In children’s literature and in young adult fiction, food is often used to bridge cultures—“dumplings are the great social equaliser” says the protagonist in the YA novel The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling as an example. And while food might be one of the easier entries into a culture, there are other ways too. Art, for example, which Singapore’s National Gallery does with success in its “Awesome Art” series.
Aimed at readers 9-12, the series takes 10 works from a specific country, approaching each with a combination of accessible and thought-provoking explorations as well as ideas to get the creative juices flowing.
The most recent is Awesome Art Indonesia (editions on Thailand and Vietnam are forthcoming this year) by Yvonne Yanmei Low, which examines 10 works from the archipelago. Readers are welcomed to Indonesia by the book’s host—a Komodo dragon named Como—who offers the briefest of introductions to the country before exploring the first work, “Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the Forest” by Anak Agung Gede Meregeg (ca 1930s). A description of the painting is followed by a note on its importance.
While the Ramayana is very old, it was (and still is) told in newer ways… While [traditional] Kamasan art focuses on the gods and heroes of the epics, in Meregeg’s version everyday people are made equal. His painting is also different in its use of red and blue hues, and in the way it portrays distance. Meregeg’s unique creations later became associated with a new movement of painting known as the Ubud school.
Notes in the margins explain specific terms or involve comments or questions from Como, before an invitation to create a piece of art is presented, in this case, a verse from the Ramayana.
The selected works highlight a wide range of Indonesia’s visual culture. For “Lukisan (painting)”, a 1966 work by Ahmad Sadali, readers are asked to look at the painting’s geometric shapes and its “shattered glass” style. The accompanying activity focuses on colors and shapes, providing an Asian alternative to similar activities that often use European artists as a model.
The book also incorporates sculpture, performance art and conceptual art, activities including painting with different tools and learning to weave, and opportunities to explore history, politics and culture, as well as language.
The pieces in the book need not be explored in the order presented and while the book is aimed at readers 9-12, some of the pieces and activities could also suit younger audiences (or could be easily adapted). The illustrations that accompany each work are bright and vivid, while the length of the text suits the audience.
Awesome Art Indonesia follows other successes in the series including Awesome Art Malaysia (2019), Awesome Art Singapore (2019) and Awesome Art Philippines (2020). Each follows the same formula—the guide for Malaysia is Cheeky Gibbon, while Cardo the carabao leads the way in the Philippines, for example—and covers a wide range of artists and techniques. Awesome Art Singapore, for example looks at the color wheel and at our perception of color using Horizontals I by Choy Weng Yang (1977), with the same volume also providing an opportunity an opportunity to look at the city’s culture, though, for example the sculpture Pedas-Pedas by Kumari Nahappan (2006), which explores some of Singapore’s culinary specialities as well the process for making a bronze sculpture.
The audience for this series is wide-ranging—budding artists and young art enthusiasts, but also readers interested in exploring Asia. Awesome Art Indonesia might also find a home in classrooms, where it could be a valuable resource in classes where foreign language learning is as much about understanding a different culture as it is about language learning. The possibilities for engagement are high and with the art all from Asia, the series offers a valuable and different point of view.