Interview with Emmo Italiaander

You have recently built a beautiful house near the ancient temple of Borobudur. Can you tell us a little more about this important project?

We lived in Jakarta for 35 years, as that was where our design and corporate branding business thrived and where we were able to provide our two children with a high standard international education.

When the time came to retire from our business, a move away from Jakarta to the heart of Central Java was the natural choice, as this particular part of Java was the closest to that which made me fall in love with Indonesia in the first place. The people are extremely friendly, they still practice the ancient Kejawen, the traditional Javanese universal belief, of being a good neighbour and living in harmony with nature and the universe. The area is also the centre of ancient cultures, from the Hindu Java period of Indonesia dating back as early as the 4th century, and many remnants of temples can be found in our neighbourhood. For me, Central Java is the spiritual centre of Indonesia and I found it a natural progression to move within a stone’s throw of the Borobudur temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. I feel extremely privileged to be able to view the Borobudur temple from my bedroom balcony and immerse myself in its peaceful and powerful energy. To accommodate our extensive Indonesian Art Collection, we purchased a hectare of land bordering the rice fields surrounding the Borobudur and built a 1200 square meter house designed by a young Indonesian Architect (see cover image). In contrast to the surroundings, the house is very modern and minimal in design. However, as part of our integration into the Javanese culture, we purchased a “Joglo”, a 120 square meter Javanese Pavilion from the early 1800’s which sits near our front gate and functions as a venue for cultural performances and as a holding area for guests before they progress into the main house. The remaining land has been cultivated into botanical gardens and an organic vegetable garden, both of which are ever evolving and growing.

What brought you to this part of the world?

After living in the USA for most of the 70’s, I travelled to Indonesia in 1979 via Australia where I was introduced to Indonesian art through the gallery of a dear friend in Sydney. After the US, arriving in Bali was like travelling back in time. I was fascinated by the cultural diversity and made it my objective to learn as much about it as I could. I spent two years travelling the Indonesian archipelago by foot, visiting mostly tribal areas where I was able to purchase and trade Indonesian Ethnographic art in order to sustain my adventure travels in Indonesia.

You have an important collection of emerging and established artists from Indonesia. What first attracted you to the world of contemporary Indonesian art?

First painting by OH Soepono acquired by Emmo Italiaander in the mid 80’s

When I first came to Indonesia in 1979 there was hardly any contemporary art to speak of, let alone anything of real quality. My initial interest in Indonesia was in ethnographic art, as I felt an affinity with the animist tribal areas of Indonesia, such as Timor and Sumba as well as areas of North Sumatra and Borneo. I felt the art from these areas was imbued with tremendous power (they were often used to communicate with the tribal ancestors) and it was often sculpturally superior. Tribal art was familiar to me as my older brother owns an African Art Gallery in Amsterdam, and I had an uncle who travelled extensively and wrote numerous books on Africa. I started collecting quality Indonesian art, both tribal and classical, once I had settled into life in Jakarta. In the early 80’s, when I visited homes of wealthy and important people in Jakarta, there was hardly any art on display. Most of the homes of Jakarta’s upper echelon were adorned with giant, heavily retouched self-portraits printed on canvas and framed with obnoxious elaborate golden frames, reminiscent of the French monarch Louis the X1V. I bought my first painting by OH Soepono (see above) in the mid 80’s. The painting was produced during the Sukarno era in the early 60’s. I was surprised to learn that Indonesians could paint like this, as this particular work resembled a style and quality of what could have been a Picasso. I bought my first Heri Dono painting in 1987 (see below), directly from the artist, which was the beginning of an enduring friendship. It also started my journey towards meeting artists and buying directly from them as opposed to buying from a gallery. My Dutch artist friend and founder of the Cemeti Gallery in Jogjakarta, Mella Jaarsma, was definitely the pioneer in promoting and exposing Indonesian contemporary art. She was ahead of her times and during the 80’s and 90’s she was often frowned upon by mainstream Indonesian collectors. However, there is no established and successful contemporary artist in Indonesia that did not pass through the doors of Cemeti before becoming the success that they are today. I collected Mella’s work and often visited her to get the pulse of the Indonesian Contemporary Art Scene. I continued buying Indonesia classical and tribal art and soon found myself buying in the US and Europe as good quality became increasingly hard to find in Indonesia. In the year 2000, after the financial crisis of the late 90’s, contemporary Indonesian art began to emerge. Many galleries sprouted up and auction houses started to take notice. However, I was never very good at following trends, and continued to buy ‘under the radar’, directly from the artist. I managed to acquire some excellent work, which still adorns the walls of our home today.

