ARTS IN COMMAND
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.”