Semsar Siahaan: In memoriam (2005)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 24 January 2012
This article is a longer version of one published in Monday Magazine, Victoria, B.C., on 28 Feb 2005 with the title "Goodbye from Canada to Indonesian activist artist".

Semsar Siahaan: In memoriam

Semsar Siahaan, known to many people in Victoria involved with art, human rights activism, and Indonesia, died of a sudden heart attack in Tabanan, Bali, on Wednesday February 23rd. Semsar was born in Medan, capital of North Sumatra, Indonesia, in 1952, a Batak with Indian blood via his mother’s side, a Gemini born in the Year of the Dragon. [1] Upon his death, Semsar’s body was dressed in Balinese ritual garb, and his body was flown to Jakarta where he lay in state at Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta’s art centre. Here dozens of artists gathered to say goodbye and pray for his soul.

I first encountered Semsar and his art while doing PhD research in Indonesia 17 years ago and was (like most people) immediately struck by the vibrancy and power in his drawings and paintings. Semsar was one of a small, dynamic number of socially engaged artists who used their art to raise consciousness and to give visual witness to conditions and events the media was unable to cover. This art was often censored but nonetheless could range more freely than verbal criticism. While Pramoedya and Rendra, Indonesia’s foremost historical fiction writer and poet, were nearly completely silenced, artists like FX Harsono, Moelyono, Dadang Christanto and Semsar kept working. None was more actively involved with local and international leftist and humanitarian networks than Semsar.

Semsar was a strong personality: he had the charisma and persuasiveness of a born leader. His actions and art often performed like “beacons”, a longstanding series of sparks that started fires, many of them important and unifying, others less so. But his art is and will always remain a powerful humanitarian record and unique oeuvre within contemporary Indonesian and world art. Equally importantly, while at times at serious odds with his age-peers and fellow activist artists, Semsar inspired new generations of Indonesians to pick up the struggle to help make Indonesia a more democratic and humane nation, through a variety of social, political and expressive work; the Jaringan Kerja group is one example of this.

Semsar arrived in Canada in early 1999 as a visiting Indonesian artist, invited by the University of Victoria’s History in Art Department and Center for Asia Pacific Initiative. Semsar was one of five Indonesian artists hosted by my department in the Fine Arts Faculty (with either Ford Foundation or Orion funding): others were ceramic artist Hildawati Soemantri, contemporary batik painters Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam Ismoyo, and performance artist Arahmaiani. Unfortunately, the sources of funding dried up, so this promising practice came to an end.

Semsar made his home here in Victoria for five years. After he arrived in winter, scathed and exhausted from his ongoing fight against the Suharto regime, he began to sketch trees. Some of these sketches were sensitive, poetic (and no doubt healing) images, but some depicted tree limbs twisting like body parts after violent death. As Semsar healed (though his blood pressure did remain dangerously high), he began to return to his main medium, oil painting. The first major painting done in Victoria was Black Orchid, which Semsar dedicated to fourteen activists and friends killed by the military regime in early 1998. He exhibited his work at the Maltwood Gallery in July 1999, and over the next years at Open Space and the Community Arts Council of Victoria.

After returning to Indonesia in mid-2004, Semsar held the largest exhibition of his career, “The Shade of Northern Lights” at the National Gallery in Jakarta in August 2004. Here he showed the work he had done while in Canada. Here, Semsar’s art returned to a more global political-activist focus, after several years of intensive focus on Indonesian socio-political injustices: now his earlier (1980s) critique of capitalism’s and globalization’s inhumanity and victims, wherever they be in the world, returned full force and in new aesthetic garb.

How wonderful, in the end, that Semsar could die in Bali, in Indonesia, rather than here in Canada, as a political refugee with no one around him who had known him more than a handful of years. And how wonderful, if he had to die at a still-young age, that he had the chance to exhibit at the National Gallery, the art space that symbolically represents the nation for which he lived so passionately.

The last time I saw Semsar was during one of the demonstrations against the US war in Iraq here in Victoria. He came up to me as we moved along in the demonstration, in front of the Parliament buildings; we shook hands and hugged after a long period of not bumping into each other; then each was swept up into the demonstration again, moving at different speeds, soon losing sight of the other. Now that last encounter seems a fitting “eulogic” memory of Semsar: that the last time I saw him would have been in a demonstration, not in a cafe, or restaurant, or even an art gallery.

Like other notable politically engaged Indonesian artists, Semsar chose to live in Bali before leaving for Canada and upon his return. In Indonesia, prayer from whatever religious tradition being part of the public discourse, I want to invoke the Hindu-Balinese practice here, to end all prayers with the mother of all mantras and thrice-invoked “Peace”:

Blessed journeys in the beyond, Semsar.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.

And my Norwegian heart says: Takk for nå. Thanks for this time around. We may spar and collaborate, challenge and inspire each other during another round in another arena, yet.

[1] Whereas English journalism would use the family name throughout, e.g. here: Siahaan, when discussing the person in question, there are traditionally no “first names” and “family names” in Indonesia. Hence in the press and in public, people are referred to by their most commonly used names, which to western readers may “look like” their personal names. I adhere to the Indonesian practice here: it is not a matter of “colonizing” the subject / person in question or of being patronizing. In fact, following Indonesian usage is, to me, a matter of respect and of following local linguistic practice of communicative consensus.