Towards

Meaningful

Art [1]

 > Apotik Komik

Negotiating Home, History and Nation: two decades of contemporary art in Southeast Asia 1991 – 2011 exhibition at Singapore Art Museum

Mar - June 2011

Figure 1: Logo of visual arts collective, Taring Padi (Indonesia)

For more than fifty years, there has been consistent discussions and manifestations of how the arts, particularly the visual arts, is to serve the public in Indonesia. The ideologies and manifestos presented by various artist groups and collectives often result in fiercely fought battles. These cultural manifestos came amongst others, from the formation of Persatuan Ahli Gambar Indonesia – PERSAGI (Association of Indonesian Painters) in 1937/1938, Surat Kepercayaan Gelenggang (Gelenggang Letter of Trust) by Gelenggang artists group in February 1950, the socialist inclined Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat – LEKRA (The People’s Cultural Council) in August 1950, Manifest Kebudayaan – MANIKEBU (Cultural Manifesto) in 1963 and Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru – GSRB (New Visual Arts Movement) in 1975. Of all the various groupings and ideologies presented, MANIKEBU’s position on what it described as ‘universal humanism’ and the ‘struggle to assert Indonesian cultural integrity amidst international societies’ was most fiercely attacked.  Deemed as a ‘danger to the national struggle’, it became the only Indonesian cultural declaration by an arts group that was banned by Presidential decree.[2]

 

In more recent times, 1998 to be exact, a group of young artists, consisting of artists Yustoni Volunteero, Devi Setiawan, Surya Wirawan, Mohammad Yusuf and others, founded Lembaga Budaya Kerakyatan Taring Padi (The People’s Cultural Council of Taring Padi ) in the small town of Bantul in Yogyakarta. Taring Padi (meaning Fangs of the Rice Plant) modeled itself after the socialist ambitions of LEKRA[3] and focuses on issues and ‘campaigns through art for wage hike for workers, land rights for indigenous peoples and fairer deals for farmers’.[4]  The group typically produces graphic woodcut illustrations and slogans, printed manually on cloth and paper. These woodcut prints that are at times larger than two meters, are used as campaign banners and posters featured in public through both exhibitions and street protests and are often sold to raise funds for the group’s sustainability and as donation to communities that are subject of their campaigns.  During its formation, Taring Padi, as with predecessors such as LEKRA and MANIKEBU published a manifesto that includes statutes. In its manifesto, Taring Padi listed ‘The Five Evils of Culture’ as described below:​

(1) Institutions of art and culture that focus on art for art’s sake.

(2) The power holder and its establishments that sell the exoticism of Indonesian culture for economic and power interests.

(3) Art institutions that act as the party which gives legitimation to art workers and decides on the course of art’s progress.

(4) Systems that damage the morality of the art workers, without thinking about the interests of the people and even exploit the people’s destitution for some personal interests.

(5) The lack of understanding about art among the people, due to the New Order politics that put economy at the helm and use practices of Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism as its strategies.[5]

Figure 2: Sakit Berlanjut by Apotik Komik

In 1997, in the same city of Yogyakarta and a year before the founding of Taring Padi, Samuel Indratma, Bambang ‘Toko’ Wicaksono, Popok Tri Wahyudi and Arie Diayanto established a less aggressive artists’ collective called Apotik Komik (Comic Pharmacy). This collective of artists met and got together through mutual interest in comics and graphic illustrations while studying in Institut Seni Indonesia Yogyakarta (ISI). ISI Yogyakarta is an arts college established in 1984 an is known for producing many leading Indonesian contemporary Indonesian artists including Heri Dono, Eddie Hara, Entang Wiharso, Ugo Untoro and S Teddy. Apotik Komik’s modus operandi, although as publicly engaging as that of Taring Padi, is much less confrontational.

