Sanggar as a Model for Practicing Art in Communal Life
By Nuraini Juliastuti
This text intends to further elaborate the concept of ‘bersama-sama’ in order to dissect its productivity nature and examine how it has evolved into a possible method for art production. Bersama-sama can mean having a shared goal or aspirations. An association is a space in which a group of people manages their shared goals. Such a space is also called a collective. Using the case of a sanggar, I will investigate how a sanggar has been served as a space to experiment with the communal life and a laboratory for developing the notion of ‘bersama-sama’ as a key principle in art practices. The focus of this essay is sanggar in the field of visual arts.
Sanggar is perhaps the most known word refers to an art and cultural space in the context of Indonesia. Sanggar derives from Kawi language, the ancient Javanese language. It means a small room used for worshipping god. It can also mean an association that has been established for multiple purposes. During the early development of modern Indonesian art, establishing an art association played an important role not only in defining the relation between art and politics, but also the meaning of doing art when Indonesia was still at its early stage of the making of national consciousness. Sanggar, in the context of art, is a space in which a group of people learns to make art under the auspices of a mentor. What does it mean to be with the other artist fellows in a particular sanggar at a particular moment in history?
The relationship between the senior artists—who led the sanggar—and the young artists—who lived in sanggar, and learned, first and foremost, to become painters, can be defined as a mixture of the relationship between the teacher and the student, and the parents and the children. There were no classrooms that were usually found in formal education institutions in a sanggar. The teachings of the art were given in the forms of advices and guidance. Nashar’s memoir tells us that opinions and recommendations from Affandi, the leader of Seniman Masyarakat, the Artists of the Society, as well as other senior artists who frequented the sanggar, served as the direction of the artistic practice of those who studied there. Another way of learning was to follow wherever Affandi might go to paint and to examine his techniques (Nashar 2002: 21). The style of the teaching at sanggar suggests that each young artist studied there needed to employ ‘seek one’s own way’ or ‘cari sendiri’ (Holt 1967: 226) principle to acquire necessary knowledge for his or her art practice. Mia Bustam wrote in her memoir a similar basic work principle of making painting emphasized by Sudjojono to his students that is “gunakan baik-baik matamu”, use your eyes carefully (Bustam 2006: 34).
The communal character of living in a sanggar might point to the learning style of processing information and knowledge from the environment. In an evocative manner Nashar recalled the learning ritual performed while living and studying at Gabungan Pelukis Indonesia, GPI, or the Association of Indonesian Painters, in Jakarta. The Association of Indonesian Painters was initiated by Affandi in 1948 (Holt 1967, Nashar 2002. “We roamed the streets at night. With sketchbooks in our hands, we explored the streets of Jakarta. Regularly we ended up in the ever-chaotic Senen area. In many cases we walked and chatted along the way to Jatinegara. The distance between Senen and Jatinegara was approximately 7 km. What were the points of attractions from Senen and Jatinegara to us at that time? What did we get from such experience? There must had been something interesting and powerful which drew us to these areas …” (Nashar 2002: 100-101). Hersri Setiawan noted such communalism was highly influenced by bohemian attitude adhered by artists during these period (Antariksa 2005).
‘Sama’ is a shared feeling when experiencing a collective life. It is the principle of egalitarian maintained to define the relational position between an artist and the society. The same principle also serves as one of the guidance to produce art for the people, or seni kerakyatan. During the period of 1950s to 1960s, populist art was put as aesthetic and political standards to value art. The Institute of People’s Culture (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat) LEKRA and its Satu Lima Satu (1-5-1) principle, was the ultimate example of an art association which was able to clearly formulate a method for producing art which did not only had high artistic value but also emblematic of Indonesian identity and people’s culture. The 1-5-1 principle reads “Adhering to the principle of politics as the guardian, we conduct the combination of five propositions—egalitarian and eminent, high level discourse on ideology and high artistic value, combining the good practices of traditions and the revolutionary contemporary values, combining the creativity of the individuals and the wisdom of the masses, and combining the socialist realism and revolutionary romantic through the Turun ke Bawah method, or get down to the grassroots”.1
The close relation between LEKRA and the Indonesian Communist Party has been the source of discussion for other scholars (see Foulcher 2001, Antariksa 2005, Bodden (2012), Yuliantri (2012) among others). Drawing on transcripts of interviews with artists who lived and worked within the sanggar, which associated themselves with LEKRA from 1950 to 1965, Antariksa revealed that Turun ke Bawah, usually abbreviated as Turba, was a concept that was not entirely novel for those involved in art world during those period. People, in the history of Indonesian modern art, have been the source of inspiration and ideology formation for the artists. Or rather, within the realm of art world in the 1950s and the 1960s, it is the empathetic feeling, which served as the key factor in art production. It is also a feeling, which directly links me to ‘love’ and ‘poverty’ that put as significant factors in researching power and the productivity of commons in Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth (2009). The portrait of people to appear in the artworks was clear: the people who suffered. Writing his memoir in exile, Basuki Resobowo—the prominent painter and the activist of LEKRA—ascertained himself that capturing suffering is the main task of art (2005). The similar belief underlay the works of Amrus Natalsya and the development of Sanggar Bumi Tarung in 1961 (Thamrin 2008). Suffering was shared and supplied energy to the artists’ acts of participation in the environment.
