Essays & Articles

Asylum For The Darkness

A journey often leads to soul-searching. It sets out an abstract in the form of a spiritual experience that builds a character. We can sense the misery, the wisdom of the people and their culture in an engine roar. We can get a whiff of the land of pathways in a village or the asphaltic scent that stinks while uncloaking mysteries, as we contemplate on the fast-moving glimpses that we look over the vehicle window we are riding in. Velocity creates an artificial view as it constantly changes the visual of the nature whereas we catch sight of a line of dried-out trees and farmers’ huts with yellowish thatched-roof. If you flinch while brushing off your imagination and feel the sudden urge to return home, then you are just taking a trip, not having a journey as implied in ‘tetirah’ (Javanese: to take a long or spiritual journey to heal body and soul).

The drawing collection by Enrico Soekarno reveals a process of rewriting his soul-searching journeys. Let us recall a memory from a certain period. Perhaps there is a remembrance in the reflected spectrum of a pyramid? Or at the site of ancient stones that turned yellow by the reflection of the sun’s rays at Ende bay? Is it on the roofs of Prague and its labyrinth in which Kafka was trapped? Or in a piece of Pram’s Calon Arang at the shrine of Betari Durga, as well as in the frame of the four generals who pray underneath a skull-studded black beret? Perhaps they are saying hypocrisy prayers as it is the nature of this nation, while an apology is taboo to say. 

 When we recall the fading sign on the side of Will Rogers Highway, a highway that cuts right through the heart of Uncle Sam, we might have this mental picture of the voice of Carmen McRae serenading drivers passing that famous Rue 66, possibly also drivers of tourist transportation bypassing on the smooth concrete road of Potala that was build to abolish the Tibetan culture and its nation. On the land of the monks, hanging a Dalai Lama figurine from the rear-view mirror could be taken for an act of treason. May be we should stop for a while at an oasis, in a hinterland nowhere to find on the provincial road map, except for a marker in the form of a white milestone with the number 50 on it, a number painted with black paint on a khaki sign board. 

Turning 50 is crossing the half century milestone. To that end, Enrico gives meaning to road signs as symbols and signs of his adventurous works of art that have become the subjectivity of his life. So many memories cling to names and events. As an autodidact artist, Enrico realizes that the source of the whole inspiration originated from a truly personal spiritual odyssey; from a cultural journey, indelible books, liberating music, soul-awakening films, beloved ones, as well as valuable adolescent relationships.

Having completed high school in Sydney, Enrico went on a journey through Northern Europe. He went through places, streets, time and space; starting from Denmark, going down to the south until he arrived in Italy. In Rome, Enrico decided to join Accademia di Belle Arti (1985 – 1986). At the Faculty of Arts, Enrico brushed up his skills by doing a lot more than just drawing and etching tasks. Enrico then returned to Indonesia and spent about a year living in Padang Tegal, Ubud, before he came back to Jakarta and organized a collective exhibition at Mitra Budaya in 1988.

Unlike literature, which is attractively playful with words, drawing is a suave persuasion. We may be captured by the aesthetics of lines and perspective dimension. When we take a further look and let our feelings involved just like being buried in words, subsequently the provocation of every drawing artist almost always able to capture the gaze of its viewers. When we give in to the visually presented epos, we slowly find ourselves in a solemn passage of time. We would eventually sense that a fine drawing is an image that is able to engage other people’s subjectivity on our work.

The pen-scratches slowly form an atmosphere projecting the mind of the artist. The pitch-black-inked image has now saturated the white paper in front of him. The face of a one-eyed man from Larantuka gives a sturdy look, staring at the rough sea. In the one eye he’s left with, we see vengeance as well as a longing for love. We grasp darkness out of it. The details in the lines of Enrico’s drawing seem to be beckoning and drawing us towards the essence of his stories, stories in images that subconsciously lead us to tracing the long labyrinth of life.

On another side, we could also sense the insane brutality the Khmer Rouge regime did to its people. Led by Pol Pot, a pro-Mao communist, they slew 3 million lives within less than five years. They executed those who came from middle class society that refused to join the brutal regime.  Extreme-right and extreme-left are as rotten as the other; one denying God while the other practicing idolatry and invoking terror for their own pleasure.

In the darkness of the creepy drawing of Tuol Sleng, we still can see the shady overgrown frangipani trees. Those trees became a background of rows of stoneless graves of the victims during the dreadful reign of Pol Pot. Tuol Sleng, which means “Hill of the Poisonous Tress” or “Strychnine Hill” in Khmer language, is a former high school building which was transformed into the most ferocious concentration camp throughout the entire modern human history. It is almost as if the metallic pungency smell of the victim’s blood still fills out all the space at the place which now is known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Nevertheless, the human slaughterhouse holds a paradoxical memory for Enrico, for love is certainly capable of finding its own way in the midst of a place as hell as Tuol Sleng. He found the love of his life whom he built a family with. 

Enrico has been drawing sketches and training his drawing skills since he was very young. He trained himself by drawing whatever he saw. However, Enrico has a huge interest in the landscape works of Van Gough, especially of which during the era when the Dutch eccentric painter was living in Ouvres-Sur-Oise, situated 30km north from Paris, where he ended his own life at one of the corners of a cramped room in Ravoux Inn in 1890. Enrico started to learn about arts from his grandfather and mother. They were the ones who opened the gate to knowledge, not merely arts. Enrico got accustomed to reading, even on the darkest days during his adolescence.

