ART REVIEW : 3 San Diego Shows Serve Up Visual Feast From Indonesia : Two exhibits focus on traditional sacred objects from the 19th and early 20th Centuries; the third show presents more current expressions.


The nationwide Festival of Indonesia began last year in Washington, and what a visual feast it has brought to San Diego this summer. Three exhibitions of Indonesian art and artifacts opened here recently--two at the San Diego Museum of Man and one at the Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art--and each is as rich and enlightening as the others.

“Hornbills and the Sacred Dragon: Tribal Art of Indonesia,” at the Museum of Man, and “The Other Face: Balinese Dance Masks and Related Arts of Indonesia,” at the Mingei, both focus on traditional sacred and secular objects from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The third show, “Modern Indonesian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990,” at the Museum of Man, brings the displays up to the present with an eye-opening range of work in traditional and contemporary media.

Besides the consistently fine forms of the work on view, what is particularly striking and refreshing to a viewer from today’s throwaway American society is the longevity and continuity of the objects used in Indonesian ritual and everyday life. Although many aspects of life along the 3,500-mile-long archipelago have become modernized and, perhaps, universalized, others have remained faithful to values and customs that originated thousands of years ago.

In visual terms, this translates into a deep, vital symbolism that imbues every pattern and process with significant meaning. The contrast between the streamlined, anonymous objects that fill our lives and the vibrant, sensual and spiritual expressions that define Indonesian tribal culture could not be more pronounced.


Works in the Museum of Man’s “Hornbills and the Sacred Dragon” are especially magnificent, beginning with the “Soul Ship,” which stands at the exhibition’s entrance. Carved out of wood, the ship holds a lively crew ready to transport a deceased chief and his kin to the realm of the dead. A water snake slithers along the boat’s roof, while two hornbill birds, symbols of the upper world of spirits, perch on a post. A dragon’s head and tail, representing the lower world, appear on either end of the ship.

Guest curator Mark Johnson, a Vista-based collector, assembled the works in this show primarily from his own vast holdings and also from a dozen other private collections. Beaded baby carriers, protective posts carved in the image of ancestors, woven rattan mats for sleeping and ritual use, masks, textiles, war helmets and shamanistic fetishes are all here in great variety and splendor.

The Mingei exhibition covers much the same territory, though it features a broader array of masks. Gathered by curatorial consultant Armand Labbe of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the show contains work from the Mingei’s own holdings as well as numerous other collections.

Wearers of masks in Indonesia transcend their own personality, identity, place and time to become the character of the mask. Whether a narrative drama, an enactment of an eternal struggle between two mythic beings, or a ritual to protect crops, the Indonesian dance entertains as much as it instructs and enlightens, and the vitality of the masks themselves deserve much of the credit.


Carved of wood, painted with up to 40 coats of paint and embellished with tufts of human or animal hair, the masks can be comic, absurd, fierce, or lovely. Every expression, however, is a potent one, with bulging eyes and intense green, red, gray, blue or mustard skin. Open jaws often reveal sharp teeth, made of mother of pearl or actual pig’s teeth, and raised eyebrows accentuate vibrant, eager expressions. Some masks bear ornate painted designs and elegant gold tracery headdresses, studded with tiny mirrors. Whether simple or more opulent, all of the masks feel alive, with a presence as real as they are symbolic.

Both the Mingei’s “The Other Face” and the Museum of Man’s “Hornbills and the Sacred Dragon” are spectacular on their own, but they also provide valuable foundations for considering the modern art of Indonesia, presented in a separate show at the Museum of Man. Joseph Fischer of Berkeley, with several assistants, selected about 50 works of interest for their reinterpretations of traditional Indonesian forms and subjects. As limited as this focus might seem, it yielded a rich range of paintings and sculpture that serves as an impressive introduction to modern Indonesian art.

Granted, the show has its share of superfluous, gratuitous responses to the past--batiks in bright, snazzy designs, images of traditional dances painted in a clumsy, Expressionist style and more--but plenty of gems are set among them. The most fascinating fusion of past and present appears in several paintings on paper done in a style reminiscent of traditional Indonesian painting. Crowded surfaces, repetitive patterns and a slightly stylized naturalism characterize both the original and the modern style.

The modern works, however, address not only traditional themes of ritual worship--such as a Balinese dance or a funeral procession--but also harder-edged issues of recent history and contemporary life. I Wayan Bendi’s “The Fight for Independence” (1986), for instance, documents the Indonesian struggle for freedom from Dutch rule (achieved in 1945) in a dense network of scenes that vividly portray the clash of cultures. Cars and cattle, fighters and farmers all meet on a street teeming with life.


I Made Budi’s 1986 “Flying Kites” takes a more benign subject and makes it, too, into a vehicle for exploring the friction between tradition and modernity. In this tightly packed image, men and boys fly elaborate kites, a traditional pastime in Indonesia, while high-tech cameras and video cameras record them.

The exhibition, which is traveling across the country and is accompanied by a well-illustrated catalogue, is the first major show of modern Indonesian art to be seen in the United States.

Let’s hope it paves the way for more.

“Hornbills and the Sacred Dragon: Tribal Art of Indonesia,” through 1991, and “Modern Indonesian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990,” through Aug.26, at the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park. Open daily 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. “The Other Face: Balinese Dance Masks and Related Arts of Indonesia” continues at the Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art, 4405 La Jolla Village Drive, University Towne Centre, through Sept.29. Open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 2 to 5 p.m.