…but let’s talk about something less gross. It seems like I operate on a two-week schedule with these blog posts, so I’ll try to limit this post to two fun things we’ve done in the past two weeks. I’ll save you all from my research stuff because I fell asleep reading about Jacob’s research below and since his project was more interesting than mine, I doubt I’d be able to write about my own for more than twelve seconds. Instead here are two occasions when I think we all had a great time together. They help paint a picture of how we’ve spent our hours outside of research, time that will be in short supply in these final, research-dominated, weeks ahead.
Through the maze of its motorbike-packed streets and diverse throngs of people, Jogja seems a larger city than it is. A quick Google search reveals that Jogja is only the 28th most populous city proper in Indonesia. Despite its small size – in population roughly equal to Colorado Springs – it is by common assent the most culturally influential city in Java, the island in which the majority of Indonesians live. Djoko Pekik is Jogja’s most successful cultural export, a 75 year-old painter best known as Indonesia’s first “billion rupiah” painter, routinely selling his paintings at around the equivalent of US $100,000.
Two Tuesdays ago we got the chance to visit Pekik in his home on the southwest edge of Jogja. In Jogja they have a saying – more snappy-sounding in Bahasa – that translates roughly to this: “if you want clever people, head to the north, if you want rich people, head to the south.” The least I can say is that Pekik’s home was correctly situated on the southern edge of town. As we left the university-saturated north and headed to Pekik’s house, the buildings grew larger and spread farther apart from each other. We found ourselves heading downhill on a long dirt road hedged on either side by 80-foot high bamboo. At last, we came to his house – really a series of buildings grouped together on 4 hectares of land – settled next to a river, the cleanest (though still nicely filled with plastic flotsam) in the city.
Djoko greeted us himself as we pulled into the driveway. He is a frail 75, age compounded by his chain-smoking and the seven years of abuse he faced at the hands of the Suharto regime in the aftermath of the 1965 massacres. Pekik’s fame is due not only to his skill and style – to my uneducated artistic eye, something approximating social realism – but also to his biography. He grew up in a poor village in central Java dominated by foreign teak loggers and escaped to Jogja as soon as he was able to study art. By this time it was the early 1960s, and socialist student movements were gaining force all over the world, from France to Latin America. He quickly fell in with the cultural wing of the local communist party, participating in their public art works and visual publicity projects and forming relationships with some of the most influential socialist leaders in Indonesia. Then came 1965, when Suharto ousted Sukarno and paved his way to the capital with the bodies of millions of Indonesians, many of them socialist sympathizers. Pekik was arrested and sent to prison for the better part of a decade. He was released, after considerable maltreatment – torture, isolation, and starvation – under the condition that he silence his voice and shelve his brush if he wished to remain free. Pekik became a tailor and didn’t take up painting again until the mid 1980s, when the threat hanging over him had somewhat subsided.
It was not until 1998 however, with the reformasi and the ouster of Suharto, that Pekik’s fame truly started to spread. To honor the upheaval he created a series of giant two-meter high panels depicting the various stages of a boar hunt, from the initial sighting of the beast till to its final slaughter. The boar – cruel, violent, and absolutely haraam in Muslim Indonesia – is intended to symbolize Suharto, and the boar’s euphoric butchers, the Indonesian people. The central piece of this series sold for the then unheralded price of one billion rupiah. Fourteen years later, his paintings routinely sell over that threshold, mainly to domestic collectors, and he freely admits that he sometimes churns out works for no purpose other than to reap the profit, which he often gives to friends (some of them former allies from the halcyon days of Indonesian socialism) in need.
Despite the success he has wrung from the aftermath of his detainment and abuse, Pekik is still haunted by his time in the hands of the government. As he led us through his compound, threading our way between multiple garages and studios down to his personal exhibition gallery, Pekik indicated the army green hue of all of his buildings, which, he says, he picked specifically to help rid himself of a nightmare-inducting military phobia that still keeps him up at night. In the basement of the main house is the gallery in which many of his works – and copies of his more famous pieces housed in the homes of Jakarta’s rich – are aligned in chronological order along the oval curve of the room. Over a spread of bean curd, coconut pastries, spring rolls with chilies and pickles, and teh manis, the favored local preparation of tea – sickly sweat and lukewarm – we were seated with Pekik and invited to discuss his work and political philosophy.