In his 6th grade, Enrico’s grandfather gave him a book which he took from his own personal library. It was a first-edition shabby book which gave him a strong influence growing up towards maturity. The book, published by Balai Pustaka in 1961, was Calon Arang; a work by one of the most celebrated men of letters in the country, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.  From the well-defined characters, Enrico learned about literature and the dark reality of history which became the mise-en-scène of Pram’s works later on. Eventually, Enrico had a chance to collaborate with Pram in the making of the cover and illustration of a number of Pram’s books, including Calon Arang which was republished after Pram was freed from Pulau Buru. 

The second book Enrico got was a book that had become a kind of bible to rockers and the flower generation in the 60’s. In addition, the author died just two months after the Woodstock Festival, which was quite an influence to the global pop culture in the era. It was a three-day peace and music festival held on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, mid August 1969. Most of the performing artists at Woodstock Festival were fans of the author’s. It is “On the Road”, a travel memoir of a legendary beat writer, Jack Kerouac, first published by Viking Press in 1957.

This book made Kerouac a representative of the young generation in the entire world and provoked them to become antiestablishmentarians. It is as if soul-searching found its road map. The interpretation of an odyssey in “On The Road” refers to one of its quotes, “the best teacher is experience”. Beatles took a trip to India, Stones traveled to the hinterlands in Marrakesh – North Africa, Bob Dylan roamed the streets that inspired the extraordinary works of a folk music legend, Woody Guthrie, and a famed novelist, John Steinbeck. 

“On the Road” is a life-sign inspired by gospels of prophets as implied in ancient holy books, and obviously by Siddhārtha Gautama, whose teachings Kerouac adopted until the death angel came for him. In his short life, Kerouac was highly influenced by his best friend, William S. Burroughs, author of “Naked Lunch”, a novel which later on was adapted into a movie by a Canadian director, David Cronenberg. Out of its scene fragments, Enrico projected his own interpretations into Kafka High, and a portrait of Burroughs, the godfather of junk, in Interzone: Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted.

These two interpretations are also found in the movie adaptation of “On the Road” by a Brazilian director, Walter Salles (2012). It is a story of three friends who embark on the road; Sal Paradise, as the alter ego of young Kerouac, Dean Moriarty as Neal Cassady, and his wife, Marylou as LuAnne Henderson. Two other beatnik pioneer characters also liven up this indie movie; Carlo Marx as Allen Ginsberg and Old Bull Lee as the author William S. Burroughs.

It therefore brought us to a conclusion that a destination in a journey is merely just a vehicle. It is not a final goal. The process of self-identity reconstruction is the main reason and purpose of an odyssey, where an identity is born from bits and pieces of the spiritual journey. While the chauffeur is taking the wheel of time, then it is the right moment to contemplate; widely seek to find one single answer to the mystery of the universe. Perhaps it is revealed in Enrico’s scratches in From Safety to Where?

They are travelling to where the wind blows, overlooking the dots on the map towards the skyline. The horizon slowly disappears, leaving the fading road signs where a mirage welcomes the empty souls. During that journey, Kerouac is reaching "high" at the back seat, enjoying a hand job Lu Anne is giving him, at the same time to Neal, her husband who is driving. He is closing his eyes on the passenger seat of the old and dusty 1949 Hudson Commodore.

Sex & drugs & rock ‘n’ roll became the slogan of the generation in that era. It was a motto stating a resistance to the Vietnam War and military junta’s crimes in developing countries, including Indonesia. Enrico recalled when he was wandering through the Australian desert and the snow-covered Blue Continent. The journey introduced him to his self-identity. "On the Road" itself came to an end without an identity and lost its charm as a movie. Not only it failed to interpret the quest in Valhalla smoke and Nirvana acid of the anti-establishment beat generation who loathed capitalism, but it also fell short in describing the darkest reality of civilization of human hypocrisy.

We know that Kerouac was a phenomenon to the 60’s generation by reason of his works and lifestyle. He was an underground celebrity to artists, humanists, and rockers, whose renaissance took place during that period. There was no important super group who was not influenced by Kerouac; namely The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Pink Floyd. Even The Doors would have never existed without Kerouac. He was the man behind it all who brought about the Hippie movement with its "flower children".

The Salles, who sophisticatedly directed "Diarios de Motocicleta – the Motorcycle Diaries" (20014), was a different Salles. The South American/Iberian blood that runs through his veins is the cultural groundwork he managed to project in a Mexican actor, Gael Garcia Bernal (made his acting debut in Amores Perros, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu), who played young Che Guevara, a medical student in Universidad de Buenos Aires taking an end-semester break in 1952. 

Taking a vacation, when he was 23, Che invited his best friend, Alberto Granado Jimenéz (Rodrigo de la Serna), a biochemist student who was 29, to join him in a journey; rambling the streets in hinterlands from South America to the North. The traversing of 8,000 km of the snowy road from the foot of Andes all the way to the wild Amazon portrays the memoir of which Kerouac began to write in "On the Road" in 1951. This odyssey is reflected in the notes of a journey of Che (Notas de Viaje) and Alberto Granado (Con el Che por Sudamérica) a year later.

