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Tisna Sanjaya: Artist on a mission

A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, August 23, 2018  /  12:37 pm
Tisna Sanjaya: Artist on a mission

Tisna Sanjaya performs on the last day of his recent exhibition, Potret Diri Sebagai Kaum Munafik (Self-Portraits of Hypocrites) at the National Gallery in Jakarta. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

Veteran artist Tisna Sanjaya never imagined that his former student, author-director Pidi Baiq, would ask him to star in his comedy flick, Koboy Kampus 1995 (Campus Cowboy 1995). When offered, the lecturer at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) confessed he did not think twice to say yes to Pidi, who was hugely successful in his movie Dilan 1990 last year.

The movie tells of the student life of Pidi and his band, The Panasdalam. Tisna plays his lecturer. During filming in July this year, he faced challenges in acting even though he had been familiar with theater life since he was a teenager in Bandung, West Java.

“This is the first time I’ve starred in a movie,” he said, laughing. “When I was little, my dream was to be a movie star, and it finally came true when I am 60 now. I am very happy.”

In the art world, Tisna is a veteran artist respected for fighting against injustice through his work — from sketches and paintings to etchings and performance art.

Having held over 30 solo exhibitions at home and abroad since 1983, the father of four uses art to defend people, nature and the country, whatever the risks.

In the 1980s, he was one of the artists targeted by the authoritarian New Order regime for his controversial work, such as an etching titled Pesta Pencuri (Thief Party) about undemocratic elections celebrated by corrupt politicians. But he was not arrested.

His latest exhibition Potret Diri Sebagai Kaum Munafik (Self Portraits of Hypocrites) in July this year in the National Gallery in Jakarta was no less intriguing.

The exhibition cost him friends, relatives and students as it threw shade at religious conservatives who have politicized the peaceful Islam.

His close ITB alumni friends, for example, kept their distance due to the exhibition. Knowing that it was inspired by the blasphemy case of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, they disagreed with his position, which defends the Christian of Chinese descent.

“I feel anxiety about society in which religion is politically used as a weapon to attack people,” Tisna said.

Read also: Tisna Sanjaya: Art as a solution to religious hypocrisy

His relatives, meanwhile, warned him against his artworks, which were made using prayer rugs, such as an installation titled 99 Sajadah Merah (99 Red Prayer Rugs). Tisna, who himself is a Muslim cleric in his hometown of Bandung, also raised concern over Islamic organizations that label traditions bid’ah (heresy) and syirik (polytheism) as well as people who like to mock certain religions out of phobia.

Learning from his parents’ teachings, he argues that art and religion should not be placed at odds as they can go harmoniously hand in hand.

Born on Jan. 18, 1958, Tisna was raised in a pious Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) family. His mother taught the holy Quran at mosques and his father was a chicken seller passionate about art. “From selling chicken, my father bought land to establish a mosque, where children then studied religion and performed art activities,” he recalled.

After dawn prayer, little Tisna accompanied his father working in the market, where he later experienced interreligious tolerance between his father and non-Muslim vendors, such as pork sellers of Chinese descent.

When his family celebrated Idul Fitri, these traders visited his house. In return, he would join his parents to go to their houses during Imlek to get angpao (red envelopes containing cash).

“Today, people easily call others kafir [infidels],” Tisna says.

As an artist, Tisna, who completed his master’s degree in Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste Braunschweig in Germany and his Ph.D in the Indonesian Fine Arts Institute (ISI) Yogyakarta, has a strong reputation, but it does not mean that his work will be always be appreciated.

In 2005, the Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) burned down his boat installation, Doa Khusus Bagi Si Mati (Special Prayer for the Dead), in Babakan Siliwangi city forest in Bandung because deemed it “garbage”.

His work was vandalized because it criticized a big company that backed the former Bandung mayor’s plan to destroy the city forest in exchange for a condominium construction. “For me, it [the destruction] is an insult,” Tisna said.

Read also: Bambang "Toko" Witjaksono: Combining the artistic and curatorial worlds

To make the city government understand what art means and to fight for green spaces in Bandung, Tisna then filed a lawsuit. He lost after 18 months of fighting in the court.

But the Babakan Siliwangi case ended happily as the mayor canceled the plan after Tisna lobbied the big company that backed the mayor. The city forest has now become a new tourist attraction in the city.

After Babakan Siliwangi forest, Tisna is focusing on saving the Citarum River, the world’s most polluted river. The place is special for him because when he was little, it was so clean that he liked to swim along the river, near his grandfather’s house.

He understands, however, that to save the river is the responsibility of all, from the government to people, but he is deeply disappointed that West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan could not solve the problem during his 10-year tenure.

Tisna sees the dirty river as his outdoor studio, where he creates various artwork, such as sketches, paintings and installations.

In the Potret Diri exhibition, he showcased a large installation titled Citarum, in which trash scavenged from the river were on display to raise people’s awareness about the importance of saving the environment by stopping careless dumping.

Tisna has yet to retire because he has many dreams to realize, such as becoming a professor in ITB, making a private museum for his artworks and setting up an institution that enables ITB graduates from any discipline to collaborate to save Citarum.

“I want to make a cultural center around the Citarum, where people can work together to recycle waste to be artwork, and artists can also hold exhibitions,” he said.

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