The first thing you notice about Pekik, after his long white wisp of a beard, is his chain-smoking. He carries, clutched in his left hand, a gold cigarette case and aluminum lighter wherever he goes. Like an inexperienced smoker unable to pace himself, he blows through each cigarette in under a minute, his right hand ready to light the next before he finishes his current one. His voice, consequentially, is nothing more than a grim croak, and he spends a lot time waving vaguely in the air when trying to express his thoughts on a topic that neither his throat nor his memory have much of an ability to recall. Between the beard, his bright eyes magnified by a set of never-in-fashion coke-bottle glasses, and the perpetual eddy of smoke swirling around his head, Pekik presents somewhat of a deranged and mystic figure.
Unlike many artists of his generation, Pekik has largely eschewed the moderate politics of his peers, avoiding the seemingly compulsory shift to the middle that characterizes so many former radicals and activists in their twilight years. In our brief time with him, Pekik denounced the influence of international industrialists and their “rat money” fueling the Jakarta corruption machine while praising Indonesia’s marginalized workers, the nation’s “only hope.” As leftist thinkers and artists tend to do, Pekik romanticizes and generalizes about the dignity of the working class in his paintings. The paintings themselves lack any subtlety – a rat or bulldozer is intended, without any ambiguity or gradation of possible meaning, to stand in for government corruption or the corrosive clutch of foreign capital. Government ministers are clowns and charlatans, workers are angels and saints, abused but unbroken. There is of course nothing wrong with this perspective – it is one that largely mirrors my own political predilections – but it raises, in the case of Pekik, interesting contradictions.
Pekik is, of course, unimaginably wealthy by Indonesian standards. His home is the one of the most luxurious I’ve seen in my six weeks here (the only competition keeping it from the top spot is the crucifix- and altar-filled home of the Catholic owner of Kompas, Indonesia’s most popular daily). On his compound there is a building designated solely for the performance of gamelan music, he has more mountain and motor-bikes than you can count, and with the eccentric flare found almost exclusively in the wealthy or creative (in his case both), his driveway is flanked by a curious mixture of life-size Ronald McDonald statues and busts of ancient Javanese and Roman gods. His home, taken all together, looks like it was furnished by an 18-year old with wealthy absentee parents and a blind disregard for established conventions of interior design. In short, Pekik is living the life of anything other than a communist revolutionary. His repeated claims that the proceeds from his paintings are required to continue his “struggle” are, I’m sure, grounded in truth. But there’s no denying that he has also embraced the norms and ideals of a distinctly bourgeois kind of comfort, one of flat-screen TVs, all-terrain-vehicles, and well-stocked artificial fishponds. He even has a pet eagle.
I spend a lot of time calling people out for perceived hypocrisies and contradictions. As my sisters know all too well, I often see it as my primary job to criticize and badger them (and everyone else) on any point where I perceive a weakness or failing in logic or judgment. Which is not to say that I’m anything but lacking in both categories. I have nothing but respect for Pekik, and left his home lucky to have had the experience of speaking with so notable an artist. We all thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Rather than making me lose respect for him, the contradictions and struggles Pekik embodies make him more appealingly human than any disconnected Marxist painter living off of breadcrumbs and anti-capitalist acrimony. He is appealing in his everyman sensibility, described by our translator as “the typical Javanese village gentleman charisma.” The incessant stream of cigarettes and fried food disappearing into his wealthy mouth make him a more interesting and relatable. Likewise, the plebian warmth and vigor of his paintings, not to mention their underlying humor (Pekik paints himself staring at a young woman’s cleavage in the background of many of his paintings), make his art accessible in all its unadorned charm.