 

Apotik Komik’s first major project titled Sakit Berlanjut (Continual Illness) as part of the Yogyakarta Arts Festival in 1999, was a display of monochromatic, cardboard, comic like cutouts which were mounted guerilla style on a thirty-meter wall stretch on Jalan Perwakilan near the busy shopping district of Malioboro.[6] Marking the collective’s arrival and paving its place in Yogyakarta’s contemporary art landscape, the artworks included illustrations of sickly men lying on stretchers and slumped on wheelchairs being rushed for medical attention by medics, bottled medicines for various social ailments and calls to end selfish and individualistic behaviour. These cutouts were left unguarded and deliberately made such that anyone who desires to can dismount and freely carry them home. According to one of its founding members Samuel Indratma, the artworks were all gone within three days.

 

Their second project ‘Apotik Komik’s Public Gallery’ in 2001 featured artworks by various artists scheduled over a one-year period on a wall measuring two meters high by eleven meters wide at the corner of Langenarjan Lor No.2 and Gamelan Street in the city of Yogyakarta.[7] Then, young artists, including new media artist Venzha, muralist Eko Nugroho, I Made Aswino Aji and Narpati Awangga took turns to exhibit on this wall. The wall, which in actuality was a fence dividing an old, little cared for house and Apotik Komik headquarters, was shared between the artists and long-time cendol (iced dessert) hawker Yu Wari. Yu Wari has been peddling from the side of this very wall prior to the collective’s conversion of the space into an outdoor gallery.  This ‘gallery’ would receive regular stream of visitors daily, many of which are customers of Yu Wari. They would sit around his cart, consuming iced desserts in the face of the art on the wall. Apotik Komik had set two objectives for this project; (1) To offer art to the public, not only to the limited contemporary art audience; (2) To demonstrate that art does not need to exist in a gallery setting.[8]

Figure 3: Yu Wari's cendol kiosk

Backtrack to 1945, the year of Indonesia’s independence. Yogyakarta, then capital of Indonesia, was known as ‘City of the Revolution’ by its public who were eager to play a part in reinforcing Indonesia’s independent identity and place in the world. In it resides Basuki Resobowo, an artist that would later become one of the exiled leaders of LEKRA. At that time, Resobowo was an active member of Seniman Indonesia Muda – SIM (Young Indonesian Artists) and Pusat Tenaga Pelukis Indonesia – PTPI (Manpower Center for Indonesian Painters) an entity whose existence was equivalent to a department in the communication ministry of today. The notion of  ’people’s painter’ did not yet exist and Resobowo was to be the advocate of this concept.

 

Soon after President Soekarno and Mohammad Hatta made Indonesia’s Proclamation of Independence, Resobowo began painting slogans and illustrations on coaches of locomotives and various walls in the city, depicting the ambitions and renewed spirit of a free society.[9] About a year later, Resobowo together with several other artists went on to produce a mural that pictured ‘the revolution in painting’ on the east and south walls of the kraton (royal palace) in Yogyakarta. These walls combined, was two kilometers long with a height of four meters. The initials of either PTPI or SIM were inscribed on various sections of this mural along with names of artists who participated in their production. This momentous event was to become the inspiration behind mural and public painting projects by artist collectives such as Taring Padi, Apotik Komik and other muralists and graffiti artists in Indonesia today.[10]  

 

In 2002, Apotik Komik embarked on what could be described as the definitive mural project in contemporary Indonesia. The project consists of two parts; the first is called Sama-Sama meaning ‘together’ involving Indonesian artists and the second Sama-Sama/You’re Welcome with the participation of six San Francisco based American artists. The project, totalling twenty-two large murals, six by the Americans and the rest by the Indonesians was only completed in 2003.[11] Sama-Sama began with murals painted by local artists on five pillars of Jambatan Layang Lempuyangan (Lempuyangan flyover). Amongst the artists involved in the project were Arya Pandjalu, Eko Nugroho, Samuel Indratma, Bambang Toko Witjaksono and S Teddy D. All with the exception of one Jakarta based Indonesian artist came from the city of Yogyakarta. Meanwhile, Sama-Sama/You’re Welcome, which began in 2003, saw the participation of Aaron Noble, Alicia Mc Carthy, Andrew Schoultz, Carolyn Ryder Cooley, Carolyn Castano and Megan Wilson from the USA.  The physical realisation of Sama-Sama and Sama-Sama/You’re Welcome was made possible mainly due to the support and permission granted by Herry Zudianto, then mayor to the city whose vision was to turn Yogyakarta into a city of culture, the arts and one that is tourist friendly.[12]

