Sun, 11 May 2003

Our Artist's Fireflies

Martin Aleida

Except for our table and chairs, others -- all were empty -- had been put away. As we came last of all, we enjoyed an honor of sorts from the cafe owner. He did not mind our sitting there until we were too sleepy in the cold, nocturnal wind to continue chatting about all sorts of things -- serious or otherwise -- including literature, painting, theater, philosophy, politics, religion or some rather indecent rumors. We had only coffee, sometimes mixed with ginger, to keep ourselves awake in the small hours.

I hung out with my buddies for quite a while but I had yet to fully adapt myself to their Bohemian lifestyle. My home always got the better of me. Just before 10, I got up and took my leave. I was on the point of paying at the counter when suddenly I felt my shoulders being warmly hugged.

"Brother, it won't be at the lobby of the UN building. My paintings will be exhibited at the UN Plaza, opposite the UN Headquarters. Also in New York," said our artist, correcting what he had told me many times the night before.

He left his friends only to whisper this news to me. I was wondering why he did not break this news -- in fact the dream of many artists -- while we were all at the same table. Why did he break this news only to me? Disregarding any prejudice, I simply thought he had honored me this way.

So I said, "Good, it is no less prestigious than the first place. If you also expect to see envoys at your exhibition, well, the UN Plaza is quite a short distance from the UN Headquarters. I believe our friends will also be very happy to hear this news. To the best of my knowledge, you will be the first Indonesian artist to have exhibited his works there. Congratulations ..."

He was still hugging me strongly.

"Once again, I've only told you this. Don't reveal it to other people," he asked.

Then he left me and joined our friends again at the only table left in the yard of the cafe.

If this was to be the way he honored me, well, that wouldn't be the last from the artist. It was a big question mark for me why he always told me his exclusive news about his exhibition plans only when I was at the counter. Once, without his knowledge, I paid for what he had ordered -- I had made a mistake.


The next day, he returned the full amount. He was never reluctant to approach me at the counter -- just before I made some payment -- and tell me the names of new metropolises where, he said, he would be exhibiting his works.

After whispering to me the UN Plaza, he later told me in secret that he would display his work at the Museum of Modern Art, then at the Guggenheim Museum, also in New York.

The next night, he told me the venue had changed to the National Museum of Modern Art in Washington D.C. While glancing at me taking out the small change to pay for sugared tea and some crackers and placing his hands round my shoulders, he said he would immediately leave for Paris for an exhibition there.

Several days later, he said, in front of the counter, he had canceled his plan to visit Paris. Instead, he went on, he would fly to Prague. Then he changed his plan. He would exhibit his work in London, then Stockholm, Pretoria, Cairo and Tokyo. Every night he whispered the name of each of these cities to me.

Realizing that as a painter he was very sensitive, I had never shown annoyance at his big plans that had never been realized. I always welcomed with equal enthusiasm all the big plans that he whispered to me.

"Congratulations, I'm really happy to hear of your plan. Hopefully, this one will come true. Once you get there, write us a letter."

These were the last words I said to him after hearing that he would fly to Moscow, his latest destination, a plan that I hoped would come true. This time it was my turn to whisper to him, a little jocularly: "Be resolved. Be on your guard, although the Soviet Union has collapsed, there are still a lot of red propagandists around."

After this meeting, he really disappeared. If, from a distance, you could imagine the cafe as a painting, well, one stroke had gone from it. The special table in the yard never saw him again.

One night, however, the cafe owner came up with a surprise: our friend had flown to Germany and shown his work at an exhibition there. He did not owe a single cent. He had settled all his bills. I simply kept quiet, trying to hide the feeling of being tricked. For him, Hamburg must have been better than Moscow, I whispered to myself, trying to assuage my disappointment.


Standing under the shade of an Angsana tree, the table in one corner of the cafe remained a lively place for chatting and free laughter. Sometimes, one our friends, a writer, played his harmonica. Versatile, he had a great talent. So, this table had become a special magnet, drawing the attention of other guests.

One night, a friend who had been absent from this get-together at the cafe table came with surprising news, saying that he had seen the artist and his family at the command post for flood victims, rescued not far from his house. This bad news forced everyone sitting at the table to look at one another. Some thought our friend was simply joking.

But he meant what he had said.

