'From the Exquisite to Excrement' in Jakarta Post

August 2001

Grace Siregar is beginning to shine artistically. Though not yet as well known as her fellow Batak painter Dolorosa Sinaga, Grace is one of the most acclaimed woman artists in the country, taking part in numerous important contemporary art events.

Born in Tarutung, North Sumatra, on April 16, 1968, Grace studied painting with Ahmad on Bangka Island in South Sumatra from the ages of six to 14. She has beenin the fine arts spotlight over the last two years. But that is only one small component of her career and interests. Grace spent three years in the Netherlands, 1995 to 1998, where she obtained a law degree and worked as a correspondent for Jakarta newspaper. During this time she also spent two years studying under Dutch artist Jan van Stolk.

In Holland, she held a solo exhibition at the Overtoom Gallery in Amsterdam in 1997, and took part in a joint exhibition with daan Heldring at WG Gallery in Amsterdam in 1998.

She made her debut in Jakarta in a joint exhibition at Bezete Gallery, Kebayoran Baru, Jakarta, in February 2000. This was followed by nine joint exhibitions, including shows at Bentara Budaya, Taman Blok M Plaza and the National Gallery, and a solo show at the Semanggi Fine Art Hall in June.

She is currently taking part in a joint exhibition with several other artists at the British Council's Wijoyo Center in Jakarta. Organized in cooperation with Cemara 6 Gallery, the show will run until Sept 30.

Lacking attraction

The subjects of Grace's work, whether on canvas (with various media) or installations, range from reminiscences of her childhood on Bangka to topical sociopolitical issues. She has decorated a tree trunk at the National Gallery and created an installation from a bathtub, toilet, feces and toilet paper.

Generally speaking, her artistic expressions are not to everyone's taste and some of her works could be described as unpleasant. Despite this, japanesse collectors have shown great enthusiasm for her work, as have Dutch and American art enthusiasts. Indonesian collectors, however, have avoided her canvases, though cultural expert Umar Kayam does have a painting by Grace, having received it as a gift.

"It depicts myself turned upside down, because I had my period and a headache when I was painting. My friend gave it to Umar kayam as a birthday present. I myself don't know him personally yet, nor have I seen where the canvas is hung," said Grace with a laugh.

In the past two to three years on intense artistic creation, Grace has been faced with a distinct lack of interest from local collectors. Despite the absence of income from Indonesian buyers, she has not given up hope. She continues to create, with her work piled up at her home in Pasar Genjing, East Jakarta.

As a consolation, Grace likens herself to Vincent van Gogh. During his life, the artist, whose paintings are now worth billions of rupiah, enjoyed scant profit from his work. But still, Grace would like to reap the fruits of her hard work while still alive.

She is aware that, in general, collectors in Indonesia prefer art that presents traditional female beauty. She also knows that her paintings and installations do not fall into this category.

Though the temptation to sell out is great, Grace maintains her ideals and continues to listen to her inner muse, ignoring considerations of commercial success, public preference and the comments of critics and curators.

What she wants upon the unveiling her works is to create a dialog with the public. Therefore, she lets the society be the curator, rather than those whose names are officially listed at museums. It is public art that is her focus.

Grace has observed that her foray into public art has produced diverse, often surprising, and that straightforward feedback.

She greatly enjoys and is most satisfied creating public art pieces, allowing communication with people from all walks of life to take placedirectly, frankly and spontaneously.

Grace has covered trees near the Blok M bus terminal with white cloth and built installations out of photos, plastic and other media at Semanggi. The works drew a range of responses from cigarette peddlers, pregnant housewives and executives.

"Some praised them as wonderful works, while others just called them sheep droppings," Grace said with some amusement.

Whether wonderful or dung, Grace saw the comments as deserving of respect. To her, open and direct criticism avoids distortion.

Her dedication to public art is in itself absorbing as well as tense. And while exciting, it demands funds for both the creative process and installation. Consequently, she and her husband, young British film director Alexander Tristan Davey, have to live prudently. The solo installation she organized at Semanggi, for example, was made possible by money the couple had saved for a year.

In her view, the works and the artists creating them should be separate. By creating this distance, the art will not be bound by the signature on the corner of the canvas.

So the name "Grace Siregar" cannot be found on her work - instead, somewhat mysteriously, she initials her works "ESH", short for Elfrieda Solacratia Hanna.