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An Interview with Founder of ROH Projects Laksamana “Junior” Tirtadji


An Interview with Founder of ROH Projects Laksamana “Junior” Tirtadji
Mr Laksamana "Junior" Tirtadji, founder of ROH Projects (Image courtesy of Mr Tirtadji)

It was a mid-week evening of frustrating congestion and snail’s pace traffic symptomatic of Jakarta’s thick disarray. Despite my lateness, Laksamana “Junior” Tirtadji waited patiently outside a Japanese restaurant, as I climbed out of my Uber. We found our booth, joining one of his artists, Arin Sunaryo, and exchanged greetings over eager cries of “Kampai!” Yet despite the noise and the din of the clamouring city, I was met by an unusual warmth at the table.

Between Junior the gallerist and Arin the artist, there existed a buoyant camaraderie and a deeper sincerity that they had imparted to the heart of their gallery, ROH Projects. They had a strong sense of their archipelago’s soul-filled intuitions and convictions, but had withheld against its reigning chaos. Through our conversation, I was able to see why and how they had steadily succeeded.


ROH Projects in Jakarta
Image courtesy of & Liandro N. I. Siringoringo

Your gallery ROH Projects is presenting some of the most exciting young Indonesian art right now, and everyone who’s anyone is taking notice. I remember when you told me that you didn't want to follow in your family’s footsteps in finance and property development, but you wanted to forge your own path. And you began at such a young age! Even at that early stage, what was your vision for the gallery?

In the beginning, it didn’t really start with a vision of what the gallery was going to become. Instead, it was more of an intuitive sense that there was so much great potential in Indonesia, despite it being so disorganised and chaotic. It just came very naturally to me to provide a platform that was more professional, more structured, and on a more international standard, so that our artists could be more appreciated. All they needed was exposure and management.


What were some of the difficulties you faced when you first started up?

It was very difficult for me to get people convinced about the idea in the first place, simply because I started so young. I literally just graduated from university and was the youngest person in the Indonesian art world! I recognised that it was a chicken or the egg kind of problem because I had an idea, but nothing was proven yet. So in order to show our artists and stakeholders our vision, we needed a lot of time to develop. It took a lot of patience and wading underwater, but having faith that if we do the right thing, people will notice it.

The other challenge for me was working with a partner. She had a completely different vision for what the gallery was going to be. For me, it was more about nurturing, but for her, it was more about trading. It was very difficult for me to disengage from the partnership, and at one point in time, I was just thinking about quitting! But I really appreciate her and I know she had the best of intentions.

I was really afraid of going it on my own, because what we were doing was really unprecedented. Everything was so much trial and error, and we made so many mistakes along the way. But now in retrospect, without all of those things, we would have never been where we are today.


'Spectral Fiction', a solo exhbition by Syagini Ratna Wulan at ROH Projects
Image courtesy of The Inspilog

One of the things you’ve probably felt you’ve needed to work towards is serious, strong gallery representation. That’s something I’d like to understand more, because despite such stalwart and dedicated private collectors in Indonesia, gallery representation here is so different than it is in other ecosystems. Artists become loosely associated with several galleries at a time, and sort of distribute their works quite casually. What are the reasons for that — are they cultural?

It’s part of Indonesian culture, and it’s very Javanese. Everything is based on “gentleman’s agreement” and feeling a sort of sense of duty that, “I feel burdened because I invite you to do shows”. We feel bad towards each other if one person makes a request and the other person declines. It’s very difficult for us to say no.


What is the gallery programme like now in Indonesia?

Sadly, there’s no gallery programme here now! If you came here several years ago, you would find a show opening every week — even multiple shows. For all the other galleries, they went through a market high around 2006 to 2008. At the time, every show sold out. Everybody was doing so well at auction. The whole world was looking to Indonesia.

But in the past couple of years, it’s readjusted to where it should have been. I never experienced that high, so for ROH, this has always been the reality. I’ve always been satisfied with where things are, just building things slowly. Realistically speaking, I feel like we are the only gallery that has a consistent programme where we show every month.


And how are you “building things slowly” with your gallery?

The artists that we represent have a shared vision that we’re building something together. All of our artists are currently based in Bandung. Bandung is a city known for artists who work very independently, and don’t really interact with each other.


An installation by Papermoon Puppet Theatre at ART|JOG 13, an annual art fair in Jogjakarta
Image courtesy of ART|JOG

Whereas Jogjakarta is the city for artists’ collectives.