First work by Heri Dono acquired by Emmo Italiaander
First work by Heri Dono acquired by Emmo Italiaander

Not being Indonesian and having no consequent bias towards Indonesian art, I travelled to Vietnam, where I repeated my approach by visiting artist at their studios in both Saigon and Hanoi, and was able to obtain some excellent works.

Can you tell us a little about your previous role as CEO of Nuage Branding?

I established nuagebranding with my Indonesian wife Narcisse in 1981. We worked very hard to bring design excellence to Indonesia, offering quality content and design through our worldwide network of professionals who provided our company with innovation, copywriting in numerous languages, and the like. Besides producing high quality corporate branding, strategic design and communications, it was our philosophy to do ‘Pro Bono’ work whenever possible, often for foundations that offered health and education to the underprivileged and who could not afford professional services like ours. We also produced the Chase Manhattan Bank art program for 18 years, introducing the Chase constituencies to various aspects of Indonesian art & culture. Since the year 2000, we started sponsoring young artists through publications and art calendars. We look back fondly upon the 35 years of our design business in Jakarta. It enabled us to do exactly what we set out to do, which was to raise the bar and create work in Indonesia of a quality that equalled any produced elsewhere in the world.

What has been a highlight of your professional career? How did this affect you?

I started my career in Strategic Design as a professional photographer. One of the highlights of those early days was to receive the Gold Award at a Multi Media Festival in Philadelphia in 1996, for a multi projector, multi screen show, produced and photographed by myself. We beat National Geographic, Kodak and a host of others in the process. As time progressed and our firm became a full service design and branding company, it was a thrill to witness the public launching of our work for Airlines, State Gas Company and many others, often with large parades on Jakarta’s main thoroughfares (visit: / Upon my retirement from our design business 5 years ago, my natural progression was to gravitate towards my personal interests, such as attending to and cataloguing our diverse collection, as well as learning about botanical gardens and how to develop and maintain them.

Tell us about Kartika Affandi’s upcoming solo exhibition. What can visitors expect?

Work by Kartika Affandi, 1978

Following the move to the Borobudur area in Central Java, we are gradually becoming part of the extended community here, and with the artist community in nearby Jogjakarta. Some of the best pieces in our collection have come to us through serendipity, through an adventurous spirit that led us to unexpected and obscure places to find art treasures, either in artist studios and warehouses or private collectors’ homes. This sense of inquiry led to a phone call to Kartika Affandi, who generously invited us into her home and studio. I was looking for the next candidate for a solo exhibition at the time and was intrigued to learn about the history of the daughter of one of Indonesia’s greatest maestros. I quickly learned about the complexities in the relationship between father and daughter and the tumultuous life that Kartika, now 84, has led. Not being satisfied with the works that were available at her home, I was introduced to the Affandi Museum in Jogjakarta where I was shown the files of some 750 works by Kartika in storage, dating back to the early 70’s. It took several visits and several days to sort through the works and I was delighted to be able to make a selection of 50 works that were technically outstanding, delicate and emotional. As the works had been in storage for the most part of the last 40 years, they are in need of cleaning, restoration and framing before we can proceed with the arrangements for the Kartika Solo Exhibition at the National Gallery in Jakarta sometime next year. As the daughter of the great Affandi, Kartika has often lived in the shadow of her father, with her work not receiving the public recognition that it deserved. She suffered psychologically and for many years did not show her best works, placing them in storage at the Affandi museum instead. To make ends meet and to provide for her 8 children from the painter Sapto Hudoyo, she produced mostly decorative works for which she has become known. Based on the merit of the works that I had just discovered, I made it my personal goal to reverse Kartika’s fortunes and to prepare a solo exhibition that would set the record straight regarding her status, to be viewed independently from her famous name Affandi. Fundraising to pay for the restoration costs has been an uphill battle, and most heavy hitters in the Indonesian art world have not responded to nor shared our enthusiasm thus far. Obviously there is huge public bias towards her in Indonesia, and it is a bit late in her career to rectify years of neglect and mismanagement, but this does not detract from the excellence of the selected works. She remains one of the few great living artists of her generation.

