Many people adhere to the notion that there is really nothing new under the sun. However, artists still strive for that singular idea, that unique expression, which may gradually lead to finding their identity. This identity manifests itself through the hands of a painter, sculptor, composer, writer — what Indonesians term a “red thread,” a grand theme.
Sometimes, with a little bit of luck, this identity is what allows an artist to be discovered by others who appreciate his or her work — galleries, agents, managers or, in some cases, an auction house of international standing that sees an artist’s identity strengthened by the quality and consistency of his or her output.
On April 5, the Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring sale is set to feature a group of artists from Indonesia. According to Mok Kim Chuan, head of Sotheby’s Southeast Asian Paintings Department, 78 of the 145 artworks that are to be auctioned off are by Indonesian artists.
“We will continue to introduce to collectors a wide array of exceptional Indonesian art, including the very rare Lee Man Fong’s ‘Bali Life,’ which boasts excellent provenance as it was originally given by the artist to a friend in the early 1960s,” Mok said. “It is one of the outstanding examples in Lee’s acclaimed Balinese series.”
The chosen works of modern and contemporary pieces, previewed at Sotheby’s Jakarta office in early March, include Affandi’s “Cuenca,” I Nyoman Masriadi’s “I’m Still Lucky” and Agus Suwage’s studies of human psychology, “I See, I Hear, I Feel” and “Don’t Be Amazed, Don’t Be Entitled.”
The sale of these works offers a glimpse of how far Indonesian artists have come in making a name for themselves in the global market. For example, while modern works by the likes of Affandi, Lee Man Fong, S Sudjojono and Hendra Gunawan continue to appeal to collectors, it was I Nyoman Masriadi’s “The Man from Bantul” that set a world record for a contemporary Southeast Asian painting when it sold for $1 million in 2008. Masriadi, with his series of overly built men in comical forms, has continued to be one of the top-selling artists in the region since this record sale.
According to Mok, it was in 2006 that Southeast Asian contemporary art “began taking an upward swing in recognition and sales.”
For 12 years, Sotheby’s had held auctions in Singapore, considered the center for art in Southeast Asia. In 2008, it began to hold the auctions in Hong Kong. The move proved to be a successful one, as art from around the region began to attract interest, and prices, not seen before, with Indonesian contemporary art playing an important role.
Vivi Yip, who owns the Vivi Yip Art Room gallery in Jakarta, used to work for Sotheby’s Indonesia representative office. She said interest in Southeast Asian contemporary paintings was a ripple effect from the Chinese art boom of the 1990s. When the auction house introduced the Southeast Asian contemporary paintings category in 2001, it was already clear that Indonesia was poised to lead the way.
“We have the biggest number of contemporary artists [in the region],” Vivi said.
“We also have art patrons like Oei Hong Djien and Dedy Kusuma who persistently collected contemporary art when it was still cheap, although I’m sure they didn’t realize that the category would become this big.
“But there were those who speculated and saw that Indonesian contemporary artworks were blossoming and influenced other collectors.”
Vivi’s art gallery in November last year showcased the works of Hendra Harsono, one of the artists included in Sotheby’s spring sale. She says that there has been “a huge interest” in pieces by the likes of Agus Suwage, Putu Sutawijaya and Masriadi, as well as by the forces behind the Jendela Fine Art Group, mainly because collectors see something in their work.
“They managed to find distinctive visual languages that are well-accepted by the wider [art] public,” Vivi said.
Among the contemporary works by Indonesian artists to be auctioned off in Hong Kong next month are “The Tree’s Story,” which shows artist Yunizar’s consistent, imaginative approach to simple objects; a mixed-media piece called “Enjoy Great Artistique Swindle,” by Indieguerillas, a group of young artists who specialize in mixing pop designs with traditional Javanese images; and a set of Andy Dewantoro’s black-and-white acrylic images of quiet nature scenes called “Beyond the Sunrise.”
Also on the auction block is FX Harsono’s “Memory of a Name #2,” which shows three views of the same face. They are covered with the Chinese characters of the artist’s original name, which densely overlap in the first portrait but become sparser in the next two — a representation of the historically Indonesian conundrum of what it feels like to lose one’s Chinese identity.
The country’s art pockets — Jakarta, Bali, Yogyakarta and Bandung — are leading the contemporary art scene. But pretty soon, interest may spread to other islands in the archipelago.
“You cannot keep featuring the same old artists,” Mok said. “If you are a collector and you’ve been collecting one artist’s works, yes, you’ve been collecting the best works of this particular artist.
“But how many more pieces can you collect? So we have to, in a way, introduce new artists — good, potential artists — for them to collect. This is how we develop the market.”