Yogyakarta. Prominent feminist and artist Dewi Candraningrum exhibited her visual artworks "Dokumen Rahim," or "Documents of a Womb," in Yogyakarta's Sangkring Art Project earlier this March. Through acrylic painting and charcoal drawing, she captures portraits of neglected women — the victims of violence, rape, and an unjust authoritarian regime.
Dewi serves as a lecturer at the Surakarta Muhammadiyah University in Solo, Central Java, and is the editor of the Indonesian Women's Journal.
Most of the 128 sketches displayed in the exhibit were inspired by her own experience in advocating for women rights, and draw from the pain and sorrow of survivors she encountered.
"Dokumen Rahim" is a series of images resembling documents that contain Dewi's notes on woman rights abuse cases in Indonesia and abroad, from physical abuse and rape to genital mutilation.
Dewi said she chose the thought provoking title because a woman's womb is a symbol of her purity, from which all human life begins.
Rahim also means merciful in Arabic, reflecting the strategy she chose to take in criticizing violence against women — through peaceful measures, rather than violence. Dewi says she believes the important task of speaking out for victims must be carried out with compassion rather than pugnacious confrontation.
One of her portraits depicts mothers from Mount Kendeng in northern Central Java who camped in front of a cement plant to peacefully protest its construction for ecological reasons.
The painting also reflects Dewi's passion for defending the rights of Indonesia's indigenous community in wanting to preserve the environment.
" 'Dokumen Rahim' sends the message that we must fight for women's rights with love and compassion," Dewi said at the exhibition's launch last week.
A series of portraits in the exhibit depicts the forgotten ianfu, so-called "comfort women" held captive and raped by Japan's soldiers during the former empire's occupation of the Indonesian archipelago.
She also reminded visitors of the Indonesian Women's Movement (Gerwani) from the 1960s — an organization associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) — through black and white sketches of four former Gerwani members, titled "Plight of Gerwani."
In the dawn of former dictator Suharto's New Order regime, women believed to have ties to Gerwani were jailed without trial, raped and tortured.
Those who survived were discriminated against by a government driven by its hate of Godless communism. Those identified as former members were stripped of the right to vote in regional and presidential elections, and forbidden from joining the military or civil service. Each job they applied for required them to also submit a police report on their "criminal" past.
In "After the Rape," Dewi paints the anguished faces of rape victims of the 1998 May riots in rich colors.
She explained that pain can also be expressed through vivid hues to reflect its depth. The stark contrast implies a strong impression of hope behind the sorrow, Dewi added. With "After the Rape," Dewi underlines the crippling impact of rape on a woman's self esteem that lingers long after the physical scars heal.
"Rape victims are precious; they are not shameful in any way," she says. "Thus, sadness sometimes needs to be illustrated with bright, colorful images."
Dewi is an outspoken activist for rape victims of the '98 riots in Jakarta, Solo and Medan, most of whom were of ethnic Chinese decent.
With the help of the National Commission on Violence against Woman (Komnas Perempuan), Dewi continues to campaign for government-led efforts to investigate the mass atrocities.
"Though it occurred 17 years ago, the victims and their families need acknowledgement from the government, not denial," she said.
Charcoal sketches titled "Daughters from Zambia" portray the young women she met during her mission to the African country last year to raise awareness about child exploitation — trafficking, sexual abuse and early marriage — in developing countries.
A combination of poverty, little to no access to education, the spread of HIV and AIDS, child trafficking and the ritual of female genital mutilation, or FGM, pose a serious threat to the women of Zambia — as well as Indonesia.
At least 27 countries in Asia and Africa still practice FGM, putting at risk 125 million girls of life-long physical pain,infection and even death.
"Every girl in Zambia undergoes FGM and the death rate if very high in Africa," Dewi said.
In "Ecological Body," the activist uses flowing lines to capture the female body. She underlined that each individual has the authoritative right to define their own body, desires and sexual orientation.
"Dokumen Rahim" does not focus solely on women; Dewi used her artistic skills to also pay respects to fathers in "Lelaki Rahim," (translatable variously as "Man of the Womb" or "Male Womb.")
Prominent visual art and literature curator Kris Budiman refers to Dewi's work as "talking pictures," calling her one of Indonesia's "exceptional" rising artists.
He praised Dewi for her versatility, marveling at her ability to portray melancholy in vibrant colors, while also producing striking black and white sketches.
"This exhibition shows the other side of Dewi, who is widely known as an activist, researcher, and writer on feminism issues," Kris said. "She stimulates emotions with her images using unconventional [artistic] techniques that are just as good as her writing," he added.
Komnas Perempuan chairwoman Yuniyanti Chuzaifah called Dewi one of the few feminist artists who tirelessly dedicates her time and energy to representing the rights of marginalized women.
Dewi, a single parent, began painting two years ago after finding inspiration in her 15-year-old son, Ifan Ufuq Isfahan, who suffers from autism spectrum disorder and is himself a very talented artist. Their first joint exhibition took place in Solo's Balai Sudjatmoko in 2014.
What started as a hobby became a medium for Dewi's passionate cause. For the activist, arts is another language with which to express her thoughts and ideas on women's rights.