There isn’t a single image of jailed former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama to be seen, but the man commonly referred to by his Hakka Chinese nickname Ahok looms large at one of the biggest events on the Indonesian art calendar.
At the 14th Biennale Jogja, a contemporary art exhibition held in the artist-filled city of Yogyakarta, a long smear of reddish brown paint on the floor leads visitors from the entrance of the Jogja National Museum to Timoteus Anggawan Kusno’s The Death of A Tiger (2017).
The title used by the local artist refers to a feudal Javanese sacrificial ritual called Rampogan Macan, in which a crowd of men armed with spears would form a ring round a trapped tiger and kill it for the king’s entertainment.
Here, in a dark room lit by blue light, Mozart’s rousing Requiem blasts from speakers as a funnel of 70 spears descends from the ceiling, each tip replaced by a hand pointing accusingly at the centre of the room, where the painted trail ends in what looks like a swirl of blood.
In another room, Aditya Novali’s When I Google Ahok (2017) consists of six brightly lit panels featuring apparently random, multicoloured rectangles – a representation of online search results. The colour of blood, violence, communism and the Chinese flag, red is nevertheless dominant in the piece.
Both works bring to mind the baying for blood by radical Islamic groups that preceded the May 9 conviction for blasphemy of the Christian and ethnically Chinese former governor, whose jailing brings back memories of the anti-Chinese violence that ushered in Suharto’s New Order in the mid-1960s and ushered it out again in 1998.
Purnama insisted he had been misquoted, but an edited video showing him challenging a verse in the Koran that, if taken literally, bans Muslims from electing a non-Muslim leader, cost him first his re-election bid and then his freedom.
The saga reflects the global debate about “fake news” and the nefarious use of social media to influence voters in a democracy. Purnama’s two-year prison sentence also raises concern about the growth of religious intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim nation, where the gay community too has come under increasing attack, despite homosexuality being legal in most parts of Indonesia.
Indeed, there are not many works in the biennale that echo the optimism of its title, “Age of Hope”, the letters tellingly picked out in the event’s logo from the longer, bleaker “Stage of Hopelessness”.
The mood is equally dark at the Jakarta Biennale, which, together with the Biennale Jogja, is among Asia’s oldest non-profit showcases of contemporary art. Also opened in the first week of this month, the Jakarta exhibition asks artists from Indonesia and abroad to consider the meaning of jiwa, the Javanese word for “spirit”.
There are works here about the fragility of nationhood, mankind’s severed ties with the natural world, social inequalities and the general bafflement at the fissures cracking open around the globe as a massive geopolitical recasting takes place. The look of shock in Luc Tuymans’ Twenty Seventeen (2017) – one of four works by the Belgian artist at the Jakarta Biennale – captures the state of mind of many who are looking on.
Siti Adiyati, one of the founders of the influential Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) in the 1970s, has recreated a 1979 work that remains as relevant today. Water Hyacinth with Golden Flowers (2017) is a pool of the green, common weed through which plastic, gold-coated roses push. If one represents the poor, huddled masses and the other businesses reaping the profits of rampant consumerism, then which, she asks, is the parasite?
Dolorosa Sinaga, too, looks to the past for a response to the challenges of the present. She evokes the spirit of Sukarno, the leader of the independence movement while Indonesia was under Dutch rule and the country’s first president (1945-67).
“For the biennale, she has made 10 life-size statues of Sukarno to remind people of the fire of the revolutionary and the five founding principles of the nation,” says performance artist Melati Suryodarmo, the artistic director of this year’s Jakarta Biennale. The statues have been erected around the capital.
Sinaga does not approve of all that the dictatorial Sukarno regime stood for, but in this moment of great divisions, she wants to pay homage to the inclusivity that he promoted, in a bid to create a national identity for an archipelago of more than 10,000 inhabited islands and 700 spoken languages.
“Under President Joko Widodo, life has just been party, party. But after Ahok, you have to ask, how can we solve problems given all the uncertainties that we live with now,” says Pius Sigit Kuncoro, curator of this year’s Biennale Jogja. “He was an honest governor, considered to be free from corruption and expected to perform well in the election. But an utterance perceived to be offensive could destroy all the predictions. The artists are saying, how does this country get back to the right direction?”
Given the history of violent suppression in Indonesia, local artists have cause for concern.
During the anti-Communist purge of 1965-66, which saw between 500,000 and a million people killed (some estimates place the figure much higher), artist Hendra Gunawan was jailed for 13 years because of links with the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia). His 1978 painting, Ali Sadikin During the Independence Struggle, sold for HK$33.2 million in Hong Kong last spring.
Sadikin, the governor of Jakarta from 1966 to 1977, had provided Gunawan with canvas and paint during his incarceration.
