'Langkah Kepalang Dekolonisasi' ('Inadequate Steps to Decolonization') is a joint exhibition held at the main hall of the National Gallery in Jakarta and the private Canna Gallery to mark the 70th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

Tracing the Legacy of Decolonization Through Indonesian Contemporary Art


AUGUST 25, 2015

The triptych paneling and the paintings in them epitomized reverence and a sense of Indonesian heritage. Titled “Tokoh-Tokoh Kemerdekaan,” or "Personalities in the Struggle for Independence," the work by Bandung-based artist Rosid drew viewers with its set up of a Javanese drawer, as well as the larger than life portraits of Indonesian founding fathers Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta at its centerpiece.

However, the work is defined by the historic personages on its edges.

“[Tokoh Tokoh Kemerdekaan] stretched our definition of freedom further than the long preferred portrayals of heroes who physically fought for our independence by showing personalities like Kartini, Agus Salim and S. Sudjojono,” says the self-taught painter.

“Their struggles as a feminist pioneer, a politician and cleric showing how religion and state can work hand in hand, and a painter who helped define modern Indonesian art respectively show that their feats and legacy are no less heroic, as they helped define us as a nation."

Rosid’s reverent touch is all the more poignant in the foreground of the triptych, which has an urn filled with an equal amount of red and white rice shaped like the Indonesian flag.

“The red and white colors symbolizes the blood and bone of those who sacrificed themselves for Indonesia’s independence, while the use of rice denote its standing as a predominantly agrarian country as well as its preeminent position as a staple food here. Its also a tribute to my late father, a lifelong farmer who passed away at the age of 94 last year, as well as the millions of others like him,” adds the 46-year-old.

“Last but not least, it reminds me of how much Independence Day is a revered holiday in Bandung and throughout Indonesia, while people in Jakarta are largely indifferent to it, even on the 70th anniversary of the occasion this year."

“Tokoh Tokoh Kemerdekaan” is among the 41 artworks highlighted at “Langkah Kepalang Dekolonisasi” ("Inadequate Steps to Decolonization"), a joint exhibition held at the main hall of the National Gallery in Jakarta and the private Canna Gallery to mark the 70th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence.

“Indonesia’s struggle for independence was part of a worldwide trend for decolonization in the wake of World War Two, so [Langkah Kepalang Dekolonisasi] raises the question of whether we helped set global trends or are we a byproduct of it,” says curator Jim Supangkat.

“Just as the 2014 presidential elections saw unprecedented levels of public participation, taking the race away from the domain of politicians, ‘Langkah Kepalang Dekolonisasi’ shows the artists having their say about our independence, and taking history away from the politicians in the process. For too long Indonesia’s war for independence is portrayed as a war between the Dutch colonizers and the Indonesians they set out to oppress, though evidence shows that its not that black and white."

Culture and Education Minister Anies Baswedan agrees. “Artists filled the independence era and the 1950’s heady days filled with optimism. Intellects might initiate the movement, but artists helped it spread by motivating and inspiring the public,” he says.

“Then as now, art is vital in instilling Indonesia’s national character today as it has in the past, especially as we face intensified challenges in retaining our diverse cultures in the face of globalization."

Veteran artist Indyra playfully alluded to the inroads of globalization with her painting “Charlie Brown goes to Java,” which features Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and other characters from the Peanuts comic strip.

“I portrayed Charlie Brown and his friends going to Java to show how open the island and the rest of Indonesia is to outside influences,” says the 58-year-old.

“I also made them relatively small compared to the rest of the canvas to show their innocuous start and eventually lasting influence. This couldn’t be more different from Java’s age old culture or the impact of other foreign incursions before it."

Chusin Setiadikara also took on globalization’s impact with his painting “Daily and Bung Hatta," which juxtaposed images of a hamburger and the founding father to address his concerns about the impact of rampant capitalism and globalization on Indonesia.

Aside from giving a sense of heritage, Chusin’s portraya of Hatta reminds the viewer of his belief for a strong Indonesian grass roots business sector, which was in line with his little known Marxist economic precepts.

Fellow artist Aditya Novali took a similar tack, as his "70 — A Monument of Reality, Time and Tha People #2" turned government whitewashing of history on its head. A closer look at the plexiglass, ink, spray paint and wood installation piece would reveal martyred activists Marsinah and Munir amid a sequence of events portraying post 1945 Indonesia. Their unseen presence shows that their influence continues despite government efforts to silence them permanently.

“Langkah Kepalang Dekolonisasi” will be held at Galeri Nasional until the end of the month, after which it will be displayed at Galeri Canna until September 12. Until then, prepare to challenge your views on Indonesia’s past and present.

"Langkah Kepalang Dekolonisasi" Through Aug. 30 Gallery A, National Gallery of Indonesia, Jalan Medan Merdeka Timur No. 14, Central Jakarta Tel. 021 34833954/3813021 E-mail: galnas@indosat.net.id Web: galeri-nasional.or.id Open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (exhibition until 7 p.m.), closed on public holidays