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Oei Hong Djien, the controversial collector aiming to build a history of Indonesia’s Modern art

New film shows a scene dogged by lack of institutional support and alleged fakes

Magelang

Indonesia’s art scene, which is hampered by limited institutional support and problems with fakes, is addressed head-on in “The 24-Hour Art Practice”, the second in a series of films about collectors of Asian art made by the Singapore-based director, producer and writer Patricia Chen.

The principal subject of the film, which had its premiere in Singapore last month, is Oei Hong Djien, a tobacco dealer and long-time collector of Indonesian art. Part of his collection is housed in his privately owned OHD Museum in Magelang, in Central Java, Indonesia.

Oei—or OHD, as he is usually known—initially seems to be an eccentric but committed enthusiast who has spent decades building a collection that serves as a history of Indonesian Modern art, in a country where the national collections are under-resourced and there is little that would pass for a trusted scholarly art establishment.

Elaine Ng, the editor and publisher of the journal Art Asia Pacific, says: “I’m not a fan of superlatives, but I would say that Dr Oei is the most important collector in Indonesia… because of his depth and commitment.” The art dealer Pearl Lam describes him as “a character, a caricature”. The film takes its title from his reputation for keeping an open house at all hours of the day, welcoming artists and collectors to see his collection, much of which hangs on the walls or in two museum-like spaces that he has built. He has been known to buy works on the spot.

Oei first came across Indonesian Modern art through contacts in the tobacco industry, and he draws on this background when describing the emotional effect of a work of art. “The Havana cigar can give you this sensation… compare it with the Marlboro cigarette and if you smoke it, you don’t feel anything,” he says.

When Oei opened the OHD Museum in April 2012, his reputation caught fire, but not in the way he would have hoped. Other collectors, journalists and art historians accused him of possessing fakes that were attributed to some of Indonesia’s best-known artists, including Hendra Gunawan and S. Sudjojono. Last May, an organisation of Indonesian collectors staged a protest show that included full-sized copies of images from a book of his collection, alongside prints of what they said were the original works.

Oei declined a challenge from the group to submit many of his paintings for formal assessment, and said that he could not always remember who had sold him the works. For the Dutch art historian Helena Spanjaard, it is all a mess. “[The protesting collectors] are not art historians; they are not restorers. It is subjective and amateurish… it is not wrong what they have done—it is only a very small part of what should be done.”

Filling a gap

Spanjaard says that the OHD Museum has become a magnet for the international art world because of the vacuum created by Indonesia’s lack of adequate national institutions. “[Oei] invites important people from all over the world, because nobody else is doing it,” she says.

Edwin Rahardjo, a Jakarta-based art dealer, tells Chen that “it needs research, technology, science… it’s not just ‘fake or not fake’. You need to prove it.”

The art market is not known for being backward in coming forward in the search for new treasures to bring to dealers’ showrooms, fairs and salerooms. But Chen’s film is a warning that without proper provenance research and academic institutional support, what you see might not be what you get.

Oei Hong Djien is unrepentant. “We have still not established the Indonesian art history. It is still to be written. We as collectors are still in the frontline of discovering hidden works, lost works, undisclosed works,” he says.

• “The 24-Hour Art Practice” is due to be shown at Galeri Indonesia Kaya on 3 February and at the Agnès B Cinema in Hong Kong on 15 March. For more details, visit www.asianartpatronage.com

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The controversial collector aiming to build a history of Indonesia’s Modern art'