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"Untitled Letter to Editor", Jakarta, 25 December 1942
Translated by Matt Cox (bio)

Salam dan Bahagia (Greetings and Regards)

With this I give you a number of answers to Saudara's1 enquires. If there is anything that you find irrelevant, you may just erase it.

But take it as though you are telling my life's biography, because [I believe] it's not appropriate to tell one's own life journey. Consider this like [not legible] from me to you personally, especially, and use it all as though it were a record of a conversation between you and me.

Once again Saudara, it is you who tell the story, not I.

Wassalam (Blessings)

N.B

But if Saudara feels it necessary and easier for Saudara if all were published as if they were my writings, I don't have any objections.

  1. 1. I was born sometime in the year Sumera 2573 (1913)

  2. 2. In Kisaran, Deli [Sumatra]

  3. 3. My father's name is Sindoedarmo

  4. 4. One little sister

  5. 5. Boedi Oetomo School, Ardjoena School, Goenoengsari Teachers School Mulo, Taman Siswa Teachers School, Monteur School

  6. 6. My experiences are pretty much represented by the following:

    1. a. There is nothing wrong if people face the truth. And from my experiences, there is proof that many people are very scared to follow in practice what [End Page 165]

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      [End Page 170] they think in their heart (the truth). For example, not everyone is brave enough to wear the clothes they like because sometimes those clothes are not compatible with public tastes. Even though those clothes are "ugly", wear them anyway, if in your heart you truly like to wear them. The same goes for our daily activities. Our aspirations must be full, in that way we arrive at a fulfilled life. But if those things cause sickness to ourselves, enduring, smarting pain, it is because we must be brave in taking responsibility for everything we do. Sometimes people say that a road like that will soon lead to ruin. It is surely true that these people will soon be in ruin, but people should not forget that the experience that creates the happiness mentioned earlier is worth it and meaningful for one's development of one's soul, despite the difficulties that one must face.

      And an artist should have the character to act according to the heart's (truth-loving) desires. All of the artist's work must be a spontaneous expression, and every line (if she/he is a painter) that is released onto the cloth must make an image that is honest, direct from the heart sonder,2 [without] being sullied by calculation and the weighing up of this and that.

    2. b. An artist should not give importance to money (status) and one's name. In these times and circumstances, it is difficult for our people in this country to find an opportunity to make a name and find money. If someone is to become an artist motivated only by the things said earlier, that person will quickly become disappointed and soon leave behind their work as a genuine artist. Under these circumstances, they will thereby abandon their work. Who would continue the work then? Even though this work is considered by our own people, who are still backward, as the work of the idle or unemployed, and even worse, in some cases, as despicable, we must continue to carry out the work slowly in our own way, using the tools that one can find along the way to establish our work.

      Remember, art in this time is still a baby. Take loving care of that baby, we should not leave it so that later someone can say, "Whose crying child is this?" If you want to find the prikkel3 [motivation] to work, don't look for inspiration in the two things just mentioned [i.e. money, name]. Those are the worst kinds of motivation that an artist can have. Form a better love dynamo (dynamo tjinta)4 and duty for work in your own chest. And if you already have this dynamo, I am confident—even though our people are deaf and blind to art—that readers will continue to work for our children and grandchildren. But, readers, there won't be any rewards for this. [End Page 171]

    3. c. Aside from the above, there is another experience I advocate: people should eat a lot, three times a day. Early on I didn't appreciate that eating a lot was so good for one's body. Since I was little, I never got fat, I was always skinnnny. I always considered my skinniness to be normal and the way of God. But when I got tuberculosis and was in CBZ,5 I was forced to eat a lot (three × a day), so after three months I gained 13 kg and also recovered from my illness. I was truly shocked. From this [experience], eating three times a day is good for all people, especially for an artist or painter, not "money-makers"—I mean, they of course should save extra body fat (gemoek)6 when they sell their paintings, so it can be used for as many days as it takes before another painting is sold.

    4. 7. When I was little, my favourite thing was to play soccer and tennis. And now my favourite things are books, movies and talking with my friends, whom I cherish, and eating delicious food.

