In the 1980s and 1990s, Pasar Baru, or Passer Baroe, in Central Jakarta was a bustling area where one came to place orders for greetings cards for various occasions. Those days, calligraphers , who were seated near the river, received several orders everyday and were busy year round, and especially so during the holiday period.
Javanese art enthusiast, S.Wito moved to Jakarta from Purwodadi in 1984 to study and earn a little money creating art.. In addition to calligraphy, he also painted portraits inspired by the art scene in Yogyakarta. Many artists were inspired by his work and began painting portraits. Soon, the neighbourhood became famous for portraits in addition to calligraphy. Caricatures were also popular with many artists who had a loyal following, which included government officials from President Soeharto’s family.
Due to overcrowding the vendors were relocated to the sidewalks in front of the shopping centre S. Wito and his colleagues continued to sell their creations and business thrived.
During the late 1990s, however, things took a different turn. The development of pagers, mobile phones and internet technology had an effect on the greetings card industry. The monetary crisis and political problems at the time were especially hard and tourism was virtually non-existent.
To fix the situation, then-Governor Sutiyoso launched a reawakening programme for Jakarta’s tourism which included space for street artists in Pasar Baru.
“At that time, Governor Sutiyoso saw that our paintings had potential. They aimed to make Pasar Baru a tourist centre because it was surrounded by the Pasar Baru Shopping Centre, Antara news agency, Jakarta Art Building and other heritage sites. The government gave us a place to continue our activities and business,” S. Wito said.
He was inspired to create a community for artists that could be better managed and so he set to work. In September 1998, he created Kelompok Pelukis dan Penulis Indah Pasar Baru (Group of Painters and Calligraphy Artists of Pasar Baru, KPPI) and he continued to fight for better facilities, such as permanent kiosks and legal documents from the government to prevent their eviction.
“We are art workers who uphold our culture. We fought for a better place in order to be more representative and we could work well, so that tourists felt comfortable to come and also to beautify the city. Besides that, I tried hard to get legal documentation for our community because we all wanted to be managed and nurtured so we could contribute more to the city. After a long struggle, in 2006, we finally got the letter from Governor Sutiyoso. We were all so happy. We could say our community is the only arts community that has been approved by the government,” he said.
It was important for S. Wito and his colleagues to get the official documentation as it was—and is—difficult in Jakarta to find a proper space to create and sell art. Thanks to this validation,
S. Wito and his compatriots were able to increase their network of clients and even built connections with the Presidential Palace. Soon, they were able to participate in exhibitions such as the Pasar Baru Festival, Jalan Jaksa Festival, Lebaran Betawi Festival, also at the National Gallery. Today, there are 29 kiosks and more than 50 artists along the the sidewalks of Pasar Baru, near the Jakarta Art Building and the Post Office.
Although demand for greetings cards is generally low, KPPI has ensured that calligraphers get a steady flow of work from the government and the private sector which still orders calligraphy for certificates. Most artists these days create more caricatures than portraits.
S. Wito, who continues to lead the community, encourages his friends to actively contribute ideas for tourism and also improve their creativity by reading and paying attention to current affairs.
“Caricatures of politicians, celebrities, current affairs and paintings of rising figures are most liked. We have customers from embassies and also foreign tourists. Many college students in doctoral programmes both here and overseas come to our community for research,” S. Wito said.
To get more foreign customers, he actively posts the artworks to social media especially caricatures with text and stories about Indonesian nationalism.
Now, S. Wito and KPPI members are preparing an exhibition with six Betawi painters under the leadership of humanist and Betawi figure Ridwan Saidi in Taman Ismail Marzuki from 28 September to 6 October. He hopes KPPI’s activities can improve creativity and also contribute to tourism in Jakarta.