Chet Witek bought his first piece of Indonesian art before he had even been to Indonesia. The wonderfully bizarre mask from Bali has huge fierce eyes painted in concentric circles, with long tufts of hair attached to strings hanging below. “It was a wonderful discovery–something new to my eyes,” he says. Soon Witek, a sculptor, collage maker, and professor of interior design at the College of DuPage, was traveling regularly to Indonesia. In seven trips he has spent about a year there and has acquired more than 400 objects, most of which are currently divided between two shows, one at the Harold Washington Library Center and the other at the Cortland-Leyten Gallery.

An amazing group of painted shields from the Asmat tribe are among the strongest pieces in the Washington library show. Their patterns, often based on plant or animal forms, are a starkly powerful mix of the geometric and the organic. In the 70s, when these shields were made, the coastal Asmat were living a near Stone Age existence; the three colors used come from the most basic sources: clay, clamshells, and charcoal. Yet the shield makers, says Witek, never create two alike.

For Witek, one pleasure of collecting art is that he can enjoy it every day. “One of the dealers I know in Bali considers museums cemeteries for art,” he says. “The Indonesians believe art should be in people’s homes, part of their daily lives. I’ve always believed this. I teach interior design and I tell my students the art is one of the most important things in the interior. When I wake up and brush my teeth I’m looking at a sculpture from Timor, and that affects the way I think; it connects me to the place and the artist and the culture that’s halfway around the world.”

Another pleasure of collecting is being able to handle the objects, as exhibit visitors cannot: “The more you handle things, the better,” says Witek. An Asmat dagger on display at the Washington library is made out of a crocodile jawbone and feathers; the tooth sockets serve as finger holds. “When I first picked it up I could feel a balance to it, I could tell it was a serious weapon. . . . It was scary. You could feel the power, and I wondered how many people it had killed.”

Among the more benign objects on view are dozens of puppets and masks used in traditional performances known as wayang theater. Wayang kulit, a shadow play using thin leather puppets, is the most famous version. A display at the Washington library sets six such puppets behind a screen. Actual performances, Witek says, are wildly animated: the gamelan orchestra provides lots of clanging and banging, the puppets sometimes strike the screen, and there is an overall festive atmosphere with vendors selling satay.

Sadly, much of Indonesian culture is under siege. The Asmat have only recently made extensive contact with the outside world. “These people can’t handle paper companies and mining companies and missionaries and the Indonesian government trying to make them assimilate,” says Witek. And wayang theater has new competition. One of Witek’s Indonesian friends explained that villagers used to put on masked performances every weekend. “Now,” the friend says, “everybody’s working hard, maybe in a textile factory, so they can make money so they can buy a color TV.” Though attempts are being made to preserve performances on video and in schools, “TV is killing wayang,” Witek says. “That’s why I’m able to acquire so many of these masks.”

“Bali and Beyond: A Personal Collection of Indonesian Art” is on exhibit through June 11 in the main exhibit hall of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. It’s open regular library hours: Mondays 9 to 7; Tuesdays and Thursdays 11 to 7; Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 9 to 5. Call 747-4876.

“Vanishing Traditions: Folk and Tribal Art of the Indonesian Islands,” which includes pieces from Witek’s and other collections, is on exhibit at the Cortland-Leyten Gallery, 815 N. Milwaukee, through June 2. It’s open Saturdays 12:30 to 5, Sundays 12:30 to 3, and by appointment. Call 733-2781.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.