Gateways to the Soul

Carla Bianpoen, WEEKENDER | Thu, 10/27/2011 12:22 PM |

Dr. Oei Hong Djien combines a lifelong love of art with tobacco traditions.

Oei Hong Djien by Carla BianpoenOei Hong Djien by Carla BianpoenDr. Oei Hong Djien is known as Indonesia’s most established collector and patron of visual arts. His significance in the art world in Indonesia is perhaps superseded only by Soekarno, Indonesia’s first president, considered the first collector in Indonesian history

Like Soekarno, Oei Hong Djien, also known as OHD, has made his collections available to the public. He founded the OHD Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in his hometown Magelang, Central Java. Oei’s collections span more than a century of Indonesian visual art, including works created by foreign artists while residing in Indonesia and by Indonesian artists in the Netherlands.

Even more interesting are the personal stories behind each Indonesian painting that Oei, 72, tells with tireless enthusiasm. He is an eloquent speaker, welcomed at international and national seminars. He holds an international reputation as a knowledgeable collector of Indonesian visual art, with his advice sought by international museum directors, researchers and artists alike. After two terms as honorary adviser to the Singapore Art Museum, he became a board member, and is adviser to the Singapore National Gallery.

With more than 2,000 works devoted to Indonesia, Oei’s museum is the only one of its kind in the world. In April, Oei will transform a tobacco warehouse into a new space for thematic exhibitions, featuring works from the museum collection. This will be the third OHD space; the first exhibits modern art, and the second presents explicitly contemporary art by young Indonesian artists. All feature paintings, sculptures and installations.

Where There’s Smoke

Less publicized is Oei’s involvement with tobacco. Tobacco is close to his heart – his father was a tobacco dealer – and he has played a prominent role in the development of the industry.

Working on your own, you won’t get as far as in collaboration,” he says of his work in coaxing small traders to get involved with major companies with more extensive facilities.

For me, tobacco comes first, and art only thereafter,” he once said at an art discussion held at Platform 3 in Bandung. The moderator reacted angrily, wondering why Oei, the most respected art collector in the country – and a medical doctor at that – would apparently prioritize tobacco, given its well-known health risks.

But the joke was on the moderator, as many in attendance knew. Indeed, Oei has many times told anyone who would listen that, were it not for his tobacco business, collecting art would be out of his reach. Hence, during harvest time, for three months of the year, Oei must forgo art and art events and spend his days grading and rating tobacco.

Oei told me that as a boy, he so hated tobacco leaves that he never imagined he would work with them. “My sister would tease me with tobacco when we quarreled,” he remembers.

But a twist of fate changed things. While doing his doctorate on pathological anatomy in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, he received word of his father’s death. Back in Magelang, he found himself obliged to take over the business, even though he says he was “clueless” about running it.

Although his father had taken him and his brother and sister to the tobacco plantation during school holidays, Oei knew the farmers but not the trade. Fortunately, his father’s employees and a very good friend helped him and, as he was a fast learner, he quickly became an expert. Oei continues to work as a professional grader for the giant clove cigarette company Djarum.

And that is how he earns his living – selling and classifying the tobacco grades – to buy the artworks he likes and to build a museum of artworks that spans the entire history of Indonesian art. However, his love for tobacco goes beyond the money he earns: He has become as addicted to grading and classifying tobacco as he is to art.

Indeed, during a recent conversation with me, Oei revealed that he loves his job as a grader, which requires “excellent eyesight and perfect sensory organs”.

For Oei, grading tobacco is like grading art; his sharp eyes are always paired with feeling, the rasa, contained in an artwork. Tobacco is like wine: The older the better if the quality is good. Oei’s father’s penchant for buying tobacco was similar to his son’s passion for collecting art: “The good quality he stacked in the warehouse for years and the commercial quality he sold.”

Unsurprisingly, Oei also has that connoisseur’s appreciation of aged tobacco.

I still have a tobacco collection from the year 2002. Since then, I have never encountered such excellent quality,” he said. “If you have been involved in tobacco business, no other product will attract you, except art.”

Widayat, one of this favorite painters, has created a two-story marble relief that represents Oei’s two loves; it depicts the cycle of the tobacco plant, from seedlings through to bales of dried leaves in a warehouse and, below, an art gallery.

Collection Time

Meeting Oei Hong Djien for the first time, one may be struck by his loud and spontaneous laugh, his energetic manner of speaking and enthusiastic gestures. A genial man who speaks his mind without restraint, Oei is also known for giving dance parties. For his 69th birthday, his artist friends held a big celebration at Yogya Gallery, inviting 69 young women each to dance with him.

Oei says he was never aware of being a collector until someone called him that. He came from a cultured family whose members could not bear the sight of empty walls. Covering the walls of the family home were paintings in the Mooi-Indie style: beautiful tropical landscapes and uplifting idyllic scenes infused with fine aesthetics and harmonious color combinations.

Indeed, his entire environment was artistic. He had relatives who studied art at the Bandung School of Art, and whenever they came together for family gatherings, art was the main topic (his father also had him learn to play the violin as a child, and he still loves listening to classical music).

But Oei acknowledges that it was his closeness to painters in Yogyakarta’s arts community that nurtured his artistic sense and knowledge.

