When traveling around Jakarta, taking in the sights of the sprawling city, you are likely to come across a number of monuments. The Welcome Monument at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle is perhaps one of the more obvious landmarks. Further down Jalan Sudirman you’ll find the Youth Monument. Elsewhere, near the Istiqlal Mosque and Jakarta Cathedral, stands the Irian Jaya Liberation Monument.
Each of these monuments is huge, somewhat abstract and caricatured in its representation. Each also has its alternative name, given by Jakarta residents. The couple in the Welcome Monument is often referred to as “Hansel and Gretel,” the screaming figure of the Youth Monument is known as “the flaming pizza man,” due to the fiery plate he holds aloft, and the Irian Monument has been called “The Hulk,” thanks to his violent breaking of binding chains.
The Heroes’ Statue that resides not far from Gambir train station in Menteng is also known by the name Tugu Tani, or “the Farmers’ Statue,” thanks to the fact that the male figure wears a farmer’s conical bamboo hat.
However, it is evident that he is more than just a farmer. Over his shoulder he carries a rifle, a prop that hints at the story being depicted here. The female figure is seen handing the farmer-soldier a bowl of rice. He reaches for it, but his gaze is straight ahead, suggesting a man of action.
This statue is in fact a depiction of an Indonesian independence fighter, ready to fight off the Dutch colonial powers. So why has it run into trouble?
Well, its source is the core of the problem. The statue is the work of two sculptors from the former Soviet Union, Matvey and Ossip Manizer, a father-and-son team. Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, asked them to create a monument to commemorate Indonesia’s struggle for freedom.
The Manizers visited Indonesia in the early 1960s. While touring Java they heard the tale of a mother who supported her son in fighting for his country, but implored him never to forget his parents.
Back in the Soviet Union, they recreated a scene from the tale, and sent it to Indonesia as a gift.
For those who know it as the Heroes’ Statue, the figures are seen as representing an independence fighter supported by Indonesia, the motherland. But for those who know it as the Farmers’ Statue, the symbolism points to Indonesia being supported by its Soviet benefactors.
It is not hard to see the Communist imagery in the sculptors’ style. The female figure is lower and dutiful; the male figure is proud, athletic and truly heroic in posture and attitude. The image of an armed peasant uprising, symbolized here by a farmer with a gun, is a strong element of Communist ideology.
Communism is a sensitive topic in Indonesia, where an estimated 500,000 to two million people were killed for their connection to the ideology in the 1960s.
Anti-Communist groups today are still active in their calls for the statue to be destroyed. But this negative response to the statue should be reconsidered.
Though the sculptors may have been Communist in origin, their sculpture is hardly aggressive propaganda for a particular theory of human organization.
The inscription on the pedestal says a lot. Translated, it reads: “Only a nation that respects its heroes can become a great nation.”
This seems a wholly reasonable proposition. In an age when children’s heroes are all too often bubblegum pop stars, anything that advocates respect for true heroes who fought and died for their country has to be worthy of honor.
The Heroes’ Statue is a fine example of realist sculptural expression, though romantic in its approach. It also offers accessibility — you can actually get up close and see the bronze figures. Many of Jakarta’s giant and rather more brutal public sculptures are high above street level, meaning that the craftsmanship is difficult to see.
With so much to tell about Indonesia’s past, the Heroes’ Statue is well worth closer examination, both for its craftsmanship and its history.