First Aid for Indonesian Art

Few people who visit museums and admire the paintings on the wall, be it a contemporary piece or centuries old, realize the amount of effort and dedication it takes to preserve these great works of art. Even private collectors often don’t know how to handle their treasures properly to prevent damage and early deterioration.

This is where Selina Halim comes into the picture, or painting. The 27-year-old is a professional painting conservator.

Despite spending most of her life abroad, Selina is now back in Jakarta to prepare for her wedding. At the same time she aims to share her knowledge about conservation with the local art community through Art Clinic, a fine art conservation lab that she has set up in Mangga Besar, North Jakarta.

Selina left Indonesia for Australia while still in high school. The decision was prompted by the 1998 violence in Jakarta, when the Chinese-Indonesian community was targeted by mobs of rioters. Selina’s parents wanted to send their youngest daughter somewhere they knew she would be safe.

“It was very tough at the beginning because I didn’t really understand what was going on,” Selina said.

“Imagine, one day you go to school and are surrounded by kids who look like yourself, and the next you are in totally different surroundings with all these Western children.”

However, she eventually adapted, graduating from high school with two passions, art and science.

Despite being torn between the two, Selina chose art, completing a bachelor’s degree in painting. But she still had her doubts — being a full-time artist was a tough profession.

So Selina decided to enroll in the Master of Arts in Cultural Materials Conservation program at the University of Melbourne, where she specialized in paintings.

Conservation was the perfect choice for Selina, offering a combination of art, science and history.

“Conservation is quite multifaceted,” she said. “In the old days, it was just restoration, so when objects were broken or damaged, you had to get them restored. But now, the profession has grown; there is more to it than just fixing the object itself. We also need to address the environment and do research on the materials, or anything that will help us preserve the work.”

Upon completing her master’s degree, Selina moved to Singapore and for three years worked at the Heritage Conservation Center.

The Heritage Conservation Center is responsible for the conservation needs of five prominent museums in Singapore, and a few cultural and heritage institutions.

“It is quite an interesting institution,” she said. “I was impressed, because they have a really high standard and are very organized. We had to manage all five of the museums, and each museum would have between 10 and 20 exhibitions every year. We had to check all the objects and see which ones of them were in need of conservation.”

She was also involved with the research side of things, training less-experienced staff members and conducting environmental monitoring for the museums.

“It was kind of a crazy schedule. Well, basically I didn’t have a life,” she said, laughing.

After finishing her contract Selina decided to return to Jakarta. Wasting no time, she became actively involved in the local art community sharing her conservation knowledge.

Recently, she conducted a workshop titled “Caring for Your Collections” at LINGGARseni gallery in Kemang.

“I was quite overwhelmed with the response, and everyone was very enthusiastic,” Selina said.

She said around 25 people from different backgrounds attended the workshop, from art collectors to artists, gallery owners and museum representatives. Some even came from Bandung for the worshop. The response was so overwhelming that Selina is planning to hold another workshop in August.

She said with Indonesia’s blossoming art scene, it was especially important to spread the knowledge about how to conserve artworks.

“But people are starting now to realize the importance of what we do,” Selina said. “There are several factors that can lead to damage and deterioration of paintings: pest, pollutants, light, temperature, humidity and also humans themselves, who sometimes simply don’t know how to handle, display or store the artwork.”

One of the biggest problems faced by tropical countries like Indonesia is mold.

“It’s not so much of a problem in countries with a drier climate, but it is a big issue in our region,” Selina said.

Another common factor causing damage is bad restoration.

“It’s quite common here,” she said, “because people don’t have many options and sometimes think that cheaper is better. They take their artworks to people who are not properly trained.”

Her advice to private art collectors who want to display their artwork at home is simple.

“You should hang your painting at a place that is not too damp or humid,” Selina said. “It shouldn’t be in direct sunlight, and it shouldn’t be to close to any air-conditioners that you regularly switch on and off, because it causes a harsh, fluctuating condition.”

She also said regular maintenance such as dusting was key to conservation, as this gave sensitive artwork a longer life span.

Besides conservation Selina also educates people about how to identify any problems with their pieces.

“The way I see it, conservation is almost like medicine,” she said. “For example, if you have a fracture, there are certain things you can do to prevent it from worsening before you see a doctor. That’s why I teach my workshop, I give the participants some first-aid measures.”

However, Selena said that though there were a number of things that could be done to rectify damage, “it is best to consult a conservator when the artwork has suffered severe damage.”

“If a painting only needs a simple treatment, it can be quite fast, between one or two weeks,” she said. “But if it is something that is more grave than that, it can take longer than a month.”

Sometimes, it is too late to save a painting, something Selina came across several times while working in Singapore.

“There were times when we just had to accept that a certain painting was no longer exhibit-able,” she said.

Contemporary art, Selina said, is harder to conserve, especially installation artworks that sometimes use non-conventional material.

“The museums acquiring contemporary art need to be aware that these objects won’t last very long,” she said. “We have to address those issues as well.”

As a general rule, paintings from centuries ago are more resilient than more recent ones.

Selina explained back then people took the time to understand their craft: they knew their materials, which is something that is not too common anymore.

“The old masters, for example, still made their own paint, which helped them understand the whole process, while artists today just buy the stuff they need without knowing what it actually contains,” Selina said. “Permanency, or longevity of a piece, is not an issue for artists anymore.”

Since she started working as a conservator, Selina hasn’t done much painting herself. It is one of the drawbacks of her busy schedule.

“I guess I am a perfectionist and need to focus on one thing at a time,” she said. “But I want to start painting again.”

At least when it comes to Selina’s own artwork, she won’t have to worry about early deterioration.

For more information about upcoming workshops or art conservation, e-mail Selina at


2 Responses to "First Aid for Indonesian Art"

Ninequadrat mengatakan... 23 Juli 2011 12.56

luv art :) nice share art and his display exhibition.. wiro :D

Rizky Wardiansyah mengatakan... 24 Juli 2011 06.28

kunjungan pagi sambil follow...
d tunggu ya followbacknya :)

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