(1952 – 2005, Medan, Indonesia)
Semsar Siahaan was a seminal artist of the progressive movement in Indonesia. A fervent humanitarian activist, Siahaan fought courageously during a time of vast changes to Indonesia’s political landscape, which reflects in his body of work. His keen and incisive social commentary through his art was an integral part of the anti-dictatorship and pro-people movement of the 1990s. His installations and some of his paintings and drawings dealt directly with the abuse of human rights. His drawings from the 1990s frequently contained images of banners with demands for justice, or captions that amplified the meaning of the images, often ironically.
In 1978, Siahaan joined Group ’78, an anti-Suharto student movement demanding that then-President Suharto not be re-elected. After a 1981 protest criticizing modern Indonesian art (which involved him burning one of his art teacher’s sculptures), which Siahaan felt implemented the military government’s systematic control of, and interventions in, art and culture, he was expelled from Institut Teknologi Bandung. He then led the institute’s fine art students in a strike for freedom of expression. As a result, he was denied a solo exhibition at the institute in 1983. From there, he went to the Netherlands and became active with Indonesian expatriates political dissidents, publishing a bulletin called For the Sake of Democracy and Human Rights in Indonesia. In 1994, Siahaan received an award for an installation piece titled “Redigging the Mass Grave”, which he said, “symbolised Indonesia’s history of human-rights abuses”. Initially, it was agreed that the winning work would be entered into the Sao Paolo Biennialle in Brazil, but because of the political nature of his work, Suharto’s government cancelled any further participation by Siahaan.
Siahaan was invited to exhibit his work in Germany, but due to the escalating violence and political upheaval in Indonesia, he refused both that and a subsequent 1998 artist-in-residency in Khazakstan. In 1998, Siahaan was involved in organising an alliance of all Indonesia’s NGOs into the Indonesian Pro-Democracy Action, a huge three-day peace demonstration; unfortunately, his political dissent eventually made him a target of state violence. He was shot and beaten viciously by soldiers during the peaceful demonstration in Jakarta; admitted to a military hospital with a broken leg, he was horrifically tortured, and permanently disabled. These events left deep trauma and thus led to multiple relocations to several different countries, namely the Netherlands, Canada and Singapore. Semsar Siahaan arrived in Canada in 1999 as a visiting artist and speaker at the University of Victoria; addressing much more than socio-political issues in his own nation, he took on international corporate greed in satire (The Global Trader, 2001). His speedy rise to success in Canada with several exhibitions attests to his calibre as an artist.
In his parody of Manet’s much-appropriated Olympia (Olympia, Identity with mother and child, 1988) he tweaked an icon from modern art to spotlight Indonesian subservience to Western capitalism and power, at the same time giving notice that the hegemony of Western art was over. A postcolonial artist, with post-modern awareness, Semsar crossed artistic boundaries like his multicultural experiences crossed national borders.
Semsar’s grasp of history and political movements underpins his art but his inspiration came from personal experience. Having experienced the loss of his only baby son, he identified with the pain and grief of all parents who lost children from preventable disease and hunger.
Upon Semsar’s return to Indonesia in 2003, surprisingly, a solo exhibition of his drawings was held at the National Gallery. For over a decade, Semsar had received significant attention at home, in Japan and in Australia, with his large, even monumental canvases that depict the struggle of the people against the greed and hypocrisy of the business and political elites, ever witnessing and holding up to view events that could not be discussed freely.
Though his avid political activism had driven his art to be extremely sought-after, he had chosen to go into exile. An outsider to all establishments, even artistic ones, he has yet to be accorded his rightful place among the ranks of great Indonesian artists.