Wed, 28 Jun 2000

Waryadi goes bananas in his collages

By Singgir Kartana

YOGYAKARTA (JP): Every cloud has a silver lining, so the age- old adage goes. Waryadi, 72, who hails from Tanon village, Colomadu, Surakarta, Central Java, found it to be true.

Had it not been for him tripping on a bunch of bananas, his creativity would have remained latent and he would not be known as, and recognized by the Indonesian Museum of Records (MURI) as, Indonesia's first and only artist using the trunk and stems of the banana plant as his main material.

"It was only by chance that I became interested in turning the stems of a banana bunch into collages. One day in 1970 I tripped over one. I picked it up and observed it closely. To my surprise, I found the color and the texture forming something like a painting. It immediately struck me that I could use them to make a collage, he said.

Waryadi, born in Surakarta on June 4, 1928, began to paint when he was in elementary school. Later he joined the Indonesian Military (TNI) and in 1947 was assigned as an information staffer. There, he got along well with fellow staffers, most of whom were artists of some renown such as Suromo, Surono, Piek Sapto Hoedoyo, Ooq Dukut Hendronoto and Srihadi. His experience with them encouraged Waryadi to tap his gift for painting further.

"Early in my career as a painter I used to paint human figures. I cannot do this easily now because old age has impaired my sight," he said with a smile.

Waryadi, who now owns his own arts workshop called Widoro Kandang, once tried to make collages out of rice plant stems, rice chaff, rice grains, calendar paper and broken pieces of glass. Yet this technique fell by the wayside because it did not satisfy him as fully as collages using the banana tree.

The trunk of banana tree is cheap. Indeed, it is close to being worthless. However, in Waryadi's hands, it can be turned into a collage no less attractive than an oil painting.

The texture and the color are very carefully arranged while the accuracy and details of the pieces which form the collages are close to perfect. At a glance, his collages never give themselves away as being made of bits of the banana tree. Some people can even be led to believe that they are oil paintings.

The dominant color in Waryadi's collages is the natural color of the trunk of a banana plant -- cream with faint black streaks. Waryadi never uses extra paint, believing that the natural color of the trunk is much better than paint.

To date he has come up with some 50 collages, most of which feature scenery. Some depict Borobudur and Prambanan temples, while others show animals. His penchant for depicting scenery and animals is attributable to his great love of Mother Nature. Before devoting himself to collages, Waryadi's hobby was hiking in the mountains.

Before he creates his collages, he first sketches a design in chalk on a piece of plywood. Then he applies glue evenly all over the surface of the board. This done, he places the stems of banana bunches or banana leaves on the board to form a background. Then he chooses parts of the banana tree trunk with particular textures and colors. He places these parts on the plywood board to cover the sketch that he has made.

While making a collage, Waryadi is often struck with ideas to improve his creation. Sometimes, therefore, he has to remove the pieces that have been glued to the board because they no longer fit with his imagination. In short, he allows himself free reign in experimenting with imaginative ideas.

Two years ago, for example, he discovered a way to incorporate three dimensions into his collages. One of those which features this technique is called Pohon Tumbang, Falling Tree. In this collage, he placed the dried stems of a banana plant on the board without bothering to put them in a particular arrangement. The result is that the collage looks more like a piece of engraving.

Waryadi considers making these distinctive collages a special challenge, not only creatively, but also when finding the right materials. He only uses the trunk of the tree which produces the squarish banana generally known as the kepok.

Only the dry trunk of a yellow kepok banana tree may be collected. You cannot use a wet one and dry it under the sun. The result will not be good, he says. Waryadi often has to travel far to find the right material. Not infrequently, he goes up Bengawan Solo River and even to Madiun in East Java in search of the kepok.

Though aware that collage is still regarded as a craft rather than an art, Waryadi never hesitates to display his works. He has done so, either individually or jointly, a number of times already. From June 7 through to June 14, 2000 he had his own exhibition at Bentara Budaya Yogyakarta. Uniquely, in each exhibition, Waryadi demonstrates how he makes his collages. No wonder his exhibitions are always well-attended.

As a form of artistic expression, a collage needs not only imaginative capability but also a high decree of accuracy and perseverance. As technical skills are of paramount importance in making a piece of collage, there is a tendency to classify collage-making as a craft. This may be the reason why collages do not usually provoke the interest of arts observers and critics. Perhaps as a consequence we are yet to see a collage masterpiece.

There are other collage artists in the country, such as Cak Kandar, who uses chicken feathers, and Soekanto, who uses ceramics, but their popularity is short-lived compared with artists producing other kinds of art.

There is indeed only a small space allotted for collages amid the wave of modern and contemporary arts that has swamped artists, art observers, art enthusiasts and art galleries alike. Can Waryadi make his way into this world at all? Only time will tell.