Editorial: People’s Artistic Justice

Editorial Omong-Omong

9 min read

It’s Indonesia at its peak, catapulted by pure originality and excellence – and nobility.

Very few moments – or possibly only one time before – in the nation’s modern history Indonesians have the opportunity to play a role in a world stage, steering and shaping the direction of the world – at least some part of the world – if it was only for a moment.

It could have been historically game changer and the talk of the world for many years to come if not for ignorance, indifference, lack of empathy and most of all, pure laziness. This unintentionality and a mere naïvety, however, have been punished excessively as if they had been committed a crime of the century by the same people who have said they are committed to freedom of expression.

It’s not that Indonesia’s art collective ruangrupa is appointed the artistic director of the documenta, the world’s most influential show of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany, curating all artists and collectives of artists and their art works from all over the world for the 15th edition of one of the world’s biggest art event. This is already an incredible trust put upon Indonesians from an advanced nation – the first representative from Southeast Asian nations to be appointed – and an achievement in itself that Indonesians are chosen for its intellectuality and organizational skills rather than their art works.

But it’s how ruangrupa has done its works in putting together documenta fifteen, which lasts from June 18 to September 25, as a place for the unheard – basically, for all – that shows the world the genius of Indonesian intellectuals and artists. It is decolonizing but above all it is revolutionizing the way art is presented to the public – redefining what is called art.

The Indonesian collective introduces the curatorial concept of lumbung, referring to Indonesian village’s rice barns where surplus harvest is stored and redistributed within the community when members need it. In documenta case, public and private funding is pooled and redistributed according the need of the respective artists and collectives. This loose and decentralized approach turns documenta into an open resource for so many collectives and artists, especially to artists and collectives from the Global South, a phrase to describe the group of  former colonies, who previously had no access to global events, let alone as big as documenta, to showcase their works.

It’s a global collective of collectives as it not only accommodates artists from the third world but also those from various minority groups regardless of their religion, sexual orientation and races. Such an easy access, irreverent and non-hierarchical arrangement is a much needed protest against the world’s art system of corporate and state sponsorship, commercialism and the so-called gate keepers of the industrial nation.

The results? Some 1,500 artists, mostly from the developing nations, could take part in otherwise exclusive and commercialized hub. Such a gathering of cultures provides opportunity for collective feeling among artists, exchanges of ideas and honest conversation among artists and their audience, mostly Germans and Europeans who should understand why colonialism and post-colonialism are such hype words during the show, and how their country’s thirst for power and gold have impacted millions, if not billions, of people across the world.

Very rare in its history, Indonesians have the opportunity to influence the world like this. This was parallel to what Indonesia has been doing for Asia-Africa Conference in 1955 when the nation’s first president Soekarno and other third-word leaders came together and joined forces to voice against colonialism and imperialism, resulting in massive freedom movement and independence of many people and nations from the chains of Western powers (again mostly Europeans) not only in Asia and Africa but also in South America and the Pacific.

In a push like this, it only takes a minor mistake to be pushed back entirely. Just when a feeling of a fair world started to creep in, a lapse of judgement confronted ruangrupa, documenta and the artists with world’s political and historical biggest complication, putting them in the middle of the world’s longest unsolved conflict: Israeli aggression against Palestine, and the 20th century’s biggest crime: the holocaust, as well as Germany’s guilty feeling toward Jewish people on top of German domestic realpolitik.

Anti-Semitic Art Piece, Artistic Freedom & German Politics

A day after the June 18 opening, a massive banner, an eight-meter high mural, titled People’s Justice, was hung from a scaffold in Friedrichsplatz, the central square of Kassel. It’s painted by Taring Padi, Indonesian art collective, intended as a people’s tribunal, screaming for accountability that had caused not only of the massacre of around 1 million people during the 1965-1966 period but also the misery of tens of millions Indonesians in 32 years of Soeharto’s totalitarian brutal regime.

