By Kevin Ritchie
Every Sunday morning, Bebek uses a megaphone to wake up his fellow group members. There are about 30 people to rouse in the abandoned arts school, where they all live. They sleep in former classrooms and offices, in three buildings, where the walls are covered in graffiti, laundry, posters and stickers.
Out front there’s a tree surrounded by benches where everyone will gather to eat vegetable from the garden. Bebek cranks up bob Marley on the stereo and sweeps leaves and garbage into piles.
Eventually, more people join him and the piles are big enough to set on fire. White smoke starts to fill the courtyard. Bebek and the others wrap their shirts around their mouths to avoid the fumes. Those who don’t clean help make lunch for everyone.
In November 1998, six months after the resignation of Indonesia’s reigning dictator, Suharto, a group of art students and activists formed the radical art collective, Taring Padi. Taring Padi refers to the sharp tip of the rice plant, and is a metaphor for people’s power. The group squats at the abandoned Indonesian Institute of Art campus in Yogyarta, Central Java, southeast Asia, where they drew up a grand manifesto that denounced the capitalist art world. They combined art and activism in order to motivate their community to resist corporate and military rule and to promote democracy in Indonesia.
“This is not a political organization but everything we create is not lost from the political reality,” says Bebek, Taring Padi’s chairperson, whom everyone knows by his nickname meaning duck, because he babbles like a duck when he’s flustered.
“We’re against the military. We’re against racism. We are trying to make a better life in our own way.”
As chair, Bebek handles money they receive for projects from local non-governmental organization and he makes sure work gets done. He doesn’t know much about creating art, but a lot about the message behind it. A native of Jakarta, he studied history at a university in Jakarta and was a student reporter. In 1999, he came to Yogyarta to join Taring Padi after reading about the group in newspapers.
Members are skilled artists, self-taught musicians, students, radical thinkers, former labour workers and activists. Their philosophy is called “People’s Art.” The concept shuns galleries. Posters go up in food stalls, giant banners decorate the sides of buildings and colourful puppets and costumes appear at protests.
“People’s Art” is not sold. It’s art with a function. Art is their medium to convey images in a powerful way, across language barriers and borders (their website is www.taringpadi.org). The collective bases its projects among rural and urban Javanese. Taring Padi supports groups such as organic farming communities in Central Java, a coalition of community groups advocating alternatives to IMF loans and comprehensive inquiries into human rights abuses in Indonesia and East Timor, also part of southeast Asia. The group’s work reflects the influences behind its member’s lifestyles: anarchy, punk, Islam and collectivism.
The power in Taring Padi’s art lies in its remarkable detail. The art is made from simple, everyday materials and is based on traditional techniques. The artists in the group teach the other members the method of woodcut prints. A picture is carved backwards, bit by bit, using tiny chisels, resulting in characters that look tired and old, with withered lines on their faces. Drawing on canvas are done with ballpoint pens because they are cheap and easy to find.
When Taring Padi moved on the abandoned campus, the neighbours were annoyed. The school is located in conservative borough of Yogyarta, not far from downtown. The area has a high employment rate for Indonesia and the artists are all unemployed. Not to mention men and women live in the same rooms, unmarried — a controversial concept for many Muslims, of which Indonesia has the most of the world — 88 per cent of it’s 220 million practice Islam.
One of the group’s key founders, Toni Volunteero, is an Indonesian Institute of Art graduate. He and his friends once used the campus for performance art that was critical of the Suharto regime.
Suharto was president of Indonesia from 1967 until May 1998, when he was overthrown amid widespread pro-democracy protest. One hundred thousand Indonesians died when the military and armed villagers sought to get rid of suspected communists. Known as the “Father of Development,” Suharto brought economic growth during his 32-year presidency, but he violently suppressed political dissent and centralized power to his office. In Indonesia’s House of Representatives, there are 500 seats: 462 are freely elected, the other 38 appointed by the military (a procedure to be abolished by 2004). After his resignation, Suharto avoided a corruption trial by claiming ill health.
During Asia’s economic crisis in 1997, Indonesia was hit hard. As the cost of living soared, most of the population plunged below the poverty line, and riots broke out. Backed by the military, Suharto made it impossible for students to openly voice political dissent.
Student demonstrators demanding Suharto’s resignation were shot by the military and 1,000 people died in the capital, Jakarta. Suharto resigned in disgrace shortly thereafter.
At that time, the campus was still used as a school and was the only safe place to criticize the regime — it was a military-free zone. Campus directors turned a blind eye to the criticism.
A photo from 1997 shows Volunteero and a friend sitting naked on chairs in the campus courtyard, before the walls were covered in graffiti. They’re wearing black topi hats and yelling at each other over cans tied to a string. Called Talking to an Aquarium, the piece is an attempt to show the lack of political dialogue under Suharto.
“Suharto decided to move [the students] out to villages, far away from where they could cause trouble,” says Heidi Arbuckle, a member of Taring Padi. The school was relocated to the southern suburbs as part of a government strategy to make networking between students harder, leaving the old school abandoned.
“Compared to other art schools throughout Indonesia, [these students are] fairly liberal,” says Arbuckle. “It’s got a long history of activism and [the school has] really allowed that to breed by turning a blind eye. The students here have a more clearly defined concept of how they use their art for political action.”
In Indonesia, it’s normal for students to squat on campus while they’re studying. When the school moved, many stayed on. Once the buildings were abandoned, they were looted of everything from light fixtures to bricks. After four years, the art school asked the police to go in and kick the artists out.
But responsibility fell on the shoulders of a neighbourhood leader who kept the police at bay. Rather than let the campus fall victim to transients and strangers, the neighbourhood leader said they could stay if they promised to let him know every time someone moved in. The art school knows of Taring Padi’s presence. But if they forget, the electrical bill will remind them.
Indonesia’s People’s Democratic Party helped form Taring Padi and solicited the group’s first projects in 1998. Taring Padi severed all ties with the party shortly thereafter, preferring not to get mixed-up in politics but rather act as a motivator for political change through art.
Once a month the group meets to discuss projects. They gather in an old classroom. Its walls are covered in paintings. In the centre of the room, a door, held up by cement blocks, acts as a worktable. On the wall, another door is the makeshift blackboard with last month’s agenda in half-erased blue marker. Decision-making is collective, the group doesn’t decide on an issue unless the solution makes everyone happy.
Taring Padi is working on a $5,400 anti-corruption campaign funded the United Nations Development Program and organized by a local NGO. The group agreed to do it because it’s an information campaign with good cause that works to educate the poor at a grassroots level. The group decided who will do what and they all design and distribute their work throughout the community.
Living on an old, spacious campus and making art seems like the ideal lifestyle, but almost every member of Taring Padi will tell you about family pressure they overcame in order to live as poor artists. Volunteero comes from a middle-class family, native to Yogyarta.
“My parents gave me a choice: ‘When you graduate from economics school, I can guarantee you a job. You’ll have a good house, a car, a woman,” he said. But Volunteero wanted to focus on one thing: art.
Bebek’s parents also pressured him to do well. They know he’s apart of Taring Padi, but they don’t know he’s the chairperson.