Brushing Enlightenment

8 years ago . 5 min read
Marella Putri
Writer at Forbes Indonesia
Brushing Enlightenment
Sunaryo Soetono, prominent Indonesian artist, painter, and sculptor. Photographs by Ahmad Zamroni for Forbes Indonesia.

by Yessar Rosendar

On the slopes of Dago hills, outside of Bandung, lies a minimalistic building with a small sign stating Selasar Sunaryo Art Space. It may not stand out like the cafés and restaurants in the surrounding area, but this place is the long time dream of Sunaryo Soetono, 70, a prominent painter and sculptor who dedicated this place for the art community.

The name selasar means verandah, and it reflects the design concept, an open space that welcomes all who wish to experience art. “When I was still in college I liked to come here, and I dreamt that someday I could create a place where artists could meet,” Sunaryo says, dressed in a denim shirt, sitting in the café at the art gallery, surrounded by fig trees as slow jazz tunes play in the background.

Constructed over four years, starting from 1993 and designed by Sunaryo with Baskoro Tedjo, the Selasar Sunaryo Art Space has been open to the public since September 1998. Sunaryo started building the half hectare site after he had just graduated from college. To pay for it, he got a loan of Rp 250 million and used his own money. These days, money from his art sales are enough to operate the property. Maintaining the place needs quite a lot of money, as every year Sunaryo holds more than 10 events from art exhibitions to music performances, and only one event could cost up to Rp 50 million. Yet Sunaryo runs Selasar as a non-profit space unlike other galleries, and it doesn’t sell its artwork and it doesn’t charge for admission.

The art space has several facilities, such as four rooms for exhibition with the rooms on the lower level used to present artworks by emerging and established contemporary Indonesian and overseas artists, while the upper level has indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces to present selected works by Sunaryo including paintings, sculptures and prints.

There is also an amphitheater that can accommodate up to 300 people, a library, and a café with an outdoor terrace overlooking the mountains. Sunaryo is happy that so many people can enjoy the space as every year Selasar has around 30,000 visitors, a big jump from 1,000 when it first opened.

One of Sunaryo’s aims with building Selasar is to have a bridge that connects art to people, and to promote young artists to a larger audience. So far Selasar has held programs involving 376 artists, both local and international. An exhibition at Selasar frequently has become a gateway for emerging artists to start their careers, with collectors from overseas often secretly visiting the exhibitions. For artists from Bandung, Selasar has a project called the Bandung New Emergence that has been held four times. Many alumni artists from this project went on to hold exhibitions in Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany and the U.S. Selasar also has an artist residency program called Transit for artists outside Bandung and even from overseas to stay in Selasar for around three months. “We want to focus on young artists and give them access to the world outside of Bandung,” Sunaryo says.

Sunaryo’s efforts have come at the right time, as Indonesian art emerged about a decade ago onto the world stage as collectors started looking seriously at works from Asia. Now many Indonesian artists are exhibited in art fairs and auctions across the globe, and sell their works at ever-higher prices. A painting by Lee Man Fong sold for Rp 42 billion last year, a record for an Indonesian artwork. The record for Sunaryo himself is his painting “Jelang Persembahan #1”, which sold for Rp 1.8 billion in an auction in Singapore last year.

With these prices, becoming an established artist now can provide a decent income, more so than in the past, according to Sunaryo. However, becoming an artist is not easy. Sunaryo says it is hard to find good artists—someone who has mastered the techniques but also tries to improve himself. “A good artist is a person who is sensitive,” Sunaryo says.

Sunaryo plans to establish a foundation to manage Selasar, so that it will continue to do its mission after he fully retires. For him, an artist has an important role in the society, as artwork provides enjoyment and ultimately enlightenment to society, “Art is life itself,” Sunaryo says.

Bandung Art Pioneer

Thousands have seen Sunaryo’s work, without probably being aware of it, as he made the statue of the former President Soekarno and Vice President Hatta that stands at the entrance of the Soekarno-Hatta airport. He is also the artist behind the Sudirman statue on Sudirman road which is seven meters tall.

Born in Banyumas, Central Java, Sunaryo liked art since elementary school and started to paint in junior high school. He graduated in 1969 from Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) with a major in sculpture and did some courses on marble sculpting in Italy. Sunaryo then become a professor at ITB for 38 years before he retired in 2008.

Sunaryo has three children and indeed artistic talent seems to be also flowing in their blood. His first son Adhi Ardhianto Sunaryo is a graphic designer at J.C. Penney in New York, his second son Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo is a rising artist, and graduated from Central St. Martins design school in London and was the only Indonesian painter invited by the Guggenheim Museum in New York for an exhibition of Southeast Asian artists this year. Meanwhile his third child, daughter Armita Sunaryo, is a fashion stylist and recently opened the popular Jollyroo cupcake business in Bandung.

Sunaryo himself is still active in painting and doing sculpture, working out of a studio at a separate location in Bandung, with a staff of 25 to help. Aside from his regular artwork, he sometimes designs homes and buildings. For Sunaryo there is no exact schedule and place for doing his artwork. “An idea is not to be waited for, but searched for. You have to trigger it,” Sunaryo says.

Written By
Marella Putri
Writer at Forbes Indonesia