During the New Order era (1966-1998), participation refers to a series of instructions to the members of society to take part in the state-made development projects. The act of participation, which is imbued with a strong sense of compliance with the state, is mobilized through ‘gotong royong’ mechanism. Bowen (1986) argues that Gotong royong (mutual assistance), together with koperasi (“cooperatives; constitutionally the basis of the economy”) and musyawarah (“consensus; technically the basis for legislative decision making”), constitute a set of key elements to define “the obligations of the individual toward the community, the propriety of power, and the relation of state authority to traditional social and political structures” (Bowen 1986: 545). In the participation version of the New Order government, the voluntary aspect, or sukarela, a readiness to give voluntarily, is diminished if not eliminated.
Antariksa depicted LEKRA as an organization, which worked to show that ‘politics is the valid arena for artists’ (2005). The capacity of a sanggar as an ideology breeding space and its ideological affiliation to any social and cultural organization ceased during the New Order era. Politics was no longer a valid arena for artists. Reformasi 1998 however gave rise to the development of Lembaga Budaya Kerakyatan “Taring Padi”. Ideology continues to serve as an essential factor to shape cultural activities in post-Soeharto period (Arbuckle 2002). The Institute of People Oriented Culture “Taring Padi” is an art organization, which mainly consisted of students of the Yogyakarta Indonesian Institute of the Arts. The main part of its preambule, which modeled on that of the LEKRA, urged arts organization in Indonesia to redefine their position and roles within the society and demonstrates the organization’s pursuit for art for the people.
Both Nashar and Natalsya told accounts of how the learning style of sanggar imbricated in the early development of arts education institutions. In describing his education period at the Academy of Indonesian Visual Arts2 (Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia) in Yogyakarta, Natalsya recognized ‘Kelas Pagi’ and ‘Kelas Sore’ as a way of differentiating the learning methods encountered by the students. ‘Kelas Pagi’ referred to as classes where students were formally enrolled as students at the academy and taught by the formally appointed lecturers. Whereas ‘Kelas Sore’ referred to as informal meeting spaces created within the environment of the academy where the students and lecturers of ‘Kelas Pagi’, established and newly recognized artists who were not part of the academy, could organize meetings and discussion forums about various issues. Natalsya later dropped his enrollment in the regular class to participate in the afternoon class (Thamrin 2008: 35-36). The students of the morning class, in the words of Natalsya, were all “too formal and bounded by the academic discipline” (Thamrin 2008: 36).
The informal character attached to a sanggar however makes the assessment and evaluation process difficult. In the age of modern education, assessment and evaluation are important aspects to value an education institution. The formation of formal art education institutions put the existence of sanggar into the opposition. The proponents of the ‘formalism’ of educational systems valued theory higher than the practice of art. The proponents of sanggar believed in the opposite. In one of his Surat Malam, or night letters, compiled in his memoir, Nashar articulated the debate around this topic within the Jakarta Institute of the Arts. Nashar started to teach at institute in August, 1970. The academic members of the institute divided into two different groups regarding sanggar. The first group attempted a more rigid academic environment for students. As one of the proponents of the sanggar approach, Nashar argued that the formal aspect of the academic institution tended to develop a structure which weakened the creative capacity of the students. Nashar and Oesman Effendi were two lecturers of the institute who attempted to combine the sanggar approach with the formal education system. Nashar’s letter suggested that the institute provided little room for the experiment of the ‘sanggar’ group to take place. “This academy is still in its early development. There are many things that not yet clear. However I can see signs, which might lead to the situation where theory and general knowledge would predominate in how the development of the students would be judged” (Nashar 2002, 259-260).3
The present life of sanggar shows how they maintain their educational nature, albeit typically regarded as merely spaces to study the practical aspects of arts and lost their experimental attitude.
Refomasi 1998 also gave rise to the emergence of alternative spaces. Such spaces have been playing their key roles in different cultural practices. Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta are considered the important cultural centers in Indonesia. They constitute the main locations of alternative spaces. Although as the word ‘alternative’ in alternative space suggests, these three cities are no longer considered the main locations for alternative spaces. Such spaces find their fertile ground in other cities and have influentially changed the landscapes of their cultural environment.4 How has the history of sanggar inform their practices? Based on my observation, a sanggar is rarely referred to as a model on which these spaces modeled their activities on. Alternative spaces, however, have proved to be a living evidence of the legacy of sanggar and how collectivism continues to shape art practices in Indonesia.
(This text was first published in catalogue of Made in Commons exhibition in Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, November 2013. The photo was taken from documentation of Pelukis Rakyat in IVAA.)
Antariksa. 2005. Tuan Tanah Kawin Muda: Hubungan Seni Rupa-Lekra 1950-1965. Yogyakarta: Yayasan Seni Cemeti.
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