Saturday, March 2, 2024 | 14:58 WIB

The Transformative Power of Art

Jakarta, IO – The first head of the Akademi Jakarta or Jakarta Academy of the Taman Ismail Marzuki Cultural Centre in Jakarta was my father, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana who was a novelist, a sociologist, a linguist, a philosopher and a futurologist. After his death every year, the Akademi Jakarta holds the Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana Memorial lecture where a guest speaker is invited to speak about a subject of their choice in which they have expertise. As the Akademi Jakarta notes: ‘The lectures are a program of the Akademi Jakarta to help develop critical thinking in society as a response to the many problems surrounding us…The purpose is to create a society open to the future.’

Every year a sculpture of a buffalo with a reader on its back by sculptor Dolorosa Sinaga is given to the speaker at the Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana Memorial lecture. (Photo credit: Mario Alisjahbana/Yayasan Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana)

This year, the lecture was held on the 24th of July and the speaker was Risa Permanadeli who directs the Pusat Kajian Representasi Sosial or ‘Center for Social Representation Studies’. Last year’s speaker was Prof Musdah Mulia, an expert in Islamic Law whose compendium of Islamic Law is used at Harvard Law School. This time, the lecture was preceded by a small exhibition and discussion.

A commonly held view of art is that it is exclusive, expensive and displayed in galleries or museums, making it distant from the life of ordinary people. The Akademi Jakarta has attempted to show a very different view of art, instead highlighting the role of art in everyday life and how it enhances independent thinking and can be used to influence and transform society. For this an exhibition and discussion were held at TIM, called Terobos: Daya Ubah Seni dan Kemandirian Pikiran or ‘Breakthrough: The Transformative Power of Art and Independence of Thought’. Here four of the many art communities existing in Bandung were presented.

The exhibition displayed some of the art works of the four groups’ members and in the discussion representatives of each community or group explained the purpose of their group and also how it empowered them. Some may find it a little strange that the exhibition was focused on four artist communities in Bandung rather than Jakarta bearing in mind that TIM is a Jakarta art centre however, as the capital of Indonesia and a special province TIM is expected not only to focus on art and culture in Jakarta but to represent all the provinces of Indonesia. It will be interesting to see what will happen to TIM’s role and brief when the capital is moved to Kalimantan.

Ruang Reda
As it is in the capital, Jakarta arts centre, Taman Ismail Marzuki does not only concern itself with art in Jakarta but all over Indonesia. What will its brief be when the capital moves? (IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Besides that, Bandung is one of Indonesia’s most creative towns whose avantgarde artists, architects and designers have produced many of Indonesia’s foremost modern art and architecture. Apparently, this artistic atmosphere has also affected ordinary people in Bandung who are not professional artists, with artists communities and clubs sprouting like mushrooms. The exhibition chose therefore to document four artist groups in Bandung. Finally, Akademi Jakarta member, Dr Tisna Sanjaya who moderated the discussion has strong ties with each of the art communities present in the exhibition and discussion.

The discussion centred on the creative methods used in each of the four groups in order to bring change to their environment or society. The art communities were introduced by Tisna Sanjaya, an Indonesian artist who was ideal in the role of moderator for this topic namely, that art belongs to the people and is not an exclusively highbrow pursuit far removed from the lives of ordinary citizens and that it can be used to promote independent thinking and transform society.

Tisna Sanjaya’s parents were market chicken sellers and he began his interest in art as a little boy who liked to scrawl on neighbourhood walls. His first achievement in art was winning the Badan Koordinasi Keluarga Berencana Nasional (BKKBN) or National Family Planning Board’s art competition. From there his path led him to study at Bandung’s prestigious Institute of Technology and later at the Hochschule Fur Bildende Kunste or the Academy for Fine Arts in Germany. He has frequently exhibited both in Indonesia as well as abroad and his work has been much commented on. Tisna Sanjaya is a humanist whose art is known for featuring social and political injustices. He also, played an important role in each of the four groups that were the focus of the exhibition and discussion.

Ruang Reda
Akademi Jakarta member, Tisna Sanjaya with the Head of Jakarta Cultural Services, Iwan Henry Wardhana. (IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Pak Tisna began by introducing the Sanggar Olah Seni Babakan Siliwangi or ‘the Babakan Siliwangi Art Work Studio’. Of the four clubs, the Sanggar Olah Seni Babakan Siliwangi (which I shall refer to as Babakan Siliwangi) is the most professional, in the sense that its members tended to be professional artists as opposed to the other three groups for whose members art was often a hobby rather than a profession. Its members succeeded in using art and their artist community in saving a forest area within the town of Bandung known as the Forest Walk Babakan Siliwangi area, from being slowly taken over by business interests and transformed into a commercial area of hotels, restaurants and high rises. Instead, the city forest where Babakan Siliwangi is itself located, has become a place where art and nature remain in harmony together.

The head of Babakan Siliwangi, Susentono Tono explained that it was established in 1982, by artists that included such well-known names as Thony Joesoef, Popo Iskandar, A. D. Pyrous, Ruhiya etc. In the beginning its members were mainly West Java painters and sculptors but it has since grown to include the performing arts and such things as batik making, pencak silat martial arts etc.

Babakan Siliwangi was a place where artists gathered and held discussions as to how art could be further developed in West Java. They very much wanted a place where they could meet, work and hold exhibitions. When Joop Ave was the Director General for Culture, he provided them with the funds to buy a piece of land in the Babakan Siliwangi forest and build such a meeting place. Years later, when there was a move to start building condominiums in the forest, Babakan Siliwangi together with the artists community and other groups protested the decision and after several years finally succeeded in pressuring the Mayor of Bandung to cancel his MOU with investors interested in building in the Babakan Siliwangi forest. Tisna Sanjaya was involved in these protests and produced art work for a protest exhibition at Babakan Siliwangi, that was later burnt by the police.

