Long awaited, many of the masterpieces from the collection of the Presidential palace will be showcased in an exhibition held at the Galeri Nasional Indonesia in August. In the collection of the Presidential Palace there are around 3.000 artworks.
Currently the works are spread around the palaces which are located in Jakarta (The Istana Negara and Istana Merdeka), Bogor, Cipanas, Yogyakarta and Tampaksiring in Bali. The impressive collection was initiated by Sukarno, Indonesia’s first President, who was known to have a great taste in art. He himself was quite an accomplished painter. A painting by his own hand, entitled Rini, will be shown in this exhibition.
President Joko Widodo considers that the art collection of the Presidential Palaces should be accessible to the people. “Such great works of creativity should be preserved. I would like these paintings to be monumentalized and continually be presented to the public around the world,” the President stated.
To prepare the exhibition, Mikke Susanto and Rizki A. Zaelani have been selected as the co-curators. Both curators and in particular Mikke Susanto, have been closely working with the collection of the Presidential Palace since 2009. “Actually, the idea for this exhibition already emerged during Megawati’s time as President. Unfortunately, there were still some hurdles to cross, so it was never realized. Then in 2015, President Joko Widodo asked his staff to exhibit the paintings.
However, at the time there was too little time to prepare it leading to the month of August, so only this year, with cooperation between the Ministry of the State Secretary, the Ministry of Education and the National Council for Creative Economies, it finally can be realized,” Susanto explained. According to him, the key words for selecting the pieces in the collection for the exhibition are: ‘endeavour’, ‘work’ and ‘nationalism’. This is in-line with the cabinet’s name: the ‘working cabinet’.
Only two paintings come from Soeharto’s time as President; one is Raden Saleh’s Capture of President Diponegoro, which was a gift from Queen Juliana of The Netherlands, presented during her visit in 1976, the second is Srihadi Soedarsono’s painting of his daughter as a Balinese dancer.
The twenty-six other paintings in the show actually came from the President Sukarno’s personal collection. “Most of the artworks in the Presidential collection, such as Hendra Gunawan’s “Kerokan”, and Sudjojono’s “Kawan-kawan Revolusi” and many others were purchased by President Sukarno himself during his visits to galleries or art studios, Susanto added.
On February 1st, 1955, noting his impressions during his visit to the Indonesian Fine Art Academy (ASRI) in Yogyakarta, the first President said, “In fact, independence also brings progress to the field of art. Independence certainly does mean freedom. Our art, which during the colonial times was shackled, has become free and independent in the times of independence. Fly to the sky like an eagle!”
Other pieces in the collection were gifts from important guests who visited Indonesia. Among others the pieces that were gifts included paintings by Taikan Yokoyama, Mount Fuji and Basoeki Abdullah’s Portrait of a Girl, 1956, which are not exhibited.
However, there may actually be some pieces in the exhibition that were gifts, such as Diego Rivera’s, Malay Woman with Flowers which is dated 1955. Could it be that Rivera painted the painting during his visit to Indonesia in 1955? It is known that Rivera even paid a visit to the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) and met with Soemardja, then the Director of the School of Art.
According to Sukarno’s eldest son, the painting was a memento of his father’s unique talent for negotiation and persuasion. Although it seemed almost impossible for the Rivera painting to be given to Indonesia, apparently Sukarno successfully managed to persuade Adolfo López Mateos (President of Mexico from 1958-1964) to give the painting to enrich the art collection of the Presidential Palace. Sukarno made three state visits to Mexico in 1958, 1959 and 1961 respectively, and these visits were finally reciprocated by the Mexican President in 1962. Perhaps it was during this visit that he presented the painting as a gift.
It would be also good to find out how Sukarno came into possession the work by Miguel Covarrubias, Four Women with Offerings which was painted around 1933-1936 and Walter Spies’s Life around Borobudur in the Ninth Century, 1930. It is unclear how exactly they became acquired by the Presidential Palace. According to noted historian Soedarmadji JH Damais, “The Istana had in their possession three original painting by Walter Spies, of the four that were made into educational lithographs by the Netherland-Indies government.”
However, it is known that Sukarno purchased another painting by Spies, Morning at Iseh, which unfortunately is not part of the exhibition this time, from Paul Spies (no known familial relationship to the artist) who was the Vice President of the Javasche Bank, the bank that functioned as the Central Bank in the colonial times.
It is clear that more research still needs to be done on the Collection of the Presidential Palace. C0-curator Susanto echoes this. According to him, the learning points from the preparation of the exhibition are as follows: the need for on-going socialization of the collection of the Presidential Palace, especially to the young generation; the need for legal protection of the collection, the need for the addition of assets by means of research, the use of the collection for academic purposes and the empowerment of the collection to communicate internationally and last but by not means least, the urgent need for conservation and restoration of the art works.
Among the paintings that is exhibited is a famous work by Henk Ngantung, (who was for a brief period of time the Governor of Jakarta). Archer in Action (1943) which apparently had become so deteriorated that it was repainted by contemporary artist Harris Purnomo a few years ago.
The exhibition will underline once again that we need to make an effort to conserve and maintain national artworks and also to conduct research about the works so that we can boost appreciation and comprehension about our art and art history. Art should be able to tell our history and help to shape our identity as a nation!