In 1950, Kerton was invited by STICUSA (Foundation for Cultural Co-operation between Indonesia and Holland) to study art in Holland. This was the beginning of his long absence from his beloved homeland. He spent more than 20 years abroad, mostly in the United States doing many things to earn a living for his family. He started a shop selling crafts from Indonesia and framing pictures. He demonstrated, taught, and sold batik painting. He even taught Indonesian cooking on television, but he never stopped painting his images of Indonesia. Whether it was bleak scenes from the war and revolution or works by an artist abroad reminiscing about his countrymen - or even the Punks he stumbled upon in SoHo - his work was always about people. As Astri Wright aptly observed "Kerton's paintings are multifaceted: they are exaggerated, hilarious, and poignant. They are about water and grain, people and animals, work and play; about times shared and times alone. They are suffused both with a quality of intimate, nostalgic involvement and the more distant perspective of the outsider. With their sharpness, humour, and local as well as universal levels of meaning, they are simultaneously about life in Indonesia and about human beings everywhere." (Ibid., p. 195).
In the early 70s, while still away from Indonesia, Kerton was commissioned by the Indonesian Embassy in the Hague to do a mural painting. The finished work, titled Tanah Airku, Indonesia (My country, Indonesia) was illustrated on the cover of the book on the artist, published in 1990 by Sanggar Luhur Publication. The present work is a re-visit of the same subject.
The composition of the two works are strikingly similar. Both depicted a Waringin tree (otherwise known as Banyan tree) in the centre with Borobudur on the upper left corner, the mountain on upper right corner and the rest of the space was well endowed with symbolic figures like the Garuda, the sun, the flora and fauna, last but not least the daily activities of the Indonesian people. Interestingly, many of the subjects were painted by Kerton in his other works, like workings of the farmer and villagers gathering in circle for a Barong performace. In a way, Tanah Airku is made up of the artist numerous smaller works and presented at their bests and more importantly interacting with one another.
The symbolic significance of Tanah Airku is the main essence of the work. As explained by the book "The design opposite describes the cover painting, a mural which Kerton was commissioned to paint for the Indonesian Embassy in the Hague, Netherlands. It is an expression of his feelings about the daily life and culture of is people as he remembered from his childhood. As is shown in the rough sketch, the design symbolically represents the beliefs and foundation of the country. As examples, the Banyan tree symbolizes National Consciousness and the Buffalo, Sovereignty of the People" (Tanah Airku-My Country Indonesia-Paintings by Sudjana Kerton, Sanggar Luhur Publication, 1990, p. 52).
The structure of the present work is almost impeccable, the manner is what one would term 'Vacuum phobia' which is a fear of empty space and every possible space of the work is filled up with colours, activity or a figure. To achieve a harmonious composition with a scene as busy as Tanah Airku requires meticulous arrangement. Not only was the artist able to achieve that, he was also able to create a sense of lyrical narration and the images transcend their immediate representations and interact with one another to tell a tale of cultural vibrancy and vivid living.
The tale begins with the rising sun in the east with its golden ray enveloping the spiritual Borobudur, as the legendary Garuda (symbol of creativity) flies towards Mount Merapi that provides the force of revitalisation and with the Banyan tree providing shade and strong hold to the mother earth, human lives, plants and animals flourish and mingle with each other. Although the work was conceived very much as a patriotic expression but the vivacity of it could be of a wider context understood by individuals of different cultures - as it is simply, an ode to life, joy and love.