- Hendra Gunawan
- Aku dan Istriku (My Wife and I)
- Signed, titled, inscribed and dated 1-1-77
- Oil on canvas
Private Collection of Dr. Lukas Mangindaan
Private Asian Collection
It was this particular artistic philosophy that led to the artist’s thirteen year imprisonment from 1965 to 1978. Hendra’s passion to depict the lives of the common people inspired him to become a political painter for LEKRA (Institute for People’s Culture). LEKRA, associated with PKI (The Communist Party of Indonesia), believed that art should serve as ‘populist realism’. The organization convinced Hendra to work for them, in their studio space, and ultimately for their cause. However Hendra did not paint with the intention of propagating LEKRA ideology. Instead he let the group make use of his own personal artistic philosophy. When an attempted communist coup in 1965 instigated a nation-wide anti-communist purge, Hendra together with anyone associated with PKI or LEKRA was imprisoned.
The present work Aku dan Istriku (My Wife and I) was painted in 1977, a year before his release from Kebon Waru prison. As the title suggests, the painting is of Hendra and his wife, intertwined in a passionate embrace. The barred windows in the top left corner, a symbol used in many of the paintings created during his imprisonment, established Hendra’s cell as the work’s setting. Interestingly, the painting is part of a series begun in 1973. The other works in the series, such as Aku dan Istriku di Lonceng Kedua Hari Besuk (My Wife and I after the Second Bell) (Ref. 1), show that the present painting is a depiction of Hendra and his first wife Karmini before the end of visiting hours.
Aku dan Istriku (My Wife and I) is a rare piece from the artist’s oeuvre. An intimate moment between him and his wife, the painting is a vulnerable look into the life of an otherwise private man. With their arms and legs lovingly entangled, the figures of Hendra and Karmini merge together to form a unified whole. The artist deliberately lengthened the fingers in the painting, an artistic decision that emphasized the strength of their hold on one another. The vivid reds, greens, yellows, pinks, and blues further expresses the happiness and love that filled the room in that moment of union.
Hendra was able to paint such beautiful impassioned works of arts in prison because Karmini brought him boxes of paint and canvases during these visitation hours. Karmini’s visits to Kebon Waru brought joy to Hendra, but “life outside the prison for Hendra’s wife Karmini and their three sons was harsh. … shunned by society, they lived under severe economic pressure.”2 Strong and courageous, Karmini didn’t lose hope. To support her sons, she worked hard to peddle the paintings that Hendra made in prison. Even though Hendra married a second wife during his time in prison, Karmini remained loyal. Maryati, wife of Affandi, a fellow Indonesian artist, remembered that “when Hendra was “inside”, this lady was the backbone of the family.”3
Due to his 13 year exile from public view, Hendra could not draw similar inspiration from daily life as he did before his imprisonment. Perhaps the long isolation, as well as a longing for family, triggered in Hendra the want to explore more personal scenes, such as in Aku dan Istriku (My Wife and I). Thirty years prior, when Hendra was painting revolutionary scenes at the frontlines of the fight against colonialism, Hendra had said, “Everybody has the right to enjoy my paintings.”4 One of the more private works from his oeuvre, Aku dan Istriku (My Wife and I) appears to have been painted with a different intention. Instead of celebrating the people and the world around him, Hendra may have created the work as a sanctuary for his emotions.
Aku dan Istriku (My Wife and I) may be one of the few works in which Hendra expressed his love for his wife Karmini. However it should be noted that many of his works are reflective of the artist’s respect for womanhood. This appreciation is evident in Menyusui II (Nursing II) (Ref. 2). Meanwhile in the work On Pencari Pasir/Keagungan Ibu (The Sand Collectors/A Mother’s Greatness) (Ref. 3), the artist has versed a poem to motherhood. He writes, “You nail tight the self-respect of the motherland’s son and daughters, nailing it firmly to this magnificent earth of daily work … Oh, Mothers, proud banners of our culture, the Greatness of Indonesia.”5
With artworks depicting rural life, street vendors, freedom fighters, and women, Aku dan Istriku (My Wife and I) is a valuable piece from Hendra’s oeuvre. Separated from the woman he loved, the woman who supported him throughout his imprisonment, the artist has infused Aku dan Istriku (My Wife and I) with an intense, bittersweet passion. The painting symbolizes the enduring love between a husband and wife, as well as the hope of an extraordinary man and artist.
1. Garrett Kam, Modern Indonesian Art: From Raden Saleh to the Present Day, Koes Artbooks, Indonesia, 2006, p. 52.
2. Agus Dermawan T. and Dr. Astri Wright, Hendra Gunawan: A Great Modern Indonesian Painter, Ir Ciputra Foundation, Archipelago Press, Jakarta, 2001, p. 31.
3. Refer to 2.
4. Refer to 2, p. 26.
5. Refer to 2, p. 172.