Thu, 17 Jul 2003

Artist Sunarso visualizes history

Bambang M., Contributor, Yogyakarta

Edhi Sunarso must be destined to be invariably involved in a struggle all his life.

When he was young, Sunarso was an independence fighter against the Dutch colonialists. Now a master sculptor, he concentrates on imbuing his spirit of struggle in his art to immortalize historical events.

The 71-year-old sculptor has created many monuments and dioramas for many museums across Indonesia.

"Many people know me as a sculptor, but few are aware that I've also made historical dioramas," he said at his workshop in Jombor, Sleman, Yogyakarta.

Indeed, Sunarso is always associated with sculpting. He is the creator of the Welcome monument in front of the Hotel Indonesia roundabout and the Aerospace monument in Jakarta, as well as many other landmark monuments in several cities, all depicting the thematic thread of heroism.

Sunarso is among Indonesia's best-known historical diorama artists. In an historical diorama, a milestone of history -- the actors, the event and the place -- is created into a sculptured scenic display in miniature, much like a three-dimensional painting. As dioramas have historical themes, they are usually found in museums.

Sunarso has created nine historical dioramas, some of which can be enjoyed at Pancasila Sakti Museum in Lubang Buaya, Jakarta, at the November 10 Monument Museum in Surabaya, and Vredeburg Museum in Yogyakarta.

His diorama is extraordinary in that the historical event is depicted as accurately as is possible to the original happening.

"Making dioramas is much more difficult than creating a sculpture," said Sunarso.

Born on July 2, 1932 in the Central Java town of Salatiga to a humble family, he was given to an uncle in West Java to raise when he was just 7 months old. At 14, when he was in elementary school, he joined the struggle against Dutch colonial rule.

"Every time I came home from school, I took some bullets from pro-Indonesia (Dutch) KNIL soldiers and I gave them to Indonesian freedom fighters," said Sunarso.

He got caught once, but he did not give up. After his release, he joined the West Java-based Siliwangi regiment and was tasked with sabotage. In 1946, he was caught again by the Dutch in Cimalaya and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

In prison, he was tortured every day. "I lost my teeth because of frequent electric shocks."

Even with the horrifying experiences, prison had a positive effect in that it served as his first "art school", as he spent his time behind bars learning to draw.

When he was eventually freed in 1949, he walked from Bandung to Yogyakarta to find his regiment. When he got to Surakarta, he was thought to be a spy and was arrested, this time by Indonesian troops.

Here he met Slamet Riyadi, a senior officer who later appointed him to a staff position in a military administration in Ampel, Boyolali, where his father was the head of one of the surrounding villages. Through this chance meeting, he was unexpectedly reunited with his family.

But after spending a week at his parents' house, Sunarso felt restless. "I felt somewhat envious of my siblings for their success in their studies. I decided to walk to Yogyakarta and told myself not to come home until I made something of myself."

He reached Yogyakarta in 1950, but his regiment had already moved to West Java, so he registered at the Yogyakarta Demobilization Office, wanting to continue his schooling at the Indonesian Fine Arts Academy (ASRI). As he did not have the requisite diplomas for admission, all he could do was to watch ASRI students practice drawing from outside, trying his own hand at drawing in the meanwhile.

In doing so, he caught the attention of Hendra Gunawan, a lecturer at the academy, who invited him to stand in as an observer. Sunarso took the offer immediately.

Three years later, he passed a special examination to gain admission to the academy, and studied painting and sculpting.

His artistic talent found fertile ground at ASRI. Three years after graduating from ASRI, he won second prize in an international sculpting contest in England for his work called The Unknown Political Prisoner (1953).

In 1953, he also met Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, when his Youth Monument in Semarang was inaugurated. The two came to be close and Sukarno often bought his sculptures.

In the early 1960s, Bung Karno -- as Sukarno was affectionately known -- asked him to make an historical diorama. The president was not satisfied with the work of renowned artists Saptoto and his friends, although they had been sent abroad particularly to learn how to create dioramas.

Sunarso's diorama model was immediately approved as it was deemed more artistic and more expressive, so he was asked to make a diorama for the National Monument (Monas) in Jakarta.

At first, he refused the assignment because he did not think he was up to it.

"'If you refuse, I will have it made in Italy'," Sunarso recalls the President saying. His sense of nationalism challenged, he accepted the project, which opened the doors for him to create historical dioramas for a whole host of museums.

"Before I begin making a diorama, I must research the event to find out exactly what took place, with as many details as possible. I must know exactly what the freedom fighters wore or what their belts were like. I also have to be familiar with where the event took place," he said. As archival photos were not enough, he often had to meet with people who had witnessed the event.

"For my dioramas, I have carried out research from Aceh to Papua."

A diorama is complicated and the help of other experts, such as historians, photographers and architects -- and these days, computer experts -- is needed. Thanks to advances in technology, dioramas can be enhanced with sound and lighting.

"You don't earn much from making dioramas," he said. "That's why only a handful of artists are interested in this area."

All too familiar with the fickleness of the changing times, he saved the money he earned from making dioramas to redo them in case politicians, or the public, considered his pieces "wrong" in the contemporary context.

He realizes that history has too often become "his story". But Sunarso's wish remains constant and unchanging -- to carve historical truth into stone for the benefit of present and future generations.