Indonesian art and politics

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Indonesian art and politics

By Zanny Begg

From November 26 to January 29, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne hosted an exhibition of Indonesian art called AWAS! — the Indonesian word for "beware". The exhibition will be in Sydney from March 23 to April 22 at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery.

There is a strong tradition of political and activist art in Indonesia which stretches back to the 1930s but which grew in dynamism and courage during the Suharto-era and continues today.

AWAS! gathered together the work of nine artists working since the fall of Suharto and illustrated the diversity of themes being taken up in contemporary Indonesian art.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there were major debates between left-wing and liberal artists in Indonesia over what was appropriate subject matter. Artists influenced by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) formed LEKRA, the People's Cultural Organisation, which argued that artists should concern themselves with political struggle. They debated the authors of the "Cultural Manifesto", who argued that art should not the property of any political party. After the brutal rise to power of Suharto in 1965 many of the artists around LEKRA and the PKI were killed. Those who survived, such as writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, were sentenced to lengthy spells in jail.

PictureDuring the repressive atmosphere of the 1970s artists in the Cultural Manifesto group radicalised and started to deal with more political topics. A famous example was the poet Rendra who was tear-gassed as he tried to read poetry at the Jakarta Art Centre in the late 1970s.

During the 1970s, the debate shifted from politics to whether Indonesian artists should be influenced by Western or Indonesian art movements. In the 1980s, young artists in Jakarta and Yogyakarta launched the New Indonesian Fine Arts Movement. They were influenced by pop art and installation work. They took their art out of the gallery and into "everyday life". They were influenced by both Indonesian and Western art. From these works the contemporary Indonesian art movement was born.

The notion that art should be political did not die with the leaders of LEKRA. The reality of life in Indonesia has continually forced even the most politically moderate artists to address social issues.

In 1993, the military assassinated Marsinah for her activities as a trade union activist. Her life has been a continuing inspiration for Indonesian artists. In 1994, the police closed down an exhibition, organised by Moelyono, dedicated to Marsinah. Prominent Indonesian artist Semsar produced a painting in her honour called "Women Workers between Factory and Prison" which was used widely to highlight the plight of Indonesian women workers. In 1994, Ratna Sarumpaet wrote a play about Marsinah called "A song from the Underworld". It was immediately banned by the Indonesian government.

Even after the fall of Suharto, there has been a strong political content to Indonesian art. M Dwi Marianto, a curator of AWAS! and head of the research department of Intitut Seni Indonesia, describes contemporary Indonesian art as being about ngeledek — slang for "to tease". Ngeledek is about ridiculing or embarrassing those in power.

Marianto describes how 28 artists from the University of Indonesia were arrested for organising a street happening at a traffic round-a-bout last May. During their trial, they all wore smiling masks of Suharto. At another action a group of students erected a banner outside the hospital where Suharto was being treated for a stroke which read: "Suharto get well soon — the court awaits you".

An important artist included in the exhibition was Eddie Hara, now based in Switzerland. Hara was one of the first Indonesian artists to incorporate street art and graffiti. Hara's contribution to AWAS!, "Postcards from the Alps", contains 60 drawings on envelopes which are dated from early 1998 to 1999. They encompass the period which saw the fall of Suharto and other major events.

Inspired by artists such as Hara is the young group called Apotik Komik who have a work in the exhibition based on street art completed in May, 1999, in inner-city Yogyakarta. Apotik Komik work with comics, graffiti and street art and involve large numbers of young artists. An other group represented in the exhibition is Popok which also works with cartoons and comics.

The pressure of the dictatorship meant that much of the political content of Indonesian art was around issues of freedom of speech, human rights, military repression and democracy.

An interesting side to the exhibition was the inclusion of feminist artists. The political space that opened after the fall of Suharto has allowed issues such as women's rights and sexuality to be explored more in Indonesian art.

One of the most internationally recognised female artists is Yani Arahmaiani whose work was included in the last Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 1996. Arahmaiani's work included a video of a performance she put on at the French Cultural Institute in Bandung, Indonesia. Arahmaiani is shown semi-naked, inviting the audience to write on her body. This work challenged traditional notions of women's place in Indonesian society. Unfortunately for viewers unfamiliar with Indonesian, this work was not translated into English.

A cute piece included was Bunga Jeruk's "Beauty Myth" which shows a row of women sitting in jars of "Whitening cream" and "Anti-wrinkle cream". With faces smeared with cream and eyes covered in cucumber slices they sit smiling.

Agung Kurniawan's piece in the show questions whether Indonesian art has simply become a vendor for "political woes". Called "Souvenirs from the Third World", the work is a series of sculptures of political figures on top of street merchant's carts painted with messages such as "Don't trust the artist to tell the whole truth".

Kurniawan's concerns seem unfounded. Far from being formulaic or empty, the political messages in Indonesian contemporary art are challenging and very relevant.