Dolorosa Sinaga Indonesian sculptor with a social conscience. Part I: The spiritual evolution of an artist

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Dolorosa Sinaga’s Solidarity was inspired by the women who after the May 13th atrocities went together and asked President Habibie to issue the new law on the Indonesian Women’s Human Rights Comission. Photo credit: Somalaing Art Studio

IO – Dolorosa Sinaga is a Batak who was born on the 31st of October 1952 in Sibolga, North Sumatra. Her father was furiously playing tennis when they told him the news that his wife had given birth to another girl. He felt only the deepest disappointment and determinedly continued playing, hitting the ball hard. For the patrilin­eal Bataks it is only the boys that count. So, he named the child that God gave him Dolorosa which means “the road of grief” after the route taken by Christ on his way to crucifixion.

“I am the only one he refused to give a second name to. There were seven children and all the rest he gave two names – but not me.” remarked Dolorosa. She remembers her aunt telling her how as a tiny baby in Sibol­ga her paternal grandmother shared her father’s disappointment. “Without my mother’s knowledge every morning my grandmother would take me out into the sun to stare at the sky to have God change me into a boy.”

After a year they moved to Medan and then later to Palembang where Dolorosa Sinaga was raised as a child. “My mother says that I was a child who was constantly crying. I would cry all day long till my father returned home from work. Mostly, with my black dog whom I loved very much.”

Dolorosa Sinaga in her art studio Somailing Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Dolorosa Sinaga

Dr Gabor Mate a Canadian phy­sician and authority on trauma and addiction tells the story of how he was born as a Jewish baby in Hungary in 1944 when the Nazis were rounding up the Jewish population to send to extermination camps. He says that his mother called the doctor and asked him to see what was wrong with her baby who simply would not stop crying. The doctor said to her, “I can come but perhaps you should know that all the Jewish babies are crying unendingly right now.”

What the doctor was telling her was that the babies were crying because they could feel their parents distress and anxiety. All children, even small ba­bies can sense what their parents are truly feeling and it is likely that the lit­tle baby that Dolorosa was then could feel her father’s disappointment and rejection.

For any baby this is not an auspi­cious start to life. And yet, of all her parents’ seven children she was the one to later display the deepest and most inspiring talent and to become the most famous of them. She was also the child whom her father ulti­mately came to respect the most and today it is a photograph of her father as an old man playing golf that graces her WhatsApp profile.

While Dolorosa was in primary school in Palembang she was sent to boarding school for 6 months and into the underlying poignancy of her childhood, life sent a redeeming figure, Sister Maria Dolorosa of the Santo Xaverius School. “Maybe it was just because she had the same name as I did. I don’t know why but she favoured me above all the oth­er children,” mused Dolorosa. “It was just little things like my slice of bread would have a thicker layer of peanut butter than that of the other children. This very sweet Dutch nun who was the Mother Superior of San­to Xaverius used to give me little spe­cial treats that no one else received. Sister Maria Dolorosa is the earliest memory I have. Somehow, she con­veyed to me the fact that – No, I was special!”

Hilmar Farid, the Director General of Culture and Dolorosa Sinaga at the opening of her exhibition in early 2020. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

The Director General of Culture, Hilmar Farid is a longtime friend of Dolorosa Sinaga. He used to partic­ipate in the moonlight discussions that later Dolorossa was to hold regularly in her house and gardens attended by young Indonesian art­ists, intellectuals and human rights activists. In a speech at the open­ing of an exhibition of Dolorosa’s sculptures in the Galeri Nasional last year he asked, “Where does social comment in the arts originate? Religious teachings no doubt play a fundamental role but there also needs to be a certain fascination with the human condi­tion. Already in the 1980s Dolorossa Sinaga’s works reflected her interest in how her fellow man lived. Per­haps this interest exists in artists in general but Dolorosa brought it to an­other level informed by other values, social thought, Christianity and her intense involvement with her subject and exceptional skill and mastery of the medium through which she ex­presses herself.”

Why Did You Kidnap My Child? By Dolorosa Sinaga. Photo credit: Somalaing Art Studio

Hilmar mentions a Dolorosa sculpture where social comment has turned into social conscience entitled Mengapa Kau Culik Anak Kami? He describes her figure of a woman clad in a sarong standing alone asking “Why did you kidnap our children?” It is extremely compelling. The woman’s child is missing but she stands tall and her head is thrown back in defi­ance as she asks her question. Hilmar notes, “It is a very powerful piece of art nevertheless it does not display the usual power symbols. There are no military boots and here the figure of the mother is not as victim but as survivor.”

Dolorosa’s first sculptor of social conscience is the one entitled Tragic Tendency. It is the figure of a woman with her hands tied to a rail unable to stand. She is completely without energy. “She reflects our humanity which was suppressed under the Soeharto regime,” commented Dolorosa of the sculpture which she created in 1994. This was followed by Solidarity which she produced in 1998. Solidarity was inspired by the grief and horror she felt after she heard about the Chinese women who were tortured and humiliated in the streets by people who she believes were clearly soldiers in civilian cloth­ing.

