Indonesia in Focus
Moelyono - A Genius: Indonesia
Moelyono is, without a doubt, one of the leading visual artists in Indonesia. He tackles the problems of his country head-on and expresses such in forms within his work.
Moelyono: The arts and social responsibility
M. Taufiqurrahman, Jakarta
The mainstream thinking in arts may have been the reason behind its non-partisan nature — that arts and literature can somehow can stand outside or above society. Hence, art for art’s sake.
In the past 15 years, visual artist Moelyono has not only lived to debunk that stereotype, but he has worked to set a shining example on how committed artists can be a powerful vehicle to change society.
Eschewing the traditional role of the artist as an agent to merely document reality, Moelyono has used his craft to educate the uneducated, children in particular, by giving them tools to speak in their own terms. He traveled to the country’s remotest, and at times poorest regions, introducing himself as a drawing teacher and using the visual art’s rudiments, straight line, circle, dot and dash also as keys to open the children’s universe, reveal problems and find ways to overcome them.
His method is simple.
“First I ask the children to draw a rough circle or a straight line. From the rudiments they are free to paint anything and tell stories about the objects,” he told The Jakarta Post in an interview that took place the morning after the opening ceremony for an exhibition of his works at Bentara Budaya Jakarta.
Such an exercise was carried out using the materials available in the impoverished villages like stones, pebbles, wood, tree trunks or anything that could have educational values.
All useful materials are later toted around in a roughly-sewn bag that serves as a way to carry the educational tools. “If the local people want to set up a school, what they need to do is just gather the material together and start a class,” he deduced.
In the process, Moelyono used the children’s work to analyze problems of local peoples and look for solutions if possible. In what he believes is a holistic education, Moelyono involved not only the children, but housewives and other members of the community with time on their hands. And the exercise has been used to spread the message of hygiene and sanitation, nutritional foods and the economic empowerment of local communities.
A method Moelyono attempted 15 years ago in Brumbun, a coastal village near his home region of Tulungagung, East Java, such a pedagogical approach is now being applied in 10 locations from Meulaboh in Aceh, Maumere in East Nusa Tenggara and Kurima district in Papua, with a support from World Vision, a U.S.-based Christian relief and development organization.
His “targets” in this holistic education are primarily young children, who have been left out of the government’s “compulsory” basic education programs.
More than 20 years after starting his journey to desolate Tulungagung village, Moelyono now describes his role today as merely to campaign and draw up training modules, a far cry from what he initially did as a professional artist after graduating from a once-prestigious art school.
A graduate of the Yogyakarta-based Indonesian Visual Arts Academy (ASRI) — now the Indonesian Institute of Arts (ISI) –, Moelyono was steeped in the formalist tradition which gave emphasis on color and shape, before rebelling against the art establishment.
He embraced a completely new model after learning about the passivity of formalism when confronted with social realities.
Moelyono was a brilliant student with an impressive academic record — he received a scholarship from the renowned expressionist artist Affandi — before being immersed in the revolutionary fervor brewing in Yogyakarta in the early 1980s.
“I set up an organization of artists called Kepribadian Apa (What Personality) or Pipa which stood against formalism and commodification of artwork. We fought for our own definition that art is useful when it functions to make a change in the society,” he said.
Armed with such a new conviction, Moelyono left Pipa to pursue his own path by documenting rampant poverty and other social ills through his realist paintings. Reproducing the plight, however, turned out to be a futile exercise as it did nothing to change the life of his objects.
Frustrated by such an endeavor, Moelyono, who graduated from ASRI in 1985 after eight years of attending classes, decided to take a plunge in social activism unaware of the grave danger that would soon come his way.
In the heyday of the oppressive New Order regime, together with the pro-democracy and labor communities in Surabaya, the industrial capital of East Java, Moelyono organized an exhibition to commemorate the death of female labor activist Marsinah in 1993.
It did not take long before he had a run-in with the law a result of the exhibition.
Moelyono escaped prosecution only with the aid from the slain rights activist Munir, who was then a lawyer with Surabaya’s Institute of Legal Aid (LBH Surabaya).
His first foray into Brumbun was also met with suspicion by local government officials.
“I was accused of doing a covert communist operation when I planned to bring the works of Brumbun children to Jakarta for an exhibition. I was a college graduate, working in a poor village, which once served as a stronghold of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), thus I was an easy target for communist accusations,” Moelyono said with a chuckle.
Now with the relative freedom of expression present in here country, Moelyono seems to have problems placing himself in the art community.
The country’s market-oriented art scene would unlikely recognized for his refusal to produce theme-based works that would be selected by curators who heeded the amateurish taste of art buffs.
“There is no way my paintings will sell in Jakarta’s galleries. But I am more than happy now because at least my ideas has been picked up by my friends in non-governmental organizations,” the 49-year-old said.
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