An emphasis on change is consistent with Indonesian street art’s origins, but even after a period of reform, the scene continues to expand.
Some people pass in front of a building. Architecturally, there is nothing special about the place, but in the eyes of photographer Cas Oorthuys,1 its walls frame a significant moment of struggle in the life of his country. In Oorthuys’s shot, a large mural declares: “FREEDOM is the GLORY OF ANY NATION. INDONESIA for INDONESIANS!” The image, along with others taken by the same observer around 1945, is one of the earliest documents of graffiti in Indonesia. Tracing the history of Indonesian street art is no easy task—lack of public appreciation has resulted in a dearth of archived material—but the movement has played an important role in various instances of national social and political turmoil nonetheless.
Sited as it is in a densely populated area, the kind of work that Oorthuys’s photograph records has long been both a means of mass communication and a valuable propaganda tool. And while in the mid-’40s, street art was still far from being named as such, the slogan’s anticolonialist theme neatly summarizes the form’s ongoing revolutionary potential. A similar emphasis was discernible in 1998 when the student movement overthrew President Suharto’s Orde Baru (New Order)—the uprising was accompanied by a flowering of strident street art. A group of artists in Yogyakarta called Taring Padi,2 for example, created several murals demanding that Suharto step down.
This emphasis on change is consistent with Indonesian street art’s origins, but even in 2012, after a period of reform, the scene continues to expand. One group, Respecta Street Art Gallery (RSAG),3 has even established an alternative way to disseminate the ideas associated with their medium. But while this project may alter the context in which the work it gathers together is seen, its emphasis on urban social, political, and cultural issues is consistent with the movement’s general thrust.
On February 13, 2011, RSAG and several other street art groups took part in Jakarta Sunday Street Art Movement,4 held simultaneously in twenty Indonesian cities and in Singapore. The event, now better known as the Berbeda dan Merdeka 100% movement,5 is dedicated to fighting for national human rights and diversity, and has had an enormous impact. But in spite of the relative fame of such group identities, individual practitioners of street art in Indonesia are always anonymous, and their works inherently ephemeral—an image made today could be excised or replaced tomorrow.
Fundamentally different from art forms designed purposely for the context of a museum or gallery, street artirsts must then take a different path to a wider audience by producing effective documentation. With this in mind, RSAG has supported the establishment of the Indonesian Street Art Database (ISAD),6 a network of independently managed, community-based efforts toward a more effective historicization of the form that, in conjunction with a general growth of interest in the genre, should make Indonesian street art much more accessible not only to the passerby, but also to the researcher.
–Leonhard Bartolomeus is Editor-in-Chief of the Indonesian Street Art Database (ISAD).
- Cas Oorthuys was a photographer who pictured Indonesia’s struggle for independence, his images becoming authentic evidence of the population’s struggle against colonialism. ↩
- Collaborative artists’ group Taring Padi is well know for its criticism of dictatorship in Indonesia, especially the regime of President Soeharto. ↩
- Respecta Street Art Gallery was developed with the aim of promoting communication between and about Indonesian street artists and their ideas. ↩
- A blog about Indonesian street art is maintained here. ↩
- Berbeda dan Merdeka 100% was a tag line that become a social movement, developed in response to discrimination in Indonesia. ↩
- Indonesian Street Art Database (ISAD), perhaps the only new media forum for the archiving and documentation of Indonesian street art, is based at Komplek Paminda Jl.Bambu Ampel 3 D15A, Pasar Minggu, Jakarta Selatan 12520. ↩