Sculpture entitled Tragic Tendency by Dolorosa Sinaga. Photo credit: Dolorosa Sinaga

In 1998 when a group of these women went to President Habibie to tell him their story he was very support­ive of them and that year he issued a presidential decree which created the KOMNAS Perempuan or Women’s Human Rights Commission. Inspired by this Dolorosa forged Solidarity. “I wanted to represent all those women who were oppressed but who stood up together like a wall so that they could no longer be threatened or torn down.”

Have you read from the Book of Love, General? By Dolorosa Sinaga. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO
Have you read from the Book of Love, General? Close-up. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

Dolorosa says that her parents both had Dutch educations and then worked for the Japanese as translators. Her father could speak Dutch, Indonesian, Batak and Japa­nese. He was a road contrac­tor who supervised the building of the road from Tarutung to Sibolga. Her mother whose father had been an assistant resident in Balige was a teacher at a girls’ school in Samosir. As a consequence, both parents were extremely disciplined people. “My fa­ther was a very hard worker and an elder of the church. We began each day with prayers and by reading a verse from the Song of Solomon in the Bible. We read it for the wisdom, encouragement, endurance and loyalty that it taught us. My father wanted me to become a priest but I was too naughty for that.”

Dolorosa’s studio is called Soma­laing. It is named after Guru Soma­laing Pardede the founder of the Par­malim Batak traditional religion. He was a Batak religious leader, warrior and chieftain who helped the most famous Batak Priest-king Raja Si Singa Manganraja fight against the colonial government and the Protestant church. Si Singa Manganraja was defeated in 1883. In 1890 the Italian botanist Elio Modigliani made a trip to the Batak lands and during this journey he was accompanied by Guru So­malaing. It was through him that he came into contact with Western intellectual thought. He later acknowledged the su­perior power of the Dutch and the Christian church. Estab­lishing a new religion was the outcome of his quest for the best way to share in this new pow­er. “I chose his name because I admire his pioneering spirit. I believe he was the first Batak to get access to Western intellectual thought. I am trying to create a synthesis between my Toba Batak heritage and the Western modern contemporary art that I found at St Martin’s. Also Somaialing’s spirit of pioneering, exploration and innovation in­spire me. That is how I wanted my studio and the discussions at my studio to be,” Dolorosa remarked.

Guru Somalaing Pardede Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain

Dolorosa identifies with Somalaing’s pioneering spirit. “In 1977 I was the first student to graduate from the Institut Kese­nian Jakarta or Jakarta Institute of Art, also known as IKJ. I later also became the first alumni to become dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at IKJ.”

And still there is something more: Dolorosa’s father wanted to go to Holland. His grandfather’s boss who was a Dutchman wanted to take him back to Holland as an adopted son but her grandfather refused, “This child is mine. You should not take it from me.”

It was Dolorosa who managed to fulfil that dream to travel further out into the world when after graduating from IKJ she attended the postgradu­ate program at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. “I believe it changed my whole life because what I went to turned out to be quite a radical school from the way they set up their ed­ucation program. At all the other art schools, students are taught sculp­ture through the medium of clay but at St Martin’s this was not the case at all. They taught us via a two and a half years’ project, using models or human figures so that we came to thoroughly understand the human body. We worked with paper (corru­gated paper, cardboard etc) using scissors and Stanley knives.

St Martin’s also had other radical ideas. They had real skeletons and bones everywhere and the lecturer who was an orthopaedic surgeon ev­ery week taught them about the mus­cles, the skeleton and the bones of the human body. We would analyse a model’s pose, gesture and movements. We watched ballet to observe movement and the body. The reason I mastered the human figure is because I studied the human body so well at St Martin’s.”

During her time at St Martin’s Dolorosa was also able to travel around Europe especially to Italy where she admired the sculptures very much. In terms of physical expression, she prized Alberto Giacometti whose art was very much influenced by Cubism and Surrealism. It is interesting to note that philosophical questions about the human condition played a significant role in the work of Giacometti who was one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century.

Dolorosa Sinaga at work on a sculpture. Photo credit: Somalaing Art Studio

At art school they studied Rodin and he has remained her point of reference but Dolorosa also highly respected the work of Käthe Kollwitz whose famous art works The Weavers and The Peasant War show the effects of hunger and war on the working classes. Dolorosa was also fascinat­ed by the witty and thought provoking images of the Belgian Sur­realist artist, René François Ghislain Magritte. His work which challenge preconditioned perceptions of reality has influenced pop art, minimalist art and conceptual art.

 “I once looked at a painting of his of a smoker’s pipe. Underneath was written ‘C’est pas or This is not a pipe.’ So people looking at the painting were experiencing two things: They saw an object shaped like a pipe but there was a gentle teasing going on because they were not looking at a pipe but at a work of art.’ I found that fascinating,” reminisced Dolorosa. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Pulunggona by Dolorosa Sinaga. Photo credit: Tamalia/IO

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part II of the article: https://observerid.com/dolorosa-sinaga-indonesian-sculptor-with-a-social-conscience-part-ii-from-social-comment-to-social-conscience/