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Jeni Gonzalez talks to Andrew Jack

Exhibiting and surviving on the street in Java and Byron Bay

Jeni Gonzalez from AIAA interviewed Australian visual artist, Andrew Jack for Suara Indonesia Radio Show BayFM on the eve of his exhibition in Byron Bay. Since then Andrew has donated a beautiful painting to AIAA to raise money for AIAA activities. A photograph of Andrew and the painting is on the front page of the magazine. If you would like to make an offer please email: indoarts@dingoblue.net.au

Could you tell about the influences that inspired this exhibition?

Well that's a long story, Jeni, I mean the actual work itself has a lot ofAsian feeling to it and it was all sparked from a month holiday in Baliwhich turned into eight years.

How long ago was that?

Andrew Jack at his studio in Byron Bay

1987, 1986, late 86 to three years ago actually so it's a bit more than eight years and there were many experiences there. I mean Bali or Indonesia as a whole for an artist is just full, full of inspiration for an artist, a musician, a writer. Whether you're Indonesian or a westerner it's a - it may seem strange saying it now - it's so much cinta, which means love, for the arts. It's very simple, simplified. You find in the west there's a lot of ego between the artists but there there's not. Although there's a little bit of a tussle there's no jealousy. There's very little ego involved in the fine arts and this is what creates a big mixed salad, people being able to share ideas.

For me, I've a dislexia problem where I can't pick up languages very well but in the end it was just working off the feeling, which is kinda like my paintings which is expression too. There was no need to talk too much but there was somuch work going on around that you didn't need to talk and you could pickup the feeling from the area, from the people, and plus the lush environmentand the simplicity of how they live.

The first exhibition I had wasin front of the Lotus Cafe on the street in Ubud. Then I worked fromthere and fortunately I met a very strong woman Winda Herep who's now running a childrens' art group over there which I'm sure some of your listeners and your group would like to get in contact with for kids learning music, drama,painting, ceramic. She's actually based in Solo in Central Java now. We're not actually together as a marriage anymore but we're in our own business of arts which if anyone has been involved in the arts is quite a broad relationship (laughter) so to speak.

I think any artist that goes to Indonesia will find the same freedom that I found there. That's a bit contradictory because at the moment Indonesia is not too free in its politics, but then again there's that everlasting natural inspiration that will always be there and there's some specific kind of beauty there. Actually the contemporary art scene over there is not really that old, it's only since Walter Spies entered Bali in the 30's and he was an Austrian or Swiss painter, I think, and musician. He was very sensitive to the environment there and to the people, a very loving chap and he started off what turned into the creative Balinese sculpture. Spies used to paint the night time views of Bali and now they're highly sought after and actually a lot of Indonesian collectors are buying them back from Europe now.He didn't paint that much but when he did paint they were beautiful.

Spies is quite well known for his mixing of contemporary classical European music with the gamelan. That approach has been very popularly strong in the last ten years with Indonesian young people which is fantastic so it'salmost going in a complete cycle. In the history of Indonesia when Sukarno was in power it was a great revelation for the Indonesians to be actually free and to make their own decisions and not be under the Dutch and to start this mixed salad of merdeka and mix it all together. So he was the rooting stage for what's happening now. Now it's gone through a full cycle and when I say that it's because they've got into the real modern technology and it has to go through another shift, hence the religion, hence the money situation, the number of islands.

Sukarno was a great supporter of the up and coming artists of the time, who had all been painting during the revolution. There was one famous painter called Dullah who was also based in Java. He was a good friend of my staff, and my wife used to model for him when she was younger. He's quite famous for his revolutionary paintings of the actual battle, huge canvasses about two to three metres by two to three metres. Of the same group of people was Afandi. Unfortunately these artists have all passed away, Dullah and Afandi in the last six years, seven years and a very famous artist called Hendra, who was actually my favourite Indonesian artist, was fully expressionist. He said a bit too much and he spent a long time in gaol for Communism so that was mainly when the Suharto group came in. During the Suharto group they had the big Communist scare. There was a lot of trouble during that period and then again a lot that hasn't really been publicised. Quite a few thousand people disappeared during that era, a lot of the artists and painters were locked up or just kept quiet anyway because they didn't want to get locked up.

