The Art of Life, Indonesian Style

by Sarah Murray

Printed in the Vol.1 No 14 Urban View

A corpulent, corrupt elite living off the fat of the world capitalist system. Decadent living. Misuse of government funds. A police force that in the poor parts of town acts more like an occupying army than a guardian of the peace. An ethnically diverse working class that labors, struggles, sweats, and keeps the world going while watching visions of high living flash by on their TV screens. Meanwhile, the politicians speak of reform and transformation but nothing ever seems to change.

Oakland? San Francisco? Washington, D.C.?

Add to the above mix a national currency that has fallen 400 percent against the dollar in the past two years, a banking system left in tatters by the collapse of the currency and the accumulated ravages of 30 years of corrupt rule and raging inflation. Stir in social and political unrest due both to the decline of the economy and pent-up rage at 35 years of authoritarian, hard-fisted military rule. Bake in the tropical heat, and you have the perfect recipe for social, economic and political chaos.

Welcome to Indonesia!

While the Philippines suffered relatively little from the Asian economic crisis of 1997, and Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia are now solidly on the road to economic recovery, Indonesia was thrown into a tailspin from which it has not yet recovered. Some would say Indonesia's current fate marks it as one of the most bloody and unlucky victims of U.S. cold war politics.

Most Americans have at least some vague idea that the U.S. government fought a war in Vietnam to defeat the "spread of communism" in Southeast Asia. Few are aware that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Indonesia, not Vietnam, had the largest communist party in the region. In fact, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world outside of mainland China, with millions of members and a strong leadership.

The U.S. government was certainly aware of this, however, and the CIA was heavily involved when a politically obscure general named Soeharto (his preferred spelling of his name-in numerology a name with eight letters signifies luck) took control of the country in 1965. The coup that brought Soeharto to power turned into a bloodbath in which the Indonesian communist party was wiped out. No one will ever really know how many people were killed-estimates range as high as two million-but eyewitnesses described neighbor killing neighbor and the rivers running red with blood.

Soeharto installed an administration of U.C. Berkeley-trained Indonesian economists and political scientists who quickly became referred to in Indonesia as "the Berkeley mafia." These technocrats took control of the country's economy, bringing in millions of dollars of western development money (much of which went to line the Soeharto family pockets). The military took control of civil society. Indonesia became an important political and military ally for the U.S. against Vietnam and the communist Chinese and a bulwark of capitalist pseudodemocracy. In exchange, the U.S. government kindly trained the Indonesian army in modern soldiering-it has practiced mostly against its own people.

The emerging middle class tolerated the oppression of Soeharto's self-christened "New Order" government because the economy boomed and opportunities for the elite expanded. Soeharto suppressed all efforts to develop a civil society, however, and monopolized political speech and power. All political activity on campuses was banned-a shrewd if ungrateful gesture, since protesting students were a key group that helped bring Soekarno down and supported Soeharto in his early years. Political parties were forcibly consolidated into two unstable government-dominated groups, the secular Indonesian Democractic Party (PDI) and the Muslim United Development Party (PPP). These were parties in name only, however, as the government political organization, Golkar-which was said to represent all groups in the society-dominated political life. All civil servants were required to belong to, and vote for, Golkar. Leadership of the two rival political parties had to be approved by Soeharto. And all candidates for Parliament had to receive approval from the government intelligence service before being allowed to take office. The political troubles of Oakland pale in the face of such realities.

In the initial years of Soeharto's rule, traumatized by events of 1965-66 in which painters associated with the Communist Party's cultural group LEKRA were targeted, visual artists virtually ceased making works with political content. Political art went from being the dominant form of visual art (often pushed down artists' throats by LEKRA) to an invisible ghost amongst the abstract and decorative forms that suddenly blossomed in Soeharto's New Order. Some artists felt suddenly freed to explore previously criticized "bourgeois" forms of art, but others simply avoided social and political content out of fear and desire to be acceptable to the establishment.

