Art and liberation: Indonesia’s Semsar Siahaan – artist profile

The late artist, known for humanitarian overtures in his work, has a solo show of his oeuvre at Gajah Gallery in Singapore.

Art Radar looks at the artist and the legacy that he has left behind.

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“Semsar Siahaan: Art, Liberation”, 2 – 19 November 2017, installation view at Gajah Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Gajah Gallery.

When Semsar Siahaan departed Indonesia in 1998, the situation was dire for him and many others. Against the backdrop of the New Order regime, Siahaan and many of Indonesia’s critical intelligentsia fled for their lives, fearing persecution. Siahaan’s next stop was Canada, where he resided in Victoria for a number of years. Continuing to make, exhibit and develop his art practice, Siahaan’s work centred on a humanist approach; his artworks often address issues and hard questions that confront man. Today, 28 of Semsar Siahaan’s works are displayed at Gajah Gallery in the exhibition “Art, Liberation”, spanning works from two critical decades of his life: 1984 to 2004.

Semsar Siahaan’s art emerged out of a dissatisfaction with the New Order and the role that it had designated art in Indonesian society. By the 1960s, the New Order and its authoritative leanings showed extreme preference to decorative, abstract art, clamping down on art seen as overtly political. Yet, as the New Order dragged on, the legitimacy of the regime wore down; incidents such as the 1965 massacres, with the attendant civil unrest, confusion and terror that it generated took a toll.

Semsar Siahaan, 'Timur Rumit', 1987-1990, Oil on Canvas, 100 x 75cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Semsar Siahaan, ‘Timur Rumit’, 1987-1990, oil on canvas, 100 x 75 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

In 1977 Siahaan returned from San Francisco, where he had pursued a formal art education at the San Francisco Art Institute. Returning to Indonesia, Siahaan was confronted with the self-serving, anti-political bent that art had, and how removed it was from the lived experiences of the Indonesian. He had enrolled at the Faculty of Arts and Design at the Bandung Institute of Arts; however, to him, something was wrong with the state of the arts in Indonesia.

In 1981, Siahaan set fire to a sculpture made by one of his teachers, Sunaryo. Burning the sculpture, and then wrapping it in banana leaves and serving it with yellow rice, Sunaryo coined the phrase “the art of the incident”. He was subsequently suspended from school. By the mid-1980s, Siahaan was involved as a founding member of a handful of social organisations that aimed at protesting the injustices of the New Order. In 1988, however, Siahaan was awarded a solo exhibition at the Jakarta Art Centre. The exhibition was a banner for progressive thought in fine art. Championing human rights, political reform and an openness to freedom of expression, Siahaan’s works were included in an exhibition called “Liberation Art”, which subsequently toured four Indonesian cities.

"Semsar Siahaan: Art, Liberation", 2 - 19 November 2017, installation view at Gajah Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Gajah Gallery.

“Semsar Siahaan: Art, Liberation”, 2 – 19 November 2017, installation view at Gajah Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Gajah Gallery.

“Art, Liberation” carries many of the themes that have accompanied Siahaan throughout his whole life. One of the key pieces of the exhibition is Siahaan’s appropriation of Manet’s Olympia (1863). Depicting a blonde-haired, pink-cheeked Olympia spread out on a couch, Siahaan’s Olympia is a parody of the Western tourist stereotype, with sunglasses perched on her nose, pearl necklace and tropical coconut beside her. As scores of Indonesian figures crowd around the outstretched Olympia, Siahaan’s work becomes a scathing critique of Indonesia’s oft-subservient relationship with Western capitalism and its mores. Using a key work in the Western art canon, Siahaan’s work turns the lens back upon the West and their influence upon the rest of the world.

Semsar Siahaan, 'Olympia Identity with Mother and Child',1987, oil on canvas, 140.5 x 290cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery

Semsar Siahaan, ‘Olympia Identity with Mother and Child’,1987, oil on canvas, 140.5 x 290 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

In the same vein, G8 Pizza and the Study of the Falling Man (2003) remarks on the role of the G8 as an association. Depicting the coalition of eight of the world’s leading economies in a segmented eight-part mixed media installation, Siahaan’s suspicion of the G8 leaders is markedly obvious as the faces of the G8 leaders loom large in the work, with varying degrees of greed, anger and cruelty reflected in their expressions. Arranged around a table surrounded by unknown, unnamed spectators, G8 Pizza and the Study of the Falling Man can be read as a critique of the rifts and divisions that the G8 create across the world, as well as their attitude towards the so-called peripheral economies. Created using found cardboard, Siahaan created G8 Pizza during his years in Canada.

Semsar Siahaan, 'G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man', 2003, Charcoal on Used Cardboard, 400 x 400 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery

Semsar Siahaan, ‘G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man’, 2003, charcoal on used cardboard, 400 x 400 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery

Blinded by UN (2003), a work rendered on a used shoebox, is also another work that makes a pointed remark at the international world body. Drawn using tones of brown and green, the guns, outstretched hands, and naked palms evoke a sense of violence mixed with desperation. A burning critique of the effectiveness of the UN, the work brings to mind the multitudes of UN interventions that turned sour since its founding. The brutality in Siahaan’s work is hard to escape, as the barrel of a gun fills the whole of the bottom right corner of the shoebox, almost as if on the attack.

Semsar Siahaan, 'Blinded by UN', 2003, Charcoal on used showbox, 83.5 x 130.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery

Semsar Siahaan, ‘Blinded by UN’, 2003, charcoal on used shoebox, 83.5 x 130.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery

With such a scathing ouevre of works behind him, Siahaan’s legacy has been one of honest political critique expressed through art. Targeting injustice in his work, Siahaan has, today, become acknowledged as an essential part of Indonesian art history, closely associated with the progressive art movement that emerged in the 1970s and that reacted against the perceived lack of freedom of expression. By 1998, Siahaan had departed for Canada in the wake of political crisis, racial unrest and persecution against the intelligentsia. With activists, poets and students shot dead, kidnapped and otherwise hurt, Siahaan left the country.

Semsar Siahaan, 'Villa Indah', 1984, Oil on Canvas, 141 x 141cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Semsar Siahaan, ‘Villa Indah’, 1984, oil on canvas, 141 x 141 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Siahaan continued to exhibit and produce works in Victoria until his return to Indonesia many years later; this time, however, he returned in a mood of retirement. In 2005 he passed away in his home in Bali, Indonesia. His works continue to express the context and sentiments that roiled in his homeland in the late 20th century. Evoking the confusion and sense of injustice that pervaded the nation, Siahaan’s works became important markers of a unique political situation in young contemporary Southeast Asia.

Junni Chen

1956

“Semsar Siahaan: Art, Liberation” is on view from 2 to 29 November 2017 at Gajah Gallery, 39 Keppel Road, #03-04, Tanjong Pagar Distripark, Singapore 089065, Singapore.

Related topics: Indonesian artists, pop art, paintinggallery shows, events in Singapore

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