At the back of the canvas

A special presentation in ARTJOG 2023 Motif: Lamaran
of Kustiyah’s works (b. Probolinggo, 1935; d. Yogyakarta, 2012)
by Hyphen—

“Kustiyah, an ASRI student, painted the scenery of Tegal beach.” This was what accompanied a portrait in SIASAT magazine, issue 484th, September 1956. Submitted by a resident of Kalibuntu, Tegal, the portrait depicted a young woman painting on a beach, with her long hair braided in two. Just a few steps from her, a sea and a small boat were visible. On her canvas, Kustiyah was painting some boats who were lying at anchor.

When the picture was published, Kustiyah was a third-year university student majoring in painting. She was also a known keen participant in various events held by the art studios surrounding her campus in Yogyakarta. Plein air painting, in which the painter was present to encounter their subject matter, was one of the methods taught in ASRI (Fine Art Institute of . It was also one of the popular methods practiced by most artists at that time. Several artist cohorts linked to ASRI—including Sanggar Pelukis Rakyat (People’s Painters Studio), Sanggarbambu (Bamboo Workshop), and Gabungan Pelukis Indonesia (Indonesian Painters Association)—often conducted collective painting activities in the open air. These Revolutionary-era artists firmly believed that this painting method would help their works be more accessible to people in general. Their works would be graciously present among their environment, not forced or trumped up. 

Di belakang kanvas (At the back of the canvas) is the title of a video conversation between three Kustiyah researchers (made with Ary “Jimged” Sendy, M. Revaldi, and Prima Rusdi, 2021). In the video, the phrase ‘at the back of the canvas’ had at least two meanings. The first was Kustiyah standing at the back of the canvas to work where she held the brush, painting. And the second one was Kustiyah standing at the back of the canvas to strike a pose. Kustiyah was often asked to be a model for her fellow artists, including Gregorius Siddharta, Sutopo, Sudarso, Sunarto PR, Edhi Sunarso, and Trubus. The 24 minutes-long researchers’ conversation led to these questions: when she was painting her self-portrait, where did Kustiyah stand? When she became a model for her friends’ paintings, where did Kustiyah stand? “At the back of the canvas” was an answer that embodies the dynamic possibilities of Kustiyah’s artistic whereabouts.

At the back of the canvas is also the title of this Special Presentation at ARTJOG 2023 Motif: Lamaran (Motif: Proposal). The presentation exhibits two woodcuts, three drawings, and nine paintings by Kustiyah—all are loaned from Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso. Throughout her life, Kustiyah worked and exhibited consistently until 2006. Apart from painting, Kustiyah was also an active member of various art organizations. She also enjoyed arranging flowers. She was also experienced in designing clothes, including making motifs and prototypes. She died in 2012. In 2015, her family displayed many of her works at Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso, in Jombor, Yogyakarta. So far, Hyphen— has recorded 110 works by Kustiyah, most of which were paintings. In other words, throughout her life, Kustiyah was perpetually entangled at the back of the canvases.

Hyphen— (consisting of Akmalia Rizqita “Chita”, Grace Samboh, Pitra Hutomo, Rachel K. Surijata, and Ratna Mufida) was driven by curiosity to trace Kustiyah’s body of work. How is it possible that there are more than 40 works that we can find at Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso and yet we have never even read anything about Kustiyah? Why are we familiar with the practice of her peers that painted her? Why didn’t these sources speak about the painting model who also happened to be a painter? Was this intentional, or was this an example of imprudent historical writing? How can we read Kustiyah’s practice today? Where can we position her multiple roles, practices and how they’re entangled?  These questions won’t stop…


In one of the family photo albums that we found at Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso, there was a photograph of Kustiyah in her living room. Striking a pose like a painting model, Bu Kus sat gracefully on a rattan chair. She was wearing a kebaya and a shawl, with her hair in a bun, and she put her legs together to show off the magnificence of her batik. On the wall behind her, there were three paintings of her: Wayang (1969), Kamboja merah (Red frangipani, 1979), and Barong (1968).

The last painting’s subject matter is the Balinese barong masks worn by dancers in Hindu religious rituals. Barong is a depiction of a sacred and mythical animal. For tourists, the Balinese barong masks are merely home decorations, and proof of their visit to Bali. The painter Kartika (b. Jakarta, 1934) once recounted her trip to Bali with Bu Kus in 1968. From this trip, Bu Kus brought back pieces of Bali to her paintings: the barong masks, the love of frangipani, the traditional ceremonies and architecture, the beautiful beach landscapes, and the boats.

