Betawi in Paintings: An exhibition at Sunrise Gallery – a celebration of Jakarta’s local art

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“Food Stall at Rawa Simpruk village” by Sarnadi Adam. In this painting Sarnadi remembers the simple and comforting village life of his boyhood when the men would have breakfast together at a food stall after morning prayers. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

 IO – Sarnadi Adam is the most famous painter of Betawi art. He was born and raised in what is now the wealthy Simpruk neighborhood of South Ja­karta. When he was a boy it was called Kampung Rawa Simpruk and still had marshes. Sarnadi remembers it fond­ly, “It was such a green and pleasant place. There were fruit trees every­where durian, rambutan, jack fruit, guava, water apples, banana and papaya trees and loads of fruit trees that have now become rare in Jakarta such as kemang, kerendang or men­teng. It was so shady the sun could scarcely penetrate. We all lived in Bet­awi style houses which were either wholly or partially made of wood.” He pointed to one of his paintings, “Some were slightly raised. That made them cool and there were also air holes in the walls close to the floor.”

The exhibitions runs till the 29th of July 2019. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The Sunrise Art Gallery and Ar­cade at the Fairmont Hotel recently launched an exhibition of Betawi art which will be opened till the 29th of July 2019. “It was partly to celebrate Jakarta’s anniversary. I wanted to help expose more people to Betawi art. Very few people are familiar with it including Betawi people themselves. I thought it would be great to expose Betawi art in a five-star hotel like the Fairmont,” Jessica Senjaya the own­er of the Sunrise Art Gallery and Ar­cade with a happy smile. “The theme was “The New Face of Jakarta” so I invited Pak Sarnadi to represent the older generation and then we chose two young Betawi artists to paint the theme from the perspective of Betawi artists who never knew the old Betawi villages as Pak Sarnadi did but know them more as Jakarta is today.”

“Sunda Kelapa Harbour” by Deden Hamdani is where it all began. There was already a small port called Sunda Kelapa when the Dutch first arrived. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

So, who are the Betawi and what is Betawi art? In the 17th century the Dutch East India Company captured Sunda Kelapa and established a small fortified town that they named Bata­via. Through the centuries the Dutch brought people from all over the Indo­nesian Archipelago to Batavia at first mostly either as soldiers or slaves. They invited the Chinese to come and trade and to work as skilled artisans or farmers and they brought many skilled slaves from the Coast of Cor­omandel in India. Later people came by themselves to trade or work be­cause the Dutch forced everyone who wanted to trade to come to Batavia which was the entrepot where all the trade goods were brought. In the 19th century they allowed Arabs to settle. The Betawi people and their culture are an amalgamation of all these cul­tures and peoples including the earlier Sundanese culture that was already there before the arrival of the Dutch. The Betawis appeared on the scene in the 18th century but it was only in the 19th century that they really identified themselves as what is probably now the youngest ethnic group in Indo­nesia. The Betawi language is a type of creole Malay. The Betawi culture has its own traditions, cuisine, danc­es and music. This amalgamation of peoples and cultures are what art critic, Agus Dermawan T. refers to as, “that unique and complex cycle of Betawi culture…”

“Three Betawi Dancers” by Sarnadi Adam. In this painting the Chinese influence on Betawi culture is not difficult to see; both in the women’s costumes as well as decorative features of the Betawi house. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana )

Sarnadi says that the Betawi cul­ture has many similarities with our modern Indonesian culture. After all the Indonesian culture was born in Jakarta (The Sumpah Pemuda or Youth Pledge of 1928, the Polemik Ke­budayaan or Cultural Polemics and the modernization of the Indonesian language which all helped to form the Indonesian language and culture all took place in Jakarta). Both cultures are a result of an acculturation of in­digenous as well as foreign cultures and both use the Malay language as the basis of their language.

