Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Sanga Pangihoetan Simanjuntak

Batak paints against all odds

By: Kornelius Purba, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Many people were surprised when told that a Batak painter was holding a two-week solo exhibition at Sari Pan Pacific Hotel in Jakarta, marking his 20th year as a painter.

The Batak people are well known for their music and singing talents, probably thanks to their strong gospel tradition. Many have made their mark in the music and recording industry.

"A Batak painter is an oddity," the features editor of a national newspaper jokingly remarked upon hearing the name Sanga Pangihoetan Simanjuntak.

Of course there have been a few Batak people who have made a name for themselves in the fine arts, like visual artist Semsar Siahaan, sculptor Dolorosa Sinaga and installation artist Marida Nasution. But they are very few.

"Even my parents still see the profession of my choice as a strange one although they saw my talent as a child," the expressionist told The Jakarta Post at his exhibition.

His parents wanted him to become a government employee -- a common job for Batak people. They only wanted him to paint as a hobby and they did not want to hear people tell them that their son could become a famous painter one day.

Simanjuntak recalled how his sketches, many of them images of Jesus Christ and other prophets like Moses, were often displayed for the public by his teachers when he was still at primary school and senior high school.

But this still failed to impress his parents.

"For them to become a civil servant was everything," Simanjuntak said.

To show their disapproval for his chosen profession, his parents never asked him for any paintings. A few years ago he sent them one of his works but he is not sure whether they appreciated it.

Simanjuntak is displaying 14 paintings in his exhibition entitled The Hidden Legacy of Jakarta. His works, -- mostly of mixed media, acrylic, or acrylic and mixed media or gauche on paper -- include, Alun Alun Jakarta Tertua Yang Tersisa (The Relics of Jakarta Square, Sebuah Sisi Kali Besar (One side of Kali Besar), Menara Pasar Ikan (Pasar Ikan Tower), Kapal Kapal Nelayan Sunda Kelapa (Fishing vessels in Sunda Kelapa Port), Jembatan Gantung Kali Besar (Kali Besar Suspension Bridge), Arkade Gedung Tua (Old building Arcade), Gereja Immanuel (Immanuel Church) and Gereja Katedral (The Cathedral). It is his sixth solo exhibition.

The exhibition was opened by Germany's Ambassador to Indonesia Gerhard Fulda. It is not a coincidence, because some of Simanjuntak's works were auctioned to help the needy members of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (HKBP) church in Jakarta, which has strong relations with the Lutheran church in Germany. It was German missionary Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen who introduced Christianity to the Batak people in 1864.

Born in Tarutung, North Sumatra, on April 29, 1964, Simanjuntak finished senior high school in his hometown in 1982. Then he continued his studies in Jakarta along with his four siblings who were also studying here.

His father Mardin Simanjuntak, a civil servant and mother Riste Hutabarat, a coffee trader, wanted him to become a lawyer. Their reasoning was simple: the legal profession is very suitable for Batak people because they like to argue.

So, to please his parents, Simanjuntak registered at the Faculty of Law at the University of Indonesia, and without their knowledge he also registered at the art department of IKIP Jakarta (now named Jakarta State University).

"My parents of course were disappointed, but they hoped I would become a teacher after finishing my studies," he said, laughing.

He graduated in 1988. While studying he also worked as a designer in a national textile company but quit in 1999.

He married Linda Wahyu Winata in 1993. They have an eight-year-old daughter Lopian na Marsere, and are expecting their second child in August. Linda works with a textile firm.

In 1999 he resigned from his design job. Then, with the support of his wife he decided to become a full-time painter. He said he was grateful to U.S. businessman Garry L. Bohn because he decided to quit the company after Bohn bought nine of his paintings.

"My mother was shocked on hearing my decision. She asked me how I would support my family if I was 'jobless'," Simanjuntak recalled.

Simanjuntak said that his fellow Batak consider his works, which he sets at an average of Rp 5 million, too expensive.

"Some of them go as far as to demand to know how much I bought the paint for and want me to sell the painting for just a little more," he said.

The ongoing economic crisis however has also affected his activity, because many of the expatriates who were his biggest collectors have left the country. Now his collectors are mostly from Jakarta. They visit his studio in Bekasi, West Java.

"Painting is not only a matter of money, although I also need it," Simanjuntak said.

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