In a museum in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, rests a bright-yellow 1976 Mitsubishi Galant GTO with a colorful tail fin, detailed in emerald green and scarlet. It’s not parked outside of the building; rather, it has pride of place int the main gallery, complete with a rope surround and a spotlight. But this is not La Gioconda, and you’re not in the Louvre. This is Affandi’s Ride, the car in which certainly the most crucial Indonesian artist of the twentieth century roared around the city until he passed away in 1990; and you’re in the Affandi Museum, a jumble of buildings along the Gajah Wong River that Affandi constructed himself. His paintings-wild landscapes and inciteful, almost psychedelic portraits-still fetch tens of thousands of dollars, but it’s his crazy muscle car that stays along with you, so idiosyncratic and unexpected in a museum. A cultural surprise, just like Yogyakarta itself.
Placed in the eastern a part of Java-Indonesia’s fifth-largest island as well as the world’s most populous-Yogyakarta is definitely the country’s nexus of traditional arts. It is also the 17,000-island archipelago’s most-visited destination after Bali, a well known fact which includes much to do with its proximity to the extraordinary Buddhist temples of Borobudur as well as the equally impressive Hindu ones of Prambanan, both lower than an hour’s drive away.
Wayang kulit, Indonesia’s intricate shadow puppetry, came to be here more than a thousand years ago. So was batik, several hundred later; paket tour jogja designs-complex geometrical and graphic patterns, usually painted in rich browns and deep blues on white-are thought some of the most beautiful by textile collectors. (Some were exclusive to Javanese royalty; commoners remain forbidden to use them in some tombs and palaces.) In Kota Gede, Yogyakarta’s old town, built a lot more than 400 years ago through the immensely wealthy Mataram sultanate, the streets are extremely narrow that they need to be navigated on foot or by tuk-tuk; often you barely must reach your arms out for the fingertips to graze the walls on each side.
But Yogya, as locals call it, is additionally the incubator for Indonesia’s next generation of artists and gatekeepers of culture. The international enthusiasm for your country since its first democratically elected president, Joko Widodo, took his seat last fall is dovetailing using the perennial hunger among art collectors for the following Big Thing. Because of this if you’re considering the contemporary art of Asia, Indonesia is a very interesting place today. The reinstitution (after a seven-year absence) in the Indonesia Pavilion on the 2013 Venice Biennale-underwritten by billionaire Indonesian-Chinese businessman Budi Tek, whose collection includes works by Anselm Kiefer and Anish Kapoor along with others by Agus Suwage, Eko Nugroho, and Puto Sutwijaya, some of his very own country’s biggest artists-was actually a major statement.
The city’s Biennale is, at 26 years, Asia’s longest-running; but it is Art Fair Jogja, inaugurated this year, which has garnered international attention with its commissioned thematic exhibitions. This past year, delegates from Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Gagosian, and Tate Modern were spotted scouting at the Taman Budaya Art Center in search of the next Nyoman Masriadi-a Yogyakarta-based Balinese whose The Person from Bantul (The Final Round) triptych, a political allegory featuring three of his signature monumental black-skinned figures in a boxing ring, sold at auction in Hong Kong some time ago for more than $1 million.
Masriadi is currently represented by Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, which showcased his work prominently at Art Basel Miami Beach in December; Nugroho has had recent exhibitions in Berlin (at Arndt), Hong Kong (Lehmann Maupin), and Newport Beach, California (the Orange County Museum of Art). Gagosian cares enough about the market to get installed an agent in Jakarta full time this past year. And Ben Brown, an English dealer with galleries in London’s Mayfair as well as the Pedder Building in Hong Kong, brought a show of major contemporary Indonesian artists to the U.K. in 2012, less than a year right after the exhibition “Indonesian Eye: Fantasies & Realities” on the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. “It’s definitely a strong market,” Brown says, not simply in Asia but globally. “I’d attribute it in part to the truth that China now looks overpriced, as well as the Indonesian collectors making a big mark on the international scene.”
While a number of these artists have lived and worked in Yogya (or still do), the area is less about watching the marketplace and much more about quiet creativity. That has been a crucial part of the life for hundreds of years: The town houses both Indonesia’s oldest and many prestigious fine arts academy as well as the erstwhile Kingdom of Java’s richest sultans (meaning by far the most talented artisans and performers historically based themselves here).
While you explore, you’ll discover art in enclaves of surprising quiet and sweetness amid the hornet’s nest of traffic. (Having a population of just under 400,000, Yogyakarta is pretty chaotic-and for that reason best navigated xrfvih a personal car and driver.) At Langgeng Art Foundation, founder/director Deddy Irianto hosts exhibits, residencies for visiting artists, and commissioned projects in a number of airy white cubes punctuated with a café plus an internal garden. A 20-minute ride towards the edge of town brings one to the Sarang Building, which features emerging local talent and is worth a visit because of its gorgeous galleries and outdoor exhibition pavilion alone.
Cemeti Art Foundation, which helped put Yogyakarta on the contemporary map when it launched inside the mid-’90s, operates from a bungalow close to the old city. Its Dutch founder, Mella Jaarsma, states that Yogya outguns Jakarta among serious aficionados, despite the latter’s push to dominate the gallery scene. “The money may be in Jakarta,” she says, “but the genuine interest has arrived.”