Art and Islamism in Indonesia
When Creativity Is a Sin

Though Indonesia's contemporary artists enjoy an enthusiastic audience, they increasingly feel that Islamist moralizers are interfering with their creativity. Arian Fariborz takes a look around Yogyakarta and talks with a number of artists about their situation and perspectives

Sculpture by Agus Suwage (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Astonishing resemblance to the American president: Agus Suwage's art is considered to be a provocation for conservative Islamists

​​"Well? Who's this here? Right, that's Mr. Bush as a very fat man…!" Looks like a crucified Jesus…!" Agus Suwage points at a pink, life-sized plastic doll with outstretched arms. The astonishing resemblance to the American president is easily recognizable even from a distance: George W. Bush as victim of our present-day civilization, murmurs the 50-year-old avant-garde artist from the Central Javanese city of Yogyakarta, laughing.

Half-finished sketches, opened tubes of paint, brushes, canvases and sculptures are piled on the stained, dark-brown parquet floor. Agus Suwage's studio is a veritable treasure trove of grotesque portraits and models.

Art knows no taboos

For Agus Suwage, art and provocation are closely related: his criticism of social ills, reflected in his collages, sculptures and drawings, knows no taboos. For the internationally renowned painter and graphic artist, art knows no intellectual prohibitions – at least, that is what he thought until recently.

Agus Suwage (photo: Arian Fariborz)
For Agus Suwage, art and provocation are closely related

​​When he showed his installation "Pinkswing-Park" at the CP Biennial in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in October 2005, he was confronted with loud protests by an Islamist group that calls itself the "Islamic Defender Front" (Front Pembela Islam – FPI).

According to Rifky Efendy, freelance curator for contemporary art, "This group harassed the artist because he used naked models, shown symbolically in a Garden of Eden – an allegory. Ultimately he faced police charges, and the artwork was removed from the Biennial at the organizers' behest. That turned the whole thing into a big issue. A lot of the media blew it out of proportion."

Rifky Efendy recalls the scandal the incident caused at the time. And Agus Suwage is overcome by an uneasy feeling every time he thinks back on the exhibition. The catalogue of the Biennial lies on the long table in front of him. Its theme: "Urban Culture".

He leafs through it until he comes to the photo of his installation: in the foreground a bicycle rickshaw converted into a swing, in the background a paradisiacal forest with Indonesian soap stars in the place of Adam and Eve. There are no obscene gestures; the genitals are covered with white spots. Pointing to the picture, Suwage says that he still does not understand what was so offensive about it:

"Really, these people understand absolutely nothing about art. And the media were just interested in headlines – 'infotainment'. But when we talk about art and 'urban culture', there is something different at stake. They confuse art with sensationalism. It is a misunderstanding. I want to express something with my art, and they react by completely blowing the thing out of proportion and consciously misinterpreting it."


Art performance in Jakarta, Indonesia (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Indonesia's avantgarde artists increasingly shy away from staging art events that could attract the interest of radical Islamists

​​The result is self-censorship as a protective mechanism. Today many contemporary artists shy away from the risks of presenting their art to a broad audience, or they avoid artistic subjects that could be seen as an affront by religious moralists in a country with the world's largest Islamic population.

But that is not all: many artists see the targeted intimidation attempts as part of a broader campaign – the highly controversial anti-pornography law which Islamist groups and parties are presently pushing in Indonesia. Agus Suwage's colleague Ahramaniani, whose art also provoked the disapproval of Islamist fanatics, reports from Yogyakarta:

"The law has been debated to this day, for over two years now," says the freelance curator for contemporary art. "Many are speaking out against it because it is obvious that no one in this country is in favor of pornography. But the law they want to enact goes far beyond the problem of pornography. It is more about monitoring a person's morals, which can be very dangerous. In my opinion, that is almost fascistic, because with a law like that they can control people's private lives."

If the Islamist moralizers get their way, the law will ban obscene images from the public entirely, and women will be forced to cover their shoulders and legs. But even if it seems more than questionable that the religious hardliners will really be able to assert their uncompromising ideas in Indonesia's multiethnic state, one thing is certain: their loud threats have had their effect, already severely intimidating those who have always fought for tolerance and pluralism in their country: Indonesia's artists.

Arian Fariborz

© 2008

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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