Temperature: A refreshingly attractive exhibition by women ceremic artists

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Kartini Sjahrir (in red kebaya) opens the ceramic exhibition with Esti Utami, the Head of the Fine Arts and Ceramic Museum (in white kebaya). (photo: IO/Tamalia)

To celebrate Kartini Day last Saturday, the  21st of April 2018 the Fine Arts and Ceramics Museum in Taman Fatahillah, West Jakarta launched the first Indonesian ceramics exhibition solely by women ceramics artists.

IOAppropriately enough, the exhibition was opened by Kartini Nurmala Panjaihitan Sjahrir, an Indonesian career diplomat who is passionate about women’s rights. Ibu Kartini is the sister of the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs General Luhut Panjahitan.

The launch began with a Betawi dance called Lenggang Nyai whose swirling dancers in red and green costumes and headdress reflected the strong Chinese influence in Betawi culture. After the dance Kartini Sjahrir spoke and in her speech reminded the audience that Kartini day was a time to commemorate Indonesia’s women’s emancipator, Raden Ajeng Kartini. “Ceramics have always been created by men but ceramics are made with clay and fire and for me these two elements are so related to women and their work that I cannot help but feel that ceramics must be an art form that would suit women well. So, today we celebrate this, the first ceramic exhibition in Indonesia solely by women ceramic artists. And so we can say, that Kartini’s work of emancipation continues as we remove yet another barrier to women’s rights in this case the right to participate in the arts.

Our nation consists of a diverse society and we do not discriminate based on ethnicity, gender or religion. That is what is written in the constitution of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. Therefore, the state does not prevent but indeed encourages women in participating and creating in the arts.”

Kartini Sjahrir’s speech was followed by music from a band called Hanyaterra (which translates as “Only earth”) using solely ceramic bowls, kendis (pitchers or jugs) and cups as musical instruments and then the exhibition was opened. Eighteen women ceramics artists were represented by 50 ceramic art works at the exhibition in the central hall of the 19th century neo-classical Fine Arts and Ceramics Museum whose beautiful chandeliers lit up the foyer.

The exhibition contained not only attractive pieces but also both thought provoking as well as intriguing works of art. The exhibit that most visitors agreed was most representative of Kartini Day was probably a display of three white ceramic women’s heads, one upright and the other two lying on their sides with dark blue paint scrawled across their faces. The display by Galuh Anindita is entitled “Pecah Belah,” in Indonesian and this has been translated as “Fragile” but would probably be better translated as “Broken” as Anindita intended her pieces to reflect the drug problems currently faced by many young women in Indonesia. In Indonesian slang a woman who is under the influence of a drug is referred to as “pecah” or “broken”. For many visitors however, the scrawls across the women’s faces seemed to represent the discrimination that women still face in so many areas of life and which prevent them from participating fully in society.

Anindita is from Jogjakarta and apprenticed at Kitagama Kasen in Seto, Japan. She chose to study in Japan because as a child her mother liked to prepare ikebana flower arrangements and also used to read her Japanese folk stories giving her a comfortable sense of Japanese culture. Her favourite Japanese ceramic artist is Shingo Takeuchi. “I like the rawness and science that he brings into his artwork. For example he made red clay turn into white clay during the firing process and it was like magic. I was really fortunate to be able to learn so much from him.”

Andreas Sudjud Dartanto, the curator of the exhibition who also teaches at the Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Arts Institute) or ISI in Jogjakarta, said that in his opinion Galuh Anindita was the most promising among the ceramic artists whose work is on display at the exhibition. “She is a very creative artist and works not only with ceramics but also paints and creates very fine jewelry.”

Nearby on stood a ceramic vase covered in a jungle of flowers with the nude white figure of a woman at the centre of the flowers who appeared to be trying to climb out of the flower jungle. The piece by Sekarputri Sidhiawati from Bandung is entitled “Clingy”. A visitor looked at the ceramic figure and remarked, “Eve, that woman is Eve escaping the garden of Eden, no?”

Pak Sujud laughed when he heard the visitors’ different interpretations of the pieces “That’s fine and just as it should be. Everyone will have a different interpretation of each piece based on their own life’s experiences. After all,” He said with a twinkle in his eyes, “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”

Not all the exhibition’s ceramic artists are full time artists. Quite a number have different professions such as doctor, architect or engineer. The ceramic artists come from Jakarta, Bandung and Jogjakarta. About half the artists from Jakarta and Bandung have other jobs. Not surprisingly from Jogjakarta, the nation’s cultural capital all the ceramic artists exhibiting are artists who concentrate their time fully on their art.

