Jakarta. What did Indonesian maestro Hendra Gunawan paint in his 13 years in prison? How did his style change after he met Nuraeni, an art student at the prison who later became his second wife? We can find some of the answers at "Prisoner of Hope," his retrospective exhibition at the Ciputra Museum in South Jakarta until Aug. 16.
Already well-known for his earthy subject matter, Hendra was captured and then imprisoned in 1965 for his involvement in Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (Institute of People's Culture, or Lekra), the Indonesian Communist Party's (PKI) cultural organization.
He was never tried and was only let out of prison in 1978.
The painter said many times he was more of a humanist than a communist, and that he had joined Lekra because it gave him an opportunity to meet like-minded artists.
Curator Agus Dermawan said at the opening of the exhibition on Saturday (04/08) that it's the largest ever exhibition of Hendra's works after his release from jail.
Prisoner of Hope features 33 paintings sourced from tycoon Ciputra’s collection. The billionaire was one of Hendra's best friends.
Co-curator Aminuddin Siregar said the exhibition is doubly important because it shows the close "artist-collector" relationship between Hendra and Ciputra, and also because Hendra's name is even now sill nowhere near as famous as other Indonesian maestros of his caliber.
"In our art history, Hendra’s name comes and goes. Sometimes he has to 'share the stage' with Sudjojono and Affandi," Aminuddin said.
He said a few of Hendra’s fellow artists from his generation had tried to resurrect the painter's career after his release from prison, but Hendra died five years later before his name was rehabilitated.
Agus said Hendra's name was a hard sell because he was a former political prisoner, a status that was branded on his National Identity Card (KTP).
Political prisoners, mostly people who were accused of being associated with the banned PKI, was issued with a special KTP with the letters "ET" on it. ET stood for "Ex-Tapol" ("Ex-political prisoner").
"Because of that blight [on his reputation], Hendra couldn’t appear in newspapers or television, unless the journalist was ballsy like me," Agus said. "This was why he decided to 'disappear' to Bali, though he did have some exhibitions there."
Hendra's wife Nuraeni attended the exhibition's opening, telling reporters she was very touched by the event.
The exhibition's line-up spans the length and breadth of Hendra's career. It would be remiss to miss any of the paintings, but here are our highlights:
"Dua Belas Tahun Tidak Mandi" ("Haven't Taken a Shower in Twelve Years")
Dated 1977, the self-portrait shows Hendra offering a dead cicak (gecko) to a stray cat. The scene apparently was taken from Hendra's time in Kebon Waru prison in Bandung, West Java.
According to the curators, the phrase "haven't taken a shower" in the title was a veiled reference to Hendra's imprisonment without trial.
The painting uses vibrant colors even though it's essentially a depiction of suffering.
Hendra used to use a lot of dark, earthy colors in his paintings before he was incarcerated, but everything changed when he met Nuraeni inside the Kebon Waru jail.
Nuraeni was one of Hendra’s art students in prison and she liked mixing her paints into all sorts of bright colors.
Hendra copied Nuraeni's use of electric colors for his art.
According to Nuraeni, Hendra even owned up to the borrowing. She said once Hendra told journalists at North Jakarta’s Pasar Seni Ancol (Ancol Art Market) that he "stole" colors from his wife.
"Arjuna Menyusui" ("Arjuna Breastfeeding")
Arjuna is one of the Pandawa brothers in the Indian epic Mahabharata. In the Javanese adaptation, he is often depicted as an androgynous figure.
As Agus pointed out, Arjuna is almost always played by a female dancer in wayang orang (wayang featuring human actors) plays.
Hendra's painting shows a female dancer, already in Arjuna costume and makeup (note the pencil-thin moustache) breastfeeding her baby backstage.
We can also see the other performers putting on makeup, playing cards and taking naps as they wait for their show to start.
The young Hendra was reportedly smitten by traditional art. Though the painting was made in 1979, Hendra said it was inspired by his experience watching a wayang troupe and youth art organization called Yayasan Obor Pasundan.
Breastfeeding is a theme in Hendra’s oeuvre. He also painted "Menyusui II" ("Breastfeeding II") and "Menyisir Sambil Menyusui" ("Brushing My Hair While Breastfeeding"), both also shown in this exhibition.
"Diponegoro Terluka" ("Diponegoro Is Wounded")
In this painting, everyone's face had been painted except for Diponegoro's. We see his figure, wearing a blue robe and white trousers, astride his horse. But his face remained a blank oblong.
Hendra had wanted to paint scenes from the Trunyan War and Buleleng War in Bali, a fight scene between a Sumedang (West Java) Prince against the Dutch governor Daendels, a portrait of Prince Fatahillah from Jakarta and a scene from the the Java War featuring Diponegoro – now a national hero – to show his love for his countrymen.
But he passed away in 1982 before he could complete the series.
"Hendra had wanted to give away the paintings for free. But the regional administrations refused to accept gifts from an ex-communist," Agus said.
In his biography of Hendra, Agus said eventually only Bali and West Java were willing to accept Hendra's paintings.
"Pengorbanan Ibu" ("A Mother’s Sacrifice")
This painting shows women and their children walking home from the market, their hair and clothes soaking wet from heavy tropical rain.
Some of the women were carrying chickens that they failed to sell at the market because it was raining.
According to the curators, rain in Hendra's paintings is rarely depicted as something romantic or melancholic like it invariably is in Indonesian poetry, but more often is a metaphor for obstacles in life that plunge people into misery.
In this painting we can also see Hendra’s habit of painting swollen and dirty women's feet, apparently his tribute to hard-working Indonesian women.
"Keluarga Ir. Ciputra dan Ali Sadikin" ("The Ciputras and the Sadikins")
Set at the Ancol Golf Court, this painting shows Hendra’s affection for Ciputra – who bought many of his paintings when he was struggling to sell them after his release from prison – and former Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin, who opened the Ancol Art Market so artists like Hendra could sell their wares.
The curators said the painting was copied from a photo of Ciputra receiving a golf trophy from Governor Ali.
Ciputra and Ali had also helped Hendra move to Bali when the painter finally decided he had had enough of Jakarta.
Hendra appeared to admire Ali a great deal since he also made a painting called "Ali Sadikin Pada Masa Perang Kemerdekaan" ("Ali Sadikin During the War for Independence").
"Berebut Topeng" ("Fighting for a Mask")
This could be a painting of two children fighting over a grotesque dance mask, or of a mother trying to entertain her children while looking to the distance, perhaps waiting for her fisherman husband to come home because the sun is already high.
In jail, Hendra painted many scenes of fishermen and their wives since, according to Agus, the painter often visited fishing villages on Java's south coast just before he was sent to prison, so scenes from those visits stayed with him.
"Hendra said he was interested in the lives of fishermen because they live in two worlds: the land and the sea," Agus said.
The curator's biography of Hendra features this very painting on its cover.
Again, this painting also shows the woman’s veiny legs and splay-toed feet.
A section of the exhibition is reserved for Hendra's sketches, also sourced from Ciputra’s collection.
"Sketches are often as important as paintings because through them we can see the artist’s creative process," Aminuddin said.