- Sudjana Kerton
- Kaki Lima (Street Vendors)
- Signed and dated 78
- Oil on canvas
Sudjana Kerton, "Tanah Airku: My Country Indonesia -- Paintings by Sudjana Kerton, Sanggar Luhur Publication, Jakarta, Indonesia, 1990, P.31, Colorplate 24
Ati Ismail, Ketika Kata Ketika Warna (In Words In Colours) - Puisi dan Lukisan (Poetry and Paintings), Yayasan Ananda, Jakarta, Indonesia, 1995, P. 116
(From the conversation between Sudjana Kerton and Endang K. Sobirin, Merdeka daily, May 1st 1984)1
Artists have the ability to redefine the ordinary, and transcend what is seemingly mundane to become fresh narratives as seen through a new perspective. When coupled with nationalistic ideologies, however, the artworks take on a transformative aspect, and establish themselves as part of a greater whole. Such is the story of Sudjana Kerton’s oeuvre, for the Indonesian artist’s paintings act as a visual documentation of the country’s independence from the Dutch, and is further punctuated by his twenty-five year self-exile overseas. Though he desired to return throughout the years, political and personal events prevented him from doing so. The present painting Kaki Lima (Street Vendors) is an important part of Kerton’s oeuvre, for it was created one year after his return to Indonesia, and is a celebration of the artist’s happiness of coming home. The individuals within the painting are a colorful cast of characters, their energy radiating forth from the canvas.
Throughout Kerton’s body of works, he continuously strived to “…review the past, [and] read it again to be able to see and understand a vision [for a better] future”2. It was his nationalistic ideals that fuelled the paintings, providing the canvases with endless stories and memories to share. The Indonesia that he remembered, and the one that found itself reimagined within the paintings was filled with human stories—the lives of the everyman fleshed out within two-dimensional landscapes, forever a part of the country’s history and lore.
“Even when I lived in the United States, my subjects were still mostly Indonesian. I did make a few sketches of skyscrapers in New York, and it is a good to do that a few times, but I don’t have the inner conviction to paint such things. I find there is little in the West that I can hold or grasp on to”, Kerton said. “Living in the United States only strengthened my conviction to paint Indonesian subjects. My aim is to make people think critically about life in Indonesia, but I like to mix this with humour and the beauty of Indonesia”3.
Kerton’s interest in figurative works began with his early profession as an artist-journalist for the Indonesian newspaper Patriot. He voluntarily went into the battles amidst gunfire and death, and reported on the country’s revolution as it unfolded before his eyes. “I feel that each subject I paint has become a part of my inner feelings since first encounter; I become a part of it as it becomes a part of me”, he said4. During his lifetime the artist experienced Dutch rule in Indonesia, the Japanese occupation during World War II, and the country’s independence. An art scholarship to study in Holland provided him with the opportunity to travel abroad in the early fifties. Once in Europe he continued onwards to Paris, before traveling to America where he relocated in New York. Kerton’s oeuvre is a culmination of the personal histories of those he met, and the landscapes that he passed through.
Kaki Lima (Street Vendors) is a portrayal of village night life in Bandung, West Java, where the artist spent his adolescence, and then later years when he returned to Indonesia. The scene is a lively depiction of food vendors and their customers, with the added flair of street entertainers singing songs for a handful of rupiahs. The people are portrayed as per their emotions, rather than through individual likeness or form. This choice style of painting was deliberate, and allowed the artist to examine himself as an Indonesian and as an immigrant living abroad.
Thus Kaki Lima (Street Vendors) like many works from his oeuvre is an emotional narrative, rather than a contextual one. It was the artist’s “…decision to visually distort, [for] the precision of shapes was no longer the defining element… [and by] stretching, twisting, enlarging and deforming things and people”5, he was able to capture the innate qualities of his subjects. Critics may have referred to Kerton’s creative philosophy as the “theme of the ordinary”6, but for the artist life itself was extraordinary, for it was the small moments that defined an individual, and community that established familial bonds. In the end it was all these aspects of human existence that made up the sum of a much larger picture.
1.Zaelani, R.A., Kerton, L., Wright, A., Rizki Akhmad Zaelani, Nationalism and Its Transformations: Reflection on Works of Sudjana Kerton, Pendidikan Dan Kebudayaan (Ministry of Education and Culture), Jakarta, Indonesia, 1996, p. 137.
2. Refer to 1, p. 161.
3. Tony Donaldson’s transcribed interviews with Kerton from July 1988 in the article “Memories of My Homeland”: Sudjana Kerton Talks About His Art – published in Orientations June 2007
4. Refer to 1.
5. Herry Dim, "Sudjana Kerton: The 'Free Paintinger of Independence'", A Separate History: Sudjana Kerton in Indonesian Modern Art, Sanggar Luhur, Indonesia, 2003.
6. Refer to 1, p. 157.