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Most of Taring Padi members are student protesters of the 1998 Reformasi movement that toppled Soeharto from power. People’s Justice was a collective response from these former protesters, who have been grouped as leftist artists. The mural attempts to describe how Soeharto has managed to rule for so long because of international supporters and enablers – including representatives of foreign intelligence services, such as the CIA, M15, and Australian ASIO – at the expense of Indonesian people. These agents are depicted as dogs, pigs, skeletons and rats while the misery of Indonesians are represented by a pile of skulls and a mass grave.

The problem is that there is no denying that small parts of the giant art are anti-Semitic. While the description of Israeli agents as a pig-faced soldier wearing a Star of David and a helmet with ‘Mossad’ written on it can still be defended as it’s a fact that Mossad played a role – however minor it was – in the rise of Soeharto, and that attacking Mossad is attacking Israeli state policies, a depiction of  a man with sidelocks, a crooked nose, bloodshot eyes and fangs for teeth while dressing in a suit, chewing on a cigar and wearing a hat marked ‘SS’: an Orthodox Jew, represented as a rich banker, on trial for war crimes clearly only copies anti-Semitic prejudices and stigma widely spread within European society.

As it was created in 2002, People’s Justice has been exhibited in several international events. Nobody seemed to bother with this depiction. Until it was shown in Germany, the nation still feeling remarkably ashamed of themselves because of what Hitler and his Nazi had been doing more than 80 years ago.

The exhibition of People’s Justice sparked outrage and soon fall into not only Kessel politics but also national battlefield. Despite repeated apologies and explanation from ruangrupa, there was no going back after that. Two days after the banner was removed, with many in the media quickly declaring not only the incident of the banner but also the whole documenta as a national embarrassment, and some demanding it to be banned altogether.

On 16 July, documenta’s director Sabine Schormann was forced to resign after mounting public pressure.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier quickly issued a warning that there are limits to artistic freedom when it comes to political issues while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed disappointment, stating he wouldn’t be going to the show. German Culture Minister Claudia Roth promised more state control to art events.

It seems that for Germans when it comes to anti-Semitic issues, Jew and Israel there is no more regards to freedom of expression or art freedom. Also, anti-Semitic which is included in racism and hate speech are punishable under German law while denial of holocaust is a crime.

The country’s political direction to totally support Israel, recent attacks against Jewish people and continued discrimination against them have shaped this condition.

In 2019, for instance, the German parliament voted to condemn as anti-Semitic a movement that calls for economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian land and grant Arab citizens equal rights and recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees. A majority of lawmakers in the Bundestag voted in favor of a motion to label the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement as an entity that uses anti-Semitic tactics to fulfill its political goals.

This shows that securing Israel’s survival has been a priority for Germany since the defeat of the Nazi dictatorship that committed the Holocaust in which some six million Jews were murdered.

Just two years before documenta was held, a gunman opened fire on a kebab shop in Halle after failing to storm a synagogue on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. The shooter killed a customer in the shop and a passerby, confessing to German police that he was motivated by right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism.

The attack was part of a greater trend of crimes against Jews in the country. According to a report from VOA, anti-Semitic offenses rose by almost 10 percent in Germany last year, with violent attacks going up more than 60 percent, according to preliminary police data released in February. Police recorded 1,646 violations motivated by hatred against Jews, the highest level in a decade. The same report stated that after the Halle attack, a survey sponsored by public broadcaster ARD showed 59 percent of voting-age Germans believed that anti-Semitism was spreading in their communities. More than a quarter of Germans hold anti-Semitic beliefs, according to a study by the World Jewish Congress.

And how they don’t know the controversy of using pigs in insulting Jewish people? A Judensau or Jews’ Sow, a folk art image of Jews in obscene contact with a large sow (female pig), which in Judaism is an unclean animal, is still decorating the churches, and it’s still a huge issue in Germany. It’s imaginable how Jewish feel when they are depicted in pigs.

It’s in this backdrop that we have to understand the issue of anti-Semitism in Germany. Unfortunately, Indonesian intellectuals and artists have failed to understand this out of indifference, out of complacence, out of lack of knowledge and not wanting to learn, and most of all, out of ignorance. The absence of protest against People’s Justice previously in several other places have made the artists complacent and lazy to learn the local condition.

