An afternoon with Jakarta-based artist Ruth ‘Utay’ Marbun

ibu (ruth)
The painting which featured on Instagram (which is now owned by Jo)

Flicking through the daily feed of images on Instagram I started to zone out until.. ‘Hold on..What was that?’ I put my pointing finger into reverse and scrolled back to see what the flash of colour was all about.  A portrait, presumably of a woman is what I encountered. But the image didn’t give much away. I paused to dwell and wonder. Who is this person? Why does this image feel significant to me? and who was responsible for this painting that roused me from my Instagram fug.

I took a screen shot of the portrait for future reference and promptly drafted a quick ‘hello’ to the artist who curiously went by the name, ‘Utay’. To my delight, I received a friendly reply and a gracious acceptance of our request for an interview.

*Kenalkan: Ruth Amerina Marbun – ‘Utay’

moving out (Utay)
Getting ready to move out of her Kemang studio, ‘Bollu’ (Image supplied by Utay)

Why Utay?
My birth name is Ruth Amerina Marbun, but as a child my friends found my one syllable name difficult to pronounce, so they took it upon themselves to change it to Ruthie. The ‘th’ sound is also tricky so my name further evolved into Uti. Over time it changed again to Utay (pronounced ‘Utai’). In the art world I am known by my birth name Ruth Marbun; but to my friends I’m ‘Utay’ and on social media I’m known as ‘Utay Utay’ (because Utay was already taken!).

Bollu sign (no longer open)
Utah’s original studio and shop, ‘Bollu’ in Kemang, Jakarta Selatan. The word ‘bolu’ means sponge (i.e. sponge cake) in Bahasa Indonesia. Utay explains that although a sponge cake appears simple to make, it does in fact need skill just like the work of an artist.
door to Bollu
The entrance to Bollu (with studio in background)

Where are you from and can you tell us a bit about your childhood?
I was born in North Sumatra in the city of Medan. Both my parents are from Sumatra and are *Batak. At a very young age my family moved to Texas as my Dad (Dimpos) was successful in receiving a scholarship to study. For four years we stayed in Texas so my Father could complete his Bachelors Degree in Engineering. This was a huge achievement as my Dad started as a driver in Sumatra for an oil company but his colleagues recognised that he was clever and encouraged him to apply for the scholarship. He studied day and night. I remember at certain times we were not allowed to disturb him but we still managed to spend a lot of time together. Once he obtained his degree we moved back to North Sumatra, this time to Aceh where my Dad pursued his career in Engineering, Logistics and Marketing. We stayed in Aceh for 3 years. At the age of seven my family and I moved to Jakarta.

soda pop can (Utay)
This pic was taken during a trip to Tokyo. With the vast array of vending machines that Tokyo is known for, Utay would select a drink based on its packaging because she felt all the drinks were kawaii (cute). In the case of this pic, the soda can was selected to match the wall. (Image supplied by Utay)

Did you always want to be an artist?
No, from an early age I wanted to be a fashion designer. I recall when I was about 10 years old I started drawing fashion sketches, in particular drawings which featured clothes that my Mum (Lily) wouldn’t buy for me. This lead to thoughts of fashion design. After graduating from high school in Jakarta, I moved to London for a year where I studied at the London College of Fashion. This was such an important year in my life. London is dynamic. It pushes boundaries and people aren’t afraid of expressing themselves. Being exposed to this was life-changing. The year went fast and I then moved to Singapore where I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design. I spent almost 5 years in Singapore studying and working in the fashion industry, as I also started a ‘ready to wear’ label with my former partners.

Upon returning to Jakarta I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I dedicated my time to reading books written by artists with advice for aspiring artists. I immediately recognised the need to be a part of a community and joined a free photography class called ’Kelas Pagi Jakarta’ which was run by well-known photographer Anton Ismael. Located in Aton’s Fatmawati-based studio ‘Third Eye Space’ I continued to develop my artistic style, gain confidence and acquire new connections.

Are there any other artists in your family?
My Dad is a hobby painter (impressionist – style). Also, in the past he has directed plays.

‘Palatable Excuses (A)’ (Image supplied by Utay)

Who or What inspires your work?
1. My Dad inspires me because we have a real connection. His natural ability as an artist and creative person is something that impresses me all the time
2. Some of the creative people that I’ve gotten to know including Iwan and Ria from the highly acclaimed Paper Moon Puppet Theatre. They are real and sincere despite their International recognition. They have encouraged and appreciated my creativity
3. Any new environment inspires me – a new street, new people etc.
4. Humanity – The way life plays out
5. The artists Oliver Jeffers and David Hockney

Kembali (Image supplied by Utay)
Kembali (Image supplied by Utay)

Do you mostly paint people?
Yes because humans are so interesting to me. People consist of so many layers which makes them both interesting and challenging.