Che was radicalized by the poverty, leper colony, and the atrocity of capitalism he witnessed, and that caused the resistance to self- establishment for these two young men. It was a journey which made Che choose a life idealism as a revolutionary; to free the grass roots from the capitalist exploitation. Some of Enrico’s works reflectively display similar atrociousness, particularly in his drawing series on poverty in Nusa Tenggara Timur, insurgency in Timor Leste, oppression of Tibetans, militarism in Indonesia, and the collapse of Indonesian diversity. 

Soul-depicting needs more than just relying on references, it takes a great deal of empirical understanding of cultural characteristics. What if “On the Road” were put in the hands of an indie director like Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), or a nomadic-journeyer-cineaste, Wim Wenders (Paris Texas)? To both, a scene could be an absurd wandering full of mysteries. In a desert and on a rocky road, ambience and score become a light unto the soul, just like black-inked scratches across the naked sky. The image might go very well with Tom Waits’ compositions in Jarmusch’s movies, blended with a touch of Ry Cooder’s guitar sliding which has scored many soundtracks of solitaire and mysterious scenes of Wenders’ films. 

Road movie is a cult, in such a way that an artist chooses drawing as a medium of expression. In contemplating, we get ravished by the scenic beauty or by mankind destroying it; as if imagination is blowing a beautiful symphony to the mind and opens the eyes of the soul whence Enrico found an oasis to his works of art. It is a connecting cycle amidst taste and imagination, integrity and commitment, as well as existence of civilization. The dusk is falling in Lhasa, a trace of light from the spectrum of colour is still reflected in the presumptuousness of humankind and in a piece of art with a title Forbidden Portrait.  

Oscar Motuloh

Activist-Artist Looks for Life’s True Colors

After witnessing the 1991 Santa Cruz cemetery massacre in East Timor, in which 271 unarmed civilians were killed by Indonesian troops, artist Enrico Soekarno renounced the use of color in his work, saying he would only return to it once Suharto was dead.


“Now people keep reminding me — ‘So, Suharto’s dead now, so when are we gonna see the color stuff?’ ” he said with a laugh. He promised that his next exhibition will once again be filled with color.

It is mid-morning during school holidays. Normally at this hour of the day, he might be painstakingly applying a fine felt-tip pen to acid-free paper for one of his black-and-white ink drawings, but today Enrico is trying to usher his toddlers, Kenya and Dante, off to a nearby playground. In his spacious living room, monochromatic photographs taken by architect Yori Antar and director-photographer Jay Subyakto line the walls between ethnic textiles and wood carvings. In front stand child-sized basketball hoops, around which can be heard the patter of the children’s feet and those of a lumbering rottweiller-German Shepherd mix named Pablo.


When he was younger, Enrico said, he would work intensely until a piece of art was completed, often for three or four days. Since he started a family, the 43-year-old artist has had to learn to allocate his time.

“I’m still learning. I’d do this part. Tsrrrrttt!” he said, as he mimed drawing rapidly in the air. “Then leave it and play with the kids first. It’s sort of working.”

The artist is best known for his meticulously detailed ink drawings, though he works in many media. He is often moved by social injustice, and it shows in his art, through which he has commented on issues including censorship, the preservation of indigenous cultures and injustices in East Timor and Aceh.

Enrico’s attention recently shifted after a 2003 trip to Tibet, during which he witnessed the suffering of the native people under Chinese oppression. Since then, the plight of Tibetans has been featured prominently in his pieces, resulting in both solo and group exhibitions on Tibet. His interest also spawned a book, “Tibet on the Brain,” comprised of essays and photographs by Yori Antar, Raudia Kepper, Jay Subyakto, Krish Suharnoko, Ella Ubaidi and Enrico himself.


His last exhibition was as part of a group show on Tibet called “Heaven in Exile” at the Antara Foto Gallery in March. The show was part of a Tibetan exhibition and film festival organized by Roof of the World, a foundation that promotes the Tibetan cause through art and culture. Enrico started the foundation with friends in 2006, and serves as its chairman.


“The group doesn’t want to be too political,” Enrico said. But when the massacre of more than 500 Tibetans occurred in Lhasa in March 2008, Enrico organized a demonstration and headed straight for the Chinese embassy in Jakarta.

“It pissed off the Chinese a little bit,” he said. “But what I was most proud of was the fact that there were Chinese Indonesians supporting me. And we got that out on TV, on the Internet, on YouTube. It came out to the world that not all Chinese are bad. And that’s what I want to actually put forward. That these are Chinese people who are against what the Chinese government does and that’s very important.”


Creating awareness and breaking cultural barriers and prejudices is a recurrent theme in Enrico’s art. Addressing tension between East Timorese and Indonesians, he held an exhibition of his drawings of the region.

“A lot of Timorese who were stuck in Jakarta came [to my exhibition] and were moved. To me, I inspired them to obtain a certain sense of home and there’s also the fact that an Indonesian guy is doing this, for them.”

By creating social commentaries in his canvases, Enrico’s art became a sort of visual voice for the fallen, the wronged and the repressed.

