Passion for life: At 79 years of age, painter Slamet bounds out of bed each day to paint.The lure of Bali to foreign artists during the 20th century is well documented; names like Arie Smit, Rudolf Bonet, the questionable Donald Friend and more are household names in Indonesia.
Less well known are self-taught artists from Java who left the security of their villages and jumped busses to Bali with little but charcoal and paper in their packs.
One of the earliest of these risk takers is Pak Slamet of Ludtunduh. At 79 years of age, he springs out of bed daily, excited to continue working on his canvasses. Living these days in his single room studio, Slamet, who learned to paint from his brother “and lots of friends” put his kids through university from his art practice.
“I was born in Pemalang on August 17, 1932,” says Slamet who in his life has been ruled by the Dutch, the Japanese, Sukarno, Soeharto and today Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Throughout all those years, he has never cared for politics, nor painted his feelings on the regimes’ qualities.
The artist moved to Bali in 1963 after a stint in Sumatra. Even then Bali was a magnet for artists explains Slamet.
“First I stayed with a friend in Denpasar. I later moved to Ubud because it was a center for the arts and paintings fetched better prices — art was more valued,” says Slamet who volunteered during the Mount Agung eruption and kept an eye out for danger during the 1965 Sukarno/Soeharto coup.
Hidden meaning: Narko, an artist who came to Bali in 1980 draws the outline of a birdcage.“Back in 1965, during the coup I opened a little all night coffee house in Denpasar. At that time people were disappearing; there would be a knock at the door in the early hours before the dawn and people were never seen again. With that coffee shop, I was awake and could see what was going on, but I was never brave enough to draw or paint what I saw. Because I draw from life I would have been seen sketching what was happening.”
He chose instead to honor the nation’s workers in his paintings.
“I feel I owe them [the workers]. They are suffering and I want to remind the government these people are our nation’s backbone. Everyone needs the chance to read the newspaper in the evenings, they need a day off a week to spend time with their families, but now people are working all the time — just to make enough for food,” says Slamet whose paintings of farmers in the fields, women hawking in the markets or road builders pay homage to Indonesia’s unsung heroes.
Focusing on the poorest sector of society has not made Slamet a rich man. He could have been comfortably retired on a government pension; his first job was a clerk in the newly formed Sukarno government.
He chose instead to document life around him, to sacrifice comfort and join his subjects’ daily struggle.
A success story: Pranoto, who is now one of Ubud’s better-known artists, stands in front of oil paintings hung on the walls of his Ubud gallery.“Who wants to buy my paintings of farmers. It would be impossible for farmers — they have no money. By painting their stories and lives, I feel I am paying my debt to them, paying my respects for what they do for this nation,” says Slamet.
The aging artist has produced “maybe 1,000 paintings in my life. I am still learning with every stroke of my brush. Life is better as an artist that as a government clerk — there is no pension, but I am free.”
A decade after Slamet made his way to Ubud, the holy grail for Java’s artists, Pranoto from the Central Javan city of Solo, also known as Surakarta, followed in his footsteps.
“I came because I wanted to be an artist. I had applied to the Yogyakarta ISI [Institut Seni Indonesia] in 1971. When I failed the entrance I was traumatized, I thought I could never be a success in art,” says Pranoto, who is now one of Ubud’s better-known artists, running a gallery, teaching art and hosting weekly life drawing classes.
A self-taught artist, Pranoto came to Bali learn at the feet of those who had gone before him.
“To live in Solo art that time as an artist was difficult. The Solo art market is really small and the choice was to go to Jakarta or Bali. The Sukarno Collection had a lot of artists from Ubud, such as Lempad and Ida Bagus Made and the works were coming from the Ubud area. I came here because as an artist’s village you could learn — you were not alone — there were people to share ideas with,” says Pranoto of his early days in Ubud.
Down below: Using pencil and paper, Narko produces haunting still lives.During the 1970s and 1980s Ubud attracted Indonesia’s most celebrated artists.
“When I moved here I met Affandi, Hendra, Soejoyono, they would all come for a few weeks each year and then go; Hendra lived here in 1982. When you are young and you want to be an artist, it seems an impossible dream, then you meet people like this and see the dream can come true. Meeting these heroes of mine — wow it’s like meeting Julia Roberts. I mean to do that, as a young artist in Solo would be impossible,” says Pranoto who through risking all for his art is, at 59 years of age, living the dream.
With the simple medium of pencil and paper 55-year-old Narko Hanjaya has captured Bali and Java’s shadows and tones, caught it’s becak and buildings in still lives that haunt the viewer. Solo born, like Pranoto, Narko headed to Bali in 1980. Learning the techniques of drawing and painting from his older brother, Narko says his talents could not have been nurtured or recognized in his hometown.
“Here in Bali I can make a living from my work. I have a manager in Jakarta who sells overseas for me. It’s difficult to do that in Solo, because few people are interested – there are very few collectors, even in Yogyakarta.”
His works “tell of the things people see every day and don’t think about. But when they are represented in art, people see these objects more clearly.
“It’s like my bird cages; when you see a cage you don’t think about it; my drawings speak of wanting what you don’t have; the bird in the cage wants to give up food and shelter for freedom, thinks its life would be better elsewhere, but that’s not always true.”
Like pilgrims there is a new crop of Javanese painters taking up residence in Bali, including 35-year-old Dwi Ari Martono from Purworejo in Central Java and Suliyat Buamar.
Impressionist figurative painter Dwi came to open a Padang warung with his brother. His warung became a center for local artists, Dwi became intrigued with painting. He picked up a paintbrush, quit his job in the Padang warung and applied himself to art successfully.
Expressionist Suliyat from Malang came to Ubud because it was “an open community, particularly for painters — I also wanted to explore myself and the local culture,” says Suliyat of Bali — a Mecca for Java’s artists.
— Photos by JP/J.B. Djwan