The original owner of this work visited Hendra at the “Bamboo Studio/Sanggar Bambu” in Pasar Rumput, a market in Jakarta, to discuss the possible themes for the commissioned piece. Sanggar Bambu was a popular center for the arts, a gathering place for artists in the 1960s at the height of the Indonesian Modern art movement. In a rare occurrence, the artist depicts the lively playfulness of the monkeys, their animated gestures bring life to the spirited scene. Gunawan’s fascination with these animals was perhaps rooted in the behavioral bond they have with humans – Topeng Monyet presents the dance less as performative theatre and more as a spontaneous gathering.
Captivated by the spirit and cultural richness of Indonesia, Hendra Gunawan’s extensive oeuvre is a pictorial homage to his homeland and its people. A pivotal figure, Gunawan’s versatile artistic practice works to sensitively divulge the intimate and often undocumented scenes of rural life along the Indonesian archipelago.
As a staunch nationalist, Hendra’s artistry acted to both celebrate and preserve Indonesia’s cultural heritage from any impending political or ideological threat following the Indonesian National Revolution in the late 1940s. Such beliefs stimulated much of his interest to return to rural subjects in his paintings, with ordinary people forming the primary focal point of his creative works. Topeng Monyet is exemplar of Hendra’s desire to at once immortalise and romanticise the everyday simple occurrences of native life in Indonesia.
Originating from the indigenous masked human dances of Cirebon, Topeng Monyet is widely considered a traditional art form in Indonesia, practiced since the late nineteenth century and enjoyed by locals throughout the islands. In such performances, long-tailed macaque monkeys would dress anthropomorphically – donning spritely coloured local textiles, holding props such as an umbrella or shopping basket – and comically carry out human tasks to the rhythmic beat of a drum. Such fascination for this form of art came from the sense of absurdity and curiosity that was posed by the element of human mimicry and the lure of unorthodox human behaviour re-enacted by the monkey. The Topeng Monyet, which has been described as a necessary way of busking street life in Indonesia, would typically be performed door-to-door or within a neighbourhood setting.
In Topeng Monyet, Hendra meticulously encapsulates the theatricality and dynamism of the dance through his rich and comprehensive composition. Capturing his subjects in his idiosyncratic painterly vernacular, Hendra draws the viewers gaze towards the key exchanges between the Topeng dancing troop and its audience members. By doing so, Gunawan illustrates how audience participation was an essential aspect that played a fundamental role in these humorous captivating acts. The artist’s prowess in forming these candid interactions between his subjects is perhaps one of the most distinctive attributes in Hendra’s paintings. His vivid demonstration of the collaborative and playful nature of the Topeng Monyet is made apparent in the background; through the attentive gaze of the audience – ever so absorbed by the monkey’s talents as it joyfully balances on a dog’s back. This interplay is further emphasised in the foreground of the piece, where a maternal figure, a repeated motif in Hendra’s work, can be seen with her elongated fingers gently caressing a dog, whilst another monkey blithely sits on her shoulder. A strong believer that community was a central part of life, Hendra’s insertion of this nurturing and graceful motherly character can be viewed as a symbol for the unity as well as love shared amongst these native islanders.
The generous application of yellow ochre and dark brown tones, as visible in Topeng Monyet is incredibly distinctive of Hendra’s portraits from the 1960s. Whilst Topeng Monyet was primarily enjoyed by children due to the allure and enticement of the monkeys’ genial nature, the dance itself had wider socio-political implications, as it was one of the most prevalent forms of busking entertainment along the Indonesian islands. Shying away from the audacious use of bright and energetic colours, unlike his later works, Hendra carpeted his canvases with a subdued natural and earthly palette to emphasise the honesty and authenticity of the daily lives in which he depicted. Topeng Monyet is not only reflective of Gunawan’s perseverance to preserve these disappearing folk traditions, but is also indicative of his wider concerns and anxieties of the nation’s political stance during this period.
Painted in the 1960s during a tumultuous period for the artist, this early work is remarkably unique from Hendra Gunawan’s opus. Through the fusion of Western techniques and traditional Indonesian imagery inspired from the wayang, Topeng Monyet celebrates the simple pleasures and the vibrancy of life on the archipelago. In its true essence, the painting is emblematic of his remarkable dedication to his nation and the unwavering spirit of its people. The first of its nature to be seen on the market, Sotheby’s is honoured to introduce this extraordinary masterpiece this season.
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