Thursday, April 16, 2015


Early art in Indonesia was pretty much relegated to being religious in nature. Generally speaking, it was more or less centered around Hindu deities and important stories; however, there are also plenty of Buddhist-centered art as well.  There were also decorative motifs as well, mostly with natural themes that include leaves, flowers, and local animals.

When the Dutch arrived, they introduced European art techniques to the native Indonesians. However, when the Dutch used the term “Indonesian painting,” it didn’t solely refer to paintings by Indonesians, but also for Dutch and other foreign artists who were living in Indonesia (called Dutch East Indies at that time) as well.  The late 1800s into the early 1900s saw a period of popularity in Balinese art. It was often considered one of the most vibrant styles of art in this area. 

by Inombong Sayad Ubud
During the latter part of the 20th century, Indonesian art began to become influenced by several styles of art, namely European-inspired abstract expressionism and Islamic-based art. As Indonesia began the search for a national identity among its multi-ethnic cultures, much of the frustration and self-finding sentiments were reflected through the artist’s paintbrush. 

Sculpture was also an important medium of art in Indonesia. There are many examples of sculptures dating back to the earliest of days. Each island essentially has its own culture and language and indigenous belief systems, so the styles can vary greatly from island to island, ranging from wooden sculptures to masks to sculptures similar to totem poles. With the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism, artistic sculptures began to reflect this new reign of thought. Temples and shrines were the main sites for these religious-based sculptures of deities and other religious objects and symbols. The Temple of Borobudur in central Java is famous for its frescos of hundreds of stone buddhas. Other sites show a strong Hindu influence. Today, the majority of carvings and sculptures are in the form of souvenirs for tourists as well as elaborate folding screens.

Indonesia has some very unique architecture as well. Although much of it was influenced from India, there were also other notable influences as well. Probably the most well known style can be seen in the stilt houses.  Used in areas of Sumatra, Borneo, Minangkabau, Sulawesi, these stilt houses were elevated on poles for a number of reasons: to guard against flooding, to keep certain rodents out, and to give a cool place to work or store items. Many of these houses had highly peaked roofs called saddle roofs; it has points protruding upwards that looked as if someone pulled the roof toward the sky like taffy. Some of these houses (usually those belonging to a higher social status) are surrounded by highly decorated walls. 

Example of songket

And of course, there were a number of handicraft-like items. Indonesia is famous for its cloth, and there are a few different types of traditional cloth that are produced here. The first one is batik, which utilizes a technique of using wax to create patterns on the cloth before adding the dye. Ikat is another type of dying process where either the warp fibers (lengthwise fibers) or the weft fibers (the ones that are being wove into the warp fibers) are dyed prior to weaving. Songket is a type of weaving that is commonly found in Indonesia but also in Malaysia and Brunei. This beautiful cloth is usually silver or gold threads wove into silk or cotton. The islands of Java and Bali are also well known for their making of the kris, a curvy-bladed dagger. Some people have a religious ritual that accompanies the making and use of this weapon, and the hilt (the handle) and sheath are often highly decorated. It’s also surrounded by special superstitions that it holds magical powers or that some kris are have good auras while others have bad ones. 

The literature of Indonesia is somewhat of a confusing term.  In general, it refers to literature not only in Indonesia but also includes Malaysia and Brunei.  And Indonesian literature is written in a multitude of languages: early literature was almost entirely written in Malay, but it also includes works written in Indonesian, Javanese, Sundanese, Batak, Balinese, Madurese, or even Dutch or English. Malay and Indonesian are very similar languages and different dialects of both languages are fairly intelligible to many speakers.

There were a lot of different periods of Indonesian literature.  Traditional literature was normally marked as being after the introduction of Islam, but before the modern period of the 20th century. Prior to this period, stories and histories were pretty much oral at that point. Then you also have older Malay literature, which was generally from around 1870 to 1942. During this time, many popular American and European novels were being translated as well as syair poetry and highly romanticized stories called hikayat.

The early 20th century brought about a lot of changes. First, the Indonesian language was introduced as a lingua franca, unifying all of the islands. Although Malay had commonly been used as a lingua franca, it was by no means a national language. The Balai Pustaka was formed; it was this government-sponsored agency that was responsible for promoting and publishing literature. It was in response against the Dutch; however, it came at the cost of much censorship. The first Indonesian novels were published during this time with the help of the Balai Pustaka.

From about 1933, an era called the New Literates emerged. Many of the young intellectuals began to sense a change in what was acceptable as literature. They knew a change needed to happen but distrusted the Balai Pustaka because it was run by the government. The answer came in the form of Indonesia’s first literary magazine, lasting into the early 1950s. By the end of WWII, Indonesian writers were focused more on their own independence and writing about the pressing political matters of the day; literature was far more realistic in style. 

author Remy Sylado
Short stories and poetry dominated through the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s, writers who were associated with leftist groups left Indonesia and began to write from abroad. The romance novel was the hot genre during the 1980s and 1990s, and previously quasi-taboo subjects such as femininity and gender identity became common themes in short stories and novels. 

Although there have been many foreign authors using Indonesia as the setting for their novels (such as The Twenty-One Balloons by William du Bois), there have been a plethora of authors that people on the Internets seem to mention.  I did find a nice list with comments from The Guardian dated in 2011, and it’s worth taking a look at here.  It’ll at least point you in the right direction for finding something to read.  As if you have that problem.

Up next: music and dance

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