Sat, 25 Jan 2003

Farewell, Hilda: pioneer of modern art dies

Carla Bianpoen Contributor Jakarta

On Friday, January 17, at 9.20 p.m. Jakarta time, Hildawati Soemantri passed away at Darmais Hospital from cancer. Her brother was at her side along with other family members, as well as sculptor Lydia Poetri, who has tended to her throughout her illness.

Although she had been suffering on and off from the disease for over a decade, and had shown rapid deterioration in the past year, the news still came as a shock to many of even her closest friends; particularly as she had recently come out of a coma into which she had lapsed a week ago, and had begun to communicate in the past few days.

A founder of the Ceramics Studio at the Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ), she was laid in state at Galeri Cipta (II), and was welcomed by vice rector Wagiono Sunarto and dean of the Faculty of Arts Tris Neddy, who both spoke of Hildawati's dedication, personal integrity and commitment to the development and education of art.

Aside from numerous artists of various disciplines, friends and admirers, among those paying their last respects were prominent cultural scholar and member of Akademi Jakarta Prof. Toeti Heraty, Pia Alisjahbana, ex-IKJ Rector Adhi Moersid, Prof. Dr. Fuad Hassan, literatus Danarto, Dr. Melani Budianta, and Yayasan Senirupa Indonesia chairperson Susrinah Sastrowardoyo.

A special message from Dr. Astri Wright from the University of Victoria also expressed the sentiments of friends in Indonesia, thanking Hilda for her "courage in persevering and pioneering, combining the roles of artist, teacher and scholar."

Hilda died exactly one month after the opening of her retrospective exhibition at Cemara-6 Gallery, held at the initiative and with the support of friends, ex-students and admirers. Although almost completely incapacitated physically, Hilda cheered up during the preparation of the exhibit, in which she was fully involved in the selection of material.

She rejoiced at the event and was able to communicate with many friends she had not seen for years, and with State Minister of Tourism and Culture I Gede Ardika, who had made a special effort to meet the artist.

Having dedicated most of her life to the advancement of Indonesian modern art, she was a pioneer, a dedicated educator, and a fine scholar of ancient Javanese art. Although often torn between her artistic urges and her intellectual inclinations as a scholar, between her talent in modern art and her fascination with ancient Javanese art, she gave herself fully in whatever field she chose to undertake.

Hilda made a historical milestone in Indonesian art with her introduction to installation art in 1976. She then went on, breaking through the conventional understanding of ceramics in Indonesia and elevating it to the level of a contemporary visual arts language.

Her groundbreaking oeuvre testifies to a refined skill and to artistic creations steeped in deep human emotion, which gradually leads to a profound sense of the spiritual and transcendental.

Her latest works center around Cosmic Mountain, a paradigm for her spiritual search on her path to the center of life, and towards death.

Hilda was the first female Indonesian art historian educated abroad, and the first scholar of ancient Javanese art who filled the gap left by previous scholars, highlighting the role of figurines in the Majapahit Kingdom.

Her dissertation to obtain a Ph.D. degree in Art History from Cornell University (1993) was later published by the Indonesian Ceramic Society. International art historians have called her a very reliable resource for other scholars wishing to explore ancient Javanese art in the light of new perspectives, including the gender viewpoint.

Hilda was also the first, and so far the only, Indonesian independent female curator. Internationally renowned Indonesian curator and art critic Jim Supangkat, who cooperated with her on the prestigious GNB exhibition in Jakarta, spoke highly of her solid views and excellent eye for detail.

A person with strong principles, she was firm, but disliked open conflicts. "We never really clashed, although we were often not of the same opinion," reveals Ari Sugiarto, a close friend from the time they were both in Leiden, conducting research.

"Somehow, she always got what she wanted," said Ari.

Her brother Djoko Sanyoto, affectionately called Mas Jon, once remarked that she had always been very independent. Perhaps because she lost her mother at an early age, he explained.

Hilda never spoke too much and refrained from fashionable trends; she was an artist who, in her own quiet way, continuously kindled the fire in the hearts and kilns of her students.

Ceramic sculptor F. Widayanto, who had admired her from back when he was just her little brother's friend, assured her that her spirit had been contagious and would keep his inner kiln going, even if modern ceramics still had a long way to go in this country.

Lydia Poetri credits her own fascination with ceramics to Hilda, once her teacher, who then became a colleague and a dear friend. Other former students who were inspired by Hilda's passion for ceramics include Jane Chen and Suyatna.

Hildawati Soemantri was born in Jakarta in 1945, and spent her early youth in the Netherlands where her father studied as an accountant, but pursued her secondary and tertiary education in Indonesia. Her fascination with ancient Javanese art almost made her choose archaeology as her major, but she decided to become a ceramist instead and entered the Department of Fine Arts at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), from where she graduated in 1969. She married a young architect and followed him to Jakarta, although the marriage ultimately ended in divorce.

In Jakarta, she dedicated most of her time to the field of education at IKJ, where she founded the Ceramic Studio. She acquired a Master's Degree in Fine Arts at the Pratt Institute on Long Island, and a Ph.D. from the Art History Department at Cornell University. She was a lecturer at the Dept. of Art History at the University of Victoria in Canada, where she was also a resident artist.

Although Hilda made major contributions to the written chronicles of Indonesian modern art in her role as an art historian, she was too modest to even admit to the part she has played in art development. It seems Indonesian art history may be due a rewrite, according Hildawati Soemantri the place she deserves.