Assistant Director of the National Gallery Singapore Resource Center Indonesian Art Historian Farah Wardani. Image Courtesy NGS
A meeting point for major civilizations, religions and colonial powers, Southeast Asian art has experienced a turbulent social and political history defined by a complex relationship between local traditions and influences from the West. Open from November 2015, the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) oversees the world’s largest public collection of modern Southeast Asian art.
Boasting over 8,000 works including paintings, sculptures, printmaking, photography and video from the 19th and 20th centuries, housed in two immaculately restored and transformed national monuments – the former Singapore Supreme Court and City Hall – the NGS works together with international museums to jointly present Southeast Asian art in the global context.
“Bosch Brand” (Forest Fire) 1849 – Radan Saleh, National Gallery Singapore
Two exhibitions currently running at the NGS highlight Indonesian art. “Between Declaration & Dreams: Art of South East Asia Since the 19th Century” features nearly 400 artworks (over 90 by Indonesians) in the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery. The exhibition brings together the defining art movements and styles in the development of Indonesian modern art. From the “grandfather of modernism” Raden Saleh (1811-1880), featuring his 1839 composition “Wounded Lion”, to the “pretty pictures” Mooi Indies landscape genre that prevailed until early in the 20th Century.
Sudjojono (1913-1986) and friends next challenged the paradigm with a new nationalist style while banding together in the collective, PERSAGI (Persatuan Ahli Ahli Gambar Indonesia, 1938). The exhibition continues with the likes of Affandi, Hendra Gunawan, Walter Spies, and A.A Gede Meregeg to the 1970’s avant garde with the iconic work from the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru movement, “Ken Dedes” by Jim Supangkat (1975 remade in 1996), and the 1993 video documentation by Krisna Murti,”12 Hours in the Life of Agung Rai the Dancer.”
“Ken Dedes” 1975 – Jim Supangkat, National Gallery Singapore
In the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery “Reframing Modernism”, open from 31 March- 17 July, was the NGS’s first international collaboration, with the Center Pompidou of Paris. The history of modernism is a story of influence: that artistic movements developed in Europe and America and then spread to the rest of the world. The landmark exhibition focuses on the practices of individual artists in the West and Southeast Asia and how they can be connected to one another.
Drawing on over 200 iconic works exhibiting side-by-side are Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso and Chagall, to name a few, along with Indonesian masters including Lempad, Sobrat, Sudjojono, Affandi and Hendra Gunawan. Labeled as ambitious exposition by some foreign critics, this is a unique opportunity to engage with some of the master works of modern art, complimented by the presence of Indonesians, and is an essential insight into modern art development. Emphasis was given to the architect-cum-artist icon Lempad (1862-1975), whose line sketches revolutionized Balinese art, and the mysterious, pioneering female modernist Emiria Sunassa (b.1894 Nth Sulawesi – 1964). Dubbed an artist, nurse, princess, elephant hunter, plantation administrator, businesswoman and social activist, Sunassa began painting at the age of 40.
Sculpture “The Head of Monument for the Independence of West Irian” – Edi Sunarso, National Gallery Singapore
While both exhibitions, presenting some of the finest local art with curatorial attention bringing it into greater context, in a world-class institution are a boon for Indonesia, it is the less publicized, archival projects occurring deep within the sanctum of NGS that will garner increasing international interest to Indonesian art, along with added value.
“People tend to see archives as merely a library, knowing its important, yet often taking them for granted,” said Farah Wardani (b.1975 Jakarta), who after 10 years as Director of IVAA (Indonesian Visual Art Archive center) in Yogyakarta was recruited to NGS as Assistant Director of the Resource Center to oversee building the archival inventory. “I am excited to be a part of this enormous NGS project, the first highly focused, professional effort to archive SE Asian and Indonesian art history with international standards. It’s a starting point,” she adds.
“Title Unkown” (Abstract in Orange) 1968 – Ahmad Sadali, National Gallery Singapore
“Setting up the fundamentals of Indonesian art history involves the digitization of information, so we partner up, mostly with artist’s families, then sort through photo albums, diaries, catalogues and interviews, often finding the unimaginable,” Wardani revealed, having recently worked with the Sudjojono Center archiving almost 4000 items by the artist.
“Archiving requires great time and energy, yet the resources can be used in many different ways. Archives are artifacts that bring value by activating life into the artwork adding to the sustainability of the eco-system.”
“Archiving and database resources enable Indonesian art history to come out in the open,” Wardani said, commenting on what the project means for Indonesian art. “How many people actually study the masters of Indonesian art? It is still a niche art, a very unique subject, with a short and intense history. This is a wonderful opportunity for the international community to learn about more Indonesian art.”
“Mereka Yang Terusir Dari Tanahnya” (Those Chased Away From Their Land) 1960 – Amrus Natalsya, National Gallery Singapore
With the increasing engagement of Indonesia art and archival information and hence the relative growth in international appreciation, foreign institutions, curators, collectors and the curious will target the nation’s home grown art, ultimately benefiting the Indonesian art eco system in many ways, including financially.
“Perusing A Poster” 1956 – Sudjojono, National Gallery Singapore
“Pasar” 1943 – Emiria Sunassa, National Gallery Singapore
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Words & Images: Richard Horstman
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