Now before us, the Barong from the photograph is displayed side by side with Kaligrafi (Calligraphy, 1980) which has the word “Allah” written in Arabic script. The subject matter of both paintings carried traditional patterns. The former employed the ornaments of Balinese Hindu culture, and the latter used Arabic calligraphy. We often found these subject matters—the barong masks and the calligraphy—as motifs in various home decorations, in buildings, and in the architecture of places of worship, such as mosques, temples, shrines, etc.

Unburdened by traditional norms of these subjects, Bu Kus worked on the motifs with her colourful and black splattering strokes. The Nusantara carving motifs that Bu Kus referred to are still visible, although, unlike patterns, they were not made in repetition. She seemed to refuse to treat the motifs as ornaments. In Calligraphy painting, the stylization and composition of the typography were not geometric. Akin to her still life paintings, Bu Kus presented forms and motifs in colours to harmonise all the elements on her canvas.

What prompted Bu Kus to paint barong masks and calligraphy? Her daily interactions could not be separated from the scope of her subject matters. During her studies at ASRI, students were assigned to paint in open public spaces. It’s not surprising that they often painted the crowds of the traditional markets, the roads in villages, and the hustle and bustle of the paddy harvest. She was taught to portray and record images that evoked the sensitivity of the soul. She would draw those images on paper, or paint them on the canvas, while directly facing the subject.

In one of her short biographies, Bu Kus stated that she learned to appreciate nature from the painter Trubus (b. Yogyakarta, 1926; d. 1966). On the back of a photograph taken in April 1954, Bu Kus noted, “Freshness in painting comes from the freshness of the soul.” As far as these two paintings are concerned, where do you think Bu Kus discovered the barong mask and calligraphy? Were they found in the same space? What kind of atmosphere did Bu Kus capture from behind the canvas when she painted these two subjects? How did Bu Kus get to know them and their surroundings?

—Ratna Mufida

Flower is one of the recurring subject matter in the many paintings by Kustiyah in the collection of Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso. The types of flowers painted by Bu Kus—which we have seen both in person and in photographs—are roses, chrysanthemums, lilies, and frangipani. In the painting Kamboja merah (Red frangipani, 1979), we can see a fragment of a frangipani tree with red and white flowers placed in an urn-shaped vase. Judging from the red colour, it is likely that the variant of the frangipani flower that Bu Kus painted here is Polynesian red or Red ruby.

If we look closely, there are at least four types of red Bu Kus used for the flower petals in this painting—dark blood red, vermillion, pink, and how it turned to white. We can still notice the traces of red under the white paint of the flower petals. Naturally, a frangipani tree would only produce flowers in one variant of colour, unless their stems are combined by cutting. Could it be that these red and white flowers came from different trees? The flower stalks droop, and some of the leaves fall off with some of the petals. The background of this painting is nothing that we could recognize, its base colour is beige, washed with strokes of green paint, and the strokes shrouded the flowers and the vase.

The thick stems seem too close-fitting for the small mouth of the vase. There are four branching stems, and the shortest one has no flowers. The frangipani flower is often used for room decoration, but normally without the stem. The stem is round and hard. It also has a sap that can cause itching when it comes in contact with the skin. Because of her college days at ASRI, Bu Kus was accustomed to painting directly in front of her objects—both still life and landscapes. Should we imagine Bu Kus cutting the thick frangipani stems from her yard and arranging them into the vase? Or did she set the composition in her mind?

Frangipani seemed to have a special significance for Bu Kus. A frangipani tree thrived in the yard of her family’s house on Jalan Kaliurang. The tree often appeared in photographs of Bu Kus’ family. In Java, we often find frangipani trees in cemeteries—that’s why they are often thought to be mystical—and as ornamental plants in house yards. Whereas in Bali, frangipani is part of people’s daily lives, be it for prayers, dances, or various ceremonies. Frangipani is also believed to symbolise commitment and dedication—the qualities which remind us of Bu Kus’ life: her dedication to her family and her commitment to the practice of painting.