Writers, musicians and theater artists like the pop musician Iwan Fals and street theater artist Rendra were the ones who kept the subversive, critical spirit of art alive. However, beginning in the mid-1970s with the radical New Art Movement (which brought installation art into the Indonesian art world), Indonesian visual artists began to challenge the complacency and decadence of the Indonesian elites. A small number of young visual artists drew on traditional Indonesian performing arts to create Indonesian versions of installation and performance art, expressing their dissatisfactions with changes in Indonesian society brought about by development programs, the growing influence of commercialism and consumerism and rampant corruption and violence. Artists began new visual languages and searing paintings and graphic works that revealed the violence, greed and cruelty that the Indonesian elite, famous for their politesse, so carefully hid in daily life.

Paradoxically, visual artists had an easier time of it than writers and theater artists. Literature and theater are forms with deep roots in local cultures and are widely practiced and strongly valued. The government feared their impact and was quick to ban the works of artists like novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Rendra and arrest those who associated with them. Painting, sculpture and graphics are relatively new forms in Indonesia and few people are confident of their ability to interpret visual art. That helps explain why, as Indonesian visual art became increasingly popular with the elites in the 1980s and 1990s and artists became increasingly bold, works with strong political and social content had little problem being publicly exhibited. In the 1990s, many strongly political artists were even invited to participate in government-sponsored exhibitions, won national competitions and were sent abroad to represent Indonesian art. Even so, visual artists were forced to use a heightened symbolism and indirect methods of expression to escape arrest or censorship. Some suffered suppressed creativity, censorship and prison terms. All lived with daily fear, knowing that their work could land them in jail at any moment.

When the economy collapsed in 1997, Soeharto's tight control suddenly snapped. Students and labor unions took to the streets, finally able to challenge the dictator directly. Political posters and banners bloomed everywhere. In May 1998, major riots broke out in Jakarta, the capital city. Stores and malls were burned and looted and the military was called in to "restore order." Student protesters were blamed but many observers say that the rioting was incited by the military itself to give them an excuse to quash political protests. The pressure cooker finally blew. Soeharto was forced to resign, and in a spirit much like that of the Philippines' "people's revolution" in the 1980s, Indonesians began to speak joyfully of "reformasi"-reformation-and democracy. Suddenly, artists who had practiced safe styles of abstract and decorative art under Soeharto were making works that screeched politics.

After years of living dangerously on the margins of the art world, keeping free speech alive at great cost, artists like the seven whose works are now hanging in Oakland's Pacific Bridge Gallery suddenly find themselves at the center of Indonesian concerns. They look around, though, and still see hypocrisy, corruption and suffering. They also feel skepticism at the sudden flourescence of political expression taking place among their peers.

That their work comes to hang in Oakland is testament to the vision of Pacific Bridge owners, Geoff Dorn and Beth Gates. While traveling in Southeast Asia for two years, they were struck both by the radical changes shaking up these societies and the powerful art works being made in response. They decided to cultivate awareness of Southeast Asia in the States through its art and opened Pacific Bridge, the only gallery in the country to specialize in contemporary Southeast Asian work. Their gallery also serves as a temporary home for visiting Southeast Asian artists invited to stay and experience life in the Bay Area-such as Bramantyo, Isa Perkasa and Entang Wiharso, three of the artists whose work hangs in the current Pancaroba exhibition.

Bramantyo is a self-taught oil painter and theater artist and a member of Rendra's Bengkel Theatre (Theatre Garage) group. His work draws heavily on traditional Javanese mythology and symbolism. Isa Perkasa, a pioneer of performance art, also makes stinging drawings and graphic works of social commentary. Entang Wiharso, who splits his time between the U.S. and Indonesia, creates installations and paints in a variety of media, but his most powerful paintings are haunting oils that serve as a poetic chronicle of his inner and outer journeys as a contemporary Indonesian.

