Indonesian artists reflect on past horrors (2000)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 23 February 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post on 16 January 2000, p. 10.

The staged and spontaneous riots with violent repercussions in Jakarta in early 1998, leading to Soeharto’s stepping down, continue to reverberate through contemporary Indonesian art. While this was evident at home, throughout 1998 and 1999, it has become increasingly evident abroad as well. The May violence against the Chinese has by now become an established theme in Indonesian literature and art, both in its own right and as a symbol of human rights abuses and killings in other provinces, East Timor and Aceh being among the most notable recent examples.

Contemporary Indonesian art is no longer dominated by decorative canvases infused with the spiritual cliches which so easily grace the settings of elite life styles. It has now branched out into multimedia, installations and performance art, no longer as avant garde art forms, but as regular, established genres. And while contemporary Indonesian art a decade ago was hardly known beyond a narrow orbit which included Singapore and Malaysia, it is now known internationally as one of the most dynamic parts of the new hot art commodity, contemporary Asian art.

This shift in international art consciousness has come about due to the efforts of individual artists and writers and the enormous public relations and funding machines of the huge international exhibitions which developed in the course of the 1990s. Indonesian art is now featured, several times a year, in the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, in Biennales in Kwangju, Korea, Havana and in numerous exhibitions in Japan. Even Europe, the stronghold of western art, has opened its doors through the Venice Biennale and other smaller galleries and academic venues.

During the 1998 riots, many artists watched in shock and horror. Many of them, resisting their sense of powerlessness, responded to these events later in their work. Several Indonesian artists left the country for shorter or longer stays abroad; the mental toll of going against the dominant grain at home, year after year, is heavy.

In Jakarta, Non Hendratmo, a young female artist, staged an installation at Jakarta’s Taman Ismail Marzuki a few weeks after the tragedy. By 1999, she was living in New York. Seno Gumira Adjidarma, a well-known writer, journalist and editor of Jakarta-Jakarta, wrote a chilling short story entitled Clara, or the woman who was raped which was translated into English and performed informally abroad during a speaker’s tour he made to the U.S.A., Canada and Japan.

In August 1998, Dadang Christanto created an installation in Australia entitled Cannibalism, or Jakarta— Solo Memoirs May 13, 14, 15, 1998.

In the same year, Dadang accepted a three-year teaching position at the University of Northern Territories in Darwin, Australia. While living there with his wife Nana, son Gunung and new baby daughter, he continues to travel widely, representing Indonesia in the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in September 1999, along with Tisna Sanjaya, Moelyono, Agus Ismoyo, Nia Fliam and Mella Jaarsma, and in the Kwangju Biennale in South Korea early in 2000.


In May 1998, Arahmaiani, Indonesia’s most experimental female artist, stood among the bystanders in the night by looted stores and burning homes where the charred and wounded bodies of Chinese-Indonesian women of all ages, many of them raped and tortured, lay. All she could do was sketch, watch and weep.

In March 1999, at a conference exhibition of art by Southeast Asian female artists in Manila, Arahmaiani created a huge on-site mural, before which she gave a performance, quite different from that of her usual provocative style.

Three large white walls were painted in mostly black, with gray and white accents painted with huge brushes. The space was a dark semi-void embraced by ghostly shadows which resembled larger-than-life figures. Female figures? Yes, they seemed to be.

In June 1999, Arahmaiani staged a performance art piece at the Centre Culturel Francaise, Bandung: Dayang Sumbi: Menolak Status Quo (Dayang Sumbi: Rejecting the Status Quo) and Tunjukan Hatimu Padaku (Show Your Heart To Me).

“This is a show with a special theme: Voice of a Woman. My idea this time is to rework or subvert a story from local mythology. While before, woman in the story were given a passive role, I give her an active role”, Arahmaiani said.

Semsar Siahaan

In February 1999, Semsar Siahaan arrived in Canada as a visiting artist and speaker at the History of Art department at the University of Victoria. In June his status changed to that of a one-year political refugee, with the possibility of receiving permanent refugee status after the year was up.

Semsar Siahaan’s three months hosted by the University of Victoria brought many people into contact with this artist, who to many was completely unknown in the context beyond the issue of East Timor. To those who had experienced Indonesia through travel, work or activist lobbying, Semsar’s presence provided a shot of vital new energy, including perspectives and opportunities for meeting other like-minded people. Professors of art and history, writers living in exile in Canada from South Africa and elsewhere, students of bahasa Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific region, activists and local artists staging a solidarity exhibition for the struggle in Chiapas, most of those who attended were moved by Semsar’s public appearances.

In mid-March, Semsar Siahaan finished his first painting in Canada, a large canvas (200 cm x 140 cm) which he had started only six weeks earlier. Entitled Black Orchid, this painting was presented at a university colloquium. The composition centers around the artist’s self-portrait. As the focal point in the canvas, it binds together the other turbulent scenes represented.

Black Orchid shows how the internal and external mix and merge in Semsar Siahaan’s work. While this was often a feature of his earlier works, it appears now with the addition of metaphors of distance and reflection and the incorporation of memory and commemoration into his statement. It shows how Semsar’s art ties together the political and the personal, the distant and the immediate.

What, one wonders, does an activist artist in exile, enforced or self-imposed, dream at night? How does exile change his work?

Basuki Resobowo’s art has never changed its focus, even during 34 years in exile in the Netherlands, where he died on January 5, 1999 at the age of 83. Revolution era artist Sudjana Kerton’s mature work, throughout 27 years in the USA, even as he continuously probed new media and stylistic approaches, for the most part persisted in depicting Indonesian themes and subjects.

Hendra Gunawan, while in prison and after his release, continued to paint historical paintings of local battles against the Dutch colonizers, revolutionary guerrillas at rest and women going about the business of selling and buying and nursing the children of the nation.

At least in terms of ideas for future art works, Semsar Siahaan has some very clear ideas rooted in his Indonesian experiences over the last 20 years. At the same time, the artist is dealing with the shift in identity in which seeking domicile in a new nation involves: Between June and July 1999 he painted a huge canvas entitled Confusion, which depicts human figures, including his own and ghosts of people from his past, reclining, struggling and reaching across a space defined, from left to right, by a banana and an oak tree.

On the question of exile and artistic focus, Dadang Christanto quotes from Darwin: “I believe that, as of yet, there are no changes, because until now, my spirit is still the same as when living in Indonesia... If, nevertheless, there has been a change, it is that I feel I can be more courageous when it comes to expressing my thoughts in Australia... I feel less hampered and more bold and able to sharpen and intensify the themes in my work. For example, I am beginning to dare to think about themes surrounding Indonesia between 1965 to 1966, which, until now, these events of bloody butchering have not been touched on by the reformists.”

What will become ever more clear, as historical understanding matures, is that this past year has most likely awoken the consciences of and mobilized larger numbers of artists and other people than at any one time in the last 32 years of Indonesian history.