less "noise," and are neater in composition.
"I used to just pour out my feelings. I painted whenever I was restless and I had to be alone in the process. I’d go into my studio and lock the door to make sure there were no sounds," he said.
Alfi's routine had to change when he got married and started having kids. Painting was no longer something he could do at any hour of the day.
So now he paints only after 9 p.m. and stays up until dawn. He would rest and sleep after he takes his kids to school in the morning.
Another turning point for Alfi was in 2010, when he took part in a residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) and had to collaborate with 25 other artists.
"That residency was interesting. I was having to work with other people. I was so used to working alone – I used to have to be totally on my own. I couldn’t even work with music on. But things changed drastically after I was forced to work with a team," he said.
The new experience stressed him out so much at first that Alfi began falling ill, but he said he's adapted to the new habit.
"My wildness, those noises is my work, are now suppressed," he said.
When he’s not cooped up in the studio, Alfi is actually a very social person who is active in many artist circles in Yogyakarta.
He and his fellow ISI Yogyakarta graduates from Sumatra – Handiwirman Saputra, Yusra Martunus, Rudi Mantofani and Yunizar – formed an art collective called Jendela Art Group. Their first exhibition was in 1997. In 2009, their works were exhibited at the National University of Singapore Museum.
Since Jendela is essentially an exclusive club for artists, Alfi also established the Sakato Art Community in 1995, a collective of Minang artists in Yogyakarta. They have an annual exhibition called "Bakaba."
Alfi also owns and runs SaRanG Building (sarang means "nest" in Indonesian) in Yogyakarta. Alfi wants it to become a hub for artists from Yogyakarta and other cities.
With fellow Indonesian artist Fendry Ekel and German art historian Astrid Honold, Alfi also co-founded the artist initiative Office: For Contemporary Art (OFCA) in 2004. It was initially based in Amsterdam, but now its headquarters is at the SaRanG Building.
"It’s an organization that gives advice to artists and helps them secure residencies, exhibitions and other opportunities," he said.
Alfi said this is his way of giving back to Yogyakarta's close-knit community of artists now that he's one of the city's leading exponent of contemporary art.
In 2008-2009, Alfi made it to the French online art market database Artprice's Top 500 list – based on their auction sales turnover.
"I have many friends who are stronger artists than me, but being a successful artist isn’t just about being good at what you do. You also need luck and the ability to spot opportunities. Perhaps I’m lucky because my work has attracted people's attention, or perhaps it’s the publicity. I'm now in a good financial position thanks to the people who have helped me over the years. So now I’m giving some of that back. I'm doing it through SaRanG," Alfi said.
Given all his activities, Alfi said he doesn’t have time to pick up the brush every day.
"Sometimes I have too many things to do that I don’t paint, but I still think and discuss about art everyday," he said.
By any standard, Alfi remains a productive artist. His name is booked for exhibitions years in advance. After his Latar Artspace show, Alfi also exhibited a piece from his latest series of paintings, "Colour Guide #2," in a Hendra Gunawan tribute exhibition which ended this week.
This new series of paintings is still not completed but has already been penciled in for an exhibition in Berlin, either later this year or next year.