City of Ghosts at once evokes absence: there is no clear subject in the work, with only a faint outline resembling the torso of a human figure at the centre of the piece. This figure has no features, but only several vertical lines, alternating light and dark, rendering him invisible, lost. Such an absence moves one to search for details: a small, faint group of ghostly figures hovers at the right of the composition, while the most detailed part of the piece is in fact the most distant: a group of buildings peeking at the top left portion. In the context of the piece, the haunting figures and buildings evoke the unique void pervasive in urban life.
Feeling alien and empty in a city is not unknown to Semsar Siahaan, who likely created this work while he was living in Canada as a political refugee. Having experienced both isolation and discrimination during this time, Siahaan nonetheless continued to make art that reflected both the personal and political. Experimenting with new, mundane mediums, such as pencil on cardboard, he resisted the “colonially imposed” medium of paint on canvas to better reflect the industrial commodification culture that prevailed around him.