    5. 8. The unforgettable events that I experienced are:

      First, the time when my father worked as a contract coolie (labourer). Our house was a black cabin, where we lived with many other people. Each family with a wife and children got a partition of the room, approx 2.5 × 3 metres in size. Around the cabin there was a field about 40 metres long; the only view was of tall trees, planted very well in straight lines, healthy and well maintained by expert farmers. The Dutch who owned the onderneming7 [enterprise] were people who had various passions. Their first passion was their plantation. The proof of their passion was expressed by their trial of Si Tasmoe, who always invited me to play when I was still little. He spent a week in jail because he was always cutting the bark from the tree (because, according to people, it was good for getting rubber). Secondly, they really loved the friends of my mother who were young and beautiful. And that passion was not just in the night, it was also in the day. Sometimes it was so strong that it culminated at the edge of the jungle. The third passion was for beer. If they began to drink beer in the bowling soos,8 [club] so many bottles would be emptied. As more bottles were drunk, the more strongly they would shout and muck about. And from the time they began to break the first glass … the "theatre" would begin. And even my friend Si Bendjol and I would begin to get happy, because sometimes it happened that the Dutch men were good to me (at that time, I was the guardian of the skittles). Usually they would give me a Setalen [quarter of a rupiah] … give me a half a rupiah or a rupiah a night. And the final passion—the number of which I don't know—was the passion that I think is the most wasteful, because their love for their dogs could cost them 50 cents worth of meat [End Page 172] per day, whilst a coolie only received 33 cents a day, and 33 cents is what someone like my father who had a wife and child (the wife is my mother and the child is me) got. Thirty-three cents was not enough to sustain them, so in fact they had to look for overwerk, night shifts that would supplement their salaries. There were those who sought it in gambling and there were those like me who sought it as I will tell you below.

      Five people would go out each night beyond the plantation to the edge of the jungle. They sat quietly like children squatting behind the trees in the jungle. At about eight at night, if it was already evening, the pigs they awaited would come out of the jungle and make their way to the gardens to look for food. Once they were well inside the plantation, everyone would suddenly attack the pigs. Whoever was close would try and grab them. But because the pigs didn't want to be caught they would fight … and usually the pigs would lose. Happily they would take the live pig to a Chinese shop and return to the cabin with F1.50 split five ways if it was a small pig, and up to F2.50 for a big pig. Almost every night they would catch a pig and almost every night they would return to the cabin with F1.50 or Seringgit shared amongst five.

      One night, the five of them were hiding behind the trees when a black animal moved slowly towards them. When the animal was very close, one of the five pounced on the animal. A struggle broke out and soon after, the four friends heard a scream, "Help, tiger!" The loyal friends went in with machetes supposing that the animal was a tiger, but like a frightened bird, it ran off into the forest. They carried the injured man to the boarding house on a cart pulled by a cow. After sealing the large cut on his left hand caused by the claws of the bird with rice paste made by my mother, they took him by cart again to the hospital. I can still see the lantern swaying in my night-time memories. And the friends of my father, who were braver than my father, are always in my "song", like reminders of the fate of contract coolies in the Deli plantations.

      Second, the period when I lived with Pa [father-like older man] Joedo-kosoemo [Yudhokosomo]. His son, Kartono, at this very moment received first prize in the Asia Raya competition, despite being more than two years younger. Because Pa Joedo enjoyed literature, he gave me books by Multatuli and Krishna Murti. And because Pa Joedo himself was a talented painter, he instructed me to paint many pictures; sometimes I also helped him to make paintings for school. During this period he showed my sketches to Mr P. Post, the head teacher at Ardjoena School.9 That is why I was able to receive training in painting from Mas Pirngadi. [End Page 173] Third, the period I was in Lembang. Here I met Sanoesi Pane and the Corporal's family [who] were like my teachers. The Corporal's family was a Dutch family who were highly intelligent and had very different characters from other Dutch living in Indonesia. They treated me as though I was of their own race and taught me as though I was their own child; they showed me the way to freedom. Rare are people like the Corporal's family, because they continue to live with the consequences of their own theories [they live by their own rules]. And in Sanoesi Pane, I saw for the first time, an artist.

      The most important occurrence of this period was when I was asked to leave school.

      Fourth, when I was at Taman Siswa Mataram. Ki Hadjar Dewantara was my teacher. Here, for the first time, I began to participate in a painting steleng10 [exhibition] in the Congress of Indonesian Youth. Of the people and members of the jury at that time, there wasn't one who could understand new paintings. They considered my pictures as "de Djokdjanees"—as pictures not yet complete. Only two people understood those pictures: my friend Jono Haroeno and Ki Hadjar Dewantara himself. Until now I still say thank you to Ki Hadjar Dewantara for what he said while standing in front of my pictures: "Djon, apik Kije"11 [Djon, this is good].

