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Of pigs, puppets and protest

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Radical Yogyakarta artists get among the people

Heidi Arbuckle

It is World Food Day, Yogyakarta 1999. Dr Syarifuddin Karamoy, secretary general of the Department of Agriculture, is due to open an Agricultural Expo. But his address has been delayed. Outside, a chorus of voices. Farmers, students and activists are chanting 'anti-revolusi hijau' (anti-green revolution), 'tolak bahan pestisida' (refuse pesticides), 'cabut SK 527'(withdraw the proposed bill). Most vocal of all is 67 year-old Magelang farmer Mbah Seko. He holds up a petition signed by 260 fellow farmers from the vicinity of Yogyakarta - Klaten, Pacitan, Bantul and Kulonprogo. The petition is clear - withdraw the bill that proposes to re-introduce several harmful pesticides.

Most striking about this demonstration is the diverse array of supporters the anti-pesticide cause attracts. The people (rakyat) are young and old, rural and urban. Among them is an unusual group of rakyat who have been particularly active at protests the last few years. They are not your ordinary animate Indonesians, but shadow puppet (wayang)adaptations of real people. Made from simple materials like cardboard, bamboo stakes, and paint, these life-size wayang characters represent members of a newly democratising Indonesian society.

The puppet-masters (dalang) of the protest wayangis a group of radical artists, members of a progressive arts network called Taring Padi. Taring Padi refers to the sharp tip of the rice plant, and is a metaphor for people's power. The group emerged in 1998 following the popular movement that brought down President Suharto. Many of those involved in Taring Padi were active in student politics throughout the 1990s. They were among the architects of the radical art actions that highlighted the Yogyakarta protest movement in 1998.

Yogyakarta is renowned historically as a centre for radical cultural protest, particularly in the visual arts. Radical Yogya artists have embraced anti-colonial and revolutionary causes since early in the twentieth century. Like their predecessors, Taring Padi artists promote the concept of people's art - seni kerakyatan-a loose term that defines the artist's social commitment and popular orientation. Taring Padi attempt to put this credo into practise through concrete action, rather than just aesthetic empathy for the plight of the 'oppressed masses'.

Mainstream art, the conventional system of curators, galleries and art collectors, is something Taring Padi avoid. Rather, they cultivate relations with other progressive organisations including students, farmers, and the urban poor. Such was the case for the World Food Day action, when Taring Padi collaborated with Mbah Seko and his group of organic farmers called Petani Lestari (Conservation Farmers), as well as with activists from the environmental non-government organisation Keliling. At the demonstration, activists shared out the protest wayangamong themselves. The cast of wayang figures symbolised the various 'actors' involved in the pesticide 'drama'.

Taring Padi dalangs do not narrate their wayang performances. Rather, the characters themselves tell the story. The pesticide drama involved the general public. Mothers holding babies, school children, workers, and religious figures were all depicted as the potential 'victims' of polluted food. The protagonists were the 'enlightened' farmers, who knew the effects of poisonous farming inputs and were willing to boycott them. The antagonists included the 'capitalists' and corrupt bureaucrats who were intent on re-introducing dangerous pesticides for their own financial gain, impervious to the public interest.

This adaptation of the popularwayang tradition subverts standard wayangconventions whereby the people (rakyat)are portrayed as bungling clowns (punakawan), 'unrefined' and characterised by crude features. In contrast, protest wayangportray positive, realist images of the rakyat, who are wise to the deceptions of their conventionally 'benevolent' rulers. Power-holders, who are normally characterised by their 'refined' features, are here depicted as beast-like creatures often resembling pigs, wolves, rats or grotesque monsters. These characters don modern day attire such as business suits and military greens, often juxtaposed with symbols of the traditional elite, or the 'national' Indonesian icon, the kopiah or male Islamic headdress.

Taring Padi and their theatre of protest wayang have 'performed' at a number of events throughout Central Java and in Jakarta. Their dramas take on issues like the role of the military, the 'conviction' of New Order 'criminals', electricity and fuel price hikes, and the debt trap. In February 2000 they created about twenty wayang characters for a mass action in Jakarta to oppose renewed loans and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The anti-debt coalition KAU that organised the action timed it to coincide with a meeting of the international Consultative Group on Indonesia to discuss debt rescheduling.


Taring Padi often uses wayang for 'agitation' purposes and to depict conflicting class relations. But Taring Padi's artwork also promotes pacifist causes. In the period before the June 1999 elections, a number of Indonesian cities experienced heightened unrest. Political commentators predicted 'civil war', and the media fuelled the volatile pre-election atmosphere by nurturing perceived religious, ethnic and racial tensions. As a response, Taring Padi began to produce a series of woodcut posters which carried messages promoting solidarity and peaceful social interrelations.Between March and June 1999, they distributed approximately 10,000 woodcut posters throughout major cities in Java, Sumatra and South Sulawesi. The woodcuts, hand-printed on draft paper, were pasted on city streets, on churches and mosques, on village notice boards, in food stalls, in market places.

Among their other artwork, Taring Padi issue a popular pamphlet called the People's trumpet. A series of banners and murals resemble the work of Mexican muralist Diego Riviera. Taring Padi banners are often commissioned by other organisations. The women's division of the National Human Rights Commission ordered a series of them. Titled The evacuation, the banners depict the harsh realities of the refugee crisis in Aceh by focusing on women's daily struggles.

But Taring Padi also use banners and murals for community purposes, and invite local people to be part of the painting process. Taring Padi's creative ethos involves a collective, process-oriented production of artwork. They want to eliminate illusive notions of the artist as 'genius' or 'eccentric' individual, and of the artwork as somehow 'sacred'. Taring Padi artwork does not carry recognition of the 'individual' artistic creator. It is stamped instead with the Taring Padi 'kerakyatan' insignia - a sprig of rice, red star and cogwheel.

Most Taring Padi activities are self-funded. Many Taring Padi artists are hostile toward the art market. The group ekes out a living from informally selling posters, postcards and books. They are lucky to have an advantageous living arrangement - the group squats in the former visual arts campus of the Indonesian Institute of Art (ISI) in Yogyakarta. The abandoned arts campus is now a melting pot for young Yogya radicals to meet, camp, and plan their 'revolutionary' activities. The buildings have not escaped their rhetoric. Graffiti, painting, and poetry cover its inner walls, quoting Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and the Indonesian poet Agam Wispi.

But they are by no means an in-group. They also engage in more community-oriented events such as creative activities with village children, theatre performances, workshops, and even wedding receptions.

Under the New Order regime, artists of social conscience struggled to maintain a community-oriented approach to their artistic activities. Persistently plagued by bureaucratic red tape and harassed by the military, artists and the community became forcibly detached. Now, amid the wave of recent reform in Indonesia, new possibilities for a lively community arts network are opening up.

Heidi Arbuckle ( recently completed her honours thesis on Taring Padi at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. She lives in Yogyakarta and studies at the Indonesian Institute of Art. Contact Taring Padi at

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

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