“A lot of artists are technically good but there’s no feeling behind it or there’s no strong motivation behind the work,” said Enrico, who aspires to be like controversial artist-activist Semsar Siahaan, who is known as the “anti-Suharto artist.”

He points to an artwork titled “Anno Domini,” a personal favorite that he drew for a 1998 exhibition. A plain skull sporting an army beret fills the frame. Squeezed into the remaining space are a row of ghostly figures in Muslim attire, while in a corner, the generals Prabowo and Wiranto are praying. The title is a play on words that combines a Latin phrase meaning “Year of Our Lord,” the abbreviation for the Indonesian Army and Aceh’s martial law status known as DOM.

“You can see it’s the army praying in the Islamic way and this is the most Islamic place, and there are all these dead bodies,” he said. “The point of art is to make people feel something. And if that doesn’t work that means the artist failed or the audience is already desensitized towards suffering in the world.


“If I’m only affected by the beauty of the place, then I’m intense about the beauty. But if I happen to encounter suffering, then I have to show how I feel about the suffering. It’s just my duty to tell the truth.”

Enrico learned to mine truth from nature, first by drawing landscapes and then venturing into portraits.

“It’s harder to get to the soul of a person, to get the truth out of a person. But once you can, portraits are amazing!” he said.

“You actually can tell a lot of stories, even devoid of background. That’s why I did a lot of portraits from Tibet with no background.” Enrico is planning a triptych portrait of former President Sukarno, Marijan Kartosuwiryo and Semaun — three of the nation’s most powerful and controversial men — for his next project.

“All three were students of HOS [Haji Omar Said] Cokroaminoto,” he said, referring to the leader of Islamic political organization Sanekat Islam. “They went to the same school. But one became the archnationalist, another a archfundamentalist of Islam and the other, an archcommunist and first leader of the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party]. They were all Javanese. I want to play on that,” he said. Under the title of a King Crimson album, “Three of a Perfect Pair,” the series of triptychs would be a return to color and topics closer to home. “My recent works have been about Tibet. But people tend to forget that I’ve also done a lot of work on indigenous cultures,” he said.


“I want Indonesia the way it used to be, with Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [Unity in Diversity] and gotong royong [a concept of people helping each other],” Enrico said. He attributes his patriotic sentiments to sharing the late president Sukarno’s name and birthdate of June 6.


Enrico is a father of two, an artist, a Tibetan activist and a nationalist, but he also rejects categories.

“Culture-wise, I’m not boxed in. Religion-wise, I’m not boxed in. So I shouldn’t be boxed in for my work. It can still change. I’m still developing,” he said. “Don’t label anything. Don’t ever label anything for anything. Not even for art.”


Titania Veda The Jakarta Globe July 2, 2009

Drawing Attention To Tibet

Enrico Soekarno is an artist, of principle, who says he has been working almost entirely in black-and-white since witnessing the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor in 1991.

"I guess I was so shocked that I could not use color anymore. So, I said *I will not use color anymore, until Soeharto dies' . And, so, now people are saying, hey, he's dead. So after this one (exhibition) I might combine. Color and black and white."

"You can't use words to describe it," says Enrico of his meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2006, "I have never seen a person actually glowing. He was literally glowing."

"He was reading our introductory letter and he knew everything about President Sukarno -- and he knows the Pancasila. He is very well read. And the people in his government, the parliament -their choice of words -- they are intelligent, they are amazing* I wish my DPR (the Indonesian House of Representatives) was as smart and as caring. And they were so humble. The prime minister met us, the ministers; they opened the parliament to us. We were just a bunch of artists."

Yet Enrico, born in 1966, believes that artists, even humble ones, can inspire change.

His exhibition "Out of Tibet", which runs until the end of the month at Langgeng Icon Gallery in Kemang, is his way of drawing attention to China's occupation of Tibet.

The show opened on March 10 -- Tibetan National Uprising Day -and comprises images of Tibet, from starting in Nepal, going then to Tibet, then of meeting the Dalai Lama and then on to Lhasa.

Last Friday, violence erupted in the Tibetan capital as Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans clashed with Chinese armed police. An eyewitness account on the BBC website described monks being "beaten and pulled and kicked" as they streamed down toward the main entrance of a monastery.

The protests have spread from Lhasa to all over Tibet in both intensity and scale.

Enrico contacted The Jakarta Post by email Saturday morning with this message: "Since March 10, both inside and outside Tibet, a popular nationwide demonstration against Chinese rule has being taking place. It is high time Chinese leaders settle the issue of Tibet peacefully through the Middle Way Policy, whereby Tibetans are willing to accept and live under Chinese rule if genuine autonomy is given to them to preserve and practice their religion."

Enrico is a political artist, of this there is no doubt, for he is also the chairman of the Roof of the World Foundation that seeks to raise awareness of the plight of the Tibetans among the people of Indonesia. But his works are not explicitly political.

"I don't really hang out with artists. I guess Semsar Sirait. He had the same kind of outlook -- political without being political -- but he's dead now. Djoko Pekik. He is also very allegorical and critical of Soeharto. I was never jailed. I did Pramoedya book covers, but they (Indonesian military) never came, even though my name was written there. Sometimes if the works don't do enough, I go into the street," Enrico said Wednesday.

