Nancy Sever Gallery has started 2018 in its wonderful new location at Gorman Arts Centre with a fabulous exhibition by the renowned Indonesian artist, Dadang Christanto.
Seven astonishingly beautiful yet strangely disturbing canvases accost us as we enter the gallery and our first impression is of an extraordinary, startling blueness. How did this artist create that singing, luminous, perfect blue? It is not lapis or sapphire or cobalt. It is the blue that is found on the finest (halus) batik. It is a nameless blue. Then we notice the enormous faces – oddly placed with waves for hair, almond eyes and heart shaped lips. Heads submerged in the depths of blueness.
These canvases are scattered with the flotsam and jetsam of ancient Javanese and Hindu mythology in the form of wayang kulit (shadow puppet) characters, symbolic creatures and real animals (tigers, monkeys, cows, fish and birds), trees, flames and disembodied heads of demons (raksasa). If you have any knowledge of the wayang, Hindu icons or Javanese folklore it is easy to spot familiar characters – the monkey god Hanuman, the raksasas, particular animals, heroes, princesses and villains.
Christanto uses the vibrant colours of batik and wayang – blazing reds, yellows, glowing greens, dark pink and pure gold to depict these images. The colours dance against the cerulean blue and at first glance these canvases look like sumptuous Indonesian textiles but when we examine them we observe surreal and nightmarish details.
In Shinta – the exquisite golden goddess Shinta hovers next to a gigantic blue head. Our eyes are drawn from her delicate tiny form, next to a bird in a leafy tree, to the slash of scarlet blood at the bottom of the painting and the black ink blot splattered beneath her.
The beloved Hindu god Ganesha (destroyer of obstacles and Lord of Beginnings) wanders into the middle of Sunsang. His hand is placed in the act of blessing, a sleeping head is joined to his own in a swirl of waves, the golden deer from the Ramayana climbs a watery slope, leafy branches, fish, odd animals and disembodied demon heads float in an ocean of blue.
In Madangkungan, Pahang and Marakeh – we notice the same pair of wayang characters (in shades of grey) playing out a series of shadowy scenes next to a tree with leaves and roots. In Pahang their feet and the tree roots are embedded in a human head.
What does it all mean? I make no claim to understand the textured complexity and intricate iconography of Dadang Christanto’s paintings but I can see that he is drawing on his own rich cultural heritage to make a profound statement about the loss of collective memory and pawukon (wuku) traditional knowledge.
Christanto’s background as a human rights activist and an artist of conscience is evident in these paintings. This is an artist who is always going to make a significant political or social statement. The blurb on the program for this exhibition states: The work is a reflection, a deep meditation on the Javanese calendar and its “future prediction.” This tradition, along with many other important events that are also no longer recognized, seems to have sunk into the depths of the ocean, erased by the wave of a new kind of modern belief system.
Whether you completely comprehend all of the complicated narrative and powerful comment in Dadang Christanto’s paintings or simply stand and stare at these glorious canvases, this exhibition will take your breath away.
© Anita Patel, 2018