Then the following weekend we got to head to the home of our program coordinator, Sari, and her husband Bram, in a village on the outskirts of Ngawi, a town far smaller than even Jogja. Our train ride out on Friday afternoon was two uneventful hours of newly harvested rice patties rolling by our windows. The only excitement came from some bunched-in chickens issuing loud and indignant squawks at the woman two rows over who stuffed them in a crate under her seat. When we got to Ngawi, Bram greeted us with his van pulled alongside the tracks. We had to jump the considerable gap between the train and the rails, luggage in hand, before the train rushed off to more populous and profitable locales where, presumably, they wait for passengers to disembark before moving on. With the light fading, Bram drove the sagging minivan – carrying nine passengers and the luggage of six Americans prone to over-packing – on the gravel roads winding back to his home. In the last few minutes of daylight, Bram pointed me (I generally ride shotgun by virtue of whining the most about legroom) to Mt. Lawu, which at nearly 11,000 feet in an otherwise flat and featureless terrain completely dominates the local aspect. In addition to being a holy site for Hindu pilgrims and a large tourist draw, Bram was highlighting Lawu’s presence because our weekend trip was centered on our foolish desire to climb the damn thing. At first, being both near-sighted and altogether unused to big rocky things, I couldn’t see the mountain. After a few moments of eye-adjustment I widened the scale of my sight line and the Lawu massif became apparent to me. By mountain standards it’s pretty average in size, and by climbing standards absolutely tame, but for someone whose first thoughts at hearing the word “mountain” are the bunny slope Poconos of central PA, it was a monster.
Once we got to Bram and Sari’s and set our luggage down, we explored their home, a beautiful centuries-old model of the red-tile Javanese style. We squabbled over the two beds with mosquito nets, puzzled at the traditional Javanese shower (a bucket and a ladle), marveled at the dizzying number of phallus-themed paintings on the walls (a disconcerting number including dogs), and lathered ourselves in bug repellent before we sat down to a dinner of soto ayam. This chicken soup concoction, with self-served portions of bean sprouts, Thai basil, green chilies, blue ginger, sweet soy sauce, coconut shavings, peanuts, and sambal, is one of my favorite foods. I’ve had it in Suriname and at home, cooked by aunts and my mom and since I’ve come to Indonesia it’s become a consistent lunch favorite. I’ve always enjoyed it, even at the sketchier street-side stands we’ve visited, but nothing, nothing, compares soto at Sari and Bram’s house. Imagine the a rich, clear, chicken broth, load it up with fresh organic vegetables and rice and chicken all picked or killed that day in your backyard, now add a couple heaping spoonfuls of unadulterated bliss and maybe you can get an idea of what the soto was like. Sorry Mom, I think they’ve got you beat on this count.
Saturday Morning, 4 a.m., Bram drove us to Lawu and we began our ascent. I don’t think I have the adjective firepower to describe the climb and its views; I’ll let the great photos in the posts below do the talking. I can say though that the act of climbing Lawu was amazing. I’ve rarely felt so intimately grounded (pun intended) with my environment. Every step we took was another kick by the mountain, calves screaming, quads shaking, Jacob and I slobbering over our packs while Colin and Alia pushed hard and unfazed ahead. But it was beautiful in so many ways. It was clear to anyone who could see the maniacal glint in my eye that I fancied myself a young American Tenzing Norgay. I sure acted like I had reached the summit of Everest once we reached the top, but in truth, between my whole list of physical limitations – being out of shape, sweating truly astounding amounts of fluid, recovering from elbow surgery – and the allure of food at the bottom of the trail if only I turned back, I barely made it. Only the thought of Colin’s gloating face if I didn’t make it (he didn’t break a sweat and took half as many stops for rest as Jacob and I – Alia was similarly indefatigable, but infinitely less obnoxious) kept me going. After we hit the summit and headed down, my shame was further compounded on our descent by the sight of a local man, aged at least 50, carrying a massive load of rice on his back while trudging barefoot up the mountain at a rate at least twice of what I did. I’m going to add a visit to the gym, along with taking a warm shower and eating pie, to the list of things I need to do when we get home.
I’m falling asleep again, and it’s only 2 p.m. Time for a nap. Just got back from a meeting-shortened first day of my internship at Planned Parenthood, and I look forward to talking about that some more once it gets underway. So long for now!