Another painting by Bu Kus bearing the same title, Red frangipani—which isn’t exhibited here—showed a cluster of deep red frangipani flowers still perched on their stems. Made in 1969, the painting depicted a frangipani tree in the open air, bathed in a sizzling, brownish-yellow sun. The brush strokes in this painting are thick; they stacked on each other. The Red frangipani painting that you can find in this presentation is the one that Bu Kus made a decade later. During the 70s, Bu Kus’ brush strokes and paints tended to be more delicate, making the hues of her paintings seem relatively lighter, even though they still exude gloominess. The frangipani is strangled, trying to live within its limited space. Frangipani can only last a few days in a vase with water, after all…

—Akmalia Rizqita “Chita”

Do you remember that portrait of Kustiyah from Siasat magazine, September 1956, that we mentioned in the introduction of this space? The portrait was taken from Bu Kus’ left side, where the seascape in front of her looks rather empty. There was only a small boat that seemed to be harboured there. There was another picture taken at around the same time in one of the hundreds of memory photo albums that we found at Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso. As it is common nowadays, the idea of taking pictures of an object from different angles. The other picture we found was taken from the right side of Bu Kus’. From this angle, we can see at least three boats with several fishermen harbouring their boats and unloading their catches. Were the Ikan (Fish, 1993), Lobster (1975), and Ikan surung (Indian Salmon fish, 1985) in this panel caught by those fishermen? They might be!

Within the collection of Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso and throughout our research so far, there are at least six works by Bu Kus that use the word “boat” in their titles. There are two paintings that, although the titles use the word “beach”, also depict boats. Boats also appeared in many works by artists from the post-independence generation, such as Oesman Effendi, Rusli, Affandi, Zaini, and Sriyani Hudyonoto. Since these boats were almost always depicted  at the beach or at sea, these boat paintings were often categorised, discussed, and displayed as landscape paintings. On this occasion, how about we look at Bu Kus’ boat paintings as still-life paintings?

In fact, still-life paintings contain compositions of inanimate objects arranged in such a way with a specific lighting set-up. The appeal of a still-life painting is centred on the artist’s technical achievements (from their ability to create forms, presenting light—and shadows—, to composition) and how the inanimate objects that we commonly encounter in everyday life become something completely detached from their everyday values.

In 1968, Bu Kus travelled to Bali with her painter friend, Kartika (b. Jakarta, 1934). It appeared that they specifically intended this trip to look out for objects, time, and opportunities to paint together. The painting Boat from Sanur (1968) was one of the outcomes. A boat in the middle of a whirlpool, without any depiction of a beach at all, was impossible to paint within the distance that the painting suggested. Even if it were possible—perhaps she did the painting from the top of a large rock—the boat would not have survived the eddies of such big waves.

If we see this painting as a still-life painting, with the boat as the subject matter, then the swirling waves and scorching sun are the set that Bu Kus has arranged to present her subject matter, the boat. It is easier to think of the banana leaves in Fish and Indian Salmon Fish or the brightly coloured containers in Lobsters as objects deliberately placed and arranged by Bu Kus to be painted. In Fish, Lobsters, and Indian Salmon Fish, Bu Kus emphasised natural artistic forms of the objects, such as the antennas, the distance between the shells and their indentations, the shape of the tails, and the motifs on the fish skins. What’s so artistic and exquisite about a boat? In Boat from Sanur, can we think of the whirling waves and the scorching sun as the elements that were arranged by Bu Kus as a background for the boat?

—Grace Samboh

The title of this presentation, “At the back of the canvas”, might arouse some curiosity: What did Kustiyah see at the back of her canvas? Before us today are two landscape paintings from the same period, but with two different origin stories: Gerobag (Cart, 1969) and Sanggah (Shrine, 1968). The first captured the view of a small Javanese town with a parked cattle cart, as its subject matter. The cart occupied most of the space in this canvas, and near it we see an ox, whose mouth is tied to a tree. Not far from them, is a man  wearing a traditional, striped top. It is hard not to assume that this man is indeed the driver of the parked cart. In a half-open hut, the man sat with his right leg raised. While the ox folded his legs, gazing on the gurgling water and while a flock of black-and-white furry creatures were taking off. Both the ox and the man are taking a break.

Almost the entire top and bottom of the canvas are covered in blue strokes. The top part of this canvas can instantly be recognisable as the sky, while the bottom part is a river. The background of this painting is a gedhek house— walled with woven bamboo—and on its side we see a person carrying a rucksack on the front side of his or her body. Both sides of this canvas are filled with shady trees that established the relaxing environment for the man and the ox. Meanwhile, the gesture of the rucksack-carrying figure suggests that he or she was about to leave the ox and the man so they could have some rest.

