On his sec­ond term chair­ing the Jakarta Arts Coun­cil, painter Irawan Karseno is at the cen­ter of the new road map that will lead the cap­i­tal to reach its lat­est goal: to be the world’s lead­ing art city.

And he be­lieves it is not a far-fetched dream.

“Jakarta has been known as an im­por­tant scene in the art world for a long time now. What’s left for us to do is to build an ecosys­tem among art com­mu­ni­ties, the gov­ern­ment, pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions and the pub­lic,” he says.

Such syn­ergy was ex­pected to di­min­ish para­noia over arts events that are of­ten placed un­der scru­tiny from both the au­thor­i­ties and re­li­gion-based groups.

Irawan was con­cerned about the fre­quent last-minute pro­hi­bi­tion or clo­sure of an event at the city’s arts cen­ter, Ta­man Is­mail Marzuki (TIM), by the po­lice be­cause of sus­pi­cions they were spread­ing ex­trem­ism.

“The arts coun­cil was es­tab­lished to cu­rate all events be­ing held at TIM. When it comes to art, please leave it to the ex­perts,” he said, adding that the coun­cil planned to hold hear­ings with the au­thor­i­ties over the mat­ter.

“An arts event is not a mere en­ter­tain­ment. Art is here to re­fine peo­ple’s stan­dards of life and to en­hance civ­i­liza­tion, to pro­vide a cathar­sis for peo­ple. I don’t think peo­ple with high ap­pre­ci­a­tion of arts could turn into ter­ror­ists or ex­trem­ists.”

It would mean the coun­cil has to push more but­tons to get the funds for series of world-class arts events and ex­hi­bi­tions or­ga­nized by the coun­cil it­self in the next two years.

Irawan, how­ever, be­lieved that a lit­tle help from the Jakarta ad­min­is­tra­tion could turn the city into an art gallery that has its own or­ches­tra, now that he has a good team of 25 young artists in the coun­cil.

“We can cu­rate the stat­ues in Jakarta and have more art works in­stalled in pub­lic places. There are 14 mil­lion peo­ple in the city and all of them are a po­ten­tial mar­ket for arts in any form,” said the painter, whose com­mis­sioned art works dec­o­rate many of­fice build­ings in Jakarta.

“Just imag­ine the im­pact it would cre­ate on the arts, the artists and the pub­lic in gen­eral if all build­ings have curated lo­cal art works in their in­te­ri­ors and peo­ple ar­rived at the air­port to be greeted by announcements about on­go­ing mu­si­cals in town in­stead of prod­uct ads.”


Born in Surabaya to a Navy fam­ily, Irawan was left in Yo­gyakarta to live with his grand­par­ents when his fa­ther was sta­tioned in Sumatra.

Irawan, who will turn 56 on Dec. 5 this year, has a long list in his port­fo­lio from his more-than 30-year ca­reer.

As he as­pired to be­come a comic artist, he took for­mal stud­ies at the

As art stu­dents we were in­stilled with the thought of al­ways seek­ing the truth in arts. There is free­dom, com­fort and phi­los­o­phy in art that money can’t buy.

Arts and De­sign School of the Bandung In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (ITB) and ma­jored in fine arts, al­though he was also ac­cepted at the Law School of Pad­jad­jaran Univer­sity in the same town.

The cross-ref­er­ence study method in ITB got him in­ter­ested in the sub­ject of de­sign and his lec­turer dis­cov­ered his tal­ent for in­te­rior de­sign. From then on he stud­ied de­sign busi­ness as his mi­nor sub­ject in the univer­sity.

“As art stu­dents we were in­stilled with the thought of al­ways seek­ing the truth in arts. There is free­dom, com­fort and phi­los­o­phy in art that money can’t buy.

“I was 17 at that time and I de­cided if I wanted to make money I have to study some­thing else. I’m not sell­ing out my art.”

As soon as he grad­u­ated and got mar­ried in the 1980s he started his own busi­ness in ad­ver­tis­ing and in­te­rior de­sign con­sul­tancy in which he made com­mis­sioned art works.

He once tried his hand at pro­duc­tion house busi­ness, at wed­ding event or­ga­niz­ing and at food and bev­er­ages, which in­cluded wed­ding cater­ing.

In 1997 he took post-grad­u­ate man­age­ment stud­ies in mar­ket­ing at the Jakarta In­sti­tute of Econ­omy Sci­ence be­cause he needed to be able “to man­age cre­ative en­ergy”.

“Many of my friends said I was not an artist be­cause I was into busi­ness,” said Irawan.

Lit­tle did they know that Irawan made his “art” on his own time and that it had been ex­hib­ited in ma­jor gal­leries at home, the US and in Europe.

The con­tem­po­rary ab­stract painter spent his Idul Fitri hol­i­day fin­ish­ing a three-panel paint­ing he named Tuhan Lagi Bobo (God is Sleep­ing) on black can­vas — on the last panel the char­ac­ter opens his eyes — as well as series of col­lages taken from im­ages of pop icons and blue films that re­veal breasts.

“I’ve been won­der­ing why peo­ple are so afraid of see­ing nip­ples. It’s in the news that the po­lice let a drug sus­pect flee from the house be­cause the wife showed them her breasts.”

Dozens of fo­lio-sized pa­pers painted in black with col­or­ful crayon strokes on them lined the long ta­ble.

“I’m ex­per­i­ment­ing with black can­vas to see how it could bring out some­thing else from the col­ors,” he said. “Since I’m in the coun­cil I hardly have the time to paint.”


As a teenager in the 1970s, Irawan was ex­posed to pop cul­ture that af­fected his view on re­li­gion and hu­man­ity.

“I was raised as a Mus­lim and learned about other re­li­gions and be­liefs from films. From what I’ve learned I be­lieve that God is at present in peo­ple who do what they do in love and with sin­cer­ity,” he said.

That was re­flected in his char­coal and acrylic paint­ings of artists like po­ets WS Ren­dra and Sa­pardi Djoko Da­mono, singer Ruth Sa­hanaya, U2 vo­cal­ist Bono, the late punk mu­si­cian Lou Reed and the late In­done­sian mu­si­cian Harry Roesli. Each of the artists wears a golden-col­ored crown of thorns.

Liv­ing by him­self in a two-story ware­house he bor­rowed from a friend in Pon­dok Ke­lapa, East Jakarta, af­ter his 24-year mar­riage ended sev­eral years ago, he filled the place with his paint­ings and col­lec­tions.

The fa­ther of two, a daugh­ter and a son, has a knack of hang­ing out in the flea mar­ket in Jatine­gara, East Jakarta, as his get­away.

“I’m still mes­mer­ized by what peo­ple could sell for a lit­tle money to sur­vive.”

From his hunts, he now has 200 pairs of leather dress shoes, dozens of old, ki­netic wrist­watches and semi-pre­cious gem stones on rings. “I have quit col­lect­ing the stones, though,” he says.

He kept sev­eral old gui­tars with one new­comer, a gift from fel­low coun­cil mem­ber, mu­si­cian Ak­san Sju­man, who de­signed the gui­tar him­self.

An­other col­lec­tion was the paint­ings etched on his skin, a col­lage of de­sign, words and im­ages of pop icons such as John Len­non and Jim Mor­ri­son.

“I started tat­too­ing my body seven years ago when the at­tack against the fol­low­ers of the Ah­madiyah sect be­gan. It’s some kind of protest, but then I thought they looked good by cov­er­ing my sag­ging skin.”

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