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Art of Indonesia

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Hotshot hairdresser Dixon Tabla holds a brown nude female figurine made of Indonesian hibiscus wood and turns it in every direction. He is demonstrating that because the arms and legs are spread wide apart--and just at the right angles--the sculpture can be put down on a table in any position and still stand securely.

"What do I love about the Indonesian culture?" he asks. "The people are so sweet, so spiritual. There's no aggression, no hostility. It's very alluring. And there's no sexual tension. I mean, when women walk by, the men don't even turn their heads to look."

Hinsdale cookbook author Ruth Law, an authority on Indonesian cooking, is standing nearby in a mink coat. "Oh yes they do," she chimes in. "When I was there, the men looked at me. Because I'm a redhead. They look at redheads. They all wondered what I did with my evenings. The men couldn't do enough for me. They were so helpful. They provided me with limousines and guides."

Tabla and Law and scores of other people are standing in the Carey South hair salon on East Oak Street, which has been transformed temporarily from a trendy salon--chic black glass counters, stark white walls, bare wooden-plank floors, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows overlooking the street's cool boutiques--to a trendy art gallery. It is opening night of the salon's first art exhibit, and 150 pieces of contemporary Indonesian art are on display.

There are watercolors of everyday-life scenes in the rice paddies of Indonesia, and pen and ink and temperas of exotic religious ceremonies. There are batik sarongs and large black-stained wooden spoons. There are wooden marionettes and wildly painted wooden masks. Everything's hanging everywhere, covering, for tonight at least, the telltale signs of the business of $60 haircuts.

Tabla has 700 clients on his mailing list. Those 700 people, as well as the clients of the 11 other hairdressers at Carey South's, will have the opportunity for the next few weeks to spend $95 to $1,500 for Indonesian art that Tabla has studied and handpicked in the same meticulous way he cuts hair.

"I don't want my clients to feel obligated to buy because they've been my clients for 15 years," he says. "Basically, it's up for the clients' enjoyment, and if they want to purchase it, we'll handle it discreetly."

If Tabla doesn't sell everything by December 2 (the close of the "show") he says he won't mind, because everything he bought for the exhibition appealed to him personally. His favorite is a painting by Wahyou, an artist who lives in Bali; the picture is priced at $1,500.

"It's so magical, so inspiring," says Tabla of the gold-skinned male subject in the painting. "It hasn't sold, and if it doesn't, I love it. On the other hand, I don't have a hard time letting go."

A hairdresser for 17 years, Tabla was encouraged to visit Indonesia by a friend who had been taken with the place. Like his friend, Tabla also fell in love with the culture. When he found out that a traveling Indonesian culture festival would be bypassing Chicago due to booking problems, he decided to make up to area residents by hosting a mini-fest of his own. His boss Carey South, an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, welcomed the idea.

"For a hairdresser like myself, we tend to become one-dimensional," says Tabla. "But here, how I can express an appreciation for artistic endeavors. Doing hair is creative, certainly, but having mastered my own craft, being the meticulous person that I am, I feel that I can now appreciate other media."

"He's so meticulous, it's amazing," says Tabla's friend Richard Knight Jr., who has also been doing some public relations on Tabla's behalf. Richard is sporting a short, very neat cut. "It takes him two or three hours to cut my hair. I was cutting it myself for years. But he has such soigne, such style. I always wanted to ask him to cut my hair but I was so intimidated. Finally, I asked him and he said, 'I'd love to get my hands in your hair.' So he'd come to my office--at the time I was in PR at Limelight and everything was so crazy--and we'd have wine and talk. Then I grew my hair really long, down to my shoulders, and I didn't get a haircut for a year. I wore it in a ponytail all the time. One day last summer, I thought, 'What's the point? It's so thick and curly and big.' Everyone was horrified that I was going to do it. There was no turning back. At that time, when I got my hair cut, Dixon began talking about Indonesian art."

"There are no Indonesian galleries here," says Tabla. "I'm curious to see what people are going to be interested in here, and I'll create a market. A lot of people are dabbling. Some of the collectors here tonight think the work is underpriced."

On business days, the art will be removed from the mirrors, the windows, and the counter space where beauty supplies are usually stored. "We don't want to interfere with doing day-to-day business," Tabla says. "Hairdressing is my first love, and it enables me to do this financially. I'm happy [to be a curator] on a small scale. I can't see myself as a gallery owner."

South says he doesn't think clients will mind having their hair done for a brief time in an Indonesian art gallery. He says because he chooses employees who are supporters of the arts, all of their clients are, too. "This kind of thing hasn't been done anywhere else," says South. "This is Dixon's baby, and if we didn't have this exhibit, we'd have to live with white walls."

And Tabla says he doesn't think his sideline will bother clients. "Yes, there are strong motifs," he says. "But I don't think anyone will find them offensive. I think I'll create a following for this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.

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