By Kevin Ritchie
Taring Padi was expecting trouble. A conservative youth group had carried out a series of raids on three social activist groups in Yogyarta, Central Java, in November 2000. The political artists have drawn attention from all corners of the community, including those who equate left-leaning artists with communism.
Student activists weren’t the only ones to benefit from Indonesia’s post-Suharto freedoms. Far right extremist groups were now free to express their views — and they sometimes did so with brute force.
It was a hot, sunny Friday, just before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The group, GPK, gunned their motorcycles up and down the streets near the squat a week prior to the only raid on Taring Padi. The GPK guerrillas waited until there were a few people home on the former art school campus, where the group’s 30 odd members squat and create art with messages such as farmer, labour rights and anti-violence, which they distribute through their community.
They promote democracy and social change through People’s Art — art that is not for sale and displayed at a grassroots level. It’s art with a purpose: To educate people to rise up. Posters, stickers, T-shirts and giant banners depicting Indonesia’s class struggle can be seen around Yogyarta.
Everyone had gone to the beach except Sigit, a member of Taring Padi, and four visiting friends.
They were watching a Bob Marley biography in the first-floor TV room. Upstairs, some friends were holding a theatre-rehearsal, when some 50 GPK members charged through the schoolyard gates on motorbikes wearing black pecis (hats), black jackets, blue jeans and stormed in the building holding sticks, swords and machetes.
The door to the TV room burst open and a male voice boomed: “Are you communist or are you occult?” Some of the men clamoured in the doorway, blocking the only exit.
Terrified, Sigit replied, “We are artists.” But before the conversation could go any further, the man at the front of the pack yelled: “Kill them all!” and the group began spilling into the room.
Panic-stricken, Sigit bolted towards the exit at full-speed. His friends followed. The attackers zigzagged between the intruders who swiped at them with their sticks. Once in the hallway, they ran towards the main entrance, which was also blocked. As the men from the TV room came from behind, Gogon, Taring Padi’s dog, lept at the attackers.
In Islam, dogs (along with pigs) are harem — dirty creatures. The attackers backed away from the dog, clearing a path for Sigit to run out the door. At that point, the four of them ran off in different directions. They chased Sigit around the glass-encased display room in the courtyard. He managed to find a washroom to hide in until he heard the voices of some village women.
The locals, hearing screaming and glass smashing, ran into the schoolyard and scared off the attackers Sigit and two of his friends met up, but the third, Arif, was missing.
Everyone searched the schoolyard until they found Arif under a large tree near the southern wall. “He looked like he was dying,” Sigit says. “He couldn’t speak and was making gasping noises.”
Arif was breathing, but lying motionless. He’s been kicked and stomped so hard that his spleen ruptured and he was bleeding internally. He died some months later because of complications from his injuries.
“We suspected [the attack] would happen, but no one did anything,” Sigit says. “They were messing with us. Because we’re a culture community of artists and students, they wanted to show us how powerful they are.”
The attacl changed the mood at the squat. Fearing further violence, the group made Molotov cocktails — bombs made from a breakable contained filled with flammable liquid — and 30 residents at the squat shrunk to less than 10. Sigit and Iteq, his partner, spent time in Jakarta, helping to start an art community. They hardly socialized, as Sigit was paranoid about going out to crowded places.
“Once I asked him to go with me to a food cart for dinner,” Iteq says. “He said, ‘No, I don’t want to eat out, I just want to go home.’”
While views on Taring Padi go from extreme to moderate, the collective has drawn criticism from other corners of the community. They’ve had a tempestuous relationship with art galleries. Many members view them as money machines, irrelevant to the majority for comtemporary art.
“If we do an exhibition in a gallery, it won’t sell anything for us,” says Bebek, chair of Taring Padi. When Taring Padi formed in 1998, it rejected galleries for practical and ideological reasons.
“It’s not a practical way to make money — if we want to sell art, it will sell for a highly expensive price and no one can buy our creations.”
Iteq, one of Taring Padi’s few female members, says galleries are capitalistic. “Art is not for rich people or for a few people, art is for all people.”
