The years following Hendra Gunawan's liberation from Kebon Waru Prison in 1978 proved to be a remarkably creative period for the artist, culminating in an exhibition of twenty one paintings at Taman Ismail Marzuki, the foremost venue for culture and art in Jakarta in 1979. The works exhibited were some of Hendra's most epic paintings: Pandawa Dadu, Aing Dasamuka, Arjuna Menyusui and the present work, Tuak Manis. Of the group, Tuak Manis was one of the largest, measuring more than two meters in height and four meters in length, whereas the others are approximately 150 by 300 cm. The large scale canvasses seem to echo Hendra's exhilaration at his newfound freedom, where walls can no longer limit his imagination.
While most of the grand paintings from this period were inspired by equally grand narratives such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and historical extracts. The story, aesthetic and composition of Tuak Manis's came entirely from Hendra himself, and is in fact one of the artist's few clear allegories. In many ways a brutally frank picture of urban society, Tuak Manis takes a chapter from daily life. However, instead of the softness of women and children or the ubiquitous vendors in villages, these figures appear more urban, jaded and worldly. Their hairstyle and clothing - t-shirts, batik shirt, sneakers, baseball caps, and short dresses - exhibit this most definitely, showing how much the world has changed during Hendra's incarceration. Gone are the idyllic and quiet background of seascapes, mountains and blue skies. Instead they are replaced by the hustle and bustle of a big city. Barbers and their customers feature prominently in the foreground while a crowd of shoppers, tuak manis (sweet wine) vendors, and butchers pushing buffalo heads on carts congregate behind them.
The horde of decapitated buffaloes provides an unnerving atmosphere that is highlighted by the man who is having his beard shaved on the lower left of the picture plane. The knife is eerily positioned just at his throat as if it can slit him at any second. The barber's back is visible and thus his identity is obscured to the viewer, but the man is undoubtedly Hendra himself. In true Hendra fashion, the gravity of the situation is balanced by some black humour. The headline of the newspaper that Hendra was reading, Merdeka (The Liberated) read "Iie Sumirat jagal Raksasa dari Bandung" (Badminton Player Iie Sumirat Slays Giant from Bandung) while the figure next to him reads "Superman di Alengka" (Superman in Alengka) and "Gareng Raja Pramuria" (Gareng, King of Prostitutes).
The painting's title, Tuak Manis (Sweet Wine) hints at the underlying effects of urbanization and modernization on the Indonesian people: hedonism, prostitution, commercialism. Tuak is made of fermented rice or palm wine and has a high alcohol content. Masked by the sweetness, it is easy to become inebriated, addicted and lose control without fully realizing it. It ultimately symbolizes the vulnerability of succumbing to temptation and the bitter after-taste it leaves.
Beyond the painting's face value, however, is a bold criticism of the nation's vanishing democracy. As the avatar for the fourth principal of Indonesia's philosophical foundation, Pancasila, which states "Democracy that is led by wisdom borne in consultation among the representatives of the people", the buffalo's decapitation symbolizes the death of Indonesian democracy at the hands of leaders who are easily seduced and intoxicated by worldly goods such as pleasure, power and money. As the medley of overlapping figures suggests, in such a situation mayhem is bound to ensue.
In the intentionally chaotic composition, it is not immediately easy to identify the painting's focal point. However, one figure is undoubtedly more prominent than the rest. Raised above the din by a chariot-like becak (pedicab tricycle) is a woman in pink kebaya. Her skin tone and clothes are lighter than those of other figures , and a young wine vendor is depicted pouring the drink into her cup from a long linear bamboo vessel, as if to guide the viewer's line of sight towards her presence. With her hair in a high chignon, her silhouette recalls that of Srikandi, a heroine from the Javanese wayang tales who is responsible for the safety and security of the hero's palace during the Bharatayudha war. This figure's presence appears to be Hendra's homage to shadow puppet theater, which he was involved in during his youth, and is a consistent influence throughout Hendra's career.
In the 20th century, Srikandi was recognized as the ultimate paradigm in heroism, particularly among women. The presence of the lady in a pink kebaya is likely to express Hendra's hope and prayer for a savior of the people. That his life-long veneration of women would lead him to dream of a heroine instead of a hero seems natural. It is indeed uncanny that Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of President Sukarno, would join PDI (Indonesian Democratic Party) in 1987, four years after Hendra's death, and would eventually become the Chairperson of PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle), which is symbolized by the buffalo. To complete the narrative's epilogue, two decades after the completion of this painting, Megawati was elected the President of the Republic of Indonesia in 1999 and signified the triumph of "people's power".
Hendra Gunawan mastered the subtleties and wisdom that are rooted in ancient Javanese tradition and ingeniously transformed them into a visual tour-de-force which teems with allegories and a well-choreographed composition. More than that however, the present work possesses an unquenchable and unencumbered expression of hope; that even in the midst of chaos, life is not about apathetically succumbing, rather it is about having courage to make a change. Full of symbolism and humour, it balances gravitas with wit, grotesque with elegance, horror with beauty, and history with promise. Bearing testimony to the evolution of a nation, Tuak Manis (Sweet Wine) is an iconic zenith of Hendra Gunawan's career.
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