As his popularity booms, Indonesia’s biggest contemporary art export, I Nyoman Masriadi, strives to stay humble and independent.
In what resembles a bachelor’s pad complete with a pool table, punching bag and a well-stocked bar, Indonesia’s most talked-about contemporary artist sits behind his oversized desk engrossed in the Lost World installment of Jurassic Park. In the corner of his eye, a large blank canvas beckons his attention.
It was only a mere day before Masriadi was applying the finer details to his latest piece, “Spares,” depicting a typically stylized black figure with exaggerated features, which was promptly whisked away to be sold at Hong Kong’s Art Basel event in May. This is the norm these days for the Bali-born artist who once made small change painting for tourists. So in demand are his notoriously bold and satirist works that there isn’t a single piece displayed in his suburban Yogyakarta home, which he shares with his wife Ana and two children.
It’s been a whirlwind ride for Masriadi, a rebellious dropout from the prestigious Indonesian Arts Institute, who was determined to forge his own existence in the art world. “They expected work to be created very quickly and lots of it,” recalls Masriadi, renowned for his relatively slow working pace, producing on average eight pieces per year. “It was just too much,” he laughs as he explains why he chose to leave the art school.
Despite doing it tough in the early years, going rogue helped Masriadi hone his individual craft and it wasn’t long before both local and regional collectors noticed his superhero-inspired creations.
Today, although it makes the humble artist uncomfortable to acknowledge, Masriadi is considered to be something of a pioneer for Indonesian contemporary art on the international stage. However, this is where perhaps his biggest challenges to creativity and freedom lie. Being the first living Southeast Asian artist to top $1 million at auction has its pitfalls.
“Especially in the beginning when people were putting prices on my work it really bothered me. If I didn’t have my computer games I would have gone crazy,” jokes Masriadi, who recently split from the Singapore-based Gajah Gallery in order to maintain his independence.
“In those days he was so stressed,” recalls Satriagama Rakantaseta, or Seto, a close friend and director of the Art Jog fair held annually in Yogyakarta.
“In the playground we can be as creative as we want but in the industry there are so many constraints we must face,” says Seto, comparing the creative hub of Yogya to the international art market.
Christies’ Zineng Wang acknowledges that the immediate environs of the artist in the market may not seem “compatible,” but says it’s important not to romanticize artists or to typecast the art market as a singular commercial arena.
“The art market is also driven by the notion of artistic quality that is central to artists’ consciousness as art practitioners,” the specialist in Asian 20th-century and contemporary art says.
Wang has witnessed the rise of Masriadi over the past five years from a local phenomenon to a recognized talent in markets as far as Europe and America. It’s a newfound global exposure in which Christies has played a central role.
However, this increasingly widespread attention seems to be a catch-22 for the rising star, who avoids venturing far from home, as he is exceedingly shy, but is keen to further establish himself in markets beyond Asia. What’s more, an external fascination with his newfound riches encouraged by both the local and the international press isn’t doing his humble arty image any favors.
“Let’s say I’m the most expensive one but I might not be the best one,” says Masriadi, who is sometimes regarded more for his motorbike collection and luxury tennis court extension as he is for his art.
Andry Kurniawan, the artist’s right-hand man, says, “It can be very frustrating sometimes. Speaking about his wealth is already a judgmental statement.”
In an attempt to regain his public perception as a dedicated figure to the arts, Masriadi and his team are in the midst of establishing a one-of-a-kind art center to act as a meeting point for artists and enthusiasts alike in Yogya and beyond.
“For Masriadi personally, this is important, because it’s a way he can contribute something to Yogya,” Andry says, adding the Masriadi Art Foundation will be more about sharing than giving back.
Although the opening date for the foundation is yet to be set, plans for a modern warehouse-style space have been drawn up and several young artists are being considered by Masriadi for mentorship.
Asked what’s in store for the vast blank canvas in his studio, the artist isn’t afraid to admit that he is unsure, explaining that he is reluctant to deconstruct his ideas and what his figures symbolize, being careful not to constrain his work with “expectations and labels.”
“My ideas always grow and I want to have the freedom to paint and create what I want,” he says.