Unique Art­works in Cire­bon: Through a Glass Brightly

Indonesia Expat - - CONTENTS - BY DUN­CAN GRA­HAM Pho­to­graphs by Er­li­nawati Gra­ham

Pity the ca­sual tourist seek­ing the off­beat at­trac­tion, the sin­gu­lar arte­fact, the ex­cep­tional craft­work. In Bali – no prob­lem. Signs point­ing to stu­dios, work­shops and artist cen­tres clut­ter the streetscape, though sel­dom de­liver. Time-pressed vis­i­tors rarely get to meet the orig­i­na­tor; only staff whose sole con­tact with the ar­ti­san is through un­pack­ing de­liv­er­ies from her or his hills hide­away.

It’s dif­fer­ent in Java – par­tic­u­larly in the vil­lages and towns where the lo­cals con­sider out­siders as cu­ri­ous pale-hued hu­mans and not walk­ing wal­lets. Don’t ex­pect to find with­out much ask­ing. In this zone Google isn’t help­ful, as lit­tle has been recorded. Cire­bon, on the north coast of Java and about 220 kilo­me­tres east of Jakarta, is billed as a tourist town. This is a stretch of hy­per­bole, though it has some lo­ca­tions for self­ies and a few mag­nets for his­to­ri­ans. These in­clude the lit­tle Red Mosque of Pan­ju­nan (1480) which ap­pears well main­tained though built of tim­ber; the peo­ple must have been smaller in that era as it’s stoop or suf­fer a cracked head.

It’s linked to Su­nan Gu­nung Jati, one of the nine “Mus­lim saints” known as the Wal­isongo who are re­puted to have brought Is­lam to the ar­chi­pel­ago. They were Arabs, or de­scen­dants of Arabs; some may have ar­rived from In­dia as traders and started pros­e­lytis­ing.

There are two kra­ton (Sul­tan’s palaces) - Kasepuhan (1447), and Kacire­bo­nan (1807) - and the Dutch wharf sig­nal tower (1918), in­con­gru­ous among the mod­ern ship­ping. Although made of teak, its lad­ders wouldn’t pass a safety au­dit, so it’s best viewed from out­side.

These are the dead relics. The live crafters are else­where. Like in Ge­ge­sik, a 40-minute drive north­west of the city where Kus­dono “Dono” Rastika, 36, main­tains the an­cient Verre Eglomise tech­nique. This is named

af­ter the 18th cen­tury French artist JeanBap­tiste Glomy who pi­o­neered the style. More pro­saically la­belled “re­verse glass paint­ing” it prob­a­bly came to the East In­dies dur­ing the so-called “eth­i­cal” Dutch colo­nial pe­riod early last cen­tury; the skill al­most dis­ap­peared af­ter the Nether­lan­ders went home.

In Europe it’s nor­mally linked to re­li­gious mo­tifs. Though some have been painted in In­done­sia, in­clud­ing Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy, the sub­jects tend to be more whim­si­cal. The paint­ings have a slight 3D ef­fect and are well pro­tected be­cause the image is not on the front of the glass.

Work­ing from a wheel­chair – Dono suf­fered a spinal in­jury when a 12-year old play­ing in the school­yard – he pro­duces ex­quis­ite work taught by his late fa­ther, Rastika. He also learned the craft from other artists in the vil­lage. Dur­ing his life­time he’s be­lieved to have pro­duced 2,000 paint­ings and held 17 ex­hi­bi­tions. The poly­math has also carved pup­pets and played in game­lan or­ches­tras.

His son is also tal­ented. “First I sketch my ideas on trans­par­ent pa­per,” he said. “I favour wayang (char­ac­ters from an­cient sto­ries usu­ally told in pup­pet shows) which I used to watch with my fa­ther, and then start work on the glass.

“I paint up­side-down and back-to front. I know how it will ap­pear from the front through long ex­pe­ri­ence. As I work, I add fea­tures that weren’t in the orig­i­nal sketch. It takes about two weeks to fin­ish and frame.”

Dono, a Mus­lim, has also painted Christ’s Last Sup­per, though this is more a copy of the much-im­i­tated Leonardo da Vinci mu­ral in Mi­lan, rather than a Ja­vanese take on the Bi­b­li­cal story.

Dono’s prices range from Rp1 mil­lion (US$66) to ten times more for the larger pieces. He has ex­hib­ited in Surabaya and sold over­seas; pack­ers should work with care – the glass is only three mil­lime­tres thick. He lives in a small kam­pung with no sig­nage. His pres­ence is known only to con­nois­seurs and mem­bers of the lo­cal art com­mu­nity, like Asep Syae­fud­din, 35, just a few streets dis­tant. Again, no sig­nage, but his big wag­ons parked on the nar­row road are splen­did ad­ver­tise­ments.

Asep’s artistry also has a French name, though now Angli­cised – pa­pier mache. The art of us­ing pa­per and starch goes back to the an­cient Egyp­tians cre­at­ing death masks, though they worked with pa­pyrus.

Asep’s spe­cialty also in­cludes masks

– though these are huge and atop ex­tra­or­di­nary colour­ful floats used in pa­rades and spe­cial events. They also fea­ture a few wayang char­ac­ters. How­ever, most are bizarre fear­some fig­ures which would never hit the cut­ting-room floor in a low bud­get sci-fi movie set.

Like Dono he pulls im­ages hot from the fur­nace of his imag­i­na­tion stoked by an eclec­tic mix of West­ern fan­tasy and Ja­vanese cul­ture. A favourite fig­ure is the burok, a bird with grotesque head; the word is also a generic term for the art.

Fly­ing horses are an­other theme, along with the Singa Barong, an open-jawed well den­tured dragon head. Schol­ars reckon its prove­nance lies in the an­cient Chi­nese lion dance.

Like the re­verse glass paint­ing the art may have ar­rived in Cire­bon early last cen­tury where it set­tled in Kal­i­maro vil­lage.

Prices for a cus­tom-made car­riage start at Rp8 mil­lion (US $540) and come with four wheels sal­vaged from dis­carded rub­bish carts. The over-the-top de­signs are brightly coloured and well var­nished to pro­tect against rain. For those seek­ing a one-off use, Asep will rent a wagon for Rp700,000 (US $46) a day. Burok are hired for cer­e­monies like cir­cum­ci­sion pro­ces­sions and fast­break­ing. They’d also be fine for a fun wed­ding, pro­vided cer­e­mony and re­cep­tion venues are not too dis­tant. Asep’s burok can carry peo­ple, but plump Western­ers might want to check the sus­pen­sion – and any mythol­ogy sur­round­ing the beast, just to en­sure its use is pro­pi­tious. Rid­ing a crea­ture fa­mous for de­vour­ing maidens might not lead to fu­ture mar­i­tal har­mony.

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