The opening of Jumaadi’s solo exhibition at Mosman Art Gallery on 7 December 2019 was a joyous affair, starting with a procession of dancers, singers and musicians, some in traditional Indonesian costume, with guests following behind holding pineapples on their heads – including Liz Ann Macgregor, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Mosman mayor Carolyn Corrigan.

Some might have assumed this was a traditional ceremony, but the pineapples were Jumaadi’s idea. A recurring motif in his artwork, the spiky fruit added a light-hearted element to official proceedings to launch ‘My Love is in an Island Far Away/Cintaku Jauh di Pulau.’

The Indonesian Australian artist has been developing this new body of work for two years, since winning the Mosman Art Prize in 2017, splitting his time between the home he shares with his wife Siobhan Campbell and their two young children in Mosman, and his house and studio in Imogiri, a village near Yogyakarta, where he creates most of his art.

The show is partly inspired by the true story of about 1200 anti-colonial political prisoners and their families, mostly Javanese, who in 1926 were exiled by the Dutch colonial powers to Boven Digul prison camp in Irian Jaya, now West Papua. In this hostile, remote place, they were given building materials, including nails, to construct their own shelter. Instead, they melted the metal down to make a gamelan, their national musical instrument, using other scavenged materials such as wooden crates, cooking pots, sardine tins and animal skins.

‘They realised they needed the gamelan somehow, or one person had the knowledge to identify this will help the group survive, the beauty of sound they recognise far away from their home,’ says Jumaadi. ‘You can play together as a cultural tool to identify similarities within the group.’

Mosman Art Gallery’s assistant director and senior curator Katrina Cashman has curated the exhibition, in partnership with the Galeri Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta, which will host it later in 2020.

Of the more than 350 new pieces, one major work is Bilik Gambar (The Painting Room), a roughly-built teak frame in the shape of a house hung with 109 paintings of figures, animals, food and scenes representing the Javanese prisoners.

In 1943 they were transferred from the Dutch camp when the Japanese invaded in WWII, ending up in Cowra’s prisoner-of-war camp in NSW, bringing their precious instrument with them. When it emerged that they were political prisoners, they were released. Some settled in Australia and helped push for Indonesian independence, first declared in 1945 and formally recognised in 1949; some joined the Australian Army.

The Gamelan Digul, as it is now known, ended up in Melbourne, where it is now one of the most prized possessions in Monash University’s Music Archive.

These stories have fascinated Jumaadi for many years. After moving from Java to Sydney in 1997, he later read about the discovery of several poems written by the Indonesian prisoners in Cowra, which he visited on an artist residency in 2005 to delve into the little-known cross-cultural connection.

‘Some stories excite me,’ he says, ‘but then how can I put that into pictures in the hope that I can share that excitement with others?’

These pictures, while spurred by history, stories, culture and politics, represent his own distinctive artistic language, drawing on vivid imagination and wide-ranging influences, from the US modernist Milton Avery and Italian still life painter Giorgio Morandi to the Australian indigenous art communities he has worked with.

The Mosman exhibition displays his exceptional ability to find new forms of expression in materials seldom seen in contemporary art galleries. The Bilik Gambar paintings are enamel on galvanised aluminium, inspired partly by Mexican folk art.

Another centrepiece is the enormous, mural-like 3.5-metre high Boyongan (Moving House), painted in a flat, symbolic narrative style, with elements of magic realism and Hindu epic art, on cotton cloth primed with rice paste. Unlike a stretched canvas, this material and artform can be conveniently rolled up and is found only in central Bali. ‘There’s nothing like that anywhere else that I know,’ Jumaadi says.

But perhaps the most striking of his unusual canvases is buffalo hide, with nine new works hanging in the round at Mosman. They were made at the Imogiri studio, which also serves as a creative local meeting place, where artists, performers and craftspeople gather to work, eat, tell stories and exchange skills and knowledge, like the role of the mosque in Jumaadi’s childhood village, Pecantingan in Sidoarjo, East Java.

It was as a child he first saw buffalo hide shadow puppets, at a big ceremony for his brother’s circumcision, hosted by their father.  They were scary. ‘Some of the puppets were larger than myself. They were very colourful and the expressions on their faces were unusual.’