During that time there was also a lot of Western influence coming in which I suppose was a good thing, a capitalist sort of thing, and they were exhibiting outside of Indonesia. I think a lot of senior artists studied in Europe, America, some actually went to China and it's kinda opened up Indonesia and also the tourism opened up contemporary arts in Indonesia. With this in parallel it opened up the culture too, the music with the < I>Wayang Kulit and so on, the drama, and suddenly this was spread all over the world very quickly and this is why you get so much interest in it now withpeople of all countries from Japan to Germany to Australia to New Zealand,China - everyone knows the gamelan.

It's a very old instrument and verypowerful. It's my belief the music is always behind the movement of any culture and this really brings out the passion in people. And now what's happening with the change, the modernisation, affects the gamelan too which is natural. You have the classical and you have the expression, youhave the base. The base is the gamelan and this makes all the artists inIndonesia very strong. Now what I was talking about before, the lackof ego within the artists of Indonesia, actually opens up so many doorsbecause the artists are sharing their ideas and their expression and ofcourse with a bit of politics it's a sort of firecracker up the bum, so tospeak, for a lot of artists to get going, get off their bums and do something and that's what Indonesia is, as a place.

It's a very young country, or countries as it turns out, and I found there was so muchdiversity in Indonesia. There was also so much freshness coming up through Malaysia and Asia in the art work that was happening in music and paintingand drama. This is four years ago I was last really in contact with the people of Indonesia and it was so refreshing to be over thereworking full-time as an artist and to be part of that or not actually to bepart of it but to be in partnership with it maybe because it's fresh becausein the Western art at the moment it's getting too egoistic, it's getting tooconsolidated as such and there's not very much freedom left anymorebecause people say after you've thalidomide a cow which was the way in England, where else can you go with it? But these people are still picking up a flower or a song and still having the same beauty. If it was something that was written a thousand years ago they still bring outthe same beauty now and still have the time to be doing their ownpersonal thing with it.

What about the cross-over that you're a sculptor - and you became a painter in Indonesia... what sort of cross-over was there?

Well, I studied sculpture in Brisbane back in 84/85 and stayed for twoyears at the Queensland College of Arts up there and then movedinto ceramics which I worked with full time for five years in productionpottery in the Gold Coast behind Nerang in the hinterland up there witha very beautiful American couple who were very travelled. They weresettled permanently there and I suppose they gave me the bug to actually get out and look at the rest of the world, but as I said I kinda got stuck in Indonesia. (laughter)

In that time Bali was full, and still is full, of very internationally well known artists who tend to keep ratherlow key. They tend to work there simply, like the other artists. There as on I say the artists taught me a lot there is they taught me...the beauty of simplicity, you'd see an artist where they might chain-smoke rokok like hell and look as though they hadn't eaten for months,emaciated, but the artwork they were bringing out had such passionwithin it. They were mostly reliant on the art shop in Bali. Its kinda like a supermarket really so at that time they had a lot of Japanese tourists. The art dealers there were kinda like what you'd call a gift shop here. They weren't really paying the artists high prices but paying them enough to keep on painting and it was the stronger ones who broke through that and either got sponsorship up in Java, or Jakarta usually. Like anywhere in the world the stronger ones were the ones that got sponsors and really were full on.

And that's what happened to you.... you got sponsorship and exhibited in agallery?

Well... we started off in Bali and the first exhibition was on thestreet in Ubud. Which is the first thing I tend to do when I get back to countries,the first thing I did when I got back to Byron. And then hence we had an exhibition in the Art Centre in Denpasar which was a lot of work, living very simply. We were actully in Pejeng at that time, which is just out of Ubud, and for me it was kind of strange because I was living off nothing. I didn't even have a ticket back home as such, living day to day, which most artists do. Eating a lot of food I thought I'd never end up eating but then I came to like it in the end - like there was one with goat's bits, always an interesting meal, it's kinda like a sausage but it's not put into a sausage it's put into a soup so you had very interesting parts of the goat floating around in the soup. It's a very colourful meal and it's very nourishing as well.