Antin Sambodo’s houses on stilts and coral reefs. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

An example of the part time artist is Antin Sambodo who is also an architect which is clearly reflected in her ceramic exhibit which consists of several houses on high stilts under which are what look like round grey shaped vases with flowers – and which may be dismantled rather like a lego set. Dartanto calls her style “architectural ceramics” because she likes using architectural designs in her ceramic pieces. Sambodo says, “Indonesia is so rich in different ethnic traditions and so many of them have their own style of traditional house. Here I have tried to represent the traditional houses on stilts and below them I have ceramic pieces formed to look like coral reefs – just as the Bajau or sea gypsies of Indonesia build their traditional houses with the reefs below them.”

It is both an eye catching and intriguing installation. Sambodo who is from Jakarta, began turning to ceramics in 1998 after the economic and political crisis hit Indonesia and no one could afford to hire an architect. With no work she began making ceramic pieces and fell in love with the media which she says allows her to spread her ideas. Sambodo has had her work exhibited in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Sujdjud Dartanto, the exhibition’s excellent curator chose ceramics as his major interest in 1999 because at that time there was no one yet who focused seriously on contemporary Indonesian ceramics and Dartanto thought it would be interesting to do so as Indonesian ceramic art has its roots in Majapahit era terracotta art. Since then neither terracotta nor ceramics have been given much thought in the world of Indonesian contemporary arts. From there began Dartanto’s dream to promote Indonesian modern ceramics.

He explained that in choosing the exhibits and artists for the exhibition at the Fine Arts and Ceramics Museum he looked mainly at the quantity and quality of the artist’s work. Contemporary ceramic art is mostly none-functional. Some of the ceramic artists are influenced by paintings and sculptures however. An example of this are the two vase like ceramic pieces by Lisa Sumardi, “Young Woman with Traditional clothese 1 and 2”. They each have paintings on them of a woman in traditional Javanese costume.

Later, the curator explained that clay cannot be called ceramic until it has been fired and the firing temperature determines the result and whether it is terracotta whose maximum heat for firing is 8000C or ceramics which have a maximum firing temperature of 12500C or porcelain which goes beyond 12500C. “In the end the firing temperature will determine the result. So, it’s really all about the firing process and that’s why I called the exhibition, ‘Temperature Affect, Seeing Self, Observing Others.’ Now temperature can be interpreted as condition, atmosphere or situation and in this exhibition are used to view the ‘interior experience’ of the ceramic artist with the ‘exterior world’.

Another fascinating exhibit is entitled “Couple Bowls” by Noor Sudiyati, a senior ceramic artist who also lectures at ISI. Her art frequently reflects her experiences as a follower of Kejawen which is a Javanese syncretic religious tradition that is a mixture of animism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufi beliefs. The exhibit consists of two flowingly elongated bowls. Her pieces display the Kejawen philosophy which believes strongly in the connection between man and nature. So, the form of the bowls is following the artist’s instinct which is in harmony with nature. The bowls which have a rough texture display a whorl on their sides, a common Kejawen symbol.

An exhibit that clearly symbolizes women is Jogjakarta artist, Lelyana Kurniawati’s “Women and Nature #1” a very attractive dark blue bust of a woman with leaves draped over her head. “Women and Nature # 2” is another stoneware bust of a woman in a natural brown colour. What makes the second bust special is that when it is turned around there is a small white bird sitting inside the back part of the woman’s head. Many interpreted the busts as women’s close connection to nature and the white bird represented women’s concern with peace.

In closing, Esti Utami, head of the Fine Arts and Ceramics Museum who has a background in archaeology and credits this for her slight preference for ceramics over paintings, observed that every year the museum holds one fine arts exhibition and one ceramics exhibition as part of the museum’s task in educating the public about its collections. In the past this has covered the historical development of ceramics, the science of making ceramics, its different forms and so forth. “This year however, we decided to open the exhibition on Kartini day and by doing so help promote women ceramic artists.” And this absorbing exhibition has certainly provided its visitors with a taste of the many talented women ceramic artists in Indonesia today.  (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The Fine Arts and Ceramics Museum is located on Taman Fatahilah and the exhibition is open to the public until the 2nd of ay 2018.