Augustin Sibarani, born in 1925 in Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra, had a reputation for being the most brilliant cartoonist in the country in his day.
His caricatures enlivened the pages of leading national newspaper Bintang Timoer. It is said that President Sukarno, himself an internationally recognized art collector and patron, would cut them out and keep them.
But all of that changed when Suharto came to power in the mid-1960s.
The new president maintained tight control of information, especially the press, but also the country’s artistic and literary movement.
Sibarani’s career suffered terribly. His paintings were dismissed and newspapers were banned from running his cartoons.
Even after many years, the hurt is still obvious. Sibarani looked relaxed at his interview in Jakarta last week. Dressed in a checked shirt and gray trousers, he rested his arm casually on the arm of his chair, his bony fingers curling around the end of his walking stick.
However, when Sibarani was asked about his work, a wave of sadness washed over him and his eyes filled with tears.
We sat in silence until Ocha, Sibarani’s eldest son, explained: “It is always emotional for him when someone asks him about paintings.”
Sibarani suffered a debilitating stroke in 2006, and sometimes has difficulty putting thoughts into words, which was why Ocha had sat in on the interview that day.
The stroke also left Sibarani unable to make art for the first time in more than 70 years. One of the triggers, Ocha said, is believed to have been the death of Sibarani’s beloved wife, Sani Tobing, three years earlier.
Next year, exhibitions of Sibarani’s work will be held at Bentara Budaya art gallery’s branches in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, and also at Museum Kartun Indonesia in Denpasar, Bali.
Ocha hopes the exhibitions will raise his father’s spirits.
“It is very important for him to be able to return to his [art] community where he can meet other artists,” the 44-year-old architect said. “It will enliven his spirit.”
Sibarani’s passion for art reaches back to his early childhood, when his parents would take him to art shows.
“I made a portrait of my parents when I was a child,” Sibarani said very slowly, his voice almost inaudible.
At the age of 8, Sibarani made portraits of his teachers at Dutch school H.I.S, and was much remarked upon for his skill.
Two years later, he was awarded the Golden Star by the Dutch government in Indonesia for painting the Netherland’s Prince Willem Van Oranje.
Sukarno was one of Sibarani’s biggest admirers.
“Whenever they happened to meet each other, Sukarno would always say to him ‘Hey, I made a clipping of your caricatures. I cut them out from the newspaper’,” Ocha said.
But under Suharto’s New Order, the media was banned from publishing Sibarani’s caricatures, which were often critical of the government.
Sibarani remains firmly against the New Order, Ocha said.
“It started at the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the reformation era,” Ocha said of the period in which Sibarani’s work was banned.
“There were only two options at that time for the media that published his caricatures: either they stopped publishing his pieces altogether or the government would revoke their license. The media chose to stop publishing his pieces.
“Even when the caricatures did not speak about the government, they could not be published because they were Sibarani’s,” Ocha said.
Sibarani had to find another way to provide for his family of five and started drawing portraits and taking commissions for paintings, Ocha said.
“He sold many of his paintings at low rates. He simply took orders from anyone,” Ocha said. “There were no prominent people though among those who placed orders. They were reluctant to order from a Sibarani, the name that was made an enemy by the ruling regime.”
Apart from the sharp criticisms of politicians in his caricatures, Sibarani also tackled social issues through his oil paintings.
“I painted reality,” Sibarani said repeatedly during the interview whenever his son mentioned “social issues.”
The year 1987 was arguably the peak of Sibarani’s career, but this was to give him little pleasure.
One of his paintings was used to illustrate the Rp 1,000 note issued by the Bank of Indonesia that year, but without Sibarani’s knowledge.
Back in 1961, Sibarani had painted the North Sumatran national hero Sisingamangaraja XII on a government commission.
“There was no official portrait of Sisingamangaraja at that time,” Ocha said.
Later the painting was appropriated by the Ministry of Social Affairs as a history book illustration.
“There was not any agreement of whether the name [Sibarani] would be mentioned when the painting was used. It was just attributed to an ‘unknown’,” Ocha said.
“All he knew was that the painting was only used for that purpose.”
It was not until Sibarani held in his hand the new Rp 1,000 note that he realized his masterpiece had been used.
“He made a complaint to the Ministry of Social Affairs and later to Bank Indonesia and Peruri [the Indonesian Government Printing and Minting Corporation] but to no avail,” Ocha said.
Sibarani was determined to fight his own battle. He read books about copyright regulations and filed a law suit against the three institutions.
“We, his three children, were too young to be able to help him,” Ocha said.
“He went to court himself and hired a lawyer, whom he paid for with [money from] his paintings. I wish we could have done something for him back then.”
There had been attempts to persuade Sibarani to drop the lawsuit, Ocha said.
“[The government] sent someone — our relative — to talk to him and ask him to stop the case. He was even given a TV set at that time so that he would be willing to close it,” Ocha said.
“Not only that, but the governor of the Bank Indonesia at the time ordered a huge painting of Sisingamangaraja from him to be put in the bank.
“They even held a ceremony and invited him to officially take off the cover, revealing the painting, in front of people. They did that as if nothing had happened.”
Sibarani did not read the Bank Indonesia commission as a resolution.
“He continued to fight through the courts and refused to give up,” Ocha said. “But in the end, there was a rumor that the lawyer, and the court itself, had sided with the three institutions. He lost the case and really felt down.”
Today the great caricaturist, admired by Sukarno and vilified by Suharto, is cared for by a nurse and spends most days “just sitting” at his home in Cinere in Jakarta’s south.
Asked whether he is still angry about the “stolen” painting, Sibarani answered stonily, “I was not. I am not.”
“But I painted that.”