Editorial: Indonesia’s Art Leadership

Editorial Omong-Omong

5 min read

It was a bright late Wednesday afternoon (September 21) in Singapore, leading to a wonderful evening, as people, mostly Indonesians but many also are Singaporeans, Europeans and other nations, started to arrive and enter the Concert Hall of the Esplanade, one of Asia’s best performing art centers and the city state’s pride, seemingly not knowing what to expect from this “Vibes of Nusantara” program which presents Jakarta Concert Orchestra, Conductor Avip Priatna and choir Batavia Madrigal Singers.

Of more than 1,800 seats available, almost all of them were taken, with the prices for standard seats ranging from S$18 to $88. It’s a quite a sale achievement, considering that it’s a classical music show, and we would find out later that it’s a bargain considering the quality of the performance.

As the attendance took their seats, the concert was opened by Overture Fatahillah, an original composition written by talented Indonesian composer Fero Aldiansya Stefanus. Many possibly have not heard the composition yet as it was introduced to the public only in November 2018 or less than four years ago, making it the youngest piece among the whole playlists. But it quickly absorbed the audience with its dynamic and intensity, which strangely somewhat reminded people of Fanfare of the Common Man, not the original version which was written by Aaron Copland, but an adaptation by English progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP). Perhaps because of its percussion, or because both are an overture or an opening to something bigger, or perhaps because of its war and common people-related theme.

In any case, it’s not a lesser piece as we can imagine Demak Kingdom Commander Fatahillah, an Indonesian national hero, running around, leading his men fighting and defeating the Portuguese soldiers to take back Sunda Kelapa (now Jakarta). Furthermore, a cross-reference to a piece which is acknowledged globally as a masterpiece without sounding imitating shows that Fatahillah Overture has a class of its own.

Then came the ever-familiar Tanah Airku (My Homeland), an Indonesian classic song, composed by legendary Ibu Sud. But this time, it was an adaptation by Joko Suprayitno, called Variation on Tanah Airku featuring soloist Nino Ario Wijaya on clarinet. Nino played with such a fun that he could create various dancing melodies in each of variations he played. People seemed to have lost count on how many variations they played but it was so fun that it did not matter until it stopped, followed by big applause from the audience.

The high octane performance was turned down a little bit with Singgih Wijaya’s arrangement of Indonesia Jiwaku which was composed by Guruh Soekarnoputra, who is easily one of Indonesia’s best composers in its history, and sung by Farman Purnama, a talented Indonesian tenor, supported by Batavia Madrigal Singers in the background.

But then it went off again with Yazeed Djamin’s adaptation of Sepasang Mata Bola, a well-known Indonesian masterpiece written by arguably Indonesia’s greatest composer, Ismail Marzuki. This time, Jonathan Kuo played piano in various variations of the composition. With his hit-and-run style (laid-back but aggressive and emotional at the same time), he charmed the audience, making it one of the highlights of the show.

After the intermission, we were spoilt by two performances – Hentakan Jiwa by Ken Steven and adapted for orchestra by Fero Aldiansyah Stefanus, and Tak Tong Tong, a West Sumatra traditional song — by Batavia Madrigal Singers, who have given Indonesia great name globally by winning series of international competition, including the recent 2022 European Grand Prix for Choral Singing.

The second part also presented various interesting compositions, such as Rampak Melayu by Arya Pugala Kitti and Paris Berantai, a South Kalimantan traditional song, which is arranged by H. Anang Ardiansyah and adapted for orchestra by Renaldi Wicaksono, and Ayo Mama, a Maluku traditional song which arranged by Irsa Destiwi, then Tokecang, West Java traditional song, which arranged by Elwin Hedrijanto. Two Indonesia’s flute players, Metta F. Ariono and Marini Widyastari, formed a duet in making Tokecang beautiful and fun.

These compositions accurately portrayed the theme of the concert: “Vibes of Nusantara”.

But the highlights of the second part are two songs performed duet by Farman Purnama and Jessica Januar, supported by Batavia Madrigal Singer on the background.

