JAKARTA, INDONESIA** — Wiyu Wahono admitted that the first time he came across a contemporary painting while on a student backpacking trip in Venice in the late 1970s, he was “shocked” by how ugly it was. But the jolt soon subsided, and Mr. Wahono developed a passion for contemporary art. He has amassed a collection of video, installation, photography, sound and new-media art — much of it Indonesian. His office in central Jakarta also serves as an art space, where visitors can see video pieces like Yusuf Ismail’s “Eat Like Andy,” where he mimics a video of Andy Warhol consuming a hamburger, and “Ting,” a whimsical video and installation piece by the artistic collective Tromarama from Bandung.
Diversity “is the strength of Indonesian art,” Mr. Wahono said.
Because Jakarta’s museum and commercial gallery scene lacks a strong infrastructure, collectors like Mr. Wahono have filled the vacuum by promoting the scene domestically and abroad. There are few noncommercial gallery spaces and the National Gallery of Indonesia curates only about 10 percent of its shows. The rest of the time, the space is rented out to artists and commercial galleries.
“So it is like a commercial space,” said FX Harsono, one of the founders of the influential 1970s group the New Art Movement, also known as Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru, which has been credited with introducing contemporary art practices to Indonesia.
The commercial gallery space in the city has increased over the past decade. It is estimated that before 1998, there were only a handful of spaces and now there are dozens. But only a few of these spaces participate in international art fairs and have research platforms.
“In Europe and America, there is a balance between the market and artistic discourse, art critics and noncommercial spaces,” Mr. Harsono said. “But here it is different because you have commercial galleries that are just thinking about selling. They do not educate and they do not promote the artists.”
Despite those issues, Indonesian contemporary art has become one of Southeast Asia’s hottest art scenes. This month at the contemporary art fair Art Stage Singapore, Indonesian artists were highlighted at a special pavilion featuring 36 of the country’s most intriguing artists. The Hong Kong outpost of the London gallery Rossi & Rossi inaugurated the new Yallay Space there by showcasing, along with other Asian artists, several Indonesians, including Heri Dono and Christine Ay Tjoe.
Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo and Reza Afisina, meanwhile, will be featured in “No Culture: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia,” which is showing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York starting Feb. 22. Also, the Indonesian pavilion at the Venice Biennale this summer will highlight five Indonesian artists examining issues like identity.
“Indonesia feels right now like how I understand the New York art scene was in the 1970s and 1980s, where everyone knew each other and there was a lot of support,” said Entang Wiharso, an artist who splits his time between Indonesia and Rhode Island and who will be one of the artists exhibited in Venice. “Collectors here are very serious, very active and very sophisticated in their tastes.”
Indonesia has a large melange of cultures that has proven to be a hothouse for artists. It has more than 1,700 islands, some 300 languages and a religious mixture of Islam (the country has the largest population of Muslims in the world), Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.
“Look at our geography and history,” said Mr. Dono, one of the country’s most influential contemporary artists. “It has been a meeting point of cultures and kingdoms with influences from Indian Sanskrit to Arabic, Chinese, Latin and Dutch.”
Art has always played a strong role in the country — from historical Balinese carving techniques to the work of expatriate European artists in the 1930s who helped fuel Indonesia’s modernist movement. After independence in 1945, the country’s first president, Sukarno, who admired art, established art schools in Bandung and Yogyakarta, also known as Jogja or Yogya.
Under the Suharto regime, from the 1960s to the 1990s, art and political involvement were suppressed. Today, artists enjoy a new freedom to explore politics, sexuality and identity in their art. “Now art is focused on social issues,” said Satriagama Rakantaseta, the director of the Yogya-based Heri Pemad Art Management, which every July hosts Art Fair Jogja. “Artistic expression is much different than it was 15 years ago.”
Some Jakarta collectors have taken on the role usually played by commercial galleries and museums, supporting artists by paying for their equipment or funding their international travel. Other collectors are promoting contemporary art by curating exhibitions abroad. In 2010, Deddy Kusuma, one of Indonesia’s biggest collectors, selected 20 artists to participate in “The Grass Looks Greener When You Water It” show, part of the programming of the Art Paris + Guests fair in Paris.
Mr. Wahono and Melani Setiawan, another collector, offer monthly “Art Lover” dinners for young collectors. The group meets to discuss everything from art exhibitions in the city to trends in the global art market.
Dr. Setiawan, a physician who has been a doyenne of the Indonesian contemporary art scene for almost four decades, has an archive of more than 45,000 photographs of exhibition openings, studio visits and meetings with some of the country’s most important artists. Those photographs have been bound in a four-volume collection titled “Indonesian Art World” that will be published this year in English and Indonesian. The book, she said, documents how contemporary art practice in Indonesia has grown stronger.
Rudy Akili opened up his collection of contemporary art works to the public in 2006. With skyscrapers towering above in the near distance, the tranquil Akili Museum of Art is part of his Balinese-style residential compound.
The private museum includes installations by Eko Nugroho, Jompet Kuswidananto and Ade Darmawan. Since 2008, the museum has sponsored an annual art prize, sending the winner to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Mr. Akili said his collection was one of only two private contemporary art collections open to the public. (Budi Tek, who was listed as No. 8 in the top 10 most influential collectors in Art + Auction magazine’s 2011 list, also has opened up his collection to the public.) Mr. Akili has been encouraging those who have built up large collections to follow his lead. “Jakarta is the window to Indonesian contemporary art,” he said.
While Jakarta has Indonesia’s largest number of art collectors, galleries and auction houses, few internationally recognized artists are based in the city.
Mr. Harsono and Windi Salomo, who co-founded the noncommercial Dia.lo.gue Artspace in 2010, are hoping to promote and encourage more artists based in Jakarta. Last year, they opened EXI(S)T, an exhibition highlighting some of Jakarta’s up-and-coming artists.
Mr. Darmawan said the reason for the absence of Jakarta artists was that the strong art academies are in Bandung and Yogya, and many artists cannot afford studio spaces in the capital.
“It’s very expensive here,” said Mr. Darmawan, director of the artistic initiative Ruangrupa. “That’s why a lot of artists in Jakarta are doing video and computer work. That is our studio.”
**This piece was originally published in the IHT/New York Times on 30 January 2013
1st photo courtesy of dia.lo.gue, 2nd photo (of Entang Wiharso and Ginanne Brownell) courtesy of Dr. Melani Session