This piece by Wayan Juniartha previously appeared in the Jakarta Post before Gusti Made Srimin Suteja’s cremation. Nonetheless we found it to be still poignantly relevant enough to run here. With thanks to Wayan Juniartha and the Jakarta Post.
She was the tough, logical brain behind Sutedja Neka, one of the most important personages in Indonesia’s visual arts landscape.
The sprawling compound of Pande Wayan Sutedja Neka’s house was filled with people on a gloomy and humid night.
Most of them were members of his banjar (traditional neighborhood association) and came to pay their respects as is custom.
Ni Gusti Made Srimin, Neka’s wife of more than five decades, had passed away a few days earlier and in accordance to local customs, members of the banjar took turns visiting and helping the family during the difficult period.
Neka, a successful art dealer, cultural patron and founder of one of the island’s top museums, sat cross-legged in the house’s east pavilion, where the body of his wife was placed pending the cremation ritual.
He was flanked by several elders from his extended family and clan. Neka belongs to the Pande blacksmith clan. In the past, members of this clan forged kris daggers for the island’s kings and warriors, a fact that spurred Neka’s interest in adding a dedicated kris wing to the Neka Art Museum.
The wing now houses around 400 kris, including heirlooms and historical kris from several noble houses in Bali.
When a group of friends, including Ketut Yuliarsa, the proprietor of Ubud’s famous Ganesha bookstore, approached the pavilion, Neka stood up and beckoned them.
“Ibu has left me, has left me,” he whispered while embracing one of his visiting friends.
The usually energetic 79-year-old appeared frail and vulnerable that night.
“There is no doubt that Ni Gusti Made Srimin was Neka’s shakti,” painter and art scholar Kun Adnyana said.
Shakti is a term in Hindu esoteric teaching that generally refers to the feminine force that enables the masculine force to enact his role. For instance, Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, is the shakti of Lord Brahma the Creator. Without her knowledge, it is impossible for Brahma to create something.
Kun depicted Srimin first and foremost as a courageous woman who boldly challenged the social customs of her era.
“She came from a weisya caste, which is of a higher hierarchy than the sudra caste of Neka. Yet, she defied her family and married Neka,”
In 1960s Bali, it was the kind of decision only a few women dared to make.
“Second, she was very passionate about art and wholeheartedly supported her husband’s vision to advance the island’s and Indonesia’s visual arts,” Kun said.
The support never faltered, including when her young husband decided to resign from his job as a school teacher — a prestigious and comfortable profession at that time — to pursue a career as an art dealer. Many years later, when Sutedja Neka decided to build a museum, a plan a lot of people mocked as nothing but a self-promotional gimmick, Srimin stood by his side.
The Neka Art Museum opened in 1982 as the island’s second privately owned museum and, today, it is respected as both a repository of works of master painters and a platform for aspiring artists.
“She was the vital force that made all of this possible. She befriended and actually was adored by many great Indonesian artists, from Affandi and S. Sudjojono to Hendra Gunawan and Srihadi Soedarsono, but she deliberately let the limelight shine only on her husband,”
Her second child, Kardi Neka, remembered the late Srimin as a brilliant entrepreneur whose business acumen and financial prudence transformed their family into one of the wealthiest and most influential households in Ubud.
In addition to an art gallery and museum, the family now controls five premium tourist properties in and outside Ubud, including the newly launched Komaneka at Keramas Beach.
“They were the perfect couple — the father is the throttle and the mother was the brake. The father is a visionary and the mother took care of all the minute details to ensure that the father’s vision became a reality,” Kardi Neka said.
He remembered his mother as a tough, strong-willed woman who was not easily swayed by other people’s opinions and a strong believer in the importance of education.
“If it was for the education of her children and grandchildren, she was always ready to splurge.”
Srimin was also a stoic fighter who began battling cervical cancer 12 years ago. Her therapy was initially declared a success until symptoms reappeared two years ago. Her condition had deteriorated and so early this year, she was hospitalized at Singapore’s Farrer Park Hospital.
Experts and family tried to heal her in many ways, including through next-generation DNA sequencing (NGS), to no avail.
On the morning of March 3, Srimin passed away. She is survived by her husband, four children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
It is a huge loss for the family, particularly for Neka.
He tried his best to hide the sorrow when he escorted several guests throughout the museum on Tuesday.
“I have just had my health check-up. Everything is OK. I might live for another year and then I will reunite again with her,” he said.
photo of Suteja Neka and lead photo ©Rio Helmi