What is it about Indonesian culture that makes for such powerful work

There is no simple answer regarding what is Indonesian art. I am interested in the Pan Indonesian experience, as there are few countries in the world that have such a rich and diverse culture as Indonesia, with more than 300 different ethnic groups spread over 13000 islands.

There is the Classical art from Java in Stone, Bronze, Gold and Terra Cotta, dating from the 4th century through to the 14th century Madjapahit empire and rated among the world’s best. Then there is the Tribal art, ranging from sculpture to complex Ikat Textiles. There is the art from the Kratons, the royal palaces of Java and Bali. There is a wide range of Folk Art, including Glass Paintings to Wayang pupets and Batik, to name a few.

Art has been an integral part of Indonesian culture, essential to numerous traditional ceremonies and belief systems, most of which are still alive and practiced today. It is against this backdrop that contemporary art emerged in Indonesia, driven by information technology, whereby artists were able to see and communicate with their peers worldwide and become part of a global artist community. When strong spiritual roots and creative intuition are combined with ideas and techniques obtained from the world beyond Indonesia’s borders, the outcome can be very powerful; although the temptation and danger of derivation remains a threat to its integrity.

Your Made Wianta exhibition is coming up. Tell us about this show and how it came about.

A painting by Made Wianta, collection Emmo Italiaander

I consider myself a close friend of Made Wianta, although I have only known him for about 15 years.

Made Wianta is a Renaissance man, a man of vision and many skills, from Painting and Sculpture to Dance, Music, Poetry, Calligraphy and Performance Art. Although Made Wianta was trained as a traditional Balinese artist, from early on he had a very strong affinity with the West and thinks and expresses himself in a very un-Indonesian way, which makes his art universal. Made Wianta is a high-energy person, a very prolific artist. Originally destined to follow his father’s footsteps as a Balinese High Priest, he instead became a magician and expressed his spirituality through his art, playfulness, and sense of humour. For seven years I have been the organizer and curator of a Corporate Sponsored Art Program for a leading Financial Services company in Jakarta for whom I source, organize and curate a solo exhibition in Jakarta each year. I had access to the perfect vehicle for Made Wianta’s work.

How do you see the world of contemporary art changing in the future? What impact do you think new technology will have on art and curation?

Having lived and worked in Indonesia for the past 38 years, my view on contemporary art is somewhat limited to the region in which I have lived and operated. If I would have lived in Australia for example, I would have collected young Australian artists and through this relationship created a bond and kinship that would deepen my life’s experience there. Our art collection is only a snap shot of the thousands of possibilities for cultural impact and it should be viewed in the context of living the Indonesian experience to the fullest, where myth and superstition still matter. Our collection is clearly a reflection of how we view the world, of what matters to us and what makes sense to us. As such, many contemporary artworks, although of great merit, would look absurd and completely out of place in our home.

As we can see at the many Art Fairs sprouting up all over the world, technology has enabled and empowered both audiences and artists in many ways. Technically the works may be mind-blowing, but I often feel that this is at the cost of real content. At the recent ARTSTAGE fair in Jakarta for example, it was impressive how well presented and organized the various artists and galleries were. What was served up, however, was yesterday’s fare of warmed up leftovers, lacking spark, surprise and engagement, and I am afraid that with the mass production and proliferation of Art Fairs in Asia, content may suffer, as the organizers need to meet operating costs and may not be able to afford to set stringent quality guidelines. Regarding the curation of the artist and his works, I view this process as a partnership in which, through collaboration, we look for the best way to reach out to and engage our audience, so that we may open their eyes to new possibilities. I do not see how technology can affect such intimate a relationship.

What are some of the challenges working as an art advisor? What are some of the freedoms?

I offer art consultations completely on a case by case bases, and only accept assignments that are compatible with my own personal philosophy and tastes in art. In this regard, I am totally free; however once I have committed to a project, I will need to ride the ups and downs and work within the common constraints that come with any relationship, either with the artist or with the owners or sponsors. I feel it is my mission to introduce great art, that which is fresh to the eye and that stimulates the intellect, which uplifts and educates, even though this may not always be commercially viable, as the majority of Indonesian collectors do not like work that is thought provoking or difficult to understand. I require a certain intensity in the relationship; it needs to be challenging for me to become involved, and thus only certain people are attracted to this kind of energy. It is not easy, but it is certainly rewarding.

