Revealing the Proverbial Wounds of Indonesia’s Psyche

The migrant worker inscrutably inspected the viewer, reminiscent of National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry’s iconic 1985 photo “Afghan Girl.” Just as the “Afghan Girl’s” gaze reminds one of the toll war and displacement take on people, the worker’s stare similarly reminds viewers of the risks and sacrifices she and others like her had to make to better their welfare.

Called “ Kerudung TKI ” (“An Indonesian Migrant Worker’s Veil”), her veil works as a shield, covering both the real and figurative wounds she tries to hide. But the dragon tattoo gradually emerging from underneath her veil is slightly disquieting to anyone but “Kerudung TKI’s” creator, artist Haris Purnomo.

“The dragon motif shows the subject’s struggles, honesty and strengths. In short, the characteristics make their life a pinnacle of performing art, as they fill the role that life gives them so well,” he said. The dragon tattoo also seems to affirm those characteristics and how it marks her as an individual, enabling her to transcend the “Indonesia” label on the bandage across her nose.

The portrait is one of the 13 photos featured in “ Luka ” (“Wound”), an exhibition of Haris’s work at the Salihara cultural center inSouth Jakarta. The collection typifies the artist’s standing as a co-founder of the Indonesian New Art Movement, or Gerakan Seni Rupa Indonesia Baru, in the late 1970’s.

“The dragon tattoos and bandages are related to the title of the exhibition. The wounds are implied, buried under what’s visible, perhaps far in the depths,” said curator Nirwan Dewanto. “The faces painted by Haris symbolizeIndonesia: [presidents] Sukarno, Gus Dur [Abdurrahman Wahid], slain human rights activist Munir, or ordinary people fromEast Indonesia. We view them with joy, because we believe that they gave us goodness and sacrifices. However, the dragon tattoos that adorn or seep into these figures also push us away from such familiarity and awe.”

Nirwan’s fellow curator Asikin Hasan echoed his sentiments.

“The wounds that Haris alludes to mean sociopolitical tensions, particularly those that define Gerakan Seni Rupa Indonesia Baru,” he said of the exhibition. “The wounds open a variety of interpretations. They also signal a layer of old and new events, a theme that he and other artists explored in their art group Pipa [an acronym for Kepribadian Apa or What Personality], all of whom felt suffocated by the ‘closed spaces’ surrounding them. The imagery of the dragon is meant as a symbol of power by the artist.”

Nirwan also noted that the bright backgrounds and iconic standing of the 58-year-old artist’s subjects are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art work, particularly his iconic portrayals of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell soup cans.

“My work for Gerakan Seni Rupa Indonesia Baru did occur during Warhol’s era, as well as that of Roy Lichtenstein. While both are similar in their preoccupation with mass culture, the inception of Gerakan Seni Rupa Indonesia Baru’s art is an entirely different matter,” Haris says. “Pop Art is mostly a commentary about pop icons in the Western culture or psyche. On the other hand, Gerakan Seni RupaIndonesiawas a reaction to [then President Suharto’s] repression of the arts, which was reflected in the elitism of that era’s art work. Government control even extended to the colors and motifs that we were allowed to use.”

Nirwan noted that the dragon motifs on figures like Munir and Wahid drew attention to their strengths, fate and struggles. The former raised awareness on political kidnapping and assassinations, whereas the latter highlighted the dangers of religious intolerance.

Haris’ works “Papua I” and “Papua II” also highlight his province’s environmental plight, due to mining giantFreeport’s operations in the area. In addition, the work draw attention to the economic discrepancy between the less developed eastern part ofIndonesiaand the country’s more affluent western half. The use of bandages to conceal metaphorical wounds also appear in “Orang Hilang” (“The Disappeared”) to describe the political efforts to whitewash the kidnappings and disappearances of student activists before the ousting of President Suharto in 1998. But the attempts prove to be futile, as the bandages bear the names of the missing, such as Wiji Thukul, Noval Alkatiri and Herman Hendra.

The use of bandages to hide wounds reaches its peak in Haris’s 2014 installation art “Ketaton,” or “Being Wounded,” which reflects his concerns overIndonesia’s sociopolitical situation.

“The prostrated positions of the 60 fiberglass, resin and bandaged figures have multiple meanings, starting from superficial piety, to fundamentalist groups, and even highlighting the intolerance that has long marked interreligious relations inIndonesia,” Asikin says.

Tunggul Wirajuda, dimuat di The Jakarta Globe, 4 Mei 2014