On 24 February 2005 in Tabanan, Bali, artist and human rights activist Semsar Siahaan died suddenly of a heart attack. An outsider to all establishments, even artistic ones, he is yet to be accorded his rightful place among the ranks of great Indonesian artists.
A son of the revolution, Semsar was steeped in Indonesian nationalism. His father, a Batak from Sumatra, was an Indonesian military officer who had fought against the Dutch. His childhood in Belgrade, where his father was posted as attaché, exposed him to a culture and a political system utterly different from New Order Indonesia, to which he returned as a young adult. As his art came to reflect his increasingly radical political beliefs, his father’s military connections offered little protection.
After high school, he attended San Francisco Art Institute, absorbing Western art history, techniques, and the free-spirited, anti-war culture of the 1970s. Aware of the trend in Europe and America to blur the lines defining ‘high art’ and popular culture, Semsar’s heroic figures may owe as much to action heroes in American comics, or cartoons from Indonesian newspapers, as to the social realism which also informed his work.
Art of rebellion
While an art student at Bandung Institute of Technology, he earned a reputation as a rebel, creating a performance art event attacking government arts policy as exploiting ethnic minorities. His paintings and drawings expressed his perceptions of Indonesian society. In his parody of Manet’s much-appropriated Olympia (Olympia with mother and child, 1988) he tweaked an icon from modern art to spotlight Indonesian subservience to Western capitalism and power, at the same time giving notice that the hegemony of Western art was over. A postcolonial artist, with post-modern awareness, Semsar crossed artistic boundaries like his multicultural experiences crossed national borders.
Driven by humanitarian ideals he was involved in peaceful demonstrations making banners. His installations and some of his painting and drawing dealt directly with the abuse of human rights. His drawings from the 1990s frequently contain images of banners with demands for justice, or captions that amplified the meaning of the images, often ironically. However, the ‘activist artist’ label applied to Semsar missed the complexity of his concerns and the diverse influences informing his work
Semsar’s grasp of history and political movements underpins his art but his inspiration came from personal experience. Having experienced the loss of his only baby son, he identified with the pain and grief of all parents who lost children from preventable disease and hunger. (1990) depicts him as a masked hero releasing a boy from chains. Betrayal
A search for identity
Identity is a key theme in Semsar’s body of work. Self-portraits reveal what he called the ‘dialectic’ between the world, the outer and the inner quest, to discover himself as an artist.
In 1998, Semsar was a target of state violence when he was shot and beaten viciously by soldiers during a peaceful demonstration in Jakarta. Admitted to a military hospital with a broken leg, he was horrifically tortured, and permanently disabled. These events left deep trauma.
For years Semsar had lived in fear of arrest. Escaping to Singapore, doctors warned that stress could kill him. His chronic high blood pressure had become life-threatening. He moved to Canada in 1999, ill and exhausted. Here he painted A self-portrait with black orchid (1999), dedicated to fourteen activist friends kidnapped and killed by the military in 1998. The layered images express the chaos and violence of the New Order’s last hours.
The synthesis of his inner and outer life, reflected in Semsar’s work, underwent a shift as he exhibited for a new audience. He painted his personal experience of life as a political refugee, learning to live and work in very different culture.
In Canada, Semsar did not escape personal attack. He was criticised for allegedly changing the focus of his art away from Indonesia. Semsar rejected these allegations as ‘character assassination’. He took on international corporate greed in satire (The Global Trader, 2001). His speedy rise to success in Canada with several exhibitions attests to his calibre as an artist. In Double Self-Portrait (2001), Semsar’s dual identity is shown layered in palimpsest, the man struggling to live with restrictions behind vertical lines like prison bars, with the face of the inner self transcending the efforts of power and greed to destroy life. Upon Semsar’s return to Indonesia in 2003, a solo exhibition of his drawings was held at the National Gallery.
Semsar’s life was dedicated to art. For him art fulfilled a personal commitment to the thousands of poor people in Indonesia and elsewhere, with whom his identity was linked.
Brita Miklouho-Maklai (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an artist and Indonesianist in Bridgetown, Western Australia. For more on Semsar Siahaan see Inside Indonesia No 62, April-June 2000 and No 64, July–September 2000).