You are friend and confidant of many artists in Bandung and Jogjakarta. How do they feel about the international art market? What are their challenges ahead?

I enjoy a good rapport with many artists in Jogjakarta and some in Bandung, some established artists and some young aspiring artists. I often spend time brainstorming with some of them, and I have given a talk to the graduate students of the Jogjakarta largest art school recently. Being able to speak honestly with the artist is a delicate process. Artists must be prepared to work hard “for art sake”, without too many expectations or dreams of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is a huge pool of talent, some with provenance and some with future potential, some will break through but most of them will stagnate and fall by the wayside, due to lack of energy, intensity or creative spark. It is a process not unlike any other profession. Once they have achieved a successful breakthrough in Indonesia and have been shown through a gallery at art fairs, the sky is the limit depending on the style and the kind of work. Sometimes it is the other way around, whereby good abstract art is not being sufficiently appreciated in Indonesia and the artist finds representation abroad, where their work is instead recognized and appreciated, like the Indonesian abstract artist Hanafi, who had sold out exhibitions in Barcelona 15 years ago, before people started to pay attention to him in Indonesia.

Many Indonesian artists, to a certain extent, are underrepresented at an international level. Do you agree with this statement? And, why is that?

I honestly cannot comment as I do not have sufficient information whether Indonesian artists are underrepresented or not. It has to do with the quality of the work, the price and provenance and to some degree sustainability of the artist with regard to market value. At an international level there is more choice, the market is more educated and thus only few can break through and sustain themselves internationally.

For example, the painter Agus Suwage is a successful artist and regularly exhibits in New York. He has been around for some 20 years and his work is consistently of a very high standard, while his ideas are universal and intellectual and therefore appealing to collectors in the West.

Having lived in Indonesia for the past 38 years I have a good understanding of where some artists are coming from, and when concepts are devoid of any cultural context, I become suspicious and find work either derivative or plain pretentious, yet some viewers in the West may not perceive this in the same way.

What do you think of the gallery system in Indonesia? Obviously, in the last 10 years, the art scene has changed. How would you describe that evolution? How do you see the art scene developing in the near and far future? 

Many galleries have sprouted up since Indonesia emerged from the financial crisis of the late 90’s.

The question should be: do galleries contribute to the development of the artist? Do galleries invest time and money in the artist to help stimulate new ideas, new markets and new environments in which the artist can thrive?

Again, I rarely visit galleries since I have moved to Central Java and know only of a handful that I respect and which share my values. Perhaps the quality and commitment of galleries in Indonesia will improve in the future, when the market is better educated and becomes more demanding.

Singapore is trying to position itself as a regional hub. Can Jakarta compete or is the game over?

Art Market
Art Market Intelligence I Southeast Asia

Singapore is a City state with very limited resources which has very generously developed an art scene with quality museums, galleries and some art in public spaces. However, the art market in Singapore remains very limited and small, and Singapore relies on the surrounding countries for generating traffic and support. For example, some great world class galleries such as ArtPlural and museums such as the Pinacotheque could not sustain themselves in Singapore and closed down after a few years. Indonesia by comparison is an archipelago the size in width of the USA, a population of 250 million and a emerging middle class, while the majority of Indonesians are in their thirties.

The Jakarta Art Scene can only grow, with more and better museums, both private and government funded, Art Fairs and major exhibitions. The popular and successful ARTJOG art fair in Jogjakarta, for example, has had a ten year run and is planning to open one in Bali next year. It is a momentum that cannot be turned back, for the market is developing, with talent and money at hand.  The next generation of Indonesians, many of which have been educated overseas, are taking over their parent’s businesses. They want designer furniture, they want contemporary art and they are not afraid to pay for it.

Art Stage is coming to Indonesia and will soon organise its third edition. Do you welcome such initiatives? Can South-East Asia support so many regional Art Fairs?

Art Stage had its second edition of the fair in Jakarta this year and got rave reviews. It is an ideal networking event, fun for young generations who are looking for an alternative to a Saturday afternoon at the mall. The place was packed, very well organized, promoted and marketed, which is something that after almost 10 years in Singapore, the ArtStage organization has become very good at. Observing the crowd, I ask myself who are these people, where do they come from and where do they live, are they buyers or just window shoppers?

In the end one has to ask the galleries how they fared, did they sell? Was their participation a worthwhile investment? Only then can we know if this trend is real and sustainable.