A Unique Creative Retreat
Sylvia Nugroho takes the first step on the road to making her artistic mark on Indonesia

Katrin Figge  |  April 06, 2011 on Jakarta Globe

Indonesian artist Sylvia Nugroho admits to experiencing quite a bit of reverse culture shock when she moved back to Jakarta last year, after 20 years of living abroad.

“I lived in Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore for many years, and it took a while to get used to Jakarta again,” she said. “But, of course, I still have family and friends here, which helped ease the transition.”

Another important step that made Sylvia feel at home again was the opening of her own art space — a combined gallery and studio — in Kemang, South Jakarta, three weeks ago. It’s a place she can exhibit her artistic oeuvre and work on new paintings at the same time.

However, before committing herself to art full time, Sylvia worked as an interior designer.

“I was exposed to art a lot at my job,” she said. “Whenever I did interior design for a hotel, an office building or a restaurant, I had to buy matching works of art.”

She said that, when she finally decided to try her own hand at painting, it quickly became her new passion. She also realized that focusing on her art would give her more time to spend with her daughter.

“An office job is demanding. You are tired when you come home in the evening,” she said. “As an artist, you are much more flexible. I only make an exception if I am offered the chance to work on a really interesting interior design project.”

However, many years of working as an interior designer has certainly left its marks on Sylvia’s aesthetic philosophy. Unique design flourishes can be seen throughout her new gallery and studio in Kemang.

The first floor is mainly a place to display her own art, with paintings gracing both walls of the long, narrow corridor.

But it is not only the artwork that catches the eye of visitors to the gallery. Vintage furniture pieces and candles give the gallery a very unique flair. The statues of two angels lying on the floor greet everyone who walks through the doors.

The attention to detail that first brought Sylvia success as an interior designer has now become her trademark as an artist.

She says her art has evolved over the years. In the beginning she focused on painting people, but more recently she has also crossed over into more abstract work.

“I had an exhibition in Singapore once, and on one side, there were my abstract paintings. On the other, the ones with many faces in them,” Sylvia said. “Many people thought that they were the work of two different artists, when actually they were all mine.”

One of the most intriguing things about Sylvia’s art is that, instead of merely signing her paintings, she incorporates her name into the subject matter. Searching for the signature hidden in her work almost feels like a game.

Her painting, “The Backstage,” for example, shows three women preparing for a performance in front of a large mirror with a wooden frame. Photographs and postcards are posted on the frame, as well as some name tags. Upon closer inspection, one of the name tags reads, “All dressed up by Sylvia.”

In another of her painting, titled “Alone II,” a woman is lying on a bed with sunglasses, a John Grisham book and a letter next to her — the letter is actually addressed to Sylvia Nugroho.

Sylvia’s Asian roots are visible in most of her pieces. Sometimes, she places her models in a room with Asian decor. At other times, the influence is subtler, visible only through small details like a pair of Indonesian statues sitting on a small nightstand.

Sylvia also likes the element of surprise — her paintings can incorporate elements such as shreds of magazines or real sequins.

While the ground floor is dedicated to her finished pieces, the space upstairs is where Sylvia works on new additions to her oeuvre.

A flight of winding stairs, painted in bright pink, leads to the second floor. Yellow tape, the kind usually used by police to cordon off a crime scene, warns visitors, “Art in progress, do not cross.”

The studio looks exactly like one would imagine an artist’s workplace — half-finished paintings, empty canvases, paint brushes and oil tubes lie scattered all over the floor.

Sylvia said she is keen to share her talent with young local artists.

“I am very open to people who come to my studio who want to learn more about painting,” she said. “I don’t think I am a great teacher, but the least I can do is provide them with space and answer their questions. I already have three students who come here every week.”

Sylvia, who had her inaugural solo exhibition at the Co Chine Gallery in Singapore in 2002, said that she was still new to Indonesia’s art scene.

“Even though I have already participated in many exhibitions in other countries, here in Indonesia, I am still essentially unknown,” she said, adding that she welcomes the challenge of trying to build up her reputation in her home country.

Sylvia is pretty sure that wanderlust will catch up with her again sooner or later.

“I don’t know why, but I can’t see myself settling down in one place for good,” she said. “Maybe I will stay here for four or five years, and then go wherever the wind takes me.”