Figure 4: Lempuyangan flyover before project Sama Sama

The murals, particularly those painted by the Indonesian artists, contained potent social messages. The mural Tokoh Pinggiran Naik Pentas (Outcasts Takes the Stage) by Andi Purnawan Putra for example, depicts the characters Togog and Mbilung, slave characters who represent the poor and working class in the Javanese traditional theatre or wayang. In the mural, they are shown to have taken control and are sitting on thrones of power suggesting two possibilities; (1) that Togog and Mbilung have truly taken over power and is running the affairs of the state and (2) that Togog and Mbilung are merely caretakers, looking after the seats left empty by the rulers and rightful owner of the thrones.[13] With bright colours and cotemporary outlook, the setting that Togog and Mbilung were painted in feels updated and relevant, especially considering the country’s recent emancipation from Suharto’s Orde Baru in 1998.

 

Another example is the mural Kepala Kuning (Yellow Head) on one of the pillars of the Lempuyangan flyover by S Teddy D, an affiliate of Taring Padi. It shows a large yellow human head on one side and a tall black outlined figure in front of a deep red background on the other. The teeth in the mouth of this almost skeletal large yellow head is made up of more heads, crowded together, suggesting a painful consequence should they be ground. The eyes on this large head have been cropped off the composition, denoting anonymity. Meanwhile yellow references the dominant colour of the party symbol of Partai Golongan Karya – GOLKAR (Party of the Functional Groups), the political party to which former Indonesian President, Suharto belongs to.  S Teddy portrayed GOLKAR as a symbol of power, equating it to a skeleton or the emblem of death; its mouth hiding even more unaccounted deaths and atrocities that cannot be spoken of. In verso, a tall skinny figure representing the society features a heart bleeding from an arm, not even from its rightful position on the left of the chest, suggesting a ‘displacement of heart’. Its right hand holds a severed head, representing disillusionment and disassociation of the mind from the bodies of the people. The red of the background resembles both the colour of the Indonesian flag as well as the banner of the socialist faction historically represented by Partai Komunis Indonesia – PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia).[14] The images illustrated by both S Teddy and Putra, although graphic, was not easily understood by its public. This project functions somewhat like an introductory lesson in the language of art for the general public, some of which are easily accessible, while others need a little bit more study.

Nonetheless, Sama-Sama affected the Yogyakarta public in more ways than one. Artists and the public began to revisit a medium once exploited more than fifty years before by Resobowo. The mural became a public notice board, a medium and space where one can be expressive whilst sending messages to the masses.

Figure 5: Selamat Bekerja (Have a happy work day) by Eko Nugroho at Lempuyangan flyover

Since 2002, in anticipation of the city’s 250 years’ anniversary in 2006, the mayor initiated a project to beautify public spaces by erecting planters and new decorative lighting fixtures. This initiative was criticized by the public and labeled as an unnecessary use of resources, and also because it disregarded the importance of public opinion and participation. There is a belief that all public spaces are in actual fact constructed bureaucratic zones that when planned, were devoid of societal involvement and are designed purely to increase economic revenues. The mayor promptly responded by seeking public suggestions and participation through radio shows, SMSs, dedicated public feedback phone line and other means. Here, the efforts of Apotik Komik were lauded as a positive example in civic participation. Mayor Zudianto then invited other artists, intellectuals and the masses from all layers of society to come together to envision and manifest their future idea of the city. At this point,  Apotik Komik began to receive direct support from the city council and became advisors to proposals of new mural projects by the public. They conducted workshops and became the first point of contact whenever the city explores new ideas for murals or public art projects.[15]

 

The success and reception to the public work of Apotik Komik spread like wildfire to other areas in Indonesia and are echoed by other urban art collectives such as Artchoholic, Propagraphic Movement and Tembokbomber. The flood of hip-hop culture through music and the popularisation of urban art through artists such as Banksy (UK), FAILE (USA) and Shepard Fairey (USA) did more to help increase the awareness, possibilities and impact of murals, posters and graffiti art. 

