Sudjojono is widely known as the father of national Indonesian art. As both an artist and patriot, Sudjojono’s life spanned the formation of the Indonesian nation from its colonial history as the Dutch East Indies, to the Japanese occupation during World War Two and its ultimate national independence. Throughout his lengthy career, he advocated for an inextricable bond to exist between art and politics, and that art should be dedicated to sociopolitical struggle in the vein of Pablo Picasso and Diego de Rivera. For him, the political condition of man was inescapable: he insisted on participating in politics even if it prevented him from devoting his time to painting, to allow his work to mature and gain a wider perspective.
This painting is a portrait of a Balinese legong dancer dressed in full costume, with a gold headdress and tunic over a deep green bodice and skirt. Her expression is one of cool interrogation, starting straight at the viewer with her full lips in a neutral line. Her hands are folded on her lap as she sits calmly before us, the deep browns of the background reflecting the warm tonal quality of her skin.
Legong is a form of dance dating to the 19th century and is characterized by complex finger movement, delicate footwork, expressive gestures and varied facial expressions. Historically, it has been romanticised by many painters of Bali, especially European Mooi Indies (Beautiful Indies) painters such as Adrien Le Mayeur de Merpes, Willem Hofker and Gerard Pieter Adolfs. In their visions of Bali, these women were sexualized creatures – objects for their visual consumption with voluptuous proportions, hooded eyes and seductive poses.
This painting is a direct rebuke against this reductive vision of Indonesian womanhood. Sudjojono renounces these perceptions in favour of a painting that does not remove the agency of its subject, her expression almost a direct parallel to Sudjojono’s most acclaimed work, Di Depan Kelambu Terbuka (Before the Open Kelambu), which features a prostitute starting at the canvas, fully clothed and her expression severe. As Claire Holt writes in Art In Indonesia, the work was “unprecedented.” The painting is deeply intimate, yet implores us to consider her as a person with her own history,
Sudjojono’s choice to depict Bali is also significant as a commentary of his personal belief in the national project. He believed in distilling an Indonesian nationalist form of art, where primitive forms of art would come together, tying the regional differences “of Bali, of the Bataks, the Minangkabau, Dayaks, Papuas, Javanese and others"1 into a single fabric. As a Javanese, this was an act of trans-regional empathy on the part of Sudjojono.
To echo Simone de Beauvoir, the body is a situation. Art is, first and foremost, a novel way of seeing the world – at the site of this body, we might rethink our conceptions of nation, womanhood and the role of the artist in mediating these multi-faceted worlds.
1 Amir Siharta, Visible Soul: S. Sudjojono, Museum S. Sudjojono and Canna Gallery, Jakarta, p.197.
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