      Fifth, Chioyi Yazaki. Through the introduction of Saudara Rameli (a painter), I was able to learn with Chioyi Yazaki, a Japanese painter, who at that time had stopped by in Central Java on a round-the-world tour. From a great painter such as him, I learnt [how to use] the colour black and the colour white, which have never been used by painters here.

      One day, we—Yazaki, Kihara (a writer) and I—left Magelang early in the morning for Borobudur. At the temple we made pictures. As if in a trance, Yazaki painted without stopping for the whole day. Finishing one picture and starting another. He painted Borobudur from many angles. He constantly turned back to look for me, as if anxious that I might not be working. He didn't understand Indonesian, but I knew from the look in his eyes the meaning of what he said each time—"Djon! Paint!" The weather in Borobudur was extremely warm, but the only umbrella was used by Yazaki; Kihara and I only had hats. What could we do? We tried to be strong. We worked there until 7 at night. Leaving Borobudur, we didn't return to our hotel but instead went straight to a Japanese shop, in the same town, where we usually ate. I was really tired. We played many records of Japanese songs on the gramophone. But I couldn't shake off my fatigue. Because I couldn't last any longer, I excused myself and returned to the [End Page 174] hotel to sleep. Yazaki spoke angrily in Japanese. But I still left. In the middle of the night, at about 2 am, they returned. Kihara entered and lay down to sleep next to me. "Gees Djojono, teacher is really angry. No joke. He is never that angry, wow. Why did you leave?" "I was way too tired." "He was truly angry." "Forget it," I said, and then we both went to sleep. The next day, while I was preparing my box of pastels for painting, Kihara came out of Yazaki's room carrying a box of pastels and said, "Djojono, teacher is giving you this, a whole box of pastels." My jaw dropped in surprise. "Why, isn't he still angry?" I asked. "Just take them, or he will be angry," replied Kihara. In my heart I laughed with wonder. I thought about the behaviour of someone as successful as Yazaki. He was the type of person who didn't want to give up his wishes, an impulsive person, arrogant, but also a person who can let go of his anger in a second, because in fact that anger was without reason. I wasn't surprised that a person like him was able to make paintings the way he did.

      Sixth. One afternoon when I went to the house of a Dutch painter here in Jakarta. I intended to become a member of their painters' group. As an executive member, he promised to send the inquiries for membership. I waited a long time for the letters and any other news from that painter, but he didn't send anything. I felt a great pain in my heart. As an Indonesian, there was no way I could become a member. Not long after that I established PERSAGI.

      As if the humiliation wasn't enough, when PERSAGI requested the use of the kunstkring building to install an exhibition of paintings by PERSAGI, they also refused. We installed our first show at Kolff [a bookshop and publishers]. Critics from the Dutch newspapers came. There were some ugly but many more good [reports]. The secretary of the kunstkring came more than three times to view our work and would be impressed. They had suspected that our work would be like the work that is sold on the main street. Not long after that, we, not PERSAGI, but most members of PERSAGI, were invited to mount an exhibition. We accepted. And in fact, our paintings surprised the entire Dutch population, so much so that our paintings toured to about ten large cities across Java.

    6. 9. In the year 2595 (1935), I was in Shonanto [Singapore].12 To develop my potential/livelihood, I assisted the painter Mr J. Pieris, an Indian man from Ceylon, in his studio. About one month after being there, I began to feel like I wanted to continue on to Thailand to paint, but suddenly I was overcome by a feeling to return to Java. Mr Pieris didn't agree, because, as he said, he wanted to work with me to enlarge the studio with portrait commissions. [End Page 175] And I would make submissions to the advertising department. "Why do you want to leave so suddenly?" he asked. I replied, "I don't know. But I have a feeling in my heart that tells me that I must return." "What kind of feeling?" "I don't know, Mr Pieris, but it's a very powerful and persuasive feeling." "Go then, but not now. What I mean is, not this coming Friday (tomorrow), but wait until Friday next week." "I can't Mr Pieris, I must go this Friday (tomorrow)."

