MDFF Exclusive! Director Christopher Basile on Kartika: 9 Ways of Seeing


Kartika: 9 Ways of Seeing is a 55-minute documentary film portraying the legendary Indonesian artist Kartika through the lens of Melbourne director Christopher Basile. Still actively painting and sculpting, Kartika is the 84-year-old daughter of Indonesia’s most celebrated modern painter Affandi (1904-1990). Although Kartika’s artistic talent was evident at an early age, she was born in a time and place in which the idea of a female pursuing a career as a modern artist was considered outlandish and impossible, and her father told her, “It is a shame you were born a female and my daughter, because as a woman you will never be able to be accepted as an artist in this country. And if somehow you are, then you will always be cursed as my offspring to live in my shadow.”

Written by Christopher Basile – Director of Kartika: 9 Ways of Seeing

Kartika imbues her work with a particularly personal quality and a special energy that is all her own. From the first time I saw her works in Yogyakarta in Java I was amazed. Meeting her is an energising experience. Kartika is a wise elder, while simultaneously irreverent, playful, loud, and even shocking in the context of Javanese Indonesian society and culture.

I was in Java for another film project, shooting a short documentary about a local mystic and guru, when I first met Kartika. This was about 9 years ago, and I was so attracted by her warmth, her intelligence, her story-telling. Her grand personality just pulled me in, and we hit it off.  She is a well-known public figure in Indonesia, as the artist-daughter of the country’s most celebrated artist Affandi, and as an outspoken feminist and humanist voice. This said, after 60 years of creating remarkable work she still hasn’t received the recognition she deserves as an artist. And nobody had ever made a film with her, so she seemed to me like an exciting subject for a documentary.

When I started the film, I was concerned about telling Kartika’s story to the wider world who might not know very much about Indonesia or modern art there. So, I envisioned a film describing Kartika’s life starting from the Dutch East Indies colonial period in the 1930s, through the Japanese occupation in WWII and after that the fight for Indonesian independence – which her father was involved in and which led to the family being interred in prison camps. There was so much to tell: her world travels with her father Affandi, her studies in India, her experiences performing as a dancer in Europe, her marriage at age 17 and having 8 children by age 27, life under the Soeharto regime in Indonesia starting in the 1960s… I shot something like 12 hours of interviews with Kartika, plus another 20-plus hours of her painting and living her life. But the documentary was becoming a long essay instead of a film, and it would need to be 4-hours long.

So instead I edited it into a 1-hour film which is more of a character study, a personal, psychological portrait of a great personality and her vision. Kartika revealing herself gradually, obliquely, as people do in conversation in real life, as she talks about selected pieces in her oeuvre, how she made them and what they mean to her. Rather than a traditional art documentary, the film evolved into more of a visual poem about Kartika, her world and her art.

The film is presented in 9 parts with each related to a particular way Kartika sees and relates to the world. Kartika is a pioneer who brought an intimately personal perspective to the Indonesian art world, a deep subjectivity. For example, in a culture where individuality and extremes of emotion are repressed, she expressed her most overwhelming fears and anxieties openly. In the repressive atmosphere of modern Indonesia, she brought an unashamed honesty to her nudes, without ever prettifying them or fetishizing the body. She presents nudity openly, as a simple fact of human life, something that is unprecedented in Indonesian art.

Perhaps most of all, Kartika deserves credit for introducing a woman’s perspective to the world of Indonesian art. She opened the way for women in Indonesia to pursue careers as modern artists. There is a moment towards the conclusion of the film where she describes how her father Affandi finally acknowledged, when she was in her mid-40s, that she had established her own distinctive, artistic identity. In the painting “Rebirth” she depicts herself from a first-person perspective as a nude giving birth to a wizened, newborn version of herself. When Affandi told her he could never have imagined such a subject for a painting, Kartika said that she could because “I am lucky. I am a woman.”

A second screening of Kartika: 9 Ways of Seeing has been announced for the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Details here. You can find out more information on the film here.

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