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Semar in the eyes of Sohieb Toyaroja

A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, May 22, 2018  /  08:47 am
Semar in the eyes of Sohieb Toyaroja

Game of Thrones by Sohieb Toyaroja (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

For artist Sohieb Toyaroja, Semar is his favorite jester in Javanese mythology because the character is divine and very wise.   

Semar, one of four famous punakawan (jesters), has three sons: Petruk, Gareng and Bagong. Each has a different form, representing different philosophical characteristics of human beings.  

In Javanese wayang (shadow puppetry) stories, Semar is portrayed as a powerful figure, with the courage to protest the Gods and compel them to act for the good.    

Many believe that the tired-eyed, flat-nosed Semar is a man, but Sohieb questions this belief, pointing to the figure’s bulging rear, belly and chest, that gives the jester the appearance of a woman. However, the lesson Sohieb says can be learned from Semar in wayang stories is that beauty is found on the inside, not the outside.    

“[The characteristics] of Semar can be found in anyone. He can be inside you,” the 50-year-old said. 

To express his admiration for Semar, Sohieb has made seven paintings of the character, which are now on display at his solo exhibition titled “Ke(Diri)” from April 29 to May 27 at Tugu Kunskring Paleis Gallery in Menteng, Central Jakarta. 

The title Ke(Diri) has two definitions. It can literally mean “to the self”, but also refers to Sohieb’s hometown of Kediri in East Java where he first became acquainted with Semar during the wayang shows of his childhood. 

Through the exhibition, he seeks to show that Semar can be a role model for everyone, regardless of their power or position in society.

Sohieb feels he now lives in a country that is polarized, sharply divided by politics and religion, in which each group claims to be right and the others wrong.

“For example, there are some people who claim that their religion is right and then accuse other people’s religions of being wrong. Faith is something that should be very personal, right?” he said.

For him, such people are represented by Togog, Semar’s enemy, who serves a demonic villain. 

Sohieb is aware of how people attack each other in fierce debates, either in reality or in the virtual world of social media. 

“This world must be purified so that all negative things can disappear,” he said.

He said he was sick of the debates and did not want to take sides. What he hopes for is a peaceful society in which people are willing to check and correct themselves, rather than blaming each other or proclaiming they know what is right and what wrong is.    

“It is just a reminder for all: Let’s check and correct ourselves first,” he said.  

In Sohieb’s paintings, Semar appears in human form because the artist believes that wise people are the living embodiment of the jester.

Semar Evolution by Sohieb ToyarojaSemar Evolution by Sohieb Toyaroja (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

In a painting titled Highway to Heaven, Sohieb focuses on eternal life after death. In the painting, Semar stands naked in the dark, as if taking a rest, on his way to heaven. The nudity conveys a message that after death, people will leave everything they have behind, from family to property, wealth and power. 

In a painting titled United Color of Semar, three Semar each display different actions and expressions against a chessboard background, decorated with the faces of famous people, such as Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler, Mother Teresa and Japanese porn star Miyabi.

The background implies that in life, people have different roles, as if they are playing a game. If life is like a chess game, people are the 32 pieces on the board. They can be a president, an athlete or even a porn star, depending on where each piece stops. 

In a painting titled Semar Evolution, Semar is seen transforming from a god to humans of different occupations, such as a teacher, a judge and a police officer. 

A clear political message can be seen in the painting Game of Thrones, whichportrays Semar drinking milk in a sleeping position with a chair on his finger tip. The chair refers to power while Semar represents people. If they are fooled, they can overthrow power as easily as the jester drops the chair.     

In life, painter Sohieb Toyaroja looks up to Semar, the divine jester.In life, painter Sohieb Toyaroja looks up to Semar, the divine jester. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

Semar has become part of Sohieb’s life, not only because of his love for classic Javanese wayang, but also because he once worked at the studio of late artist Sampan Hismanto, who played Semar for years in comedy program Ria Jenaka on state-owned channel TVRI during the New Order era. 

If Semar is Sohieb’s idol, Sampan is his hero. 

When he came to Jakarta for the first time in 1989, Sohieb had no place to live and the money he made from painting could not meet his basic needs. Facing such difficulties, Sampan helped him by allowing him to stay at his studio and share his food for free.

In return for Sampan’s kindness, Sohieb voluntarily took care of his studio.

“I cleaned the gamelan and the floor,” he recalled. 

Sohieb expressed gratitude because while working at the studio from 1989 to 1991, he got the opportunity to learn more about the characters in Javanese mythology from Sampan.

“[Sampan] treated me like a son,” he said.  

Award-winning choreographer Aidil Usman praised Sohieb’s paintings, saying they reminded him of late president Abdurrahman Wahid, who is affectionately called Gus Dur.  

“Gus Dur is the embodiment of Semar. Their behaviors are very much alike,” he said.