As Jumaadi's solo exhibition "The Tree of Life" opens with Sydney's King Street Gallery on William, we're pleased to share Michael Young's expansive profile on the artist from our print archive. In it, Young explores Jumaadi's work for the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, his major commission for Barangaroo, and other projects from an artist book to the rescue and restoration of vernacular wooden houses in Surabaya and Imogiri.

In his first-floor studio on the fringe of a large industrial estate on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Indonesian-Australian artist Jumaadi is crouched down in the middle a suite of paintings that spread across the floor. He has removed his shoes and is scrambling over six three-metre-long epic narrative paintings that employ his familiar naïve imagery. So delicately painted are they that I wonder how the images remain intact.

Each of the six canvases measures approximately 3 × 3.5 m. They’re so large that Jumaadi can barely see one end from the other and with six on the floor at any one time things are getting out of hand. The paintings are destined for the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10) at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). Although the studio – a repurposed office space in an anonymous low-rise block – looks quite large, it is soon apparent that it is not large enough. “Unrolling them each morning and moving them around before I can start painting, is very physical,” Jumaadi says with good humour. 

The past year has been busy for Jumaadi. While the APT10 commission is the fulcrum around which everything else pivots, other commissions have piled up. There is a large-scale public art project for Sydney’s Barangaroo development that he has been working on since January with a plethora of engineers and architects, and perhaps not feeling entirely comfortable while doing so because of the number of people involved. “It is an upside-down garden,” he says, and shows me a steel maquette cut-out which possesses all the delicacy and clarity of his buffalo skin originals. At approximately twelve metres in length and weighing in at over a tonne, it and will hang in an eight-metre-high under-croft, he says. “Barangaroo insisted I guarantee the work for twenty-five years.”

There were two biennales too. The 13th Gwangju Biennale, of 2021, has now come and gone – “I did several cloth paintings plus some large Chinagraph pencil drawings,” he says – and the Jogja Biennale of 2021 for which he did nine buffalo piercings.

More recently Jumaadi has been planning a Wayang shadow-puppet play where flat bamboo puppets throw shadows on to white screens.  The play, which premiered at OzAsia Festival in Adelaide last month, is also planned to mark the closure of APT10 in April. Part myth, part morality play, part religious experience, shadow-puppet plays are traditional cultural events in Java and Bali that reach back centuries. 

Jumaadi’s play explores the precarious relationship between humans and the sea and the random cultural and community relationships that migration gives rise to. Jumaadi describes the play as a surreal and magical adventure into new lands, bizarre encounters, triumph and peril that parallels the worldwide refugee diaspora, and will also be performed at the Sydney Festival in February. 

As we talk, Jumaadi remembers something else. My curiosity is piqued. There is an artist book – limited to one hundred copies he thinks. Made from simple photocopies lifted straight off the hot glass of a copying machine, the raw pages are held together by strong staples. Exactly who is behind the project remains unclear, although Australian artist Simryn Gill was mentioned. He shows me a mock-up of the finished book. The pages are raw, and it seems to hover somewhere between refined artwork and crude outsider art. “It may also evolve into an animation,” he says. 

Currently pride of place in Jumaadi’s busy schedule is APT10 and the cloth paintings, where work began at a glacial pace but is now racing towards the finish line. “You can’t paint for too long because the cloth absorbs the paint and you run out of pigment and have to keep dipping the brush,” he said.

The cloth he is using is unique and has been produced for centuries in Kamasan, an artist village in the east of Bali. The cloth is “soaked in a container of rice paste, dried in the sun and then polished with a cowrie shell,” Jumaadi says. “Kamasan is the only place in the world where they make this cloth and I love how it is so tactile,” he says.

Jumaadi’s art and life is a product of two cultures. He was born and raised in Sidoarjo, East Java in 1973 but moved to Australia in 1997 to study art at Sydney’s National Art School, where he graduated in 2000 with a Bachelor of Fine Art and later in 2008 with a Masters of Fine Art, studying folklore and narrative painting. He now spends time in both countries with two studio compounds in Indonesia – which he visits frequently – COVID-19 notwithstanding, and the studio in Sydney. Sydney is home, physically that is. Spiritually it is another matter. Indonesia constantly pulls him away.

He is prolific, more so when he is in Australia, where there are fewer distractions, with an oeuvre that ranges from watercolours, oils, and drawing, on a variety of surfaces such as paper, metal, and pierced buffalo hide, through to sculpture, installations, and performances. His work shares a commonality with folk art’s naïve disruption of perspective and proportion and is largely autobiographical, in a non-linear sense. He is a storyteller plucking emotional and sentimental fragments from his life and incorporating them into joyous narratives.

In the APT suite of paintings his familiar cast of characters sit lightly on the cloth’s polished surfaces. They tell stories of love, life, and occasionally of death. It rains in this world, and there are umbrellas and little houses and seascapes with islands in a cerulean blue squiggly ocean. Men and women wear Balinese sarongs and purse their lips to kiss. Winged angels fly (or maybe they are people with wings). Couples lie together on beds. An artist clings to the wing of a flying plane. There is a sense of longing and displacement but always of affection. Of moving forward while looking backwards. And then a series of decapitated human heads mounted on stakes disrupts the feel-good narrative. “Colonial punishment,” Jumaadi says nonchalantly and rushes off to retrieve a pile of highly ornate Balinese ikats where every centimetre of cloth is woven into mannered patterns. There I see the human heads on stakes from seventy years ago, the age of the ikats. The ikats are unisex sarongs, Jumaadi insists, and unselfconsciously proceeds to demonstrate how they are worn. 

Love. Relationships. Births. Deaths. Refugee displacement. All exist in a timeless lacuna in Jumaadi’s beautifully crafted paintings that capture perfectly the space and intimacy that can exist between men and women. Space is something Jumaadi thinks about a lot. “Closeness and distance between people is something I deal with in my art. Being a migrant, I am conscious of this.”  

But the takeaway in Jumaadi’s art is not maudlin. Quite joyous in fact. Even though at times the drawings and paintings seem as fragile as life itself. Or as fragile as the vernacular wooden houses that he rescues and reconstructs in Java. He has ten, he thinks. Four at Surabaya close to where he was born and has a studio, not far from where his mother still lives.

The other houses are in a 3,000 square-metre studio compound at Imogiri, thirty kilometres from Yogyakarta. The vernacular houses are a hundred years old, or more. Wooden structures disintegrating as the damp environment destroys the timbers. Families have lived, loved, and died in these houses. Much as they metaphorically do in Jumaadi’s paintings. “Now locals use the compound as an arts centre,” he says. It is also where he stays with his Australian wife and children, five or six times a year, among the tropical forest with its one-hundred-year-old trees and cloying humidity.

He is so busy that I wonder if cracks are opening up in Jumaadi’s practice. But he says not so. Everything is under control. “But next year I will go back to the commercial galleries. They are good because I can just fiddle about in the studio, something that I really like to do,” he says. “To me, art making is similar to praying, writing letters, searching for clues and expressions of love and all kinds of emotions. My practice looks at what it is to be human and to be loved,” he says.  

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021. 
Images courtesy the artist, Jan Manton Gallery, Queensland, King Street Gallery on William, Sydney, Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

The Tree of Life 
1–26 November 2022
King Street Gallery on William, Sydney                                                                                                     

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