Wearing a brown linen shirt, and with a trio of silver rings in one ear, Enrico looked extremely debonair when The Jakarta Post met him on the rooftop of the Icon building on Wednesday -- his appearance, his style has something to do with his mixed parentage, perhaps, for his mother is Latvian, his father Indonesian.

He attended high school in Sydney and remembers his art teacher giving him a book on Vincent Van Gogh and the startling effect that it had on his life. "After high school, the first thing I had to do was to travel to Amsterdam to see the real thing. I made it to Rome also and took the test for the art school in Rome. But I didn't get anything out of it, except an introduction to other artists," he said scratching the stubble on his chin.

"If needs be, I say I went to the Accademia de Belle Arti, but I didn't actually learn anything."

In fact, Enrico hooked up with a girl a year into art school and quit.

His first exhibition was in oils and he has also tried his hand at ceramics, etching, engraving, stained glass, photography and cinematography.

The works in his exhibition at Icon are sketch book size at 20 cm by 20 cm."I like to do it small," he says, " because I like people to approach the work person by person. With small works, viewers tend to go back and forth and inside the work and they might discover something."

"It is also practical as I need the drawings to fit in my backpack, when I take ferries, jump trains."

Enrico has the spirit of adventure and the empathy for humanity that makes one recall Conrad's The Heart of Darkness.

When he met the Dalai Lama he was traveling with an architect, an interior designer and a film director.

"We were the first artists (to come to Tibet) from Indonesia -- the biggest Muslim country. He sent his representative to open the exhibition -- a small exhibition like this."

So it is through art that Enrico is documenting his own journey, but also trying to draw attention to issues. His is a softly, softly approach.

"I try to take the middle road. I don't want to be too preachy. I still want to maintain the beauty, yes. And if someone looks at my work for long enough, they might find something ... I do hate art to be too political."

He says, "The Tibetan community wants me to show this kind of thing (the drawings at Lanngeng) overseas. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the uprising. Imagine that. You know, the Dalai Lama gave me a foreword (to the 'Out of Tibet' catalog)". I was so happy. When it arrived in the post, so happy" Enrico says with a grin.

I spoke to him (the Dalai Lama) for a long time, longer than most according to his assistant. "You bow to him, and he bows even lower."

Enrico Soekarno produces Eden-like landscapes which are scattered with hidden Tibetan symbols that emerge, surreptitiously, gracefully, over days of viewing, like deep, resolved meditations on their subjects.

In works such as The Self Created, Gyantse Dzong and Drepung Prayer, Enrico draws holy sites, landscapes redolent with spiritual meaning. The pen etches. He creates with perfect gestural control, with driven patience.

The Self Created shows a corner of the Swayambhunath Temple in Nepal, the location of the biggest community of Tibetans in exile. Of Gyantse Dzong, Enrico says "As you go down, you go through an area called Gyantse. The architecture is Nepali, in the shape of the mandala. There are 100,000 images of Buddha inside."

He adds: "This is where the British attacked in 1904; they massacred all the monks."

Enrico makes portraits, with a raw intensity, which explore and chart the lines of the face.

There is a haunting beauty in these portraits though never in a smile, sometimes not even in the lines, but in the essential surface of the face, in the cheeks or the brow and in the subtle tilt of the head.

The portrait of the Dalai Lama, titled Ocean of Wisdom is a favorite for many, many people. "They can see the complexity of the deep expression lines in his forehead," the mapping of thoughts, Enrico said.

In The Wheel of Law Enrico draws the golden rooftops, the hallowed cloisters of Lhasa's Jokhang Temple, which is the spiritual center of Tibet, all glistening and crafted with bells, a jewel set amid the green folds of mountains and the pristine sky.

"This one I gave to the Dalai Lama," Enrico said. "We had a meeting about what we were going to give him when we saw him. Everybody was saying 'You give him his portrait, it's amazing', and I said that a Buddhist wouldn't like a portrait.

"But I was voted out, three to one. And sure enough, when we got there, he didn't really look at it.

"So I sent this one (The Wheel of Law) afterward. It is a place he misses. The very place where he sat for his final examination.

"Now they install hidden cameras in the temple because it was the site of the rock-throwing".

Enrico also like drawing old women, as in Ladakh Lady and Yambu Pilgrim, because of the creases in their faces.

He maintains they have reached the apex of beauty. Each wrinkle is in the right place as it traces a history, with the roots of a tree burrowing down, being more beautiful than the new foliage above.

There is also stark evidence of age in the harrowed and harrowing faces of the Tingri Urchins, depicting two girls, one wrapping her arm around the other. A protection that is more solid and warm than any literal garments they may wear are the symbols on the garments. They are grubby, these girls, they are without food, yet they are protected by symbols, by belonging to Tibet.

Rise Up is based on a famous photograph of robed figures hurling chunks of concrete, or stones. Enrico said: "He (the photographer) managed to be in the right place and the right time to take the picture. With it I took some compositional liberties. It is my favorite and went on to the cover (of the catalog). As with some of my big works previously, you will look into them and you will see something new every day, that has been deliberately hidden."

Enrico's works are somehow like the bookplates for those traditional books of fairytales that grow out of childhood memory, channeling the brothers Grimm in the realm of deep, dark fairytale.

