Although Indonesia’s contemporary artists continue to delight their fans, especially in Yogyakarta, the second-biggest city in the island republic, they are increasingly limited in their creativity and expression by the growing threats of Islamist moral preachers. So what do the artists feel about their situation and their prospects?
Inul Daratista, a popular artist, has often been criticised by Islamic authorities for her style
“Who is it? Mr Bush. Mr Bush? He’s a fat man! Looks like Jesus on the cross…” Agus Suwage is pointing at a human-sized, pink plastic doll with his arms outstretched. It’s easy to see the resemblance to George W. Bush -- George W. Bush, the victim of today’s society, says the 50-year-old avant-garde artist from the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta, laughing. Half-finished sketches, open paint tubes, brushes, canvasses are all piled up on the dark-brown paint-splattered floorboards. For the artist, provocation and art are very closely linked. His criticism of society knows no bounds or taboos and this comes across in his collages, sculptures and drawings.
For years, the internationally-renowned artist had never encountered any attempts to censor him. But when he exhibited his “Pinkswing Park” installation at the Venice Biennale in 2005, his art triggered strong protests on the part of an Islamist association called Front Pembela Islam. Rifky Erendy, a freelance curator for contemporary art, recalls the scandal: “During the Biennale in 2005, the uprising, some groups “issued” the artist and the models because the artist used nude models, which are iconic models, autobiographic, couples. The artworks symbolised the garden of Eve and Adam, so the allegory works but then he and the exhibition was accused by the police. And the exhibit was shut down by the Biennale and that made the issue very strong.”
Agus Suwage still feels nervous every time he thinks about the exhibition. The Biennale’s theme was “Urbane Culture”. He juxtaposed a couple travelling by rickshaw in the Garden of Eden -- he covered the genitals with white. Suwage still doesn’t understand what was so shocking to the protesters: “They don’t know about art. They hunger for the hot news. They talk about art, about sedition. Urban culture. They don’t know. They are very confused about art, about entertainment. They misunderstood that I want to talk about art and they are responding just to blow up and interpreting wrongly.”
The consequence was self-censorship as a protective mechanism. Suwage is one of several contemporary artists who are shying away from the risk of showing their works to a broad public, or avoiding controversial themes altogether. Many artists are worried that the intimidation of artists is part of a larger campaign, which includes the controversial anti-pornography law which Islamist groups and parties are currently trying to promote in Indonesia. The artist Ahramaniani has also encountered opposition from Islamists because of her work. She is worried: “The bill they’re trying to propose it seems to me goes beyond pornography itself. It is going more into controlling people’s morality and behaviour which can be very dangerous. And in my opinion it seems to be fascistic in a way. Because then they can control the private lives of people.”
If the Islamist moral preachers get their way, the law will ban obscene images from the public sphere. Women will be compelled to cover their shoulders and legs. Even if it is still unclear whether religious hardliners will in the end be able to impose their will in multi-ethnic Indonesia, what is certain is their loud threats have managed to intimidate those who until now have always called for tolerance and pluralism -- namely Indonesia’s artists.