The relative proximity of Yogya and Magelang meant he could often visit the artists and, when free from work, sit for hours on end in their studios. He came to understand the artists’ lives, their problems and joys, the little stories behind every painting and the fine details that make a good work. He became so knowledgeable that artists would ask him for advice when their creativity was blocked.

Oei was particularly close to Affandi, whom he admired for his energetic strokes and his total surrender when at work, and Widayat, whom he loved for his fine electrifying nuances. Oei owns all of Hendra Gunawan’s works made during the Indonesian revolution. He takes great pride in the work Dibawah Bendera Maut (Under the Flag of Destruction) by Sudibio, an artist whose name hardly rings a bell with other collectors, but whom Oei appreciates greatly.

Whenever he had some money, he would buy paintings he liked, often paying in installments. And when artists were in need, he would always be around to help. While Oei personally prefers the Old Masters, whom he praises for the rasa, he also collects works by younger artists and has started collecting sculptures. Oei’s collection concentrates on works by Indonesian artists only, despite growing up with an appreciation for Dutch art.

Nevertheless, in his bedroom he keeps a painting of atmospheric beauty by Walter Spies, the iconic Russian-born German painter who came to Bali in 1927. As he lies in bed after a hectic day with visitors, the sight of the painting gives him peace and incredible joy.

Educating Oei

Oei was not yet four years old when his mother died. At the age of nine, Oei and his siblings were sent to Semarang to their grandmother’s house, where an aunt cared for them.

Semarang was his father’s choice, not only because relatives who could take care of the children lived there, but also because the town had some good Dutch schools, and he wanted his children to have a good, European education. After Semarang, Oei went to high school in Jakarta and Bandung, before being accepted at the School of Medicine of the University of Indonesia.

People considered him lucky, given the widespread discrimination against ethnic Chinese that meant they could make up no more than 10 percent of those who entered the university. Big deal, sniffs Oei: “I graduated first in high school, so it couldn’t be any other way.”

He shone as a student and life in Jakarta enriched him culturally. The many art exhibitions, seminars and discussions boosted his appreciation of the arts. He enjoyed the vibrancy of Jakarta, became more impressed with the visual arts, but did not have the money to buy a single painting. He graduated as a doctor and returned to Magelang to serve on voluntary basis in a Catholic health clinic.

Oei then became an assistant to a doctor in the Netherlands while he was doing his postgraduate study. “I earned enough to be able to buy a VW,” he said.

He had thought he would earn his living healing the sick. Instead, he went back to his childhood roots in tobacco – and the arts.

Oei married Wilowati Soerjanto, an anthropologist who also studied at the University of Indonesia. Coincidentally, she too came from a tobacco family in Central Java. Oei was 38 when they wed; Wilowati was 10 years his junior. They married late because a fortuneteller had warned Wilowati to wait until she was 28, as marrying earlier would bring bad luck.

Oei remembers his wife as very outgoing, someone who had many friends, a frank, very courageous and honest person. She passed away when their sons were 14 and 12 years old, and Oei, like his father, never remarried. Her photos stand on a special table in his home.

But the septuagenarian is not lonely; he has his cherished paintings, his tobacco and his friends. He still dances like a 30 year old and sleeps like a baby. He is still a jolly good fellow.

Top Five

When asked which five of his 2,000 paintings he would save from a fire, and why, Oei chose the following.

Walter Spies, Bali Life: The best piece in the collection, small, easy to carry. It’s beyond my imagination that a painter could create such a beautiful work.

Sudjojono, Me and the Three Venuses: I consider it to be the most important piece by Sudjojono I have, because it features Sudjojono’s life philosophy where he considered human beings to be most important, even more important than art. That’s why he has his wife Rose carrying a rose, which he selects above the Venus sculpture and antique Venus.

Affandi, Kwan Kong: He is the legendary general in the Chinese story of Sam Kok (The Countries), a symbol of courage, loyalty, honesty. Usually Affandi painted from a model but this was from a small statue given to him by a famous collector of the time. It is lively like a human being. It’s a real masterpiece. He never did this subject matter again, even though he usually reprised his subject matter.

Hendra Gunawan, Dasamuka: The strongest painting by Hendra in the collection, selected by Affandi. Executed at the beginning of his prison years, and you see from his expression that he was in revolt. Why was he imprisoned? What was his sin? He could not understand and was probably angry and frustrated at that time. Me as Dasamuka (The Ten Headed); it seems that he was equipped with 10 weapons to defend himself.

Widayat, Birds in the Tree: Widayat wanted this painting for me. His wife Mien wanted it for herself and protested, but Widayat was on my side and finally I got it, my first masterpiece by Widayat. When I presented this painting in 2004, when my book, Exploring Modern Indonesian Art: The Collection of Dr. Oei Hong Djien by Dr. Helena Spanjaard, was launched, I told the audience that this painting saved my life. But how it saved my life I will only tell in my next book.




OHD Museum

OHD Museum is a modern and contemporary art museum owned by dr Oei Hong Djien (OHD). As a well-known art collector, curator, honorary-advisor to Singapore Art Museum, dr Oei Hong Djien started his collections in early 1970s.

Currently, with a vast collection of more than 2000 artworks, ranging from paintings, sculptures, installations and ceramics from different time periods, OHD Museum is located on Jalan Jenggolo 14, in the city of Magelang Central Java – Indonesia.