Now, take a look at the painting Sanggah. The word “sanggah” referred to the place of worship in Hindu homes,  usually only used by the members of the family. There are four shrine structures that we could see in this painting. For us who are strangers to Hinduism and Balinese tradition, these structures—with their brown hues and red accents—looked like miniatures of Hindu temples. The bushes and the trees on both sides of the canvas, and also the towering coconut trees, seemed to frame these little temples. Yellowed coconut leaves are also seen on the right side of the canvas.

The subject matter of these landscape paintings are different from Bu Kus’ body of work, where nature is usually seen from a very far distance—like capturing a view from the top of the hill or the foot of a mountain. While the landscape paintings before us were captured from a parallel perspective with the subject matter they drew upon. The Parangtritis and Merapi Mountain were both less than 30 kilometres from Bu Kus’ house. If Bu Kus met Sanggah on her trip to Bali with the painter Kartika (b. Jakarta, 1934), then Gerobag was possibly encountered in an area that had more population than, say, the sandbanks in Parangtritis where Bu Kus once stood, or the sanatorium in Pakem, where it stood overlooking the top of Merapi.

Not different from us today—taking pictures and uploading it to our social media—Bu Kus “brought home” these landscapes she met in her trips, and immortalised them into her paintings. Do you have any idea what might have driven Bu Kus to take a snapshot of her trips and pour it into landscape paintings? What came to your mind when you saw both of these paintings?

—Rachel K. Surijata

The five works on paper by Kustiyah displayed in this vitrine were created during her study at ASRI (1953-1956). Drawing was one of the main practical courses in ASRI’s early curriculum. At least once a week, students had to draw outdoors. Woodcut techniques were taught in other practical courses, including advertising, decoration, illustration, and printmaking. Until now, we have never seen Bu Kus’ drawings and printmaking works made outside of this period.

Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah Edhi Sunarso archived many drawings in a folder bearing Bu Kus’ name. However, it also has drawings and printmaking works made by other artists. As we know, Bu Kus was known as a prolific organiser during her college years, and she also taught at Yogyakarta’s SSRI (Sekolah Seni Rupa Indonesia [Indonesia School of Fine Arts], now SMSR/Sekolah Menengah Seni Rupa [Secondary School of Fine Arts]). Therefore, it wasn’t uncommon for her to keep the work of her friends or students. In these folders, there are some drawings that seemed to be her preliminary studies (voorstudie), or blueprints for later works—in Bu Kus’ case, paintings—or sketches. We can identify some of them as sketches of landscapes, traditional markets, and calligraphy paintings. In one of the sketches, she drew a landscape within a hollow rectangular shape that not only showed the borders of the canvas, but also indicated the painting’s frame.

Bu Kus’ works on paper that we have chosen here represented the subject matter that ASRI students often chose at that time—which were passed down from their teachers—that was capturing the daily lives of the people around them, and drawing directly at the places where things are occurring. Through these five works on paper, we can see how Bu Kus tended to portray women workers; a woman in a kebaya and jarik was cutting paddy, another woman was wearing a caping [conical hat] and selling her wares on the porch of a house, and another was crouching, probably to grind rice, light a stove, or wash clothes. One thing that we are so curious about is that apart from her self-portraits, all the female figures in these works are shown from the side or behind, their faces are never to be seen. In some of Bu Kus’ landscape paintings, humans are depicted from a distance, so their shapes look rather simple, almost like scarecrows. Humans in Bu Kus’ landscape paintings appear only as part of nature, having the same dignity as trees, buildings, bushes, the sun, and roads.

Bu Kus’ portrait works that we have encountered so far are mostly self-portraits. Among them are one picture and one woodcut shown in this exhibition. In the video displayed in this space, we discussed the fact that we never saw Bu Kus painted or drew another person, unlike her fellow artists who often painted her. Some exceptions are portraits of her children, grandchildren, husband, and a female figure who we thought to be Bu Kus’ mother or older sister. Come to think of it, weren’t they part of Bu Kus’ flesh and blood? Thus, can their portraits be thought of as somewhat self-portraits as well?

—Akmalia Rizqita “Chita” & Grace Samboh

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