      At about 7 in the evening he went to meet a senior guru who had just arrived from Ceylon. After half an hour, Pieris came back and called to me to quickly follow him to the place where he had just met the Maha Guru. "Swami Nerada needs someone who is going to Java," he said hastily as we made our way there. "Ha, that is what has called me and persuaded me to return to Java, Mr Pieris." He was silent. Not long after we met Swami Nerada, a Buddhist Maha Guru who was on his way to China and Japan. The Honourable [Swami] asked me if I was able to go as soon as tomorrow morning to take a number of Buddhist goods to Java that the Honourable [Swami] had brought with him from Ceylon. Those goods were to be given to Dr Poerbotjaroko to build a Buddhist association in Jakarta. I agreed to take them and commented that it was surely my duty. Mr Pieris then related the whole string of events and our earlier discussion to the Swami. He smiled and said, "In Java there must be a lot of men like you. And you must surely take these things with you tomorrow morning because they cannot stay here for very long." After that we all talked about religion in Indonesia and the number of people who had met with the Swami the last time he was in Java the year before, and whom I had also .… met. Before he excused himself, he gave me a keepsake—a coloured portrait of the Buddha image on which he wrote underneath, in English: Maitri Narada. The next day I departed from Shonanto and took the Buddhist goods with me to Java.

      Often, when I read the letter, coloured purple, sent by Swami Narada from Japan, I remember those strange events that took place in Shonanto and think, "We will be joined for the remainder of our lives even in difficulty. What was it that called me to Shonanto from Java? Whatever is the purpose of this life, no one can tell us. The old from the north, the young from the south, met in the middle, just for a moment, talked and then separated, returned bringing good things."

      I am surprised why the rose flower that is red blossoms from a green stem; likewise I am surprised and consider strange the events aforementioned, whereas to the reader this may appear as a common coincidence.

      Please excuse me if, in regard to these issues, I seem strange. [End Page 177]

Sindudarsono Sudjojono

Sindudarsono Sudjojono (Kisaran, Sumatera, Indonesia, 1913–86) was an Indonesian artist, writer and activist, and is widely regarded as formative in the development of discourses of modernity in Indonesia. He was active in Jakarta's Keimin Bunka Shidoso, a Japanese-sponsored cultural centre during the Japanese occupation in Indonesia. Later, he was one of the founders of PERSAGI (Association of Indonesia Drawing Specialists, 1938) and SIM (Young Indonesian Artists, 1946). Kami Tahu Kemana Seni Lukis Indonesia Akan Kami Bawa was written as a response to Dutch art critic, J. Hopman, who commented that an Indonesian art had yet to emerge.

Matt Cox

Matt Cox completed a BA in Asian Studies with a major in Indonesian Studies (University of New South Wales) and an MA in Art History (University of Sydney), and has recently graduated with his doctoral thesis "The Javanese Self in Portraiture from 1880 to 1955" (University of Sydney). Cox has published in Australia and internationally on Asian art and architecture, and is curator of Asian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As a curator, he is broadly engaged with both historical and contemporary art as brought to the fore in two recent exhibitions: Beyond Words: Calligraphic traditions across Asia and Passion and Procession: Art of the Philippines. Integral to these exhibitions and his curatorial practice, more generally, is his work with artists, curators and academics in Australia and Asia to explore relationships between art history and living communities.

NOTES

1. The word Saudara translates literally as brother but is also used as a formal term of address for someone of the same age.

2. Sudjojono uses the Dutch word sonder/zonder meaning "without".

3. Sudjojono uses the Dutch word prikkel meaning "stimulus or motivation".

4. The accurate meaning of dynamo tjinta or "love dynamo" is unclear to the translator, but it is believed to relate to the idea of a motivational love strong enough to generate creative production and art.

5. CBZ is an abbreviation for Centraal Burgerlijke Ziekenhuis, now known as the Cipto Mangkusumo hospital in Jakarta.

6. Sudjojono uses the word gemoek, which is commonly used to refer to a large-sized body, but in the past, gemoek also referred to body fat. The translator assumes that Sudjojono relates the excess in body fat to financial prosperity.

7. Sudjojono uses the Dutch word onderneming meaning "enterprise".

8. Sudjojono uses the Dutch word soos meaning "club".

9. Sudjojono uses the English word "school".

10. Sudjojono uses the Dutch word steleng meaning "exhibition".

11. Sudjonono uses Javanese here.

12. Name given to Singapore by the Japanese, meaning "light of the South". [End Page 178]