For God's sake, he said, he saw with his own eyes how the artist was squatting, trembling with the cold, among hundreds of flood victims taking shelter in the hall of a school building. He said he did not think it wise to approach the artist because he did not want the artist to suffer more that he had already. He did not have the heart to see how the artist could not hide his embarrassment for telling a lie that he would leave for Germany but that in fact he was just one of the flood victims.

We did not believe this news, especially because it came from a gossiper like this friend of ours. Often he told stories combining fact and fiction, only to make us all laugh. However, as he swore that he could not have joked about the artist, we finally decided to have one of us verify this news.

The next day, our "envoy" began to wait for us, even before sunset. Among us, he was known to be a really serious person, always with a knitted brow.

When we had all arrived, he tapped the table with his finger, saying with a depressed, but convincing expression: "Don't play a joke with this world. I saw him lying on a mat. I waited until he woke up, to make sure that it was our artist that was lying over there. Yes, it is a bitter truth. It really was him ...."

The wind blew through the rustling Angsana leaves right above the cafe, greatly depressing every one of us. That night was like a canvas dominated by the color of gray. Everyone was gloomy and depressed. We agreed that the next morning we would meet again in the cafe and visit the artist together.


A month ago, Jakarta looked from the sky like a frameless painting, the color of purplish brown spread everywhere. Jakarta had never had an experience as bad as this. Flooding was everywhere. Nobody could escape this inundation. A former president, who had ruled the country for over three decades, and an incumbent president, in office only briefly, could not escape the flooding.

How could, then, an unaccomplished painter, who was intoxicated by his wild dreams, also avoid this disaster? The moment he got home from the cafe at Taman Ismail Marzuki he found nobody at home. Water was everywhere, submerging his cupboard and all his paintings.

When we all arrived at the hall of the school building, we found him leaning against the wall. His wife and child were among other flood victims. This strange meeting was cold indeed. We not only shook hands with him and expressed words of sympathy, but also hugged him.

Strangely, he was simply motionless, staring blankly. Making no response to our questions, he simply stared at the floor.

Then our attention was drawn to a painting measuring two meters by three meters on the wall, exactly over a bundle of things on the floor. Painting instruments lay scattered close to the bundle. It was clear the painting had just been completed. The frame was still not properly in place. The strokes were quite familiar to us: They were the expression of our artist's spirit.

We asked when he had completed this painting but got no reply at all. The canvas depicted our artist. His chest was bare and his mouth shut tightly. Squatting idly, he was wildly staring ahead.

Behind him -- in gray mixed with green -- you could see thousands of human heads and trees carried away by the floods. The sun was floating heavily in the distance. The wildly staring eyes indicated a strong will not to surrender -- a resolve to uphold human dignity, despite the acute suffering all around.

"It must be his best painting. I've never seen such a strong, realist painting by an Indonesian artist. Observe the eyes and also the background that accentuates what he wishes to express," a friend commented.

We were caught by surprise upon seeing a washbasin below the painting. Some banknotes in different denominations were in it. We looked at one another. In silence, we all said to one another that this painting contained such vivid expression it could move people to make donations, although they were themselves perhaps victims of the flood.


We kept looking at one another. Again in silence, we agreed to donate in our own capacity. When I put some money into the container, it struck me how thousands of people would, when the floods had gone, come to this place to enjoy this extraordinary painting and absorb the painter's artistically beautiful refusal to bow to fate. The strokes he had made with his brush carried away all our human emotion.

Thousands of people would come and make a donation, without the slightest wish to own the painting. This would be the reversal of the collectors' desire to exercise control over our painting world. The peak of cultural achievement must be collective property, as it is our collective expression.

We took a few steps toward the artist. We took turns hugging him and whispering in his ears words that would bring back his passion for life, despite his utter silence. We realized he was struggling to gain control over the turmoil raging in his heart.

Before it was my turn to take my leave of him, just as I went to hug him, he suddenly came forward and put his hands round my shoulders.

Staring at my eyes, he said: "Sorry, Brother, I've lied to you hundreds of times and this is what I've got in return."

I hugged him more strongly.

"Don't ever dream of flying anywhere any more. You will be great right here. Let the world come to you by itself. One of our friends is right. I have never seen a painting with such vivid expression as you have here on the wall." On our way home, our friends expressed envy because our artist was willing to talk only to me.

"Strange ... what did he say to you?" he asked. I simply smiled. Once in a while, I thought, I may as well lie to them as a joke. So, I blurted out: "If he had some money some day, he would buy the hall of the school building and dedicate it as a museum of flood victims."

-- Translated by Lie Hua