Vivid, rooted in a precise reality are the many scenes and characters made from those hatched and cross-hatched lines.

Driven and fearless, Enrico Soekarno works with a 0.1 felt-tip pen, etching the surface of the paper, working it over and over again, over and over at the risk that it will reach saturation point, become soggy with ink and tear from the middle.


Eilish Kidd The Jakarta Post, Jakarta Sun, 03/16/2008 Arts & Design

Drawings And Testimony

“…Whereas the document is at best waiting for the interpretative use that will give it a meaning, if not ‘its’ meaning, the testimony wants to be seen or heard immediately, even if the most significant (or most disturbing) testimonies have often, too often, been received with much delay. A sense of urgency, usually prompted by situations of crisis or of change, such as the one that we are living today – of which I have mentioned a few obvious features – almost necessarily leads to favouring the immediacy and warmth (or emotionalism) of the testimony over the distance and comparative coldness of the document”. - Jean-Francois Chevrier 1)

Do these drawings entirely rely on their documentary potency? Or do they tend to be the products of the artist’s construction, fiction or imagination? Such questions are perhaps most provoking when applied to Enrico Soekarno’s works shown in this “Out of Tibet” exhibition.

His works carefully ‘record’ the faces of both common people and famous figures, particular corners of landscapes, distinctive sites, assorted forms and ornaments of buildings, and events of thick political nuances. All these have connection with (the atmosphere of) Tibet.

Yet his meticulous and detailed drawings do not offer photographic precision. Enrico’s works are drawings produced by the artist’s careful and skillful manual work. As pictures, these works keep their distance from documentary works we call photographs. The distance is made apparent by the picturesque2) quality and effect of the works and by the different ‘objective principles’ on which the two practices rest. Photographic documentation is known as a process of ‘recording’ by means of mechanical tools and so it is not taken as the product of imagination. Shall we, however, necessarily regard pictures that are carefully made on the basis of photographs – like these ones by Enrico on exhibition here – as imaginative works? Today, can we not so compose even photographs that they look like hand-made, fictionalized pictures? What we know is that these black-and-white works by Enrico use as their references photos that were already there prior to the works.

In Enrico’s works, pictures get their denotative character. This is what we take as the “original” meaning that the artist seemingly wants to stress. Again, doesn’t such denotation derive from its reference photos? It seems that the interaction, intertwining, and even ambiguity between the denotative nature and the documentary image of his works are among the more interesting points to note.

Pictures and documents About one decade we’ve been surrounded by the thriving notion of “the originality of drawings” in our art scene. The art of drawing prevails, it looks as an “original” art, just when the critical view of contemporary art refuses, whole- or half-heartedly, the notion of “ingenuity” in art making. Is this the paradox of acceptance? I ask myself somewhat doubtfully.

Although picture makers, in both the acknowledged “art” and “non-art” circles (think, for instance, the developments around “comics”), cannot be taken as altogether dominating the entire field of drawing – with respect to both the making and the interpretation of their works – they are those who remain self-confident to launch the “original” drawings of their own. I use the term “original” in the sense we have been familiar, which particularly refers to the aspect of the creation instead of reception and interpretation of pictures. The term refers to the most expressive autographic trace, a sort of “subjective” stamp that marks the creation of given pictures.

However, the resistance of the notion of “original”, the deconstruction of the gap separating “art” and “reality” (“de-differentiation”) that contemporary artists are loudly voicing, also means the crumbling of hierarchy at the same time. This has opened the way for the flourishing of drawings. Now we are witnessing the booming of all kinds of drawings as works of “art”. Drawings include casual scratches coupled with peculiar messages (ranging from “Daging Tumbuh” photo-copied comics through Eko Nugroho’s works) as well as works by diligent and sophisticated drawing masters (Satyagraha (1948-2007), Sekar Jatiningrum, Eddie haRA and through S.Teddy D). The plurality of drawings doesn’t feel artificial, and that is why perhaps there is never a sort of mainstream in the “art” of drawing.

Actually, we have recently been captured more by the products of drawing artists than by those of painters or photographers, for instance. Think of the black-and-white pictures in which the world around us is presented as a kind of hellish swamp, filled with shabby and dandy people – but with the manubilis souls – as offered solemnly – but also violently as well – by Semsar Siahaan (1952 - 2005). Or “room of mine”, those colored pictures that are the products of Agus Suwage’s cleverness and cunning in manipulating attributes and celebrating signs, which crowd around the false identities of the artist’s social self-portraits. Again, however, we shall not regard Siahaan’s or Suwage’s as works that have social or historical “facts” as their strong point, although we may take their works as among the references for doing an actual social analysis through art. Maybe such works that are “products of imagination” can provide valuable documentation. Yet, “facts” are not the main point in the representations these artists offer.

Tibet, the immanence of symbol? Enrico’s statement on certain aspects of his drawings reveals the connection between pictures and social realities ever present:

“…I began drawing pictures because while I was adventurously traveling around I needed tools and media that fitted to my knapsack and didn’t trouble me when I had to jump on and off a train or ferry. That’s the first and practical reason. The second reason came when I was in East Timor at the time of the Santa Cruz massacre; out of a most terrible shock, I lost my ability to think of and imagine colors and to make beautiful works. It came that in East Timor I made a pledge: not until Soeharto’s death would I use colors again!”

