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Goenawan Mohamad's great visual adventure

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, February 23, 2017  /  01:11 pm
Goenawan Mohamad's great visual adventure

Visual musings: Sketches expressing inner thoughts of senior poet and journalist Goenawan Mohammad are displayed on a wall at dia.lo.gue artspace in Kemang, South Jakarta. (Komunitas Salihara/Witjak Widhi Cahya)

Many people know Goenawan Mohamad as a highly productive writer who has distilled global affairs and contemporary issues into his phenomenal weekly column Catatan Pinggir (Sidelines) in Tempo newsmagazine since 1977. He is also popular for his poems, scripts and librettos for various stage plays and operas.

However, the 75-year-old man seems to have added another talent to the list: drawing sketches.

“I can’t remember [when I started to draw sketches]. Since elementary school, I was considered gifted at drawing. Since then, I have always been scrawling various objects on sheets of paper,” Goenawan said.

However, the man had doubts about his drawing skills.

“I didn’t do it very seriously back then and I threw away sketches that I didn’t consider good enough,” he told The Jakarta Post.

The creator: Goenawan Mohammad (left) stands next to his sketches.(Komunitas Salihara/Witjak Widhi Cahya)

After hearing people praise his work, he became more confident. With the boost, he initiated several exhibitions for his sketches after featuring them occasionally as illustrations for his books or selling them at an art shop inside the Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta.

He said he was encouraged to exhibit his sketches in Indonesia after somebody invited him to display some of his artwork at the “This World, Out Here” exhibition at the Maybank Art Hall in Malaysia from July 28 to Aug. 28 last year. The person was intrigued after seeing Goenawan’s sketches that illustrated the latter’s 2011 collection of Don Quixote verses, inspired by the fictional character created by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes.

“The experience in Malaysia made me think ‘if I can showcase the sketches there, what about doing it in Indonesia as well?’” he mused. Goenawan’s most recent sketch exhibition is called “Kata, Gambar” (Words, Pictures).

Running from Feb. 11 to March 5, the exhibition features more than 70 of Goenawan’s sketches at the dia.lo.gue artspace in Kemang, South Jakarta.

Sharing a laugh: Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati (center) points to one of Goenawan Mohammad's sketches, while the creator (right) and visitors look on.(Komunitas Salihara/Witjak Widhi Cahya)

The exhibition was opened on Feb. 10 by Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, a close friend of Goenawan’s.

Curated by graphic designer and dia. lo.gue founder Hermawan Tanzil, this exhibition is a follow-up to a previous one called “PE.TIK.AN” (Quotes) held in the Djoko Pekik art hall in Yogyakarta on Nov. 11 last year.

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The exhibition divides Goenawan’s sketches into three main categories: grotesque, poetry and human face. According to Hermawan, these three are the recurring themes he found while curating around 200 of the poet’s sketches.

“I first saw his sketches in 2011 while photographing his office in Salihara. I was astonished by them back then and was even more impressed to see the progress in his technique and sensitivity to visual details. The progress happened within just four years or so,” Hermawan said.

Goenawan draws his sketches with pen or pencil and uses water color and charcoal to add more nuance to some of his work. He said, however, he did not like to use too much color in his work.

A look inside: A glass case displays Goenawan Mohammad's sketches, which were spontaneously created in the poet and senior journalist's notebooks and on sheets of paper.(Komunitas Salihara/Witjak Widhi Cahya)

In the grotesque category, we are able to see disfigured beings laden with visual references to ghouls and giants from Indonesia’s folktales and legends. The poetry section showcases sketches that reference literary work by musician Bob Dylan, American novelist Sherwood Anderson and writer Elridge Cleaver. The human face part, meanwhile, showcases familiar figures like writer Ayu Utami and composer and musician Tony Prabowo. Their faces are drawn with astonishing real-life details that make these pictures come to life, very unlike the polished human faces we often see in photographs.

In the program book, Goenawan informs visitors of the inspirations behind these three themes. He said he was inspired by Indonesia’s rich myths for his sketches in the grotesque section. For the human face section, Goenawan decided to display people he likes and admires. For the poetry category, Goenawan said he was inspired by the imagery used by various writers in their literary work.

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According to Hermawan, Goenawan’s sketches are distinctive as they represent the artist’s unique perspective on the world around him.

“His work strongly embodies his unfettered freedom of thought and expression. His wide-ranging interests add a rich dimension to his work,” Hermawan said.

He said Goenawan’s distinctive uniqueness was what made his drawings important at a time when technology tended to encourage creators to express themselves in monotonous ways.

“This is why the personal uniqueness of an artist’s work is what sets him or her apart,” he explained.

As an artist, Hermawan believes, Goenawan excels in both technique and concept.

His many decades of passionate practice have apparently paid dividends.

“He follows what [the late Indonesian painter] Tino Sidin said: ‘the most important thing [to do to excel in visual art] is to love drawing and practice it continuously,” Hermawan said. 

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