Kustiyah, et al: As if there is no sun

A girl is painting the scenery of the ocean and several boats. Dressed in long bright-colored pants and loose long-sleeved top, her long black hair was braided. The girl shifts poses while she paints. Sometimes she would sit down on the grass, sometimes she’d squat; whatever works to paint, really. An angle of this scenery was captured by Udy SH from a beach, in Tegal, Central Java, September 1956, and the photo was published in SIASAT magazine with the caption: ASRI student Kustiyah painting the landscape of a beach in Tegal. Another angle of this scenery can be seen in Kustiyah’s family archive, where you’ll see her wearing a bamboo-weaved head cover, typically worn by farmers or fishermen. The sun was indeed high up and it would have been about 26 to 30℃ when Kustiyah was painting —hence covering almost all of her skin, plus the hat. Curiously, a glimpse on her oeuvre would show you that the hue of her paintings are cold, with the dominant ambience of greenish or bluish colors.

This research trajectory aims to unravel stories about, behind, and surrounding the lifelong artistic practice of the painter Kustiyah (1935-2012), who began studying in Yogyakarta’s art school ASRI in 1953, the era that is said to be the golden years of the newly independent country, Indonesia. We began from Kustiyah as her works are made accessible through Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah & Edhi Sunarso. In fact, her late husband Edhi Sunarso built the space for her —hence its name. 35 paintings of Kustiyah are hung there with labels, but not so much accompanying information, let alone explanation, on her practice or life stories are there nor would it be accessible in the so-called art historical writings in Indonesia. The paintings, along with some works on paper (be it sketches, drawings, or printmakings), came from all periods of her life which simply meant that she had never stopped painting, ever.

Why haven’t we read about her, anywhere? Have her stories ever been told? What kept her painting, all her life? Where were they exhibited, if ever? What might these paintings mean for her? What do her peers think about her? Who were her peers, if they existed? Through a handful of documents, photographs, and group exhibition catalogues, we managed to discover several of her peers, such as Siti Ruliyati (b. 1930, first generation student of ASRI, in 1950), Sriyani Hudyonoto (1930-2006, first generation student of the Bandung art school ITB, in 1950), and Kartika (b. 1934, self-taught). There were more, of course, but we thought of these women because right after Kustiyah’s art school days are over, and after the major political change due to the communist-alleged genocide in 1965, the group exhibitions that she would be included in are either all-women exhibitions or exhibitions that traces the genealogy of revolutionary-related artists and their attempts of formalizing the practice of ‘art-for-people’ through formal (art schools) and non-formal educational (sanggar/studios) channels.

The working title of this research, As if there is no sun… (Seakan-akan tidak ada matahari), is excerpted from a review published in Harian Rakyat, “[Sanggar Pelukis Rakyat/People’s Painters Studio] paintings made it feel as if there is no sun in Indonesia.” Written by Nugroho, the review poses an on-point critique upon the exhibition of artists from Pelukis Rakyat, in Gedung Pemuda Jakarta, in February 1957. Indeed, a certain kind of darkness, cloud, or even eeriness are vivid in the so-called revolutionary painters’ generation, such as Hendra Gunawan and Affandi, or those of other artists groups or studios such as Sudjojono and Soedibyo. It is as if, to paint the ray of sun and its warmth would immediately exoticize their subject matter, the [common] people, their struggles and their mundane reality, much like what they were fighting against with the colonial painters. Kustiyah and Siti Ruliyati were younger members of Pelukis Rakyat. Not only that, lecturers in their art school would have also been people from the same group or coming from similar revolutionary-spirited groups. With that as a background, we wonder, … Why aren’t their names written in the so-called art history? Did they have to be saying the same things, writing the same things, painting the same things to be recognized, to be written, to simply be included? Is this diversity —of perspectives, of art practices— so unfavorable? Have there been any attempts in writing their life stories? Had they been so insignificant, why would the different state-collections have their works? What was the necessity of collecting their works? 

This research have (or will) found its public encounters through:

  • 2021 [TALK] Ratna Mufida, “Surat untuk Kustiyah” (A letter for Kustiyah), in the panel discussion Peminggiran Perempuan dari Sejarah Seni (Casting women aside from the art history), co-organized by Sekolah Pemikiran Perempuan & Jakarta Biennale 2021 ESOK
  • 2022 [TALK] Akmalia Rizqita “Chita”, Grace Samboh, Ratna Mufida, “PANGGUNG: Kerja berjalan penelusuran para puan” (STAGE: Ongoing work in exploring women), organized by Sekolah Pemikiran Perempuan, 23 July 2022
  • 2022 [TEXT] Grace Samboh & Ratna Mufida. “Dua Lukisan Potret Kustiyah oleh Sudarso: Apakah Mereka Berteman?” (Two portraits of Kustiyah painted by Sudarso: Were they friends?), for LauNe: Citizen and Archive edition, August 31, 2022. Accessible here https://laune.id/lukisan-potret-kustiyah/
  • 2022 [EXHIBITION] Hyphen — (Akmalia Rizqita “Chita”, Grace Samboh, Ratna Mufida). “As if there is no sun” as part of 58th Carnegie International: Is it morning for you yet?, curated by Sohrab Mohebbi and associate curator Ryan Inouye with curatorial assistant Talia Heiman at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 24, 2022 – April 2, 2023
  • 2022 [TALK] Grace Samboh, “Mistrusting history, pursuing ‘what ifs,”, a workshop held at Galeri Soemardja, Institut Teknologi Bandung, 10-17 November, as part of the workshop Curatorial Currents from the Southeast.
  • 2023 [EXHIBITION] Hyphen — (Akmalia Rizqita “Chita”, Grace Samboh, Ratna Mufida, Rachel K. Surijata) “Di belakang kanvas” (At the back of the canvas). ART JOG MMXXIII, 30 June – 27 August, Jogja National Museum

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