Exactly. In Bandung, everyone is fighting for themselves, trying to build their own ideas and it’s relatively quite isolated. But what is really beautiful is how we started to build a family in Bandung where we really watch out for each other. When one artist is in trouble, all of the artists come together and try to find a solution. When one artist succeeds, we all feel that everybody has succeeded too. On the one hand, we are building a professional structure, but only up to a certain limit, because what is more important than that is this sort of family that has organically developed.


"Childhood Mixed Fantasy" by Indonesian artist Bagus Pandega
Image courtesy of Indo Art Now

On the international stage, you’ve thought very strategically about fair participation, often presenting daring solo projects in big, blue-chip fairs. What were some of the courageous moves for you into these fairs?

At West Bund, we showed a multi-media sound and installation artist called Bagus Pandega. We had showed him previously at Art Basel Hong Kong in the Discovery Section. This year, in the same section, we showed Wiyoga Muhardanto. He’s an artist who makes copies of found objects and in a hyper-realistic way. Through his work, he discusses lower and middle-class issues in Indonesia, which are actually really important right now. We always want to be in the Discovery Section at Art Basel Hong Kong as it’s in line with our vision — discovering artists who haven’t gotten proper recognition.

For the first 5 to 8 years, I had already pre-determined our expectations that we are not entering the international art fairs to make money, but to showcase what I really believe is strong contemporary art. Strong contemporary art is sometimes not expensive contemporary art. I want to make that commitment so people see that we can do things that are really in the best interest of the artist. Ultimately, I know that when we do good, good will come back to us.

The only fairs we use as a leverage to fund our other art fairs are the local fairs here. Jakarta is where we are building our roots and foundation. It’s through that capital that we then distribute it to use for more creative projects.


Isa Lorenzo of Silverlens Gallery in The Philippines
Image courtesy of The Ex Expat

What are your plans for the future, to expand the gallery’s presence beyond these fairs?

What is interesting now is a joint effort to make a network of galleries that work together to introduce each others’ artists to their respective art worlds. For instance, an Indonesian artist who has a solid foundation in his local audience can be introduced to the Philippines through this network, or a Filipino artist into Indonesia.

I will never in even 10 years be able to understand the complexities and intricacies of the aesthetic or conceptual considerations of collectors in, let’s say, Taiwan. So why would have to do that if there’s someone who has already been doing that for a really long time? And if they have a similar vision, I would rather just work together. I hope that they can utilise our expertise too, so if they show their artists here, they won’t have to build from scratch as well.

These galleries are also my mentors, being models of what I want to be as a gallery — Rachel and Isa Lorenzo from Silverlens Gallery, as well as Edouard Malingue in Hong Kong. We’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and now we’re starting to make projects happen together. In Singapore, we are planning to do a collateral show near the National Gallery Singapore, where we will just show our artists together — just to do our own thing!


So it’s a collective of galleries...

Something like that! We all trust each other so much that we try to protect each other’s best interest, and because of that, it becomes something very special. We are also thinking of some other galleries that may be involved in this too, in different regions.

The future of the art world in Asia will only work if we work together. We have to remember that Asia is so big, and there’s nothing to compete about! All we have to do is build together. Collaboration is very important to me. We can learn so much from each other. When we share about our up’s and down’s, together we can avoid the pitfalls that we have each gone through in the past. That already accelerates a lot of things to happen.


ROH Projects in Jakarta
Image courtesy of & Liandro N. I. Siringoringo

Within this very broad vision, it’s also in the small things that you are carving out a difference for your gallery. I stumbled upon your gallery statement on your website and traced its rather odd, rambling prose back to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. I couldn’t help but think of the pledge to evergreen youthfulness and idealism that Peter Pan represents. In a way, is that what you’re working to achieve with ROH Projects?

Well, we don’t want to be just a young gallery doing young stuff. Soon, we will start showing older artists who have been under-appreciated and haven’t received the proper recognition they deserve.

I just thought Peter Pan was beautiful because when you go to a gallery website, you already have a certain expectation of what you will read. I wanted to give people a different experience. Our gallery is not like, “ROH Projects was started in this year, or our aim is this and that”. No, it’s poetry, it’s something intangible! “ROH” actually means “spirit” or “soul”, so I tried to explain soul in a very different way.


Let’s talk about the new year. Fill out the resolution, “In 2017, I will...”

In 2017, I want to show a lot of older generation artists who really need to be appreciated more. In 2017, I want to make sure that every single one of my artists has a new breakthrough in their practices. And in 2017, I want all our collaborations with the different galleries that we’ve been planning to work with to do well, and for me to try my very best for them!



Any views or opinions in the interview are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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