First and foremost, Zamrud Khatulistiwa, one of the best Indonesia’s pop songs also written by Guruh Soekarnoputra, with Farman and Jessica really showing their range and emotion in singing it. It’s like we were brought into a tropical forests surrounded by blue sea where birds are singing endlessly and fish swimming and playing near us. Meanwhile, Lisoi is a proper closing of the playlists despite the orchestra returned for an encore after it.

What can we give for a final say? It is a seriously great stuff, entertaining and beyond expectation of many of the audience. And of course, all of these great performances would not have happened without charismatic conductor Avip Priatna leading the whole way, while whatever supports from Indonesian Embassy in Singapore and funding from impresarios, like the Hartono Family, should be highly appreciated.

Taking Charge

This great performance is only one highlight of rising Indonesia’s art performance and creativities at the international stages, shaping the image of the nation as a place of high talents, and taking charge as Southeast Asia’s talent representatives. Various Indonesia’s artists and forms of art – from orchestra, soloists, group bands to instrumentalists – have proved their worth at the Esplanade and Singapore, the gate to enter Asia and global stage in general.

But performing art is hardly alone in giving Indonesia a great name. The country’s painters and those who produce fine art are also thriving, dominating Singapore’s sales in the last several years, with one of the city state’s galleries, Art Works Singapore reportedly acknowledging that last year alone – during the pandemic – art works produced by Indonesian artists made up 20 percent of its online sales.

To name but a few, Federico Tomasi whose various showings in global prestigious art events, like Art Loves New York and Venice Biennale made him recognized internationally, then promising young artist like Bagus Arti Maruta and also Aurora Santika who has collaborated with Disney are among those who international public know and respect Indonesia, with many of art lovers and pundits alike stating that culturally and socially-rich art and distinctive style attract the public to them and causing the nation’s art and artists rising in popularity in Singapore’s and international markets.

To tweak Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, if Singapore is the medium, then Indonesia is the message, the content.

In a larger crowd, Ananda Sukarlan, perhaps now Indonesia’s internationally most well-known pianist and composer, took charge of leading an orchestra in an attempt to bring together members of the 20 biggest economies – group of G20 – to work together equally and peacefully through culture and music, in the midst of rampaging world caused by Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. G20 members, including Russia and Ukraine sent their best musicians to play a concert in front of Borobudur Temple as the world is watching.

After all, Ananda said, music – more than politics and other fields – is a universal language people understand regardless of their citizenship, race, gender, religion or sexuality – that can unite and inspire people.

The strong showing of Indonesia’s artists and art products, however, are not without controversies.

In a show of incredibly high trust, Documenta, the world’s biggest and most prestigious art event, appointed Indonesia’s art collective ruangrupa as its 15th event artistic director, curating artists and art works for the world’s most influential show of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany. In art world, such an appointment could never be higher.

Related Editorial: People’s Artistic Justice

But lapse of judgement by allowing a massive banner, an eight-meter high mural, titled People’s Justice, be hung from a scaffold in Friedrichsplatz, the central square of Kassel created uproar for its anti-Semitism. It’s painted by Taring Padi, Indonesian art collective, intended as a people’s tribunal, screaming for accountability that had caused not only of the massacre of around 1 million people during the 1965-1966 period but also the misery of tens of millions Indonesians in 32 years of Soeharto’s totalitarian brutal regime.

The problem is that there is no denying that small parts of the giant art are anti-Semitic. People’s Justice sparked outrage and soon fall into not only Kessel politics but also national battlefield. Despite repeated apologies and explanation from ruangrupa, there was no going back after that. Two days after the banner was removed, with many in the media quickly declaring not only the incident of the banner but also the whole documenta as a national embarrassment, and some demanding it to be banned altogether. Recent piece published by New York Times somewhat unfairly declares it as a failure.

We don’t know how Indonesia’s artists in general, or more precisely art intellectuality, recover from such an incident. But in any case, barred the antisemitism allegations, Indonesia’s artists have showed they could forge a leadership in within a global art world.

If the South Korea artists have received full support from their government to rule the world with its “Korean Wave”, containing poppy music, dance and TV soap operas, then Indonesia should seize to dominate these high forms – fine art, painting, opera, orchestra. This is the way to go, and hopefully, Indonesian authorities will throw their support to create, another wave, an “Indonesian Wave”.

Editorial Omong-Omong

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