Indonesian artist Affandi (1907–1990) was one of his country's best-known painters during the 20th century. One of the few Indonesian artists to gain an international reputation, he mounted exhibitions in Europe and the United States as well as in several Asian countries outside Indonesia.
Affandi was a prolific painter, creating more than 2,000 works. A strongly nationalistic figure, he played a significant role in the cultural movements that preceded and ran parallel to Indonesia's independence struggle against the Netherlands, which occurred during the 1940s. The subject matter of his works draws heavily on village life and the folkways of his Java island home. However, Western viewers often place Affandi within the sphere of modern art. Although he denied that he was influenced by European artists of the Expressionist movement, his works echo Expressionism in their use of distorted figures, psychological themes, and strongly atmospheric images that seem to reflect the emotions involved in the scene depicted. In addition to painting, Affandi designed his own home and its grounds in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and the site remains a major Javanese tourist attraction.
Affandi was born Affandi Koesoema in 1907 in Cirebon, a village on Java's north coast. The area was part of the Dutch East Indies and controlled by the Netherlands. His father, whose name was recorded only as R. Koesoema, was an inspection assistant at a sugar processing facility in nearby Ciledug. Many Indonesians use a single name, and Affandi went by that name alone for most of his life. Although Indonesia's Dutch rulers did not encourage the education of native Indonesians of any but the highest classes, Affandi's father hoped that his son would become a doctor and found him the best education available at a time when some Dutch schools were accepting Indonesian students. Affandi moved to the Indonesian capital of Batavia (now Jakarta) to attend the Algemeene Middlebare School, a top Dutch high school, although he dropped out before finishing his studies.
In the 1930s, Affandi resided in Bandung, a city in the mountains south of Batavia. In 1933, he married 16-yearold Maryati, a girl from the city of Bogor, who shared his interest in art. During this period, Affandi earned a living by teaching and by working as a ticket-taker in a Bandung movie theater. Sometimes he painted posters for the theater, making money as an artist for the first time. He met several other aspiring artists and formed a group called the Kelompok Lima Bandung—the Bandung Group of Five. At the time, because there were few or no venues where Indonesian artists could exhibit their work, the group was more oriented toward study than toward the exhibition and sale of artworks. By the late 1930s, with Affandi as the group's leader, the Bandung Group of Five had begun to lay the groundwork for the development of the fine arts in the future country of Indonesia.
At the beginning of World War II, the Dutch East Indies were occupied by Japanese forces. At first, many Indonesians viewed the Japanese as liberators because they helped to end Dutch rule over the islands. Affandi accepted Japanese governance, and in 1943 he mounted his first exhibition in Jakarta, at a building associated with the Japanese administration. During this period he became acquainted with the Indonesian general Soekarno (later spelled Sukarno) and with other military leaders who shared the goal of Indonesian independence. In June of 1945, Sukarno gave a speech outlining Pancasila, the five principles that went on to form the foundation of the modern Indonesian state. Due to his high profile, Affandi was given the job of designing the posters that publicized the event.
Affandi moved to the city of Yogyakarta, in Central Java, in 1945, and, except for short sojourns in Jakarta and abroad, that city remained his home for the rest of his life. On October 17, 1945, Indonesia took advantage of the power vacuum created by Japan's defeat and declared independence. Not surprisingly, the new government soon came under attack from the Netherlands, which in early 1946 launched military operations aimed at regaining its former colony. As they would do throughout southeast Asia, the Dutch established control over major cities but failed to subdue guerrilla fighters in the countryside. During Indonesia's four-year war for independence, Affandi was active as a propaganda artist, painting recruitment posters urging young Indonesians to join the fight against the Dutch. In 1948, he moved to Jakarta temporarily and co-founded the Union of Indonesian Painters.
After Indonesia gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1949, Affandi became one of the new country's most recognized cultural figures. The government of India granted him a fellowship to study art at Tagore University (now Visva-Bharati University) in Santiniketan that same year. He remained in India through 1951, mounting exhibitions in that country and then in other countries in Europe and South America. The intention of these exhibitions was to raise Indonesia's cultural profile, and in this enterprise Affandi was largely successful: his work gained notice in Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain, and Italy, and he received a letter from Sukarno, by Indonesia's first president, thanking him for his efforts. In 1957, Affandi made the first of three visits to the United States, studying for four months in New York City and exhibiting his paintings at the New York Press Club.
By the mid-1950s, Affandi was painting in a style that was often compared to European Expressionism, although he denied a direct link and pointed to the influence of earlier European painters he had encountered, such as the surrealistic Dutch Renaissance master Hieronymus Bosch. In his canvases, he captured scenes from ordinary life while also showing aspects of Indonesian life such as homelessness and rural poverty, to the dismay of some locals who preferred representations with more conventional ideas of beauty. For international art lovers, his ability to combine an Indonesian subject matter with an Expressionist style proved compelling. This continued as his technique evolved. By the 1960s, Affandi was painting even more spontaneously than before: he applied paint to canvases directly from the tube, spreading it with his hands rather than a paintbrush.
After Maryati's death, Affandi remarried and had a son, Juki. Both Juki and Kartika Affandi would also become artists. One of Affandi's greatest creative works was his home, which he designed for his family and constructed on the banks of the Gajah Wong River in Yogyakarta. He laid out the grounds and drafted plans for several of the buildings himself. The banana leaf shape of one of the buildings recalled the artist's use of banana leaves to protect his paintings during his days as a struggling young artist, and other aspects of the design also had symbolic meanings.
Now serving as the Affandi Museum, the house contains a selection of paintings by both the artist and his children and contains art education facilities. The museum opened in 1988, while Affandi was still alive, and additional spaces were converted into exhibition galleries in the 1990s. The museum displays more than 200 of Affandi's paintings and sculptures and also exhibits some of his personal possessions, including his favorite car, a 1976 Mitsubishi Galant.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Affandi's international reputation grew, and he was often chosen to represent Indonesia at prestigious international competitions. On a 1967 visit to the United States, he executed a mural at Jefferson Hall at the University of Hawai'i. Affandi was designated by the Indonesian government as the country's representative at the Biennial exhibition in Sydney, Australia, in 1973. The following year, he was granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Singapore and received the International Peace Award from Norway's Dag Hammerskjöld Foundation. In 1977, Affandi was designated a Grand Maestro by the City of Venice, Italy, and also made the haj pilgrimage to Mecca required of all able-bodied Muslims.
Affandi remained active in his later years, mounting several exhibitions together with his children in various Indonesian cities, as well as being the subject of solo shows at Jakarta's new Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural park and Yogyakarta's Gedung Pameran Seni Rupa exhibition space. He visited the United States for the last time in 1984, to attend an Indonesian Arts and Handicrafts Festival in Houston, Texas.
Affandi died on May 23, 1990, at the age of 83, and was buried outside his Yogyakarta home. Several major exhibitions devoted to his work, including one at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, followed shortly after his death.
New York Times, May 25, 1990.
Affandi Museum, http://www.affandi.org/affandi/biografy-affandi (June 15, 2017).
Anijeya, http://www.anjieya.com/2010/11/biography-of-affandi.html (November 14, 2010), Ziezie Romia, “Biography of Affandi.”
Biography Collection (Japan), http://biographycolllection.blogspot.jp/2012/02/affandi-biography-of-famous-painters.html (February 22, 2012), Zainal Arifin, “Affandi Biography of the Famous Painters from Indonesia.”
Merdeka, https://profil.merdeka.com/indonesia/a/affandi-koesoema/ (June 15, 2017), “Affandi Koesoema.”□