Behind the Canvas: Atreyu Moniaga on Photography and the Jakarta Art Scene


MAY 30, 2016

Jakarta. Atreyu Moniaga is a man of many hats. Professionally, he is known as a visual artist who has exhibited his romantic illustrations and ethereal photographs in various shows. To his students at Bunda Mulia University in North Jakarta, however, he is revered as a dedicated lecturer who tirelessly encourages them to take part in art exhibitions.

Atreyu is a student himself, currently taking a post-graduate course in urban art at the Jakarta Arts Institute. As if his résumé was not long enough, he also occasionally acts in front of the camera after first playing the lead role in Lucky Kuswandi's short, "The Fox Exploits the Tiger's Might," which competed at Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

A few days after last week's opening of his first solo photography exhibition at Qubicle Center in Senopati, South Jakarta, the young artist talked to the Jakarta Globe about photography as his medium of artistic expression, his experience lecturing about art and his unexpected role model. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview.

Q: How did you first get interested in art?

A: When I was little, I really wanted to be a Mangaka [Japanese comic artist]. My favorite comic series at the time was "Magic Knight Rayearth" by CLAMP [an all-female Japanese comic artist collective]. Until now, my artwork is still very much influenced by their works—there are human figures, wings and shiny stones.

I then majored in visual communication design at university because I thought it was the only way I could realize my dream of becoming a comic artist, although that never panned out [laughs]. I learned so many things at university and found out that the world I knew about was very limited. I started to form a bigger picture of the art world and it developed from there. It's a process.

Why did you choose photography and illustration to express yourself?

Because of what I studied. Some artists choose illustration as a medium to say what's on their mind. Then there are artists who channel feelings, through photography. At one point, I saw how each of them has led me on a very different track, but at the same time, I learned from them how to channel my feelings through both media, and also to mask my weaknesses in each discipline [laughs]. What I express through photography, I cannot replicate through illustrations, and vice versa. Not that I'm a master of both of those things. I don't even know if I'm good at it or not, but I like doing it.

You use digital imaging in post-production for your photographs. How much do you rely on it?

What I consider wrong is when you make a correction to your photographs with Photoshop. But if you use the software as a tool to build a vision in your head—joining several elements into one composite image, for example—that's executing a concept, that's fine. Yeah, some people are skeptical, they don't call me a photographer, they call me a Photoshopper. I am whatever you want to call me, but as far as I'm concerned I'm taking each photo with my own camera and I combine them with my own hands. I guess some people are just cynical. Photography has become a very developed field these days, that's something that we should embrace.

You are a university lecturer, teaching illustrations and photography. Do you find any contrast between creating artwork and teaching other people about how to do it?

Not really. My teaching method is very personal. I tell the students in my class that what we are doing is accumulating techniques as a tool for us to deliver an idea. I'm sharing my experiences with them. I'm taking them to see exhibitions and I also organize exhibitions for their works.

Someone once asked me why I bothered creating a show for my students. My answer was, exhibiting their creations gives them a chance to find out where they stand as artists, whether their works have made it or not. From that point on, they can either stop creating or keep developing their skills. So there's always action resulting from exhibiting their works.

Do you also work on commercial projects?

I do, but I never include them in my portfolio because I'm more into personal clients for wedding or pre-wedding photo shoots. I told my parents I didn't want to do things that are too commercial. But I'd love to be able to do, say, fashion photography or illustration projects that are more sentimental and sensitive, which I can infuse with my own personal story. Even if I can't tell it explicitly, it would add a certain vibe to the images.

You have starred in several films now. Is there any similarity in the creative process between being an actor and a visual artist?

Yes, because I've always been involved in films that are based on the filmmaker's feelings. Again, not something that is too commercial. For me, it's very enjoyable to learn about a character, try to inhabit his mind and then deliver his lines. The shooting process is fun, especially the reading session beforehand, where we would intensely discuss a character until very late at night. This part of the process is where I'm usually overwhelmingly happy. It also sometimes influences the artwork I'm working on at that moment.

Who do you consider your biggest role model?

Jewel! I have listened to her songs since I was nine years old. When I first listened to [her 1996 single] "You Were Meant for Me," I remember thinking it was so beautiful, a song that fell straight from the sky [laughs]. Then, when I started to understand the meaning behind her songs, I thought, she's got depth. That's when I told myself that I wanted to be someone like her, someone who is always honest in his work. That becomes my guiding force until now, to stay true to myself in everything that I do.

What is your view on the Jakarta art scene?

What I don't like from the art scene here is the hype. Why don't we make art into something regular, something that is part of our everyday lives? The art scene in Jakarta has become very event-oriented lately, whereas I think it should be more of a casual thing, like a concert, where people can enjoy the artwork. When people become more familiar with art, I believe we can have more respect and empathy toward one another. And that's the key to developing culture. I want more people to make going to an exhibition a habit. They go to one because they want to see the artwork, not because of the glamour factor.