He began using dried buffalo hide in his own practice in 2013, after experimenting with cheaper materials such as paper, cardboard and cow hide. He designs each piece, creates a template and cuts the shape, then works with master craftsmen from a neighbouring village who specialise in carving the traditional wayang kulit shadow puppets. They chisel Jumaadi’s intricate, repetitive patterns and designs into the tough but delicate hide, then the artist works with an assistant to paint each work in non-traditional acrylic colours.

In works like Perahu api (Skeleton Boat), the awe-inspiring natah (chiselling) skills can be admired in the flames engulfing the boat piled with skulls, and the leaves on the trees sheltering an unborn baby beneath their roots. Above the skull boat, a man, woman and a buffalo shelter under an umbrella on a small island.

The title of the exhibition comes from the poem My Love’s on a Faraway Island, by one of Indonesia’s most famous poets Chairil Anwar, who was writing at the time of independence. In it a man dreams of travelling to his lover by boat, ‘but I know/I’m not going to reach her’.

Like many Indonesian children, Jumaadi studied Anwar’s poems at school – he also wrote poetry himself as a teenager. The cultural centre of his village was the small mosque. There was no art galleries or museums in the area, he says, but he could borrow poetry books from the library. ‘In Islamic culture too, you have to memorise a lot of the chanting, from the Koran and other books … it gets you into language, learning to understand a foreign language and rhythm and rhymes.’

But his urge for creativity chafed against the lessons. ‘I was not that happy with the same rhythm, there was always a bit of rejection,’ he says. ‘When I was drawing I didn’t like what the teacher said about form and shape – everything was about 3-D design and perspective, but I didn’t understand a lot of the explanations.’

Many years later, studying at the National Art School in Darlinghurst where he graduated in 2000 and later completed his Masters of Fine Art, he learnt about Western traditions and mastering abstract expressionism with oil on canvas at the easel – ‘So colonial!’ – before again turning away to find his own practice.

‘A lot of the time I escape by looking into my history and my contemporaries, like on the street, the becak painters, I grew up with that too,’ he says, referring to the local artists who decorate cycle rickshaws. ‘In Australia if you grew up in the country, you used anything that was there, like bush mechanics or bush artists. I am more embracing that situation and traditions.’

In her speech at the opening, MCA director Liz Ann Macgregor referred to Jumaadi’s dual existence, similar to Australian indigenous artists, ‘straddling two worlds of traditional and today.’

He has melded his modern fine art background with the folk art and craft he grew up with, rejecting the easel to paint on the ground. The island in his exhibition is both ‘metaphorical but also very personal’, as well as spiritual.

Alongside Islamic faith, he grew up with strong animist beliefs. ‘We still fear big trees and dark and ghosts. That’s where all the spirits live who might do you harm, but if you’re nice they do you good … They come creeping into the work, that mixed background and tradition.’

As part of Sydney Festival in January, Jumaadi will also present a live performance, Island of Shadow, which he has adapted from traditional Javanese wayang kulit puppetry to develop his own characters, stories and music.

He gets frustrated sometimes when audiences ask him, “Is this an Indonesian thing, is this Indonesian culture?” He laughs. ‘What is an Indonesian thing? We have 17,000 islands! 2000 years after Jesus Christ, we should understand a little bit more.’

In ‘My Love is in an Island Far Away’, Jumaadi deals with the dark weight of colonisation and forced migration, of displacement, loneliness and isolation, while celebrating resilience, humour, human connections, and our need for beauty as a basic requirement for survival.

The exhibition opening event finished with the artist, his family and friends, speakers, performers and guests gathering in a circle, symbolising unity and friendship, to hear songs blessing a ceremonial feast that everyone then ate together.

‘I never thought I’d see the people of Mosman walking around with pineapples on their heads,’ Macgregor observed at the beginning of her speech. She finished by saying, ‘This show will require a lot of your time and many visits – bring your children.

My Love is in an Island Far Away/Cintaku Jauh di Pulau
4 December 2019 – 9 February 2020
Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney
13 October – 3 November 2020
Galeri Nasional Indonesia, Jakarta

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