Doesn’t it mean his black-and-white works have a political and immanent quality? The tendency to slyly insert immanent symbols into his pictures is also observable in the drawings on exhibition here.

These “Out of Tibet” pictures come into being through a context of traveling and personal memories of the maker. They involve Tintin comic books and through Bertolucci’s films, from the meeting with Dalai Lama through his sympathy for Tibet and its condition ever since the Chinese military invasion in March 1949. Having such spirit and empathy, Enrico took part in several activities to support the efforts toward an independent Tibet through the Roof of The World Foundation established in Jakarta in 2006. To Enrico, Tibet is like a deja vu…

“I will try every way to help people whose goal in life is helping others. Besides, my activities with the the Roof of The World Foundation are also meant to educate my own people. The foundation is recognized as a Tibet Support Group that works in the cultural field, not in the political field as others do. Our parliament here will not support other nations, why, they don’t pay attention even to their own people. All of us are artists, so we want to launch an awareness campaign only through our works...” Enrico said.

It is said that a good picture can show precisely the position of the artist making it. This is the position of the picture maker with respect to the object(s) being pictured. Anyway, we still need a supplement for the completion of such position. It is perhaps a message or even the sublimation of a message that will add to the weight of a work. We know that a picture is a narrative-subject, necessarily connected with a story or narration. Narration connects units of space and time that imply the context. In turn, a “narrative-subject” is a subject that also gives space and plausibility to the viewers’ imagination concerning stories-in-space-and-time.

Enrico has perhaps made a kind of artist-ambassador regarding the acute socio-political problems of Tibet today. However, such involvement and empathy are very close to political siding; that is why he seems to feel the need for data and facts but without decreasing his gravity in doing his picture making. His background “ideology” or even “religious belief” is implied through his testimony on Tibet; it doesn’t abandon, betray or harm his pictorial field that feels as something sincere. It appears that art (and artistic talent) doesn’t end even when a certain ideology and belief are budding. Enrico’s works drive our attention to details, fine networks of the lines piled and drawn. Those details perhaps provide the light of “being” that makes his works exist as an entity of hope, more than just an image. In my opinion, it is this tendency that gives cultural value to his drawings.

The “setting” or “ground”, which supports a certain impression of a given subject, is absent in all the works. The blank white ground in all of his works seems to serve as the immanent symbol of the pictures and the artist’s belief. “…I deliberately don’t draw the sky and clouds, I leave it white to symbolize height and emptiness. And just to imply that blackness is already decreasing in me thanks to Tibet and Buddhism”, he said. So, it seems to be the imaginative testimony in Enrico’s works.

Claiming to be half-Buddhist and half-Marxist, there is not even any slashing of the analytical scalpel leaving any trace in Enrico’s works. This is perhaps because he believes that in our heads there is always a sort of “Tibet in the Brain” already, a symbol of a place beyond reach, so distant. Such a place is not contaminated, its quiet is pacifistic, and it means personal enlightenment. 3)

In other words, Tibet has become a kind of symbol; it has become immanence in his works. Something that we wish could experience without necessitating explanation. Like the lines of old age on Mother Teresa’s face that are only too familiar to us or the expression of hopelessness of a migrant mother in a famous photograph piece by Dorothea Lange.

Perhaps it is just the immanent symbol that Enrico sought on the face of a poor mother pilgrim in Yambulakhang Gompa, the oldest monastery in Tibet. Or the pacifist spirit of an aged monk sitting in a lotus position by the edge of a cave, and with the rotating cosmos in his hand.

These pictures have their signification and they represent Tibet in the same way Steve Lehman’s photos that contain historical “facts” do. Two of Enrico’s works here were based on two such photos. One is the picture of a scene where monks and a mother, who are angry, are throwing things to a police headquarter to protest their arrest in 1987. The other is the picture of a child with a Chinese military cap, grinning while having the photo of Dalai Lama that has been an object of condemnation in Tibet since 1996.

Enrico seems aware not to push his works to the direction of representing democracy in the newspaper style that we have to set on its mechanism every morning. ”Actualizing” through the mass-media culture has dominated all “facts” thanks to our trust in documentary photos and their captions. Enrico’s works do not reproduce news or let the visual nature of his drawings fall easy victim to the information industry besieging us.

These drawings seem to ask us to watch them longer. Their “messages” will come to us through the magic of the medium itself. Because of that we don’t feel his works competing with the verbal testimony of the artist as found in this catalog. Such belief and self-confidence perhaps also test our sensibility with respect to the hidden message of a picture.


Hendro Wiyanto


Notes: 1. Jean-Francois Chevrier, “Documentary, document, testimony…”, in ‘Documentary Now! Contemporary strategies in photography, film and the visual arts’, Reflect # 4, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2005. 2. I use the term ‘picturesque’ in its neutral meaning, to refer to a certain effect of the practice of making pictures (drawing) and painting manually by artists. Not in the ideological-mannerist sense, namely the way of viewing and working ‘after the manner of painters’, see, for example, Andrew Ballantyne, “The Picturesque and its Development”, in A Companion to Art Theory, Blackwell Publishing, 2002. 3.From Enrico Soekarno, “Tibet di Otak”, in Tibet di Otak, Yori Antar, Raudia Kepper, Enrico Soekarno, Jay Subiyakto, Krish Suharnoko, Ella Ubaidi, PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, Jakarta, 2005.

