• Issue
  • Sep 01, 2023

The Point: Grounds for Social Criticism

The Development of Political Indonesian Contemporary Art

SEMSAR SIAHAAN with a banner he painted for a demonstration in Jakarta, in the 1990s. Courtesy FX Harsono.

The creation of socially themed art is founded on the premise that an artist is a member of society with inherent social obligations. During the New Order era (1966–98), artists in Indonesia who addressed social issues raised the theme of resistance to the Suharto government’s repressive and harsh political practices, particularly those related to policies that were not in favor of the people. This resistance was consistent with movements led by activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the time.

The process of creating and presenting works coexisted with activist movements, and because of their strong friendship and collective actions—talks, collaborations, workshops, and public demonstrations—they were referred to as “activist artists.” The government closely monitored the resistance movement, and some activists and artists were arrested. However, it remained relatively safe for artists if they only displayed their work in galleries because the government recognized that this would not spark a wider social movement.

Many artworks at the time that offered criticism through symbols and metaphors were not easily understood by the military, such as my work Voice Without Voice/Sign (1993–94), a row of nine panels showing photographs of hands that spell out the word “D-E-M-O-K-R-A-S-I” in sign language. In this work I intended to show that democracy in Indonesia was merely a form of “sign language,” as it did not exist in reality. The work was shown in my 1994 solo exhibition “Voice” at the National Gallery of Indonesia. Two military intelligence officers came to the exhibition two days in a row.

At the time, some of us had discussed strategies for not being too direct in our critiques, so that a position of resistance could be sustained. But this strategy was only effective until 1995, after which I began to create works that drew strong criticism. I even performed in public spaces during the “quiet week” before the 1997 election, despite there being a regulation prohibiting us from organizing activities attended by more than five people at a time. My performance of Destruction (1997), in which I dressed as a suited tyrannical king and torched and chain-sawed three wooden masks placed on chairs (representing the three existing political parties), was performed in Yogyakarta’s South Square during the “Slot in the Box” group exhibition at Cemeti Art House.

In May 1998, large student demonstrations and riots took place in Jakarta and several other cities across Java. As a result of these protests, Suharto stepped down as president after 32 years in power. After being replaced by a more democratic government, there was a significant change in the political, social, and cultural conditions in Indonesia, which had a major impact on democratic practice. Freedom of expression was exercised in both print and television news: from only a handful of TV stations owned by the Suharto family and the government, many more private TV stations began to emerge. The student movement that led up to the May 1998 demonstrations that brought Suharto down influenced the creation of artworks as artists presented harsh criticism, slogans, and texts of resistance against the regime. This trend was started by the artists who later founded the Taring Padi collective and collaborated closely with student activists and NGOs.

Around the early 2000s a number of artist collectives emerged that began to create works based on research as well as collaborations with communities at a time when few individual artists were working this way. They also spurned artists working with information obtained through social media, which they regarded as superficial and poor substitutes for in-depth or field research. To promote more rigorous modes of working, several collectives initiated informal education programs and incubation courses aimed at young artists. Many of these were developed to supplement what they received through formal education. In the process young artist collectives emerged, such as Gudskul in Jakarta; in Jogja: Krack, Ruang MES 56, Ace House Collective, Cemeti Institute for Art and Society, Kunci Study Forum & Collective, Asana Bina Seni; and Cushcush Gallery in Bali. 

I collaborated with Dia.Lo.Gue Jakarta from 2011 to 2018 to develop a four-month multidisciplinary workshop program focusing on the creation of work based on research and critical thinking. In addition, I am a member of the Jogja-based Inkubator Inisiatif (IIN) collective, which designs short-term educational programs for young artists to take a more critical stance toward cultural, social, political, and economic issues, with the goal of producing art that forges a strong connection with the wider community. Informal, alternative education programs such as these aim to foster a better environment for Indonesian contemporary art, allowing artists to learn how to reflect on a broad spectrum of issues from their position as citizens.