Rob Pearce came to Indonesia in 1990 as an English teacher and has since then become a sought-after, internationally recognised artist. His work is inspired by his environment and by the major events of his life. He tells us his unique and fascinating story from the comfort of his home in the suburbs of Jakarta.
I am a very lucky person. I am where I want to be, doing what I love to do. Although I officially retired 18 months ago, I seem to be busier than ever. But it’s a nice busy that leaves me wonderfully tired at the end of each day, and I sleep like a baby.
I only have three emails to deal with today, and they are rather pleasant ones. A letter of thanks for a painting of mine that sold for Rp75,000,000 at a charity fundraiser. I offer to help hang it as it is 2m x 2m. It’s good to see where my pictures are hung, to know how they complement a room. It’s often a tricky process and I have found my help is really appreciated. A large part of why I create art is to communicate, and I don’t just mean visually. When someone buys a piece from me it’s an opportunity for us to get to know one another. After all we now have something very personal that binds us together.
My second email is to Brian Gilkes, a genius of a printer who lives just outside Melbourne in Australia. We have been working together for several years now. His printing skills help bring my photographic art to life. The large format photography I produce, although it is a shrinking percentage of my artistic output, is still what I consider to be my best work. It has always been my craft. Indonesia’s increasingly erratic import laws have hit photography hard. With Brian in Australia I can have full reign on choices of paper and ink, and I can utilise his lifetime of experience in printing. My enquiry with him today is about costs for printing on Hahnemuhle Fineart Rag paper at 75cm x 75cm. This is for a mixed media piece commissioned by a dear friend of mine and his siblings, which incorporates the love letters of their parents. They had written to one another every day for seven years, the father courting the mother more avidly with each writing. His courtship was successful, and they married and went on to have ten children together.
My last bit of administration is a letter concerning another commission recently completed, and it’s rather exciting. We are now in the final stages of a proposal for an exhibition of my work, which incorporates the novels and poems of a recently deceased Australian author. It’s an exciting project for me as I will be able to feature both my photographic art and my more recent move into mixed media. I will need to make about 25 pieces over the next year and a half. Lovely.
The aspect that unites all of my work is that every piece is made of paper glued upon more paper, sometimes up to twenty layers in depth. The paper always contains printed words. My main tool is a craft knife. I cut into my work looking for hidden words and meanings. Paint and inks might be added before or after I pick up the knife, depending upon the piece. Today’s work is made up of a book of Indonesian poets who were exiled after the events of 1965.
I put the raw material for today on my work table underneath one of the large avocado trees. Soft morning light dapples some of the poems and I read the words di malam sejuk di Cibatu. I think Cibatu is in West Java, somewhere near Sukabumi. Maybe I passed through it when my dear friend Andy and I used to explore the area most weekends on our motorbikes. This was in the early 1990s. And it was while on these motorbike jaunts that I first started to take my photography seriously. By great good fortune I seemed to have a good eye and before I knew it I was photographing for travel magazines as well as taking on more commercial jobs within the hotel industry. It was a wonderful apprenticeship, made all the better by the fact that I was my own teacher.
I pick up my craft knife and make the first incision of the day, which is into a bamboo leaf. If you could see my garden you wouldn’t ask, as so many people do, what inspires me. It’s all around, just look. Ferns are my favourite plant and my garden is full of them. I have about ten varieties. I don’t need to look far for an idea.
It’s these hours that’s I love the most. The birds are in full song, the school rush hour has passed, and I can lose myself cutting into and through words on paper. Little thought is needed as I lose myself in my work; I follow my instinct, making something both beautiful and interesting. Work that appeals first to the eye, then to the mind and then to the heart.
I greet my neighbours while watering the garden at the front of the house. It’s a time of day when everyone is out chatting and relaxing. As the only foreigner I do attract a certain amount of attention, but after ten years here in this house my “exoticness” has lessened, and I seem to be regarded as something of an eccentric, one who prefers to read rather than socialise. I like it that way.
Watering the back garden is a bigger task. On some of the walls surrounding the garden are the remnants of the artwork that used to cover them. This work was created in the time after the death of both my mother and father within a few weeks of each other. They had been divorced for over 40 years but decided somehow to cross the finishing line together.
In the early 2000s I returned to Indonesia after a period back at university studying photography. One of my first projects was photographing advertising posters that had been fly pasted onto walls on the street and in underpasses. This series I named “Ripped Faces”. It’s on the web site if you care to look. Eventually I just started to rip them off the walls and take them home, where they stayed in my garage.
After my parents passed away I started to paste these posters on to my garden walls. I would make silhouette images of my parents, imagining them when they were in their prime years. Their deaths were still very recent, I missed them enormously and I found I could have imaginary conversations with them, questioning them about why they had done this or that. I treated the images as shrines, laying out offerings at certain times of the month, flower petals and incense. Jakarta’s climate soon weathered them and gave them a patina that only seemed to beautify. Then I would hire top of the range camera equipment and photograph them, and then I would start all over again. Sometimes simply pasting over what was already there and, if the paper was too rotten, stripping the walls clean before pasting again. I started to use Chinese joss paper, then photocopies of books I had once studied at university in the early 1980s. Clifford Geertz The Religion of Java being a favourite. He symbolises for me how little the West knew of Java and reminds me to be careful not to rush to judgement.
This frenzy of creativity in the wake of my parents’ deaths went on for about three years, or 1,000 days. The period of mourning that most of Asia knows is necessary to complete the cycle of mourning. Their deaths, the pain I felt and the solace I gained through making the images has led almost directly to the work I do now. If you visit my web site you can see the progression quite easily.
On a couple of walls there are still some of these images, now covered in roots from plants that have somehow grown out of the concrete. I still leave offerings at their feet. Other walls I have decorated with Chinese joss paper and into some of them I have carved motifs. As I water the garden I sometimes find myself drawn out of my daily world and up into a kind of “Never Never Land”, a place where I am at peace and where I feel most content. Indonesia has given me this. If I had stayed in the UK I am pretty sure it would never never have happened.
After a shower I prepare my regular sundowner gin and tonic. I take it back out into the garden and light some joss sticks and candles to place around my work place. The smell of newly watered earth, incense and the rich, almost pungent smell of jasmine fill the air. I spend an hour chatting with friends on the phone, friends who I have known here for nearly 30 years. We can laugh at our misfortunes, share the pain of lost loved ones and of hardships faced and overcome. My dogs are with me and all is right in my world. I truly am a lucky person. I am where I want to be, doing what I love to do.
To see Rob’s work or to contact him please see www.robpearce62.com