Religious Censorship in Indonesia

When Art Becomes a Sin

Indonesian artist Agus Suwage appears to have involuntarily put his country's values to the test. Is his artistic installation pornographic or are critics just oversensitive? The stakes for Indonesian society are high: freedom of expression or religiously justified censorship? Christina Schott reports

Church window motif of Adam and Eve (photo:
Adam and Eve and the fall of mankind are a recurring theme in art history. But Agus Suwage's interpretation of the theme has stirred harsh protest in Indonesia

​​A swing seat fashioned from a pedal-driven rickshaw sways back and forth in a dimly-lit space. In the background, on a series of huge panels, a naked man and a naked woman assume different photographic poses in a utopian jungle. There are no obscene gestures or positions. White circles neatly conceal both models' genitals, as well as the woman's breasts. The whole artistic installation is vaguely reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. "Pinkswing Park" is the title of this work by Indonesian artists Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar, which was briefly shown in Jakarta in September 2005 at the CP Biennale, the leading international exhibition of contemporary art in Indonesia.

At the time, the artists, models and curators had no idea that they would soon find themselves at the heart of a heated debate on pornography. Since the male nude model is none other than the popular soap star Anjasmara, several tabloids and TV gossip show producers sent reporters to cover the event, which usually attracts only minor interest among the general public.

Two weeks later, 250 supporters of the radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) descended on the show and declared the work a blasphemous representation of Adam and Eve, forcing the exhibition to close. Since then, the affair has gone to the courts, and Suwage and his colleagues face a possible 5-year prison sentence on charges of producing pornography.

Legal punishment for kissing

The artists' timing couldn't have been worse. It just so happens that the Indonesian parliament is currently debating controversial new laws on pornography, and the artwork has become a test case. If the proposed legislation passes in its current form, public kissing and erotic dance movements could be punishable with long prison terms, along with anyone flaunting "a sensual body part" (including hips, navel and plunging necklines) in films, songs, books, photos and paintings. "We are not interested in the artistic technique of these so-called works of art. This is about pornography – and as long as it is easily accessible, it undermines the morals of our nation," says Habib Riziek, head of the FPI and a leading proponent of the new bill.

Meanwhile the FPI and other Islamic groups and parties are mobilizing their supporters against other targets, including mass demonstrations to block the planned publication of an Indonesian edition of Playboy. In Jakarta, Police have seized hundreds of thousands of hardcore VCDs, porn magazines and men's publications, including FHM and Rolling Stone. Balkan Kaplale heads the parliamentary committee finalizing the proposed new legislation and is confident that the anti-pornography laws will already be in effect by June: "This is the only way that we can prevent publications like Playboy. In Indonesia it would be a time bomb. Who can guarantee that these magazines will not fall into our children's hands and corrupt the next generation?"

Indonesian traditions would become illegal

Women's organizations are alarmed. They fear that the new laws could reduce women to mere objects, and place them under constant control. Critics also point out that the definition of pornography is far too vague: "Women in Indonesia have always worn sexy clothing. Even our traditional costumes are rather tight-fitting. This law has nothing to do with our culture. We still have bare-breasted women on Bali and Papua", says women's activist Gadis Arriva.

The head of Bali's tourism authority has also expressed deep concern. Gede Nurjaya says that the embattled tourism industry on the island can ill afford to have foreign tourists arrested for taking sunbaths on the beach. "According to these new laws, traditional dances and art on Bali could become illegal," comments Nurjaya.

Women's activists, artists, and representatives of the entertainment industry see the anti-pornography movement as part of a broader agenda to transform the multi-cultural democracy of Indonesia into a strict Islamic state. In this day and age of globalization, pornography is perceived as a symbol of decadent Western culture, which many Muslims believe is out to destroy Islamic culture.

Agus Suwage is convinced that the Islamists intend to make an example of him. The 47-year-old has joined other artists in founding a movement to resist this development. In late February, the Indonesian Arts Community for Civil Liberties published a manifesto defending the freedom of artistic expression. "It's very dangerous for freedom of expression, but it also threatens many other aspects of society," warns Suwage. "I simply don't believe that an image can change a person's moral attitudes. Morals come from deep inside each individual."

Christina Schott

© 2006

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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