In 1994, artist-activist Semsar Siahaan joined a protest against the shutting down of three magazines. Security forces broke his left leg in three places and he later described it being bent in a “V” as he was tortured. In 1998, just before the toppling of the Suharto regime, his friend and fellow anti-government activist Wiji Thukul – whose poetry remains a powerful rallying cry – was kidnapped, never to be seen again.
Religion has often been the enemy of artistic freedom, too. In 1994, Arahmaiani Feisal painted Lingga-Yoni, symbols for the male and female genitalia, against a background of Arabic script. For that, she received death threats from Islamic fundamentalists and had to relocate to Australia.
Today, there is a sense that the government under Widodo – Purnama was a protégé – is more eager to appease religious hardliners than artists and civil rights activists.
In a throwback to Suharto-era paranoia about communism, hundreds of protesters stormed the headquarters of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation in September to try to stop a scholarly discussion about the 1965-66 purge. The police, instead of protecting the rights of the participants, shut down the event on the excuse that they didn’t have a licence.
Similarly, the police appear increasingly to be siding with hardline Islamic groups as they ramp up their homophobic rhetoric. Last month, 58 people were arrested in a gay sauna in Jakarta on anti-pornography charges and, in September, the police raided the homes of 12 women in West Java after a complaint from local religious leaders who suspected them of being lesbians.
In Jakarta, the biennale was denied municipal funding, which was supplied through the Jakarta Arts Council (JAC), for the first time.
“The JAC is still a partner as historically, and on a day-to-day basis, they have been working with the Jakarta Biennale. But they are no longer giving us financial support,” says managing director Farid Rakun.
The central government continues to provide 30 per cent of the funding, however.
The outlook may seem bleak for the arts, but at the VIP opening of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, or Museum Macan for short, the mood was upbeat. A steady supply of Stark Beer from Bali undoubtedly helped. (While it may seem frivolous, the alcohol available at Indonesian arts events is an outward sign of the moderate Islam the country prides itself on.)
As the great and the good of the Southeast Asian art world gathered in Jakarta on November 3 to congratulate billionaire Haryanto Adikoesoemo on his ambitious modern and contemporary art gallery, an air of optimism filled the room. Artists and curators gave the impression the Indonesian art scene remains vibrant, well supported by patrons, and more valuable than ever as a conduit for the exchange of ideas in a world where so many live with censorship or have mentally retreated behind walls.
At Museum Macan, one part of the inaugural exhibition references the upending by globalisation of ideological differences that used to set countries apart. Works by Indonesian artists are shown alongside those by Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, Ai Weiwei and Wang Guangyi, and no particularly national visual language can be discerned.
Co-curator Charles Esche says that, until recently, the received wisdom was that there was no ideology beyond capitalism. Today, that view seems almost quaint. And in a nimble, free and talented cultural environment such as Indonesia’s, artists can react quickly to change and remain relevant, as has been seen at the biennales.
“It has become crucially important for art to try and help build empathy, to encourage tolerance. This is part of the museum’s mission,” Esche says. And that is why he has included Arahmaiani’s Lingga-Yoni – now in the Macan collection – in the exhibition.
The quest for tolerance is also probably why the Jakarta Biennale opened with a ritual performance by the Bissu community – transgender priests from Sulawesi who hark back to ancient times – and why Biennale Jogja has been inviting artists from other equatorial countries (Brazil this year) in order to foster new, south-south perspectives and cooperation on shared issues.
This generation’s artists seem confident that the national project can be held together on secular values rather than the religious views of the Muslim majority. Some seventy years after national independence, there is sufficient shared memory and culture to glue the many communities together, says Febie Babyrose, of Bandung artist collective Tromarama.
In Yogyakarta, this sentiment is wonderfully expressed through an exhibition that is running parallel to the biennale, called “Anak Sumatera in The Land of Java”.
Raul Renanda, an architect of Sumatran ancestry, has spent his entire life on Java and identifies both as Minang and Javanese. He has created a series of metal sculptures to represent the mountains of Sumatra and the sea journey that brought his family to Java. Kenzo Wienand uses batik to imbue the exhibition with a quintessential Indonesian flavour.
As Renanda maintains in the statement that accompanies his work, despite its wide variety of belief systems and ethnic groups, Indonesia is now firmly a single, united country.
“We are, or most of us, from people of the salt water […] We share this land together, a paradise they always say. We are, that we call ourselves, Indonesian. We are, entitled to say, Indonesian.”
“Age of Hope”, Biennale Jogja XIV, at the Jogja National Museum, in Yogyakarta, and “Jiwa”, Jakarta Biennale, at Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem, in Jakarta, will both run until December 10.