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Zola Zolu Gallery
Surreal Innocence
Asian Art News, September - October 2010
The art of Indonesian painter Ahmad Su置dhi revels in the innocence of children. Yet his bright works reach beyond fun to speak to darker social concerns, from the tragedy of natural disasters to the recovery from such a catastrophic emotional experience.

Children as subject matter in Indonesia art are rare. There are painters who like to work with this subject, but still the majority do not like to place children at the center of their work, considering them to be mere incidentals, adjuncts to more important affairs. Over the past two decades, however, Ahmad Su置dhi has made children the center of his art, portraying them in a variety of ways, from playful to serious, filled with the gestures and expressions of joy and innocence.

In styles that, by turns, capture a sentimental naivety, a rustic realism, a quirky childish narrative, and a soft surrealism, Su置dhi shows his subjects in, for the most part, reassuring environments surrounded by other children. There is a sense of perfection, where everything is clear; flowers and rocks appear to be situated at precisely the right spot and angle and trees grow perfectly. The artist痴 paintings project a world of sentimental gentleness, which might suggest the perceptions of a female artist.

The rejection of children and their activities is not something that only happened recently in Indonesian art, hence Ahmad Su置dhi has had very little upon which to draw for his own vision. Before 1980, the modern Indonesian art world did not consider that children in art should be taken seriously. In the oeuvre of Raden Saleh (1807-1880), considered to be the founder of modern Indonesian art, there are virtually no paintings that address children and their world. Saleh had a tendency to work on big subjects and themes that were related to the traditions of classical Western painting, which he had studied. In classical Western painting portraying a child was uncommon: children and infants were often shown as small adults. The Dutch painter Frans Hals (1581-1666) featured children痴 life occasionally. Beautiful princess and princes in sparkling palaces were among the works, for example, of the English artists George Romney (1734-1802) and Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). The American illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) often featured children in their everyday world.

The disregard of children as central subjects in modern Indonesian art continued throughout the 20th century. Even notable artists such as Abdullah Suriosubroto, Mas Pirngadie, Wakidi, and Sudjono Abdullah did not consider children and their activities worthy of attention. During the first three decades of the 20th century, Indonesian art wrestled with social issues in a search for a national consciousness. The emergence of the Indonesian Association of Painters (Persatuan Ahli-ahli Gambar Indonesia) in 1938 confirmed the tendency of excluding children for the most part. Projecting the lives of adult Indonesians was paramount. The art academies of the 1950s such as ITB, in Bandung, and the Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia (Indonesian Fine Art Academy) did not address children and their activities. The children痴 world began to emerge slowly only in the late 1950s in Jogjakarta.

Ahmad Su置dhi was horn in Temanggung on April 17, 1958. He is a painter who understands the world of children, as a look at his work of the past two decades shows. Recently, however, Su置dhi seems to have broadened his horizons. He no longer involves children in areas that trap them in traumatic events such as earthquakes or tsunami. He wants to take children hack to their natural habitat and emotional state, which is the world of joy. His paintings of boys and girls-Donate for Tsunami (2005), Help the Tsunami (2005), and Slide Disaster Leuwigajab (2005)-busily collecting donations to help victims of natural disasters such as earthquakes and the great tsunami in Aceh province are gentle imaginings of children and their emotions and fears yet, behind the artist痴 sentimental approach, one senses the impact and scale of catastrophic events. Su置dhi shows the children, faces bright yet full of innocent concern, helping those who have been injured and are sick. There is a motherly quality to Su置dhis narrative, for he clearly understands his children痴 world. The tsunami tragedy was very real indeed for children, their losses numbing them, but Su置dhi hints at reformation and revival of everything that has survived the tragedy. He projects a happy ending, a fresh sense of happiness, joy, and hope. Su置dhi achieves this through his dramatic colors.

There is life beyond tragedy. Children are resilient. Su置dhi understands this as he understands that children in their own way unite the world. Through the computer children can now "be transported to faraway places." Su置dhi draws a conclusion that children from various nations in the world share the same souls and feelings. In looking at his recent paintings, we see a new cosmopolitanism. His children as travelers are citizens of the world. He sees that children are no longer put in the boxes of narrow nationalism, a source for quarrels and enmity. Babies Debate (2008) shows three diapered babies, looking curiously grown up, in serious discussion. They are as blind to their physical similarities as they are to their differences. The artist seems to be telling us the children do play a major role in uniting the world.

Ahmad Su置dhi knows that the earth belongs to all children, sharing everything beneath the heavens. They do not feel threatened. They accept differences in ways that adults do not. So Su置dhi no longer constrains his children, no longer confines them to their own countries. He lets them travel, constructing incongruous, nave, somewhat surreal, narratives to suggest that they are very much citizens of the world, free and unencumbered by prejudices. Tiger Beat (2010) tells the story of infants who ride a white tiger at Moscow痴 Red Square, with the famous Orthodox Church as the background. In Babies Ride Pony (2010) the diapered babies ride on a pony in Italy, the leaning tower of Pisa in the background. Babies Across Taj Mahal (2009) shows infants being carried by a beautifully attired iconic Indian elephant, and two small baby elephants: the Taj Mahal is a dramatic backdrop. The Taj Mahal, built by 20,000 people between 1630 and 1648, is one of the world痴 greatest symbols of love. These children seem to make us realize that the Taj Mahal痴 amazing architecture in Agra is not just an Islamic monument, but also one that belongs to all of the civilization. Shah Jehan (1592-1666) built the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved Mumtaz Mahal.

Ahmad Su置di痴 brightly colored Jalan Sudirman (2010) shows small children riding a buffalo, bison, elephant, reindeer, jaguar, zebras, lion, snow leopard, tiger, and horses up one of the most important thoroughfares of Jakarta with skyscrapers as a backdrop. Another narrative, entitled Mengagumi Mahakarya Borobudur (2009) features nine diapered infants sitting in front of a large Buddha figure in the corner of the Borobudur. They would appear to be talking about the greatness that they have just seen, about how this temple was built in the year 800 of the Syailendra dynasty. They may be discussing the tools used or the many thousands of people involved in making the figures and reliefs that tell stories of Kamadhatu, Rupadhatu, and Arupadhatu. Borobudur, whose etymology is "bara," another word for "vihara" (temple) and "budur", meaning above or in the sky. Hence, Barabudur, or Borobudur, means 鄭 temple in the sky, a place of worship for Buddhists. (Agus Dermawan T)


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