Mbah Urup and the Story of Wisdom

Mbah Urup and the Story of Wisdom

Contemporary terracotta infused with Indonesian tradition.

The making of Mbah Urup, a terracotta sculpture in the form of 3 men wearing head attire, is surely an interesting story to tell. Initially commissioned for Nggone Mbahmu, a unique coffee brand based in Klaten Central Java,  the sculpture experienced a long journey to completion.



Spontaneity and serendipity have always been the focus of my artistic approach to sculpture. Different from design projects that usually have clear guidelines, in working with clay, I like to keep my freedom intact. It is for that reason that I hardly took a commission project for my art. When the brand owner, who was also a collector of my ceramic works, visited Bali and asked if I could create three sculptures to represent three coffee varieties of the brand, I replied that I would try and promised to let them know if I managed to do so.

So I started experimenting. The idea was to create three men wearing Blangkon (a traditional Javanese headdress worn by men) to fit the brand identity as Javanese Mbah/Guru/A respected (old) man. Moreover, each sculpture should represent three different personalities related to the flavor of each coffee.

It was a challenge to my spontaneous mind. My eyes and hands used to work in fluidity with the clay. Lines create a shape. Shape connects with memories and converts itself into expression, and so on. After a few attempts, one figure came out with a Blangkon, but the face was far from looking old.

A few days passed, and my senses started to go overboard. The headdress no longer looked like a Blangkon. They extended into memories of other head attires, Saluak of Minangkabau ( West Sumatera), Gotong of Batak (North Sumatera), Udeng from Bali, Tanjak from South Sumatera, etc. The faces were mixed, between old, young, or middle-aged. Perhaps it was without coincidence that, as an Indonesian with 1300 ethnic groups, I was used to seeing diversities.

Besides, headscarves exist in many cultures around the world. They are not just a fashion, but a symbol, something to protect the important, the head as a symbol of the mind.



After almost a year I decided to inform the client and call off the project as the sculptures did not reveal what was requested. However, I did not destroy the clay figurines or finish them.

The clay figurines travelled to different places during those times. Earlier that year I had a chance to stay in a bamboo house. I took the sculptures with me and stayed there for a few months. They were left open in the room and quickly turned black, absorbing the dust from the bamboo. When I fired the clay later that year, I realized the story had not ended.

After being fired at low temperatures, the clay turned into an unusual dark brown color. It was probably the result of the organic dust. The terracotta sculptures stood out with their coffee color as if they wanted to keep their story alive. In today’s world, coffee is more than just a casual drink. Rooted in tradition, it has become part of modern lifestyle, fits different generations and genders, and removes social classes. People enjoy good coffee and the culture it entails.

HAA           AHH           AHA!

As I was thinking about the title, a memory from years ago appeared. It was that day when my father tried to teach my nephew how to say Kakek, an Indonesian word for Grandpa. Instead, my nephew insisted on calling my father Aki, a Sundanese version, which he picked up from elsewhere and was not a tradition in our family. Unable to direct my nephew, my father finally accepted the nickname, and the whole family embraced the new word.


And there it was, from a question of haa, comes the answer, aah, and then we gather our wisdom with aha!

Urup is a Javanese word identified with light and wisdom. In Javanese, there is a saying, Urip Iku Urup, meaning to live is to be the light (for the self and others). 

“….the fire that changes the dust and the clay into a beautiful coffee color speaks of universalities. The same flame that we all carry within.”  said Mbah Urup closing his story of wisdom.

HAA.. AHH.. AHA!  Hidup itu Nyala !

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