Jessica Senjaya, the owner and director of Sunrise Art Gallery and Arcade. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana )

Jessica Senjaya says that she named her art gallery Sunrise be­cause it signifies the start of a new day and also because it is now the turn of Asia or the East to rise to the fore in world affairs. She studied in­ternational business and finance in the America. As a lover and collec­tor of art her father took her to art galleries, auctions and exhibitions in order to inspire in her an interest in it. He succeeded and Jessica did a course in art business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art Singapore. In 2016 Jessica opened her gallery and when Jakarta’s anniversary came around this year, she opened the exhibition: Betawi in Paintings.

Jessica says that Indonesian art collectors tend to buy and in this way support Indonesian art. They only buy foreign art by extremely well-known foreign artists such as for example Yayoi Kusama or Banksy in Japan. “They are averse to risk when it comes to foreign art” she explains. Both Jessica and Sarnadi Adam strongly believe that as in other countries the government should help support the arts. In Australia for ex­ample there is a regulation that when a government building is erected Australian art pieces also have to be bought to decorate it. There are sim­ilar regulations in a number of coun­tries. Jessica and Sarnadi also hold that the government should provide more support for education in the arts and to preserve traditional arts and culture. With the new government cultural strategy announced last De­cember they may find that this may already be on the government agenda.

“Betawi Dancer Looking to the Future” by Sarnadi Adam. The dancer is standing in front of a traditional Betawi house. These were often slightly elevated from the ground to keep them cool. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana )

Sarnadi Adam has exhibited his paintings not only in Indonesia but also Thailand, the Philippines, Chi­na, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United States. He comes from a Betawi family where for genera­tions the men in his family designed and built Betawi houses. They were very artistic in their rendition of the decorative woodwork on the lintels, eves and verandahs of the Betawi houses that they built. “There used to be many little villages with Beta­wi style houses. They are all gone. Imagine in those days a house would have around 2000 square meters of garden. Now the land has all been turned into real estate with terrace houses or flats. If you want to see a Betawi house now you need to go to the Betawi village created by the city government at Setubabakan, Jaga­karsa in South Jakarta but those are not genuine old Betawi houses but rather houses built in the traditional Betawi style by the city government of Jakarta. “

Sarnadi Adam at the exhibition Betawi in Paintings. His paintings are one of the icons of Betawi culture and he is the most famous artist of this genre. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Sarnadi describes the Betawi life of his youth as having been an agrar­ian one. The life when he was a boy in the early 1960s was a safe and comfortable one. He relates how at the time there was no Plaza Senayan or any high-rise buildings at all other than the Sarinah department store and Hotel Indonesia. “Life was so peaceful,” Sarnadi reminisced. “The rain would come down and dampen the earth leaving it wet with small pools of red mud for the earth here is red. As a child I would take the twigs of bushes and trees and dip them into the mud and paint. That is how it all began with me…”

He was around 8 years old at the time and always won the prize for best drawings at school. He had an algebra teacher called Mr Suminto who came from Jogjakarta and ad­vised Sarnadi’s parents that they should send their talented son to a lower high school that was specialized in the arts. It was then the 1970s and there were only three such schools in Indonesia namely in Jogjakar­ta, Padang and Bali. Sarnadi chose Jogjakarta because it was the closest and it was free. Sarnadi was delighted with the school which was so geared towards his passion for art. He then went to the Institut Seni Indonesia or the Indonesian Arts Institute in Jog­jakarta. It was there that Sarnadi be­came interested in batik making and learnt to batik. He began also to make  batik paintings on cloth using a cant­ing. As far as he knows he is the only Indonesian artist to do so now. Batik making is of course a very traditional art in Jogjakarta, nevertheless, Sar­nadi’s motifs remained Betawi. He says that Betawi art lies not only in the subject that is painted but also in its full-bodied colors, vibrancy and movement.