The other four artists whose works are included in the current exhibit are equally diverse. Popok Sri Wahyudi is a member of an group called Apotik Komik (Comic Pharmacy) that takes comic art to the streets as well as the galleries while satirizing smug Indonesian elites. Aris Prabowo creates drawings with a technical virtuosity that makes the viewer gasp. He makes imaginative use of pop and traditional cultural references, which gives his critiques of contemporary Indonesian violence and economic confusion an unusual aesthetic richness. Rachmat Jabaril is represented by quickly executed paintings in black and white that chronicle a number of recent tragic events, including riots and violent military reprisals against political protesters. Tisna Sanjaya, the old man of the exhibit at 39, is represented by an etching and an installation work that satirizes Indonesia's perpetuation of colonialist images of "beautiful Indonesia" in the name of developing tourism while its military imposes brutality and fear upon the population. While Indonesia may be half way around the world from Oakland, the visiting artists are clear that Indonesia's fate is closer to us than many Americans might imagine.

"America is an important part of Indonesia. That's the importance for me of having the exhibition here," says Bramantyo, referring obliquely to the U.S. government's long history of mixing in Indonesian affairs, and perhaps to the large number of U.S. scholars who have researched and written about Indonesia (many of them from the Bay Area).

Entang says, "This exhibition makes people aware of problems that are in fact global problems, not just Indonesian problems. These problems became worse in Indonesia because of bad political factors, but they were really set off by the global economic crisis... my works here bear witness to the global human condition, in which everyone is burdened and affected by the political and economic crises that have been cascading around the world."

While these artists are glad to bring their work here, their hearts and minds are rooted in Indonesia. "I hope that Indonesia will remain united, that the economy will return to normal, and ordinary people won't have to worry any more about guns and violence," says Isa Perkasa. "This exhibition is an opportunity for me to exhibit in America, but my work really springs from my love for Indonesia, my country, where I was born and will die. ...I know things will get better. It's like climbing to the peak of a mountain-you struggle to the top, and when you arrive, the view is beautiful."

Bramantyo is not so sanguine. "I don't think the political openness in Indonesia is going to last," he says. He talks about his concern about a proposed security law in the legislature now that would scrap Soeharto's subversion laws to put something much worse in its place, giving the military power to arrest and detain people indefinitely. "But because this exhibition has a very high profile in Indonesia, it's like putting a foot in the door. And it's important to see that state politics is not necessarily the most important part of political art. Value politics is just as important to me. An exhibition like this, which has a lot of sexually explicit works and themes, makes an important opening.

Unlike Bramantyo, whose background in theater leads him to see art as a tool for direct social involvement, Entang has a more poetic and reflective approach. He's concerned that many artists are making political art that too directly reflects-and perhaps unintentionally reproduces—what is going on in society. "There was an opening at a gallery in Yogya and they made a performance that used young kids. The kids were fighting like they were representatives of parties, with each one saying, "Choose me, choose me!" In the end they hit corrugated tin sheets and smashed bottles. Many people who came became afraid. Who could tell the difference between art and what's really going on? In my vision, art can't just be a direct portrayal of what's happening. You have to use metaphors. Right now, there's an explosion of political art, with many artists saying, ‘Well, you have to make political art if your art is going to be good at all!' It's a form of domination that's blind to the fact that the most political art, just as Bram says, may not be about the state at all."

In a Bay Area drunk on new wealth and the promise of progress, their work is a bracing reminder of the world outside the U.S. that is yet a part of who we are and what we do, a world full of both talent and suffering that rarely is seen in our galleries and museums. It's also a bracing reminder that there are places in the world where creativity is still a matter of life and death.

The last words belong to Bram, who muses, "The real politics is to make more art accessible to more people, and to have more people creating art. I think the practice of art keeps the creative side of the culture alive, and it's that creative side of culture that will help us make it through hard times."