After Bali people started to take note of us. Wedidn't actually make any money at all really, it's the same with the start of anything anywhere in the world, but then we went up to Jakarta and when we first went up there we were taking the paintings in the top of a bus. Inside the roof of the bus would be covered in paintings. The cheap bus for a six-foot Kiwi is quite a lot to handle because they're very crampy and we were on the low budget buses at that time.

We were very fortunate to meet a chappie called Josef Sulman who has unfortunately passed away but his gallery is still going. It's called the Santi Fine Art and he actually bought at that time, quite a substantial amount of paintings. He was a collector and he's the person who introduced me to all the older artists and the history of the artists. I was quite lucky because it's not really that open apart from books for a lot of the foreign artists there, so he really gave me the passionate oomph! - you're not just painting in this country, you're doing something, and at that time there weren't too many people - I have a very 'Andrew style' - too western - when I get in Asia it's too strong, but when I get over to Australia or Europeor somewhere they say this is too Eastern but then it's quite unusual... I feel quite gifted that I have that because you have a kind of balance there as well. I find that's been the most worthwhile experience from the whole thing.

Going back to the main reason to stay in Indonesia, the beauty of it is actually, if you do have some finances behind you, you have all this time, and all this inspiration is just everywhere, surrounds you everywhere. It's the place where I learnt that arts is not just a piece, a drawing, or sculpture, or playing on a guitar. It's the art of life. Whereas you'll see in the past, artists used to paint a lot of abstracts of the rice, of the paddy fields, whereas it's the full circle of the cycle of life and stuff like this. In the most simplest way. That was a great revelation to me. The colours, the interpretation of colours, and the meaning of colour in the Hindu Balinese culture was another revelation. I could put acolour on something and say that means east, west or that means good or bad.That was a kind of breakthrough from a very Christian orientated sortof upbringing and education where suddenly you're going into a different culture. A flower has a particular meaning, like that flower is only used for a ceremony and this one is used for this.

So the paintings were taking on more meaning. It wasn't only a landscapebecause landscape was turning into this story and my interpretation of itaround me and the... I don't know... there's no realrules as a painter. There shouldn't be any rules. And it was that freedomthat I find any foreign artists that I've met and who've spent some time in Indonesia - they miss this when they go home, that's why they always go back. Ones that have trouble in Indonesia are usually the ones that are carrying this huge ego. They might find themselves talking to this person who they thinkis an unknown Indonesian artist who's (laughter) got a studio in Jakarta,one in Bali, one in Java, heads and directs a gamelan society and yet they walkall over them and never spend the time to find that out. And a lot of the times it's not being sneaky, the Javanese, or the Indonesian, has learned not to get involved, in this ego thing. This was abig learning step for me. My first wife often said, 'Oh!.. you'retoo egotistic.' In the end, after all this time there, you know what shemeans. You change in the amount of time you spend there.

There have been many stories for me. I've taken the Indonesian feeling with pantomine all over the world. I'm not what you'd call a guru type person as such, or a religious teacher but there was something I learned quite strongly. It's called Dharma which is like a total meditation. As I said this is going back to the cycle of life. I started doing statue work where you can move any part of my body except my feet. A lot of peopleremember me from two years ago in Byron. I took this to Japan, Singapore, Europe - it was always a good pocket money thing. It supported my art when I was working in these countries. It also supports me in Byron Bay in Australia now. It's always the fall back. Not so much the pantomine but the knowledge of the Dharma which is behind both Javanese and Balinese culture.

It's gone very well in Indonesia for me which boggles me sometimes, but over the years I've been away I've actually become more notorious than I was when I was there. My paintings are now inthe top collectors' lists over there and last year we got some news, actually through some people from Bay FM, and low and behold I had a painting selling in Sotherby's and I never knew about it, and it sold.

So you're quite well known over there but who is Andrew Jack in Australia?

