Aditya Novali's 'Abstract Logic' series, his interpretation of Raden Saleh's famous painting of the arrest of Diponegoro on display at the National Gallery, Central Jakarta (Photo courtesy of Aditya Novali)

Contemporary Take on a Cultural Hero


MARCH 01, 2015

For many of the thousands of visitors streaming into the National Gallery in Central Jakarta for the “Aku Diponegoro” exhibition, it must have been a main objective to see the restored painting “The Arrest of Diponegoro” by Raden Saleh the first Indonesian artist who was trained in Europe in the 19th century.

Around this focus, curators Peter Carey, Jim Supangkat and Werner Kraus have endeavored to widen the scope by including contemporary local artists. Unfortunately, most of them show a stunning lack of creative and innovative thought, as they stick to portraying heroism in the style similar to that used in a long past era. Perhaps the paintings were selected to fit the hero Diponegoro, who is seen depicted in spiritual pose, or riding horse, a freedom fighter wearing a turban and white tunic.

“I am unable to understand why artists of the present time would use a style belonging to the past,” sighed a friend, who has done extensive research on the changing ways of depicting Diponegoro within different concepts and perceptions. 

However, a closer look reveals a number of exceptional works. Although they refer to Saleh’s “The Arrest of Diponegoro,” most focus more on the question: “What actually makes a hero?”

Appropriating the widely discussed painting by Saleh, which is considered to have been a concealed critique of the painting by Dutch artist Nicolaas Pieneman (1809-1860) and the Dutch colonialists who brought Diponegoro to “submission,” Indonesian artist Heri Dono in 2007 was inspired by the same painting, but twisted both the title and the scene in his “Salah Tangkap”  (“Wrongful Arrest”). The painting depicted an arrest of former strongman Soeharto, as many would have wished to see. And Diponegoro sits on the rooftop, freed on canvas, looking down on a corrupted world. 

Sri Astari ponders the understanding of what is a hero, stating that heroism is not the privilege of men, or Diponegoro for that matter, but dwells within every person. In three photographic portrayals of herself, the national heroine Nyi Ageng Serang and traditional Bedoyo dancers,  modern weapons replace ladies’ bags that are firmly held in their hands. 

Modern weapons are also seen in the installation by Maharani Mancanegara, featuring ex troopers from Diponegoro who defected (after his death) to the Dutch. Considering this a kind of “treachery,” she wonders what impact such “heroism” is making on her generation.

Eddy Susanto uses Diponegoro’s diary in Javanese script to form the shapes of figures in a painting by Saleh. In an attempt to link the past with the present and  noting that the Dutch usually portray the loser standing  on the left, he “stacks” this painting on a photo of Soekarno being lead into exile from the Yogyakarta airport. In the painting by Pieneman, Saleh stands on the left, the picture of Soekarno also shows the former dictator standing on the left, Eddy points out.

To see each picture, he uses a technique using UV  lighting, by which the images are separated by different colors. 

Similarly, Eddy engages in stacking a painting inspired by Saleh’s “The Arrest of Diponegoro” on Francisco de Goya’s (1746-1828) painting “The Third of May” which sought to commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies during the occupation of 1808 in the Peninsular War. But here, what matters is not the theme of the paintings, but Eddy’s comparisons of de Goya and Saleh. 

According to Eddy, de Goya was a pioneer who broke through to realism, just as Saleh was a pioneer in art for Indonesia. Again, UV lighting of different colors  differentiate the two paintings, showing Goya’s realistic, bloody scene against Saleh’s rather peaceful portrayal. Displaying the works in the same dark room renders an atmosphere of mysticism, particularly when the UV lighting  is turned on. 

Unfortunately the electricity frequently failed to work this room, and many visitors may have missed the magic of these works.

Of a totally different kind are the works by Aditya Novali in an exhibit called “Abstract Logic,” which was also displayed in a special room and it would not be surprising if some visitors bypassed it wondering how the pieces actually fit into the show. But this is part of the allure of “Abstract Logic,” since it shows the most contemporary and  groundbreaking portrayal of Diponegoro’s arrest. 

Using 13 panels, Aditya created a method to interpret on of Saleh’s painting through several analytical approaches and calculations, which resulted in one large panel of lines. The blue marks denote Dutch figures and the red lines represent Indonesian figures in Saleh’s “The Arrangement of the Unknown.”

In his attempt to define what makes a hero, Aditya said he wondered why of the 200,000 people involved in the Java War (1825-1830), only about 67 were depicted in Saleh’s painting. Aditya sought to portray each warrior in the conflict a hero. But instead of letting his sentiments play a major role, he turned to abstract logic, analyzing every figure based on color, composition, direction of their gaze, the width of their footing, and the composition of the foreground and background.

On nine panels, this is visualized with what look like dots, triangles, lines and buildings, while one panel shows a comparison of 200,000 people involved in the Java War and about 60 people featured in Saleh’s painting. In the large panel also titled “The Arrangement of the Unknown,” all of these aspect come together, mixed and twisted, resulting in what looks like an abstract painting of lines. And when illuminated by a spotlight, the illusion of shadows emerges. 

Aditya then repeatedly traced the figures’ outlines  resulting in what appears to be a mesh of lines through which the subject seem to shine through. 

So actually what makes a hero today?

The great American poet Maya Angelou once said: “I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all.” 

Perhaps this definition could serve as a theme for the next exhibition.