Are You in your paintings?
The figure we are most aware of is ourselves as we see ourselves daily in our reflections. Even in the smallest degree, I am in my paintings.

What is the vibe/energy of your work?
There is a consistent underlying energy of both happiness and sadness in my work. Irony is often interwoven. Camouflaged within a seemingly happy image is often some sadness and my work is definitely not pretty.

Valley Lullaby (Image supplied by Utay)

How would you describe your artistic style?
Expressionist and spontaneous. I run with a feeling. I view my art as a means of story-telling with an element of ambiguity –  like an empty space at the end of the sentence where the viewer adds their own interpretation.

Are you drawn to particular colours?
I mainly use bright hues. I particularly like shades of pink, blue, green and pastel-tones. I use very little black. Although I generally paint with watercolours and acrylics, watercolour is the main media that I use.

Quirky and humorous – if you like peanut butter, why not celebrate it! (Image supplied by Utay)

Can you identify your favourite piece(s) and tell us about them.
‘Tenggelam Di Atas (2 parts)  Painted in 2014, Tenggelam Di Atas depicts Indonesia as a maritime country. Although Indonesia is surrounded by sea it is only more recently that Indonesians have developed a greater connection with their maritime surroundings. As a country we are not generally familiar with the sea or how to take care of it, hence ‘Tenggelam di Atas’ (Drowning on the Surface)

Tenggelam Di Atas.jpg - 1 of 2
Tenggelam Di Atas 1 (Image supplied by Utay)
Tenggelam Di Atas 2 (Image supplied by Utay)
Tenggelam Di Atas 2 (Image supplied by Utay)

You have recently moved from your studio. Where are you now painting and creating?
I’m settling back in at home in Jakarta Selatan for now. I’ve set up my studio there. In the future? Who knows..

Where can we find your works?
For now it is best to follow me on Instagram where I post a lot of my work, my daily musings as well as details about future exhibitions.

What are you currently working on?
A few exciting things. A fashion/art collaboration with a local designer is in the pipeline. A few commissioned artworks and in mid April an overseas exhibition.

What are you passionate about?
My work – it is who I am. I’m passionate about music – in fact about anything that involves process.

What worries you?
Life in general.

What excites you?
Life in general.

kepompong mural (Utay)
Picture taken in front of a mighty collaboration with children from Kepompong Kindergarten (South Jakarta) during their art fair day. Utay was invited to take part so she created a corner where kids can experience painting in a bigger space. The result was beyond expectation. (Image supplied by Utay)

Where do you go to escape Jakarta?
Yogyakarta because there’s a bit of everything. Relative to Jakarta it is quiet, there’s a great art scene, it has a more authentic vibe and isn’t so touristy. Also, there’s good street food which is well-priced. Oh and there are also some good museums to visit as well as galleries, art exhibitions and other cultural sites.

Books you recommend reading
A variety of books by US Food Commentator Michael Pollan (in particular ‘In Defence of Food’) because he raises awareness of excess and confirms my preconceived ideas regarding the importance of good food and balanced nutrition.

I am personally keen to become more familiar with works of Classic Indonesian literature. A few years ago I started reading the legendary tetralogy as well as other works by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. I’m now trying to catch up on classic works by other Indonesian authors. By experiencing this style of literature I hope to develop a deeper understanding of myself as a part of society and also as a contributing part of a Nation.

What’s your all-time favourite movie?
The Sound of Music

And favourite music?
Leonard Cohen, Donovan, Sheila on 7 (Indonesian alternative rock band), AriReda (Indonesian duo) and anything related to David Byrne.
(Just an aside..During our interview the background music consisted of The Beatles. I clearly recall hearing ‘Hey Jude’ and thinking that I really need to listen to The Beatles more often)

liz, jo and utay
An afternoon with Utay

Favourite local food?
Terong Balado, my Mom’s home cooked food and Kue Lupis (a sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana/pandan leaf)

Tea or coffee?
Tea – I’m always interested in trying different types of tea but it must be strong in flavour
(During our interview Utay served us olive leaf tea)

Pukul Empat Sore (4 o'clock) (Image supplied by Utay)
Pukul Empat Sore (4 o’clock) (Image supplied by Utay)

Your 3 words to describe Jakarta
traffic, *sibuk, vibrance

In closing, give us a final interesting fact about yourself..
I’m a big fan of Vivienne Westwood. I admire her as an individual, as a brand and also for her beliefs. I don’t own any of her pieces (yet..!)

women insitu
Many of Utay’s works depict the lives of women such as this collection of four post cards

*Kenalkan : let me introduce
*Batak :  A collective term used to identify a number of ethnic groups predominantly found in North Sumatra, Indonesia
*Sibuk : busy

Words: Jo   Photography: a journey bespoke and Ruth Marbun (Utay)


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