So we've started off again; started from the very start. It's like the exhibition we had in Ubud inthe street there. Or we had the exhibition in front of the Northern Hotelhere three years ago. It's just like the full circle thing we're starting off again but this year I've just got back from a week in Singapore negotiating with a gallery and we're having an exhibition there in August. This will be a mixture of Indonesian feeling with the Byron feeling which I find is a perfect mixture because in Byron Bay, the natural environment is very similar to Indonesia. It was very funny when I startedliving here, the amount of Indonesians I met who actually live here.It often brought a tear to my eye when I saw these Indonesians, I'd say - Hai - aka kabar, mate, how are you going walking down the street in the middleof Byron, - and they're all lovely people. Full credit now to what they're doi ng with this Indonesian (AIAA) group, to give Indonesian artists the possibility to come over here, and also opening up theopportunity for Austalians artists to go back to Indonesia.

There's been onlyone well know Australian artist, Sir Donald Friend, who unfortuately has passed away as well. You ask any collector i n Australia - his painting and poetry and work from Indonesia are fantastic even though he had a reputation as being a bit of a larrikin. But the AIAA has my full support and good luck for the future because it's going to be important for us now and forour children and the children afte rwards. It will help because there'sstill a fear of Indonesia being the unstable threat to Australia and it's not there. It's not the threat at all. It's going to be an asset. We justneed to break down a few barrie rs and the artist is the way that you dothat.

Just coming back to the Singapore thing - Why are you going to be exhibiting in Singapore what's the thing about that?

Well, I've had several exhibitions in Singapore as I said, it's going to be called Shen, the Chinese name for the yin/yang, or the elements fire,water, wood, stone, and air, also the full circle. So it will be called 'Shen, the Full Circle'. Singapore is very stable at the moment. Actually I've already lost, or not really lost, a certain number of paintings have been taken from my control, in Indonesia, for various reasons. So it's more stable in Singapore to actually put on an exhibition, and it's a stepping stone for the artists in Indonesia. A lot of the well known Indonesian artists now are exhibiting in Singapore because Singapore is itself the hub for South East Asian contemporary art and it's a safety valve for me because I'm always going to be a foreigner in Indonesia. I always renew my visas in Singapore (laughter) so instead of going straight into the Indonesian art scene at the moment which is not too healthy - it's getting much better - it's actually getting very highly priced actually. They work on the US market whereas in Australia it's the Austalian dollar. The artists are getting a lot of money for theirartwork. Which is justified too. Especally afer the struggle they go through to produce it. So you use Singapore instead of going straight into Indonesia. Singapore first then back into Indonesia.

Just to talk about the exhibition that's happening now (in Acacia St. Byron Bay). Maybe talk about yourself and any artists that are involved?

Acacia Steet's been wonderful. It's kind of - (laughter) - we're all odd-bods here. We've got a glass worker over the road here working, Warwick. We've got Paul and Gary. Gary does a lot of copperwork. Paul and Gary have both spent a lot of time in Indonesia as working artists. Warwick hasn't as such, but his work is very Asian based these days too. Honestly this exhibition is more of a review. We're always going, it's like a twenty-four-hour-seven-days-a-week thing for us but we've never actuallyopened the doors and said - hey come on for one night and have a look. It's a sort of introduction for us to the locals, really. A lot of our customers aren't so much local. They're either from Melbourne, Sydney, about 80% from Melbourne during the season.

Byron Bay, as I said reminds me a lot of Indonesia. It's very much a tourist place. You're sort of controlled by seasons here and it's not so easy to be a full-time working artist in Byron. But then again I think the lessons that I learned in Indonesia have enabled me to, as I said, drop the ego a bit, and to know when you've got money and when you don't have money. But that doesn't stop your productivity. You can either swap and change or you can change to some other field or you can keep involved in the circle of the arts.

Fortunately we've had a break from the street and been able to concentrate on the artwork which is slowly building up, which is good for us but it will probably be another couple of years before it will startreally paying it's way. At the moment we can afford materials and food, phone bills, and such, as such. It will take a while. This is just a particular thing this Friday but everyone's welcome anytime to come out and talk which we do all the time. We spend more time drinking coffee than selling paintings out here (laughter). So you're very welcome to come out and if anyone wishes to know anything about my experiences in Indonesia or a pointer in the direction or especially about my ex-partner's project with the children, just come and see me and I'll give you all the addresses.

Thank-you very much Andrew Jack, thank-you for everything.
The exhibition is at 13 Acacia Street Byron Bay,
Jeni Gonzales Bay FM

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