 

However, unlike the typical graffiti artists who ‘bomb’ or leave their ‘tags’ on public and private properties to reclaim their place in the urban environment, Apotik Komik developed an understanding and amicable relationships with its public and often collaborated and seek permission from the city or private owners of the walls where murals were to be painted. Each key member of Apotik Komik was also known as contemporary artists in their own right as they all exhibited and continued their own artistic practice outside of the collective; they were not just ‘strangers’ who demand to illustrate on public walls.

 

Perceptions and attitudes towards mural art specifically changed in Yogyakarta. As the muralists of Apotik Komik were known as artists, their renderings on public walls were recognized as legit works of art without its ‘myths’ or trappings of ‘inviolability’. These contemporary artworks, unlike others in galleries and museums, can be touched, are exposed to the weather, readily available for public view every day and night, exists amongst the people and can be painted over or in other words ‘destroyed’ if need be without causing much of a fuss.

Figure 6. Urip Waton Nggelinding (Live as Life Goes On) artwork by Farhansiki for Sama-Sama now defaced by other murals and graffiti

The presence of murals mushrooming around the city rejuvenated a culture of creativity and encouraged voluntary communication and participation in an effort to improve the city landscape and living conditions by local communities. It was found that eye-catching murals lessened graffiti and acts of vandalism on public walls. One of the American participants in Sama-Sama/You’re Welcome, Megan Wilson, noted that there were almost no murals in existence in Yogyakarta when she first visited the city in 2001 compared to the ‘hundreds’ found when she returned in 2003. She also noted that copies of her flower murals were found painted by residents in the neighbourhood along Jalan Ireda where she painted her flower motifs that spilled onto the roads almost a year before.  Also found were copies of butterflies painted in the style of fellow American Carolyn Castano from the same project.[16] These hundreds of new murals mentioned by Wilson seem to suggest a realisation of a cheaper alternative to the beautification of the environment as compared to the city council’s attempt in erecting planters and costly, new, decorative lighting fixtures mentioned earlier.

 

The city of Yogyakarta became more synonymous with its murals, re-enforcing its identity and place as the Indonesian city of murals. Its official touristic motto ‘Jogja Berhati Nyaman’ or ‘Jogja, the Peaceful Hearted’ was retitled ‘Jogja Berhati Mural’ or ‘Jogja, the Mural Hearted’ by local youths. Yuli Andari Merdikaningtyas and Dwi Rahmanto, Nunuk Ambarwati made a twenty-five minute documentary with the same title in 2007 using archival materials which came mostly from the collection of Indonesian Visual Art Archives (IVAA) spliced with interviews with the city’s muralists and the general public. In this documentary, artist and founding member of Apotik Komik, Arie Diyanto, described the activity of painting murals in Yogyakarta as having been widely accepted and ‘legalised’.[17] It is a long way since the days where members of Apotik Komik would wear orange coloured overalls to look official while illegally working on an artwork on a wall in the city.[18] Nevertheless, in the same documentary, Tatang, an artist who did get arrested while ‘illegally’ painting a mural related a rare incident that resulted in his arrest along with five other graffiti artists. In the incident, policemen fired two warning shots to stop the artists from escaping an exit point at the city’s locomotive garage as the artists were fleeing from security staff that had initially caught them in the act of spray-painting a coach a few hours past midnight.[19]

Figure 7. Illustration of the two shots fired before Tatang's arrest

Despite their popularity, Apotik Komik officially disbanded three short years after the completion of Sama-Sama. Ironically, their disbandment was announced on 7 October 2006 at the launch of the book documenting the very same project. According to visual arts curator Kuss Indarto, the participation of Samuel Indratma as the only member representing the group at Taipei Biennale 2004 was the ‘de facto’ sign of the demise of the group.[20]