She argues galleries create heroes and glorify individuals, creating a social hierarchy. And practically speaking, Indonesians aren’t going to art galleries and Taring Padi wants people to see its art, she says.
But Toni Volunteero, another Taring Padi member, has a different view.
“We want resources and to develop networks and gain influence. We want our work to live in all spaces — in grassroots ways and in galleries. The problems are still everywhere.”
Some members of the collective have sold their work as individual artists.
Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo who curate art shows at Cemeti Art House, one of two contemporary galleries in Yogyarta, don’t feel they are working for the elite.
“It’s always hard. We have to survive by selling … It’s the only way to promote art,” Adipurnomo says.
There seems to be a collective apathy in Java when it comes to art appreciation.
“It’s hard for me to answer when people ask ‘What do the Javanese think about your work?’” Adipurnomo says. “they are just apathetic. If it doesn’t have anything to do with their own lives then they don’t care. There is a strong tension [in Indonesia] between tradition and modernization. We are accepting a lot of influence from abroad. On the other side, we are still very much traditional.”
He gives the example of the way people of all classes treat leaves. Today, when something is wrapped in newspaper or plastic, people don’t change their habit of tossing the packaging on the ground.
“That’s why we have such a problem with garbage,” Adipurnomo says. “We have plastic, but mentally we are not ready to handle plastic.”
Lately, the Javanese haven’t been Taring Padi’s only audience.
The collective had two exhibitions in Australia — one at a museum in Melbourne and one at a non-profit, government funded art space in Darwin. This is a good way to get attention in Australia because people go to galleries, says Volunteero, and Taring Padi can spread messages of anti-racism, anti-corruption and anti-militarization.
Jaarsma and Adipurnomo shrug at the mention on Taring Padi’s Australian endeavors. They’ve asked members of Taring Padi to do shows at Cemeti and been rejected on the grounds the gallery is elite and out of touch with the urban poor. They wouldn’t mind sparring with the collective, but they say division in the group is painfully obvious.
“They are still trying to formulate their statute — whether they want to be activists using art as a medium or whether they are group of artists who are activists,” Adipurnomo says. “There’s a difference between Taring Padi as a group and the free individual expression of each member. There is still a big gap in between and they’re still trying to manage that.”
In May 1999, two Taring Padi members accepted an invitation to include their own personal work show at Cemeti with a political focus. The artists, Aris Prabawa and Nerfita Primadevi, agreed to do the show in Yogyarta. But when Taring Padi learned Cemeti planned on moving the show to a gallery in Bali, they balked. Bali is extremely commercial and known as an Australian tourist getaway. Taring Padi convened a meeting to discuss the issue and put it to a vote.
Shortly after, Cemeti Art House received a letter saying Prabawa’s and Primadeci’s art was not to be shown in Bali because “the [show in Bali] does not hold the same ideals [or] follow the same artistic paths as the artists in subject.”
When the show opened in Bali, the walls were left blank where the works should’ve been. Little cards on the wall explained why the works were missing.
While Taring Padi will occasionally squabble with the gallery, Sigit is advocating for labour rights and gender equality on stage with his electronic punk band, Teknoshit.
Sigit has overcome his fears about large spaces to get his message out through singing and writing lyrics.
On stage, he growl and stares down his audience, shouting lyrics about gender equality. The room he shares with Iteq is covered in pro-labour posters and Taring Padi woodcut prints.
He’s got a photo of local drag queens, pro-gay song lyrics and feminist comics that he draws taped to the wall. Whenever he’s talking about tattoos, he pulls up his shirt to show the tattoo on his chest of the male and female gender sign intertwined. His feminism is in stark contrast to the vigilant, intimidating growler he turns into on stage.
Sigit’s been arrested for organizing textile working for demonstrations, mostly women in their early 20s, in Semerang, Central Java. He’s cover his tattoos with long sleeves and sneak into the warungs at the back of the economic zones where the workers gathered between shifts. He’d tell them dates and locations of secret meetings and upcoming demos.
“We think people in Indonesia have the courage to demonstrate,” he says. “We provide information for the people to wake up and resist.”