Yvonne Owens interviews Semsar Siahaan
Since arriving in Victoria, Canada, in the spring of 1999, you have had three exhibitions. Some of them contained quite gripping political imagery, including 'A self portrait with black orchid'. Could you comment?
A self-portrait with black orchid (1.5m x 2m, oil on canvas, March 1999) is dedicated to fourteen activist friends who were kidnapped and killed by the military in early 1998. The painting is also about the chaos and violence in Indonesia sponsored by the military, about the struggle of the political parties and the students and pro-democracy activists who kept on with their 'moral force' actions for reformation. My self-portrait is central to the painting, because the painting is about my self, my thoughts, my feelings, and my experiences that need to be shared with the audience. This image is about the last moment of the New Order regime before it collapsed after the killing of the four students by military snipers at the Trisakti University in Jakarta. I was there with some activist friends and members of the 1978 class of the Bandung Institute of Technology. I was there, near the four bodies lying pale, in pools of blood on the floor. I was there among those brave students until 1:45am. I was there before and after the killing, preparing a huge banner that had been requested by the activists and students for the memorial ceremony for the four slain students, planned for the 21st of May 1998.
I could not finish the banner because extreme violence began the next day, after the funeral, with widespread looting, burning, chaotic rampage and student demonstrations in the area in which I lived. Thousands of poor people surrounded that area. Those are the people for whom I dedicate my art, my thoughts, my feelings, and my sympathy. Instead of fighting with them (like those who did so in protecting their property), after five days I decided to leave my house and possessions and walk away. I left my home unlocked and returned in July. The layered imagery of the painting fills in the background and context - of the events and of my reactions - during this crisis. It completes the banner I was unable to finish, and addresses my audience, the victims of totalitarianism and violence. One needs to understand the dialectical process of visualisation in my art works, and my background of social-political activism.
The painting also shows the multinational corporate industrialists and international investors gambling on Indonesia's political and economic crisis for profit. The violence engineered by the military, which caused suffering to the motherland, is shown in the iconography of the victimised mother and child.
There has been some misunderstanding recently, in print, of the nature of the imagery in your painting 'Women workers between factory and prison'. This involved the mistaken view that the painting revolved around the iconography of the factory worker Marsinah as a martyr.
The iconography of Women workers between factory and prison (1m x 1m, oil on canvas, 1992) is not related to the late Marsinah at all. Marsinah was tortured and killed in 1993, while I did the painting in 1992. I did design a poster commemorating Marsinah's death as a martyr that was printed in five hundred copies in December of 1993 for the Indonesian pro-democracy activists, for the annual Yap Thiam Hien human rights award. The award that year went to Marsinah's father and family. The poster was then disseminated among all the Indonesian non-government organisations concerned with workers and others.
Why were you expelled from your university, the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), in 1981?
It was my 'happening art' that I was doing at the art department of ITB at that time. My artwork was called Oleh-oleh dari desa II - February 9th, 1981 ('Remembrance from the village II'). In this work, I took my teacher Sunaryo's sculpture called Citra Irian dalam torso ('Irian image in torso'), since he took the Asmat ornaments as a part of his work of art. I also used mud, fire, banana leaves, water, yellow rice and a placard on which was written my statement with red paint, that 'Indonesian modern art should return to reality...'. [As a result, the sculpture was burned. - Editor].
Sunaryo used the Asmat-West Papua sacred ornaments by putting them in his wooden sculpture series. At that time it was made clear that 'Indonesian modern art should explore traditional art forms and ornaments so that Indonesian modern art could achieve its national identity.' Those words were part of a 'secret formula' but I think it was formulated by the military think tank Lemhanas. That formula suggested some kind of national security approach to culture and art, and was a strategy to oppose the strong 'latent' influence of the communists' cultural wing Lekra (People's Cultural Council) after the 1965 affair, where an estimated one quarter million alleged communists were killed. The formula was clearly a method to eliminate social criticism from Indonesian contemporary artists' work. That formula was systematically implemented in the art academy curriculum. As a result, artists became exploitative towards indigenous culture and art. These artists became extremely rich, while the indigenous people remained in the same condition - in poverty and being exploited.
So, I wasn't yet expelled from ITB, not for seven months, when I was accused of organising the three day ITB fine arts student strike, demanding more freedom of expression.
It has been written that you are planning to mount an exhibition of your installation work called 'Slaughterhouse', about the brutality of the Suharto regime, in Victoria, BC. Could you tell us about this?
I never had any plan to mount an installation work entitled Slaughterhouse here in Canada. Many Canadian friends and friends in the US know that the exhibition was planned for Seattle, USA. And the work was not going to deal with Suharto's New Order regime or its brutality, but about the Global Butchers - such as the arms industry, the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and capital investment corporations that push indigenous cultures from their land everywhere on this planet.
When did you start painting?
I enjoyed drawing since I was nine years old. My mother supported me greatly with this, as did my father, supporting me with books of art - and it was the happiest aspect of my childhood. Another time during which I produced a lot of art works was when I was with my girl friend, Widya Paramita - because during this time, for six years, she morally supported my creativity. Also during my marriage with Asnaini, when I created the Homage for the Christo's mother.
I must ask you, why are you in Canada?
Well, it is like I was saying before, I was there when the New Order regime collapsed. But even the new regime of BJ Habibie was no different from the old regime. He was nothing but Suharto's crony. Later, I became really sick, with high blood pressure - 150/250. This was caused by tension due to the continuing violence, the kidnapping of activists, and political uncertainty in Indonesia. So I flew to Singapore, where I saw two doctors. My weight was extremely low. They concluded that I had a major illness that would take six months on medication to treat. This is a well-known factor of my residency here. They suggested that I stay away from the tensions and chaos happening in Indonesia temporarily for the sake of my future health.
And I do not agree with the label of 'exile,' as I have recently been described within these pages. I also don't agree, as was stated here, that Hendra Gunawan was in exile after the '1965 affair.' As far as I know, he was in imprisonment in Bandung, and then moved to a Yogyakarta prison. And Sujana Kerton, I don't think he was in exile either. He was in the USA and stayed there temporarily until he went back to Indonesia in the late 1970s.
What are your projections for the future?
First I have to rebuild my artistic image professionally - internationally - after the 'character assassination' in a previous issue of this magazine. Secondly, I am still working on the idea of the Slaughterhouse installation, but it has been postponed for production reasons. And my next solo exhibitions will hopefully be in New York, and in London. I'll also keep busy with some non-government organisations and activism, as always.
Yvonne Owens is an author and art critic in Victoria, Canada. Semsar Siahaan was first profiled in Inside Indonesia no.16, October 1988. The Inside Indonesia article referred to in this interview is 'Hero into exile', by Astri Wright, edition no.62, January-March 2000. See also Astri Wright's reader's letter in the current edition.