A cautionary tale for art lovers

Michael Johansen
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“Hello Mister! Where you from?”In Indonesia all strange male bule (Caucasians) are addressed as ‘Mister.’ Whether it’s a young couple wanting to pose in a photo with a foreigner, a hotel barker trying to attract a customer, some young kids speeding past on a bicycle, or (in this case) a soup vendor watching the pedestrians on crowded Malioboro Street in Yogyakarta, ‘Mister’ is the one English word most Javanese seem to know. The soup vendor, however, knew a few more.

“From Canada! Toronto! Brian Mulroney! CN Tower!”

Once he offered these proofs of knowledge his English faltered a little, but he was still able to claim he’d been in Canada for a couple of months back in the 1980s, but the more I asked Jocko (as he called himself) about his time here, the less he wanted to talk about it. He was more interested in talking about me.

“You staying here?”

He gestured towards the fancy hotel behind him. I laughed and said it was beyond my means. He asked me if I liked Indonesia. I said yes. These preliminaries done, Jocko got down to business.

Specific exhibition

“You know batik?”

I did, of course. Batik is one of the unique artforms that makes Indonesia famous. It involves painting on cloth using a wax-removal technique and it appears on clothing and on many wall-hangings and table-coverings.

“Have you seen the batik exhibition? Last day!”

Batik is exhibited everywhere in Yogyakarta, especially on Malioboro Street, but as he was referring to a specific exhibition, I said no. That was not my first mistake (not if you count stopping to speak with Jocko in the first place), but it was my first big one.

“Then you must!”

He took me himself. He led me away from his soup trolley, through a labyrinth of parked motorcycles, across the street choked with relentlessly moving cars, along a queue of horses and buggies, onto a sidewalk packed with tables displaying cheap souvenirs, and finally up a narrow flight of stairs to two large rooms. Jocko introduced me to the curator and then he returned to his soup. The curator welcomed me, sat me down at a small table, served me jasmine tea and demonstrated how batik is made by daubing hot wax onto a partially completed piece and explained how the paint is applied in successive layers to produce the intricate patterns. After he finished he said that the many paintings hanging on the walls had been made by artists from all over Indonesia. He claimed I had come on the very last day.

“Tomorrow we go to Sumatra.”

He invited me to look around and I made my second big mistake: I saw something I liked. Most of the art looked traditional — no images, just swirling patterns rendered in earthy colours. Other pieces looked modern, like the surfers outlined in florescent blues and yellows. What caught my eye were three tall panels, each depicting the same two women in a style halfway between new and old.

Once the curator noticed my interest I had no hope of leaving without a purchase. The artist, he said, was the famous Darien who just happened to be downstairs. He fetched him for me. After Darien arrived he did not leave my side. He had painted these recently, he said. The women were his favourite models — twin sisters from Yogyakarta, he explained. They were now well known because of his attention, he claimed.

Finally I asked:”How much for one of the paintings?”

Darien wrote the figure on a slip of paper: US$350.

I balked visibly and said,”Thanks, but I’m just a poor writer.”

Darien countered by asking me to name an amount I could afford, adding that if it was too low there would be no hard feelings. All right, I responded, and came up with a figure I was sure he would turn down. I liked the paintings, but I just wasn’t in the market for artwork.

“One hundred dollars,” I offered.

Darien accepted.

Five weeks later I was again on Malioboro Street walking past the same stairway. A man at the bottom called out to me.

“Hello Mister! Batik exhibition! Last day!”

Michael Johansen is a writer living in North West River, Labrador

Geographic location: Indonesia, Malioboro Street, Yogyakarta Canada Toronto Sumatra North West River

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