THE SELFIE MASTER. Revered contemporary artist Agus Suwage shares his views on art as a livelihood and as a catharsis for self-therapy
Long before his works fetched six-digit prices (in U.S. dollars) at auction houses like Christie’s, Agus Suwage worked as a graphic designer. That didn’t last long, however, as his heart had always been in art—pure art. “More and more, whenever I didn’t like a client, I would simply leave them,” the maestro explains. “At that point I was already working on my own art—as a hobby. I often did exhibitions in my own office. I got invited to a couple of events to exhibit my work. I got hooked and my confidence grew. I left graphic design and switched to pure art.”
Of his many popular works, Suwage’s self-portraits are perhaps the most popular, as he focused on this medium for the better part of his early years as an artist. “The reasoning for this is quite simple,” he reminisces. “Back then I was living with a friend who was a photographer, and he would sometimes take pictures of me. So, I thought, ‘Why don’t I use these?’ That’s the first reason, since it meant that I didn’t have to spend money.” Beyond frugality, Suwage also contends that self-critique are important before one begins to criticize, which is what a lot of his works are meant to do. “I critique, but I do so using my face,” he goes on, “or I express social or religious issues, but I use my body, my face.”
Indeed, when he’s not exploring the life of animals—Suwage appears to have a soft spot for them—he often turns a critical eye toward the most religion. At one point, these two themes converged in one of his most famous works, “The Feast of Sacrifice,” which explored the emotional conflict he faced each Eid al-Adha, the Islamic festival of sacrifice. “I made that installation,” he points out, “as a catharsis and as a form of therapy.”
Interestingly, he also has many forms of “therapy” to get his mind off art, from his dogs to music to bicycling. “There are times when I feel really tired of art,” he concedes, not without humor. “Like, when I’m going abroad, first of all, I don’t want to visit museums or go to exhibitions.” Then he adds: “But, well, I still have to go back, because it’s already part of my life’s continuity. I have to be realistic.”
Being realistic is perhaps the most important lesson anybody—especially fledgling artists looking to make a living through art—can take from Agus Suwage. “You can be idealistic, but you also have to be realistic,” he concludes. “Think about economic considerations first, but you also have to be idealistic. Balance.”
For the moment, the maestro seems to find a new kind of balance by returning to his roots in paper and watercolors. Three of his paintings were on display at this year’s ArtJog, and many more will likely adorn galleries and collections all over the world.
This article was first published in DA MAN August/September’16. Get your copy here.