Semsar Siahaan: Hero into exile (2000)

With Suharto gone, Indonesia’s most outrageous anti-Suharto artist chooses exile. Why?

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 24 January 2012
This article was previously published in Inside Indonesia, 62, April - June 2000.

Semsar Siahaan: Hero into exile

Born in blood by the authority of guns, the New Order’s preferred art was sweetly decorative and/or abstract-spiritual. Fine art genres in themselves, they were also seen as politically toothless, thus “safe” to a regime which in terms of citizens’ rights could bear no scrutiny. However, the injustices of Suharto’s New Order, in combination with its ultra-conservative art establishment, ensured the return of politically engaged art by activist painters and poets. Beginning after a ten-year hiatus following the decimations of the 1965 massacres, this gradual return ensured a tenuous existence for engaged art from the late 1970s onwards.

By the early 1990s, the upsurge in Indonesian artists’ interest in installation art coincided with a broader interest in political dimensions to art, to the point where the two combined to become a “must” for artists desiring international visibility. From now on, politically engaged art bore the two faces of fashion and serious concern. No doubt, the last two years have conscientised larger numbers of artists than at any time in the last thirty-two years. At the same time, the intense uncertainty and hardship of this time of transition has led to some surprising changes for artists, which reflect the larger confusion: after the tyrant is gone, what does one put in his place?

Semsar Siahaan, now in his late 40s, was on the art-activist barricades from the late 1970s, one of the most outraged and outrageous of them all. While others limited their critiques of Indonesia’s establishment aesthetics and internal colonialisms to their art and private conversations, Semsar went several steps further. He made the news by burning one of his art teacher’s sculptures, Sunaryo’s West Irian in torso, at the Bandung Art Academy (ITB) in 1981. This avowed “cremation” led to Semsar’s expulsion from the school. The event launched him as someone who placed the private completely within the political realm and who felt that any means were valid, as long as his point was made, and made the public think. The last twelve years, Semsar has received significant attention at home, in Japan and in Australia, with his large, even monumental canvases that depict the struggle of the people against the greed and hypocrisy of the business and political elites, ever witnessing and holding up to view events that could not be discussed freely.

So how can it be that, today, with Suharto gone and a new Indonesia in the pangs of being birthed, and after twenty-odd years of fighting, Semsar Siahaan has chosen to go into exile? And not to a country with any Indonesian resistance in exile, like Germany, Australia, Holland, or even the USA— but to Canada?

Semsar Siahaan is not the only one who has left Indonesia in the last few years. Several activist artists have left for shorter or longer stays abroad. The mental toll of going against the dominant grain of their nation year after year, with the apparatus of control reaching right into their homes, is heavy. But none has sought permanent domicile elsewhere. Of all people, Semsar has.

Semsar Siahaan: Going Canadian

In February 1999, Semsar Siahaan arrived in Canada as a visiting artist and speaker at the University of Victoria, in “Beautiful British Columbia” (also known as “Britishful Beauty Columbia”). His visit was arranged in record time, via nightly letters, faxes, memos and phone calls back and forth to Singapore after he contacted me in early January, sick and depressed. Semsar arrived thin and drawn, his hair all grey— no longer the energetic young fighter I had met eleven years earlier while doing my PhD research. After setting him up in a rented room and a studio and catching up on news, the task of networking to draw people to his talks began.

As luck would have it, Semsar Siahaan’s first week here coincided with the week-long visit of radical young writer-journalist Seno Gumira Adjidarma, and the brief visit of another Indonesian writer-journalist living abroad, Dewi Anggraeni, from Australia. This brought a sense of community to people interested in Indonesia. Semsar’s three months hosted by the University of Victoria brought many people into contact with what to them was a completely unknown context beyond the issue of East Timor. To those who had experienced Indonesia through travel, work or activist lobbying, Semsar and Seno’s presence provided a shot of vital energy for likeminded people.

Whether professors of art history, writers living in exile in Canada from South Africa, students of bahasa Indonesia or the Asia-Pacific region, activists or local artists staging a solidarity exhibition for the struggle in Chiapas— most of those who attended were moved by Semsar Siahaan’s public talks and found his work interesting. His speaking style balanced between the informal and the informative, packaged as a charismatic blend of humour and stubborn adherence to principle and his own role as upholder of truth.

Semsar Siahaan also began to paint and sketch, both indoors and outdoors. The question arose: what does an activist painter paint after he has become completely worn out by his political and personal traumas? What does an activist painter do who has “lost his nerve” (as Semsar admitted before eighty people on March 1st, 1999) and left his country, whether temporarily or for good?

In mid-March, Semsar Siahaan finished his first painting in Canada, a large canvas entitled Black orchid (ca. 200 cm x 140 cm) begun only a few weeks earlier. The composition centres on the artist’s self portrait. As the focal point in the canvas, his face binds together the disparate, turbulent scenes represented all around. In the upper left of the canvas, a mother screams in pain with her head held back and her arms flung out to the sides. Her breasts are shrunken, milk-less, and the infant who desperately clutches at her body is dying. In the upper right of the canvas, men with arms raised threateningly shout and point accusing fingers. Below the artist’s face is a pond which reflects his features. But beneath the reflection, under the water, the outlines of still bodies are visible. These represent the sixteen activists Semsar knew who “disappeared” the year before.

In the early stages of painting, done in pale washes later painted over till the canvas glowed with bright colours, Semsar Siahaan depicted himself with his mouth tightly closed. In the finished painting, however, his mouth is open. In the end, he claimed the role of active, audible witness to history. Merely observing the events all around him was not enough.