 

Unlike Taring Padi and its predecessors, Apotik Komik has never published fierce slogans or manifestos. The collective objectively practiced what it strongly believed. Its activities were first and foremost, responses to soften the fast changing and often-grueling urban environment of the old city and to make it more bearable. They wanted the public to rejuvenate the culture of thinking and not to be absorbed by visual and mental ‘vandalism’ inflicted via posters and billboards of corporations and commercial entities.[21] Through art, they lent their voices and demonstrated an avenue for peaceful reprisal from the frustrations of the Suharto era. Their vision was put into action and its impact could be seen in a very short time. They were non-partisan and were not linked to any political ideals, yet one cannot say that their art is no less social in content and context if compared to that of LEKRA, MANIKEBU or Taring Padi. They are non-confrontational, not towards the state, the city, its peoples, other artists or artist groups.

 

As stated by Indarto, Apotik Komik’s demise is not one to cry for for its contribution has been immense and meaningful.[22]

First published by Singapore Art Museum in Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two decades of contemporary art in Southeast Asia 1991 – 2011ISBN 978-981-08-8104-7

 

Figures 2 to 6 were extracted from the documentary ‘Jogja Berhati Mural’ by Yuli Andari Merdikaningtyas, Dwi Rahmanto and Nunuk Ambarwati under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, © 2007, C Cinema, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

[1] From the title of the essay ‘Kearah Seni Berisi’ (1953) by Boejoeng Saleh, a member of LEKRA. K. Foulcher, A survey of events surrounding “MANIKEBU”, Bijdragen tot de Taal, Leiden, Netherlands, Land- en Volkenkunde 125, 1969, p. 431

[2]Ibid., p. 444-445

[3] Kompas.com, Taring Padi Teguh Bela Rakyat, Indonesia, 7 Februrary 2011

[4] Jason Tedjasukmana, War Paint, TIME.com, 21 February 2008

[5] Nuraini Juliastuti, Artists and society issues, Folders – 10 years of documentation work by Cemeti Art Foundation, Indonesian Visual Art Archives, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2007, p. 142

[6] R Fadjri, Antara Seni Rupa Individual dan Komunal, TEMPO, 25 July 1999, Indonesia, p. 88-89

[7] Gelar Karya Seni di Tembok Pagar, Kedaulatan Rakyat, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 6 February 2001, p.8

[8] F Dewi Ria Utari, Galeri Alternatif Ala Apotik Komik, BERNAS, Indonesia, 12 October 2000, p. 12

[9] Hersri Setiawan, Basuki Resobowo (bahan tentang seniman eksil), text presented on 23 May 2005 at Jalan Garuda Taman Mini Jakarta for ‘Diskusi Bulan Purnama’.

[10] Tinjauan Sejarah – Silsilah Seni Rupa di Tempat Umum, catalog of Re:Publik Art exhibition, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2005

[11] Bambang Witjaksono, Fenomena Mural di Jogja Tahun 2002-2004, master’s thesis, Institut Teknologi Bandung, Bandung, Indonesia, 2005, p. 4

[12] Ibid., p. 3

[13] Ibid., p.79

[14] Ibid., p. 89 - 90

[15] ibid., p.123 - 125

[16] Megan Wilson, Sama-sama/Together, http://www.meganwilson.com/related/Curatorial/Sama-sama.php, 2003

[17] Yuli Andari Merdikaningtyas, Dwi Rahmanto and Nunuk Ambarwati, Jogja Berhati Mural, Documentary (video), C Cinema, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2007

[18] John Weeks, Apotik Komik – Interview with Samuel Indratma and Bambang Toko, http://www.comicsbulletin.com/smallpress/104858627334747.htm, 25 March 2003

[19] ibid., Interview with Tatang

[20] Kuss Indarto, Apotik Komik menutup hikayat. Tak ada air mata, KOMPASS, Indonesia, 22 Ocober 2006

[21] Merdikaningtyas et all, op. cit., Interview with Samuel Indratma

[22] Indarto, Op. cit.