It’s here then that they have learned the hard way about Jew, Jewish, Zionism, German public’s guilty feeling toward holocaust, the powerful word of antisemitism, and German realpolitik in its core in one art event so much so that the world sees Indonesians to have been living under a rock all this time.

But the Western authorities also need to understand that Indonesians have no familiarity to anti-Semitism and holocaust issues. Indonesians are far removed from such European problems, having no collective memory on the Holocaust as what Indonesians learned about the history around World War II is not the Holocaust but how the US and its Allied saved the world from Hitler as well as the heroism of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Most of Indonesians learned about Holacaust through Hollywood movies. Also, as Indonesia is a majority Muslim nation, it’s common for many Indonesians to hate Jews, and with Israel attacking the Palestine, it’s also common to condemn the former. Without realising it, possibly many Indonesians have frequently expressed anti-Semitic slurs.

Excessive Punishment and Injustice

It’s in this naïve nature that ruangrupa and documenta should be forgiven. The anti-Semitic depiction is never intentional, or done in full knowledge of the matter. In ideal world where everybody has a spirit for dialogue and understanding each other, the banner would not have been dismantled entirely. It should have been only the parts depicting anti-Semitic slurs that should be covered. So, the demand for ending documenta altogether is not only exaggeration, it was excessive leading to injustice to those artists not having to do with the incident nor having idea what was going on.

Such an excessive and indiscriminative punishment shows that there was not a good faith, and only use documenta as political tool while scapegoating ruangrupa to get more political support and fanning hatred against critical voice.

As Sao Paulo-based Jewish group, Casa do Povo (The People’s House), reminds us that the world is now facing a dangerous inversion of antisemitic violence in a very worrying way, further warning that the “same strategies that sustained antisemitism for decades are being used in public debate to condemn ruangrupa.”

We have the same observation with Casa do Povo that instead of resorting to open conversations, public debate is “fed by denunciations and rumors, and instead of looking at documenta fifteen as a complex body of works, dynamics, and responsibilities, the artistic team and the artists are living under threats, intimidation, and censorship.” So, all these attacks in media and social media seemingly rings an alarm: the rightful denunciation of anti-Semitic images is being instrumentalized to delegitimize the whole exhibition, attack a decolonial agenda, and oppose critical thinking.

So we stand with Casa do Povo to ask: What are the actual reasons to justify these continuous attacks?

Does every criticism against Israel will be shut down in the name of anti-Semitic? Does it mean Israel can do anything without being questioned?

If German press and authorities have really a genuine intention of creating dialogue and better climate to getting rid of any racism, including antisemitism then they should use this opportunity as a lesson and deepening the awareness of not only Indonesian artist but also millions of Global South artists, pulling them closer as friends, rather than creating unnecessary adversaries.

The Way Forward

It’s been weeks after the incident. But despite global noise ruangrupa and Taring Padi have been making – reported and analyzed by the New York Times to Des Spiegel to Eyal Weizman in London Review of Books – Indonesia’s authorities and public are instead busy with a soap opera about the murder of a police officer by a police general. It’s an irony that not only Indonesian authorities and intellectual have been mostly mum about such a critical issue, they seem to not care. If any comments were heard at all, they seemed to have no idea what they were talking about, seemingly leaving ruangrupa alone to face the music. Not that this Indonesian collective asks for or even needs government support, but still, this is Indonesian people fighting for survival and glory, like or not, carrying their identity as Indonesians.

That’s why we hope ruangrupa can come back stronger and emboldened.

In any case, this is huge for Indonesia. ruangrupa has shown the world that Indonesian people have the creativity and ability as a unifier and have what it takes to be a leader in a global stage. The collective has also opened the door for other Indonesian artists and intellectuals to play a role in the creative world, or like it or not: global creative industry.

If this is the way to go for Indonesia, then this is the direction this nation should be very proud to take.

Editorial Omong-Omong

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