“Faces of Betawi Dancers” by Sarnadi Adam. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In 1985 Sarnadi returned to Ja­karta. He teaches at the teacher’s training college, IKIP and lectures in fine arts at the Universitas Negeri Jakarta. “There are so many artists in Jakarta but I never met one who was interested in just painting Beta­wi culture. Actually, there was never such a thing as Betawi painting in In­donesian or Betawi art history. I, in fact created this tradition and I have fought for two decades to establish it,” Sarnadi explained.” My parents were very proud that my paintings were exhibited not only here but in various parts of the world. I think the Betawi community is also proud of me, to the point that my paintings have even become a sort of icon of the Betawi culture for they show Betawi cultural traditions and way of life.”

“Fish Harvest” by Sarnadi Adam. Sarnadi used to go to the sea with his parents to buy fish. His favourite was bandeng (milk fish) pesmol (pressure cooked) and during the Chinese Cap Goh Mei festival bandeng was especially popular. (photo: IO/ Tamalia Alisjahbana )

The old Betawi way of life was such a simple and friendly one. He indicates his painting entitled “Food stall at Simpruk village” and says, “There was a routineness to it that I found very comforting. We would rise early in the morning and the men and boys would go to the lang­gar (small mosque) to pray and then we would all gather at an open air stall – just a table with benches and eat a traditional breakfast of Beta­wi nasi uduk ( steamed rice cooked in coconut milk with cinnamon, lemon grass, cloves and pandanus leaves, sprinkled with fried onions and usually served with tempeh in soya sauce, anchovies and sam­bal or spicy sauce). Everyone knew each other and was chatting. It was so nice. Then in the 1970s the real estate companies and the high-rises began moving in and Jakarta lost its rice-fields, its fish ponds, its orchards and people were moved and families often no longer lived in the same area. Nevertheless, the torch has not died, the Betawi community continues to meet routinely and practice Betawi arts and traditions.”

And how does he feel about the President’s plan to move the capital to Palangkaraya in Kalimantan? Sar­nadi thinks for a moment and then responds, “Has the government really calculated the costs carefully? Would it really be efficient? As a son of Ja­karta and a Betawi I feel as though they would simply be repeating what they already did in Jakarta. The vil­lages would be bulldozed to make way for high-rises, real estates and infrastructure. I expect there will also be local people there who will be moved from their villages and fami­lies. How will it all affect their local culture and traditions?”

“Optimistic” by Ahmad Nasrullah who sees the new face of Jakarta with optimism. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Although, at present he is satisfied with the efforts of the city government to help preserve and promote Beta­wi culture, he does worry about the future of Betawi art and he tries to motivate and inspire at least some of his students to paint Betawi art. So, when he holds an exhibition, he invites his best students who show an interest in Betawi art to exhibit together with him. In this exhibition two younger Betawi artists also have their works on display.

“The Bird Market” by Ahmad Nasrullah. Rearing birds is very much a part of the Betawi culture. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana )

Jessica Senjaya wants the exhi­bition to show how the Betawi are adapting to the new face of Jakar­ta and Ahmad Nasrullah’s painting “Optimistic” clearly answers this question. Nasrullah has exhibited at several exhibitions and Sarnadi points to his “The Bird Market” com­menting that it is truly unique to still have such a variety of birds and cages in the middle of a metropolitan city like Jakarta.

Most people view the Betawi culture and people as being strongly Muslim as symbolized in “Masjid Istiqlal” by Deden Hamdani. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana )
“Cathedral Church” by Deden Hamdani. However, as this picture shows Betawi culture includes people of many faiths. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana )

Meanwhile, Deden Hamdani whose paintings are also on display prefers to paint places. His “Sunda Kelapa Harbour” reminds us of how it all began. There already was a port by that name before the Dutch arrived. Deden’s paintings of “Masjid Istiqlal”, the largest mosque in Jakarta and his painting of the “Jakarta Cathedral” remind us that as Sarnadi says, “Al­though most Betawi people are Mus­lim there are also non-Muslim Betawi people such as the Christian commu­nity in Tugu who claim Portuguese influence and the Chinese who have lived for generations in Kota Tua who are non-Muslims but still say: Saya Cina Betawi! (I am a Betawi Chi­nese!).” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)