"Beyond this, Hendra also insisted on the beauty of his people and their land. [He] dwelled lovingly, even passionately, on the generous slopes and ridges and colours of the looks and dress of his people. He captured the language of their bodies with its rich vocabulary - from formal posing or proceeding and tranced dancing to animated but elegant gesturing and relaxed, daydreaming lounging. All of this, and more, he painted with equal amounts of truthfulness and stylized exaggeration. While he remained riveted with it, his attention did not cease with the human form: Hendra also translated the lushness and the soft vivid colours of his native tropics and the land itself into paint and imaginative form."
Astri Wright, Hendra Gunawan: A Great Modern Indonesian Painter, Jakarta 2001, p. 40
Painted in 1963 at the mid-period of Hendra Gunawan's career when the artist was residing in Bandung, this work was composed during the turbulent Pelukis Rakyat period of the 1950s and early 60s. By this time, women had gained an additional significance to Hendra Gunwan. He admired their resilience in the face of turmoil, their inner strength which complemented their external beauty. Within Hendra's monumental Pelukis Rakyat canvases, a strong emphasis is placed on the women guerrillas in these large format 'historical' works. Revolutionary works such as Halo-halo Bandung (Hello-hello Bandung) and the later Laskar Wanita (Women guerrillas) all give female figures a worthwhile place of prominence; equally strong as, and as a support to, their male counterparts rather than depicting them as the weaker sex.
"The women as a group, who by far outnumber the men or children in Hendra's later canvases are not a uniform mass: Hendra does not reduce the subject of woman to any kind of essential. In his canvases, women, be they Sundanese, Javanese, Balinese or other Indonesians, are active, strong, nurturing and beautiful; they are also worn and sick (buy carrying on), sociable (but framing their relationships in their own terms), hard-working (and not only in typically 'feminine' professions), and feisty." (ibid, p. 40)
It is unsurprising then, that the central female in Mencari Kutu is depicted through this new way of Hendra's seeing. Painted larger than usual, she dominates the otherwise bare canvas, taking up most of the space in the foreground. She is also dowered with an unusually generous bustline as though emphasising her nurturing capacity, while at the same time giving her the air of a familial matriarch. Clad in vivid, striking colours which accentuate and cling to the contours of her body, her limbs are sturdy, her eyebrow arched, inquisitive and resolute. One hand is placed solidly on her hip, the other raised provocatively to her lips, inspecting the louse combed out by her friend and servant, also another lithe, confident female. The woven patterns on her clothes are of traditional design, and especially prominent is the pair of upswept wings spread over the curve of her left thigh, forming the symbol of the mythological garuda. This metaphor encapsulates the entire work with its lice-crushing theme, indicating supreme force, militant success and triumphing over evil. This is Hendra's conception of the emblematic modern female: imposing, sensual, and very much the mistress of her own world.