Angst-ridden Art

Enrico Soekarno's effervescence is in sharp contrast to the dark, somber sketches that comprises his artwork.

"I HAVE fallen in love with drawing instead of regarding it as a burden" - Vincent Van Gogh.

      The opening words of Enrico Soekarno's catalogue for his Hitam Putih exhibition, are not randomly chosen; the artist and graphic designer says his artistic career was push-started by a book on the brilliant but tortured painter. Enrico came upon Van Gogh's passion-filled work and then wanted nothing else but to follow the path of the journeyman artist.

      Enrico seems to draw from instinct, an outpourring of inner angst without worrying too much about layers or meanings. He might interpret The Swirl, a drawing of two spirals surrounded by fabric designs as: "In life you have two options and they are both whirlpools going down." But, he adds with a grin, this is a spur of the moment explanation given when repeatedly asked about the 'meaning' behind his work.

      Interpretation, he adds a shade provocatively, is the function of the critic. This is typical of the artist who often seems to speak as he thinks. According to him these non-censored vocalizations constantly get him into trouble--and out of work. Currently he has his own company, Visual Concepts, producing graphic art work for a variety of commercial purposes.

      "I have to bend to the will of the customer," he replies, distinguishing the graphic from the fine art work he does; but in other ways the two are similar and very much a reflection of his personality.

      Surrounded by media looking by media looking for the dirt on the much publicized break-up with his famous girlfriend, Paramitha Rusady (star of the celluloid and television screens), it is hard to get in a question about art. Later, speaking to an audience of one, he is still hyped. Enrico is full of dramatic and nervous energy; it seems quite in character when he declares, "When I work, it is continuously, with no sleep, no food till I'm almost hallucinating. I finish the work and then fall asleep." He does occasionally retouch work but prefers not to: "It's like tampering with the truth. And artists cannot lie. The role of an artist is to give people a lesson in truthfullness."

      Enrico says the dates ascribed to his paintings may not be entirely accurate but there is a definite journey visible. Earlier works like Maningrida Vase and Arafura Still Life are descriptive rather than emotive. While these detailed drawings show good dratmanship, they lack a deeper sense.

      Kupang Grave or Tutuala Grave might date from just a year later but the mood is somber. These are images of death and decay--buffalo skulls, graves, grave markers--yet the optimist could argue there is a swirling sun signifying hope. The sky in Kupang Grave, as in many others, is drawn using the short choppy strokes Van Gogh made his own in a work like Starry Night. Obviously, the influence of the Dutch master lives on.

      Subsequent pictures get progressively darker in feel, subject matter and actual amounts of black used. With a fine black felt tip, the artist combines hatching and crosshatching, working into the blacks over and over, creating very intense contrasts of black and light.

      Two paintings, one each on his parents, are not for sale. The Alchemist is a play on the words chemist, his fathers's profession. His father is depicted surrounded by enigmatic symbols suggestive of I Ching, tantra, runes, hieroglyphics as well as calligraphy, a verse to the effect that the pursuit of knowledge is bitter to taste at first but sweet and delightful in the end.

      Pudjadi Soekarno, Enrico's father, says his son exhibited talent from a young age and was sent to a famous art teacher for children, Pak Ooq. Enrico also had lessons in painting (Accademia di Belle Arti, Roma), pottery, etching and engraving, stained glass, photography and cinematography. Adds the older Soekarno, "Enrico is very intense and translates himself into his art."

      His first exhibition was in oils and showed the strong influence of Van Gogh. "Even today, no trip to Europe is ever complete for the artist without a visit to Amsterdam".

      The use of enigmatic signs and symbols may seem suggestive of the workings of some dubious cult or crazed rock group. Or more tritely evoke the fantasy art of adult comic book illustration. While this is a real danger, a work like Secret Compact, almost completely abstract with cabalistic designs, comes through as a powerful painting of intense, dark symmetries. This darkness is most apparent in his deeply felt paintings on the East Timor massacre of 1991: The State of Things, Los Palos or Tata Mai Lau.

      There are also many portraits including an obvious self-portrait, The Gutter, the title derived from the words of Oscar Wilde: "We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars."

      Merwan Yusuf, curator of the contemporary art division of the Bayt al-Qur'an & Museum Istiqlal, emphasizes the black-and-white medium allows no compromise. Speaking of Enrico's art, he says the work uses morbid symbols to convey the message all creatures are 'uneternal'.

      These symbols and tribal forms derived from past and present are a direct expression of the artist's intent. The Swirl, for instance, speaks to Yusuf about continuity without limit, the essential point around which the cosmos swirls.

      Perhaps the simple tools required for the sketches--just pen and paper--have also influenced the current body of work presented by Enrico. It has given the artist mobility, the ability to go to the subject. Thus beginning the dialogue between the subject and artist that eventually transforms the subject matter onto paper. And into art.


Parvathi Nayar Narayan - Jakarta Post