Once sacred, now glass painting from Cirebon is considered as nothing more than cheap craft.
Bentara Budaya Jakarta (BBJ) organized the exhibition “Cultural Heritage, Wangsa Cerbon-Dermayu” on 13-23 June 2013, which showed masks, pottery, batik, wayang, and glass painting. Its historical background shows that the glass painting of Cerbon and Dermayu was initially meant for the aristocracy, and was believed to contain sacred and mystical values – these paintings were hung in front of doors to prevent evil spirits. But these days, glass painting is positioned as decoration and sold cheaply. Whereas behind the work, there lies a “reversed” creation process that demands dilligence and attention to detail, as well as in choosing the colour palette.
Rastika, Pembuat Batik (hitam Putih), 85 x 122 cm
In order to show the fateful journey of glass painting, BBJ presented the works of two glass painters considered to be the best, who has consistently preserved traditional techniques: Rastika and his son, Kusdono.
Taking up the theme of “Wangsa”, which literally means “cultural heritage”, both artists exhibited 24 paintings, Rastika (19 paintings) and Kusdono (5 paintings), revolving around local folklore, wayang stories, the everyday life of the Cirebon people as well as majestic symbols from the area, such as Buroq (a human-headed bird). “Essentially, the theme of the works are divided into land, air, and the sea,” explains Ipong Poernama Sidhi, BBJ’s curator.
In the area of glass painting, Rastika is a senior figure. The 70-year old artist has been working on glass painting for 50 years, and now his son, Kusdono, carries on the profession. As he suffered from polio as a child, 32-year old Kusdono now works from a wheelchair. From Kusdono, we can see how art practice does not acknowledge physical disability as long as there is a persistent will.
In most of the 19 paintings he created, Rastika was inspired by wayang figures, as well as by the different variety of arts from Cirebon. From all of his works, Rastika is most impressed by Gatot Kaca Sabda Guru, with the size of 30×25 cm, which he made in the 1960s as an 18-year old. In the painting, we may see that black paint of the Gatot Kaca figure has faded in time.
Rastika was fascinated by wayang stories as a youth, and he was once a gamelan player for a number of wayang shows. As the musician for the shows, he paid close attention to the story told by the narrator before painting it. “Ever since I was young, my life story resembles that of my father’s. We both like wayang themes as we both enjoy watching the shows till early in the morning,” said Kusdono who is keen on the figure of Semar, who represented the good in a person, both in mind as well as in his actions.
Other paintings that caught the visitors’ attention was Banda Kawa Tayuban (80×122 cm) and Pembuat Batik, a black and white painting of 85×122 cm. Ipong Purnama Sidhi mentioned that the strengths of the two artists lie in their ability to create interesting compositions that are far from stereotypes. With Pembuat Batik, the monochromatic colour is the reason why it is particularly unique. Rastika rarely paints in black and white as the process is more difficult, where one colour has to stand out more than the others, while the base must still be brown.
The details of glass painting show a process that demands perseverance. This is what Rastika and Kusdono do on a daily basis at home, in the village of Gegesik Kulon, Gegesik area, Cirebon municipality, West Java. They do not only create paintings, but often provide training in traditional techniques in the studio that Rastika founded, Sanggar Prabangkara. In its development, now glass painting is aware of the spray paint technique introduced by Totok Sunu, one of Rastika’s students.
Rastika’s persistence to preserve traditional techniques found support in the previous Minister of Tourism, Post, and Telecommunications, Joop Ave. “Don’t go off-track when making paintings,” said Joop Ave to Rastika. What he meant was not to imitate other techniques such as spray paint, and to maintain classical imageries. This is something that Rastika and his family continues to do – to always remain fateful and to show great care as well as humility in the face of tradition.
The traditional glass painting technique is relatively complex. In the beginning, the artist creates a sketch on canvas, before attaching it on the glass surface and begins working on the colour gradations, which uses the kuda terbang brand of paint. The colour composition usually consists of 50% red, 25% green, and 25% another colour, as well as black for its base colour and white and gold as its final additions. When considered perfect, the painting is covered in a kind of talc to guard it against humidity, before it is finally framed. Whereas in three-dimensional glass paintings, the sketches are split into three – front, middle and back – before they are combined and every glass is separated by a dividing space.
With such intricate details, it is unfortunate that glass painting does not receive the appreciation it deserves. “Here, glass painting is thought to be craft,” uttered Ipong Purnama Sidhi. This is so, despite the long history of the media, dating back to 17th century Europe before it began to influence Southeast Asia including Indonesia. Aside from Cirebon, glass painting steadily developed in Yogyakarta, Magelang, Madura, and Singaraja – Bali.
There are also two other glass painting maestros other than Rastika, Jro Dalang Diah (Singaraja) and Waged (Jogjakarta) – both have passed away. As a known figure in glass painting, Rastika once had an extensive network in the 1980s and 1990s. Many people came to his house to purchase paintings, even politicians from the New Order regime. But the current fate of glass painting as well as its maestro is not as sweet as it once was.
The attention given by the town where it originated from, according to Kusdono, is very little. In fact, support usually comes externally. For instance, when Rastika went through a stroke. The family was worried in terms of dealing with the financial situation, and much help came from Rastika’s friends from abroad.
When glass painting artists face financial hardship, it is because the sale price of their works are too low, considering they have to spend up to Rp 1 million to create a large painting, and Rp 500 thousand for a small one.
Despite their views of how fulfilling being a glass painter is, both Rastika and Kusdono hopes that glass painting – as one of Cirebon’s many art forms – will receive greater appreaciation, especially from the government.
Rastika, Gatot Kaca Sabda Guru, 60 x 72 cm