Ruang Reda
Ruang Reda, one of the four artist communities presented at TIM.(IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Another group that was introduced was Ruang Reda or ‘the Calming Room’ which was represented by its founders, Ami Juandi Husin and Ratna Rodelsperger. They were both house wives who taught art to children in Bandung. When COVID struck they began an online art class and found it in great demand not only amongst children but also adults, So, they also opened online classes for adults. Several of their friends had long dreamt of publicly exhibiting their work. They had backgrounds in art but had long left it behind to become housewives. Their work now centred around the house and with their children, leaving them with little time for things outside the family. It was ten of these women who formed Ruang Reda.

Ratna Rodelsperger disclosed, “After we created Ruang Reda many things developed: Art helped us to continue with the lives we had chosen. It was a place where we could open our hearts and provided a safe place for us to create. Art became an activity that calmed us in the midst of our often, hectic domestic duties. The art we produced was like a social sculpture.”

Ami Juandi Husin agreed explaining, “House wives are often considered of the lowest caste whereas the struggles of a house wife to fulfil all her tasks is often a heavy one. We created a community offline and online where there was no bullying but rather an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding. We meet. We do our art work while cooking, taking care of our children, ironing and performing our domestic tasks. We have a travelling sketchbook that we pass around and each member paints or sketches something in it.”

They say that for them art is about survival. Through their art they have created a safe and comfortable place with a support system where they can find healing. People often do not realize how great society’s demands on mothers and house wives are. Tisna Sanjaya has advised the Ruang Reda artists.

Imah Budayah Cigondewah is in fact an artist studio and community built by the moderator Tisna Sanjaya which was created to inspire the villagers of Desa Batu Rengat Cigondewah whose quality of life is being destroyed by environmental problems, to participate in solving the problems of Cigondewah through the medium of art. This is a concept that the late Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana would have whole heartedly supported for he was a futurologist who grappled with the major problems of the 20th century and who believed that in building the future, the artist has an important role to play for as he used to say, “The future is a dream and who understands dreams better than an artist?”

Meiti Meilita was the spokesperson for the Imah Budayah Cigondewah group. She represented a group of textile labourers who formerly worked for one of the large textile companies in the area but who for various reasons left the company and then helped support their families by entering the cottage industry for textiles whereby they became the workers, the distributors as well as the owners of the textiles they produced and faced all the challenges confronting each of these roles. Meiti Melita and other textiles workers created an exhibition with regard to this using the medium of embroidery which functioned as an archive of their activities. The subjects included such things as a textile worker who used to work abroad as a maid but giving it up because she could not bear to see the sadness on the faces of her children, memories of sexual abuse, finding evidence of an unfaithful husband, experiences trying to build their garment business etc.

Ruang Reda
A painting from Ruang Reda. (IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

“I chose embroidery as a medium because it is intimate and personal and is connected to our social life. The embroidery manifested the women’s feelings and gave voice to their personal experiences.” Meiti Meilita explained. “It was a way to archive our experiences.”

The final group presented by Tisna Sanjaya was the Komunitas Bekas Bioskop Dian or the Former Dian Cinema Community. This group centers around what is now the West Java Regional government’s education centre in what was once the Dian Cinema. The building was built in 1925 as the Radio City Cinema and is located on Bandung’s alun-alun or central green, right next to the Mayor of Bandung’s office. After independence, it became the property of the West Java regional government and its name was changed to Dian Cinema where both Indonesian as well as foreign films were shown until the 1990s when it was no longer able to compete with the new modern cinemas being built in Bandung.

Bioskop Dian was then used as a billiard hall, a garment shop, an office, a futsal hall and final as an empty neglected building in whose courtyard hawkers sold food. Bandung has categorized it as a protected grade A listed building which Bandung’s Cultural and Tourism Services have turned into a cultural centre where people’s art is exhibited including performance art.

The Former Dian Cinema community was represented by Wahyu Dian who explained that the former cinema provided an alternative venue for the folk art of ordinary citizens – both artists as well as audiences – who frequently felt intimidated by museums and art galleries. Tisna Sanjaya is one of the artists who has created exhibitions at the Bioskop Bekas Dian and who whole heartedly supported its transformation into what it is today. Dian commented, “People feel safe to express and participate in art here and in that way, art is able to fuse with all layers of society.”

One interesting aspect of the four societies is that the two societies whose members were all women tended to use art and the artist community or group that they had created as a psychological instrument for healing and support. This was not the case with the two other communities whose members were mostly men. In part, this is because for the men, the art is not a hobby or pastime but a profession which they use to express their creativity and also to acquire money and reputation. However, after speaking to some male artists for whom art is also not a profession, they do not use it as a psychological tool in the way that women’s groups apparently often do. 

Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana would have been delighted with the exhibition and discussion as part of the Memorial Lecture, and especially he would have been pleased with Tisna Sanjaya’s work in involving ordinary citizens in art and in using art to solve societal problems and thereby transform society itself. He believed that artists have an important role to play in solving society’s problems and in planning the future. It was in fact, with this in mind that Takdir created an art centre for art and the future at Balai Seni Toyabungka on the shores of Lake Batur in Bali. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Ruang Reda
A painting from Ruang Reda. (IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)


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