While the guest of our department, Semsar Siahaan gave two large public talks and had a solo exhibition at the university gallery. On his own initiative, he joined a group exhibition at Open Space, an alternative gallery downtown. Semsar’s visit, then, was successful for all parties. But apparently Semsar harboured longer-term plans as well. A few months after his arrival, his request for a political refugee visa was granted. Even more surprising was the news recently that Semsar has now become a “landed immigrant”. This means he can now officially work, collect regular social welfare (as opposed to the refugee welfare he was getting), and cannot leave the country for more than six months at a time.

At present Semsar Siahaan is preoccupied with the immigrant’s shifting identity. In July 1999 he painted a huge painting on paper entitled Confusion (c.500 x 340 cm), which was exhibited at a show featuring “Vancouver Island Artists”. His instant membership in such a group perhaps said as much about the curators’ desire to host a more cosmopolitan spread than one generally sees in this small government and university town whose main industry is tourism. In this canvas, Semsar depicted his own and other ghostly figures, of people in his past as well as characters from his symbolic cast. Reclining, struggling and reaching across a space defined from left to right, the stage was set between a banana palm tree and an oak, with the outline of European style buildings which resemble Victoria’s parliament in the centre.

Hard questions

What, one wonders, does an activist artist in exile, enforced or self-imposed, dream at night? How does exile change their work? Other artists in modern Indonesian art history have lived in exile: Basuki Resobowo, Sudjana Kerton, Hendra Gunawan, are some of the better-known examples. Their art fared variously, but none of them ceased to paint Indonesia.

As for future art work, Semsar Siahaan has some impassioned ideas. One is for a painting and installation exhibition which would feature the New Order as a huge slaughterhouse. While this thematic obviously could not have been realised under Suharto or Habibie, perhaps it will see the light of day in the near future. But will it be shown primarily in Canada, where there is only minimal interest in contemporary Asian art (and mostly Chinese, at that), or will it be seen where it has the most immediate value, in Indonesia itself?

While Semsar Siahaan from early on played an important role as the extremist exception in an otherwise relatively “naughty-free” art world, the cumulative effect of observing his style and his work over the last two decades has made some people question the point at which opportunism and self-righteousness take centre stage and push righteousness and integrity to the side. While painting heroes, Semsar’s verbal narratives seem to spare no one in the intellectual, activist and artistic world from scathing criticism. While frequently placing himself centrally in the canvas as witness, one begins to get the feeling that he needs to depict himself as an almost godlike presence. While painting women as often as he paints men (and often in sexually explicit poses), to hear Semsar talk about his own suffering, one gets the impression that most of it is caused by women, from childhood onwards.

Analysing the work and the man, many questions arise. While Moelyono created his exhibition commemorating the murdered labour activist Marsinah in August 1993, on the 100th day after her death, why did Semsar Siahaan only paint his work of Marsinah more than a year after the fact? Was he in fact throwing himself on the wave of the growing democracy-discourse celebrating Marsinah-as-martyr? The ensuing painting, which is stunning, was used as a poster during the Women’s NGO conference in Beijing in 1995. But why are the faces of all four women in this painting (entitled Women workers between factory and prison) elongated versions of his own face? What is more, they all wear the same exact expression as Semsar’s in a photo of the same year, standing before the painting entitled Selendang abang (1994).

In the last decade Semsar Siahaan’s heroic figures increasingly wear his own features. If not earlier, this began to be evident in his black / white and oil work exhibited in 1988. The working class hero wearing the yellow hard hat in the monumental oil painting Olympia is clearly a self-portrait. Instead of the technique of playwright Ratna Sarumpaet, which Carla Bianpoen calls “becoming the figure she personifies”, Semsar seems to make his heroes, male and female, into himself. Rather than reaching beyond and transcending his own ego-boundaries, Semsar’s is a process of imposing his own marks and signs on others, one might even say of appropriating their heroic deeds for himself.

While Moelyono, Harsono, Arahmaiani, Tisna Sanjaya and others are vocal in post-Suharto Indonesia, and Dadang Christanto is extremely visible teaching and exhibiting in Australia and in exhibitions in Europe and Korea, what is Semsar Siahaan doing getting permanent residenceship in Canada? And that in a city without an Indonesian population and no visibility, internationally, except as a city of flowers and mock-English scenography for tourists? What is Semsar doing participating in local exhibitions that feature “Vancouver Island Artists”, a few months after he arrives? And what are all the tortured, windblown images of his own features about, watching or reaching out to mostly naked women, both Asian and not?

Semsar Siahaan: Going private

Pointing at the water in the lower half of Black orchid, Semsar Siahaan said in February 1999: “This is Canada”. He had been painting studies of the pond behind his lodgings. Its reflective surface and revealing depths represented the artist’s time away from Indonesia— the chance to withdraw, remember, think and work, living without the constant fear caused by extreme social turmoil and state-sponsored violence.

Perhaps Semsar Siahaan, now nearly fifty, has decided that there is after all a separation between the individual and the group struggle, between the private and the public. Perhaps, after a life of throwing stones and shouting: “Down! Down!”, Semsar has decided to tend to his own glass-house, first. To spend extensive time alone, far away from everything and everyone, not fighting. And to discover the deeper challenge of how and what to build, constructively, in the nation, after rebuilding the soul.

Astri Wright is Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Art at the University of Victoria in western Canada. For a longer discussion on activist art see her chapter in Timothy Lindsey & Hugh O’Neil (eds), AWAS! Art from contemporary Indonesia (Melbourne: Indonesian Art Society, 1999), pp.49-69.