Pity the casual tourist seeking the offbeat attraction, the singular artefact, the exceptional craftwork. In Bali – no problem. Signs pointing to studios, workshops and artist centres clutter the streetscape, though seldom deliver. Time-pressed visitors rarely get to meet the originator; only staff whose sole contact with the artisan is through unpacking deliveries from her or his hills hideaway.
It’s different in Java – particularly in the villages and towns where the locals consider outsiders as curious pale-hued humans and not walking wallets. Don’t expect to find without much asking. In this zone Google isn’t helpful, as little has been recorded.
Cirebon, on the north coast of Java and about 220 kilometres east of Jakarta, is billed as a tourist town. This is a stretch of hyperbole, though it has some locations for selfies and a few magnets for historians. These include the little Red Mosque of Panjunan (1480) which appears well maintained though built of timber; the people must have been smaller in that era as it’s stoop or suffer a cracked head. It’s linked to Sunan Gunung Jati, one of the nine “Muslim saints” known as the Walisongo who are reputed to have brought Islam to the archipelago. They were Arabs, or descendants of Arabs; some may have arrived from India as traders and started proselytising.
There are two kraton (Sultan’s palaces) – Kasepuhan (1447), and Kacirebonan (1807) – and the Dutch wharf signal tower (1918), incongruous among the modern shipping. Although made of teak, its ladders wouldn’t pass a safety audit, so it’s best viewed from outside.
These are the dead relics. The live crafters are elsewhere. Like in Gegesik, a 40-minute drive northwest of the city where Kusdono “Dono” Rastika, 36, maintains the ancient Verre Eglomise technique. This is named after the 18th century French artist Jean-Baptiste Glomy who pioneered the style.
More prosaically labelled “reverse glass painting” it probably came to the East Indies during the so-called “ethical” Dutch colonial period early last century; the skill almost disappeared after the Netherlanders went home.
In Europe it’s normally linked to religious motifs. Though some have been painted in Indonesia, including Arabic calligraphy, the subjects tend to be more whimsical. The paintings have a slight 3D effect and are well protected because the image is not on the front of the glass.
Working from a wheelchair – Dono suffered a spinal injury when a 12-year old playing in the schoolyard – he produces exquisite work taught by his late father, Rastika. He also learned the craft from other artists in the village. During his lifetime he’s believed to have produced 2,000 paintings and held 17 exhibitions. The polymath has also carved puppets and played in gamelan orchestras.
His son is also talented. “First I sketch my ideas on transparent paper,” he said. “I favour wayang (characters from ancient stories usually told in puppet shows) which I used to watch with my father, and then start work on the glass.
“I paint upside-down and back-to front. I know how it will appear from the front through long experience. As I work, I add features that weren’t in the original sketch. It takes about two weeks to finish and frame.”
Dono, a Muslim, has also painted Christ’s Last Supper, though this is more a copy of the much-imitated Leonardo da Vinci mural in Milan, rather than a Javanese take on the Biblical story.
Dono’s prices range from Rp1 million (US$66) to ten times more for the larger pieces. He has exhibited in Surabaya and sold overseas; packers should work with care – the glass is only three millimetres thick.
He lives in a small kampung with no signage. His presence is known only to connoisseurs and members of the local art community, like Asep Syaefuddin, 35, just a few streets distant. Again, no signage, but his big wagons parked on the narrow road are splendid advertisements.
Asep’s artistry also has a French name, though now Anglicised – papier mache. The art of using paper and starch goes back to the ancient Egyptians creating death masks, though they worked with papyrus.
Asep’s specialty also includes masks – though these are huge and atop extraordinary colourful floats used in parades and special events. They also feature a few wayang characters. However, most are bizarre fearsome figures which would never hit the cutting-room floor in a low budget sci-fi movie set.
Like Dono he pulls images hot from the furnace of his imagination stoked by an eclectic mix of Western fantasy and Javanese culture. A favourite figure is the burok, a bird with grotesque head; the word is also a generic term for the art.
Like the reverse glass painting the art may have arrived in Cirebon early last century where it settled in Kalimaro village.
Prices for a custom-made carriage start at Rp8 million (US $540) and come with four wheels salvaged from discarded rubbish carts. The over-the-top designs are brightly coloured and well varnished to protect against rain. For those seeking a one-off use, Asep will rent a wagon for Rp700,000 (US $46) a day. Burok are hired for ceremonies like circumcision processions and fast-breaking. They’d also be fine for a fun wedding, provided ceremony and reception venues are not too distant. Asep’s burok can carry people, but plump Westerners might want to check the suspension – and any mythology surrounding the beast, just to ensure its use is propitious. Riding a creature famous for devouring maidens might not lead to future marital harmony.