Thu, 25 Aug 1994

Sanur show sheds light on mystery painter

By Carla Bianpoen

SANUR, Bali (JP): A bit of the shroud of mystery over the life and works of painter Emiria Sunassa, who disappeared without a trace, will be lifted soon.

Thirty paintings, evidence of the thinking, feelings and creative spirit of the artist who made them, will be displayed at the Nata Ayu Contemporary Art Gallery in the Tanjung Sari Hotel, Sanur, from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7.

The exhibition will shed light on the personality of one of Indonesia's pioneer painters, although hope of locating the artist herself was given up long ago. Even her closest friends do not know exactly where she last lived, nor where she died. Some think she fled to the forests of Sumatra to hide the shame of an illness to which she succumbed. Others insist that she remarried in Malaysia and died peacefully there. Many others are sure that she just took off to develop another creative activity.

"What I know for certain is that she had a Dutch boyfriend at one time," Wija Wawo Runtu, a nephew of the late artist revealed.

Wija Wawo Runtu's son inherited the paintings, most of which are done on wood panels with traditional, water based paints, and seems to have more knowledge of the elusive Emiria than anyone else so far.

The exhibit is held to commemorate the 99th anniversary of the birth of this painter, whom researchers, curators and historians remember as the first Indonesian female to be directly involved in the world of modern painting. Unfortunately, very few of her works have ever been available for public view, and none had surfaced in the last few decades, until this show was announced.

This will be the first ever retrospective exhibition of Emiria's works. It is hoped that the works of this controversial woman will shed more light on the life of the artist who had the courage to be different at a time when women were confined to typical "feminine" activities, which did not include oil painting.

Emiria was the only female in the Persagi artists' association, which was established in 1938 in the midst of an expanding nationalist movement that was to eventually bring an end to Dutch colonial domination. The association was founded by Sudjojono, who later became known as the "father of Indonesian modern art", and a number of other artists, such as Agus and Otto Djaya.

Late start

Painting was Emiria's last known undertaking. Before she took up painting, she had been alternately a secretary, a professional nurse and a plantation manager.

Emiria started painting relatively late in life, when she was over 40. But age was no constraint for her and she gained public acclaim.

During the Japanese occupation, she was awarded by the Japanese authority Saiko Sikikan for her painting Pasar and by Shimbun Kai for her painting Angklung.

Clare Holt in her book From Art in Indonesia states "a few of Emiria Sunassa's works show flashes of power and originality."

The late painter Sudjojono said of her and her paintings: "... Sunassa was more aggressive than most males. Her style of painting is unashamedly straightforward, like a child's. Her way of expression comes out like a rash. Many simply do not appreciate the particular quality of her art, but for those who understand, the impulsiveness of her works is appealing."

Her paintings are marked by a somewhat "naive" and primitive style, which was contemporary in those days.

She refused to be tied by rigid technical structures.

Kusnadi, a senior Indonesian art critic, comments that her artistic inspirations were expressed through non-technical forms. He remembers her saying that technical skills only stifled freedom of expression. At a forum of painters held during the Japanese occupation, she pleaded with her fellow delegates to take up the pencil and forget technical skill, he said.

One painting in the exhibit is entitled Dayak and may refer to her contact with the Dayak people during her stay in Kalimantan, then called Borneo. Other paintings refer to indigenous peoples, supernatural forces, the spirituality of the natural environment and the female psyche, Agus Setiawan Wawo Runtu, a son of Wija Wawo Runtu, said.

Emiria's nephew, Wija Wawo Runtu, is the director of the Yayasan Tanjung Sari which runs the Nata Ayu Contemporary Art Gallery.


Wija Wawo Runtu explained that the paintings belonged to his aunt Jane, Emiria's cousin and neighbor when she was in Jakarta. When Jane passed away in 1989, the paintings were bequeathed to Agus Setiawan. He in turn has handed this legacy over to the Yayasan Tanjung Sari, a foundation belonging to the Wawo Runtu family.

Wija Wawo Runtu remembers Emiria as a pleasant and happy person. "I used to call on her when I visited my aunt Jane."

But she never talked about her personal life.

Was she divorced, or was she widowed? Nobody actually knew and nobody dared to ask, said Wija. She liked to go into seclusion and meditate, but was always cheerful, he said.

All that was certain about her personal life is that she was born into the Manoppo Pareira family in 1895, in Manado, North Sulawesi. Then she apparently married Sunassa, an aristocrat from Tidore.

"Even that we are not quite sure of," says Wija, although the catalog mentions that she raised a tiger cub which was eventually shot by her husband who found that she was paying more attention to the animal than to him.

Nata Ayu Contemporary Art Gallery is particularly concerned with contemporary art. But the significance of sharing the artist's legacy with the wider public, as well as their family relationship to this remarkable woman, have led the owners to commemorate the 99th birthday of Emiria Sunassa on the occasion of the opening of the gallery.