Dolorosa Sinaga Indonesian sculptor with a social conscience. Part II: From social comment to social conscience

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IO – Marian Pastor a Filipina, curator and political analyst who examines political writings on art and culture spoke at the launch of Dolorosa Sina­ga’s exhibition at the beginning of this year about art and activism across the Southeast Asian Archipelago. She spoke of the poetics of the body of political rights discourses to be seen in Dolorosa Sinaga’s work. Pas­tor appreciates the clarity Dolorosa’s work offers and how her sculptures do not look away from political com­plexities. “Her work obliges reflection on authority, fundamentalism and other political factors and the political response of kindness in Indonesia’s turbulent history. She produces art more in the interaction of people as opposed to the heroic loner.”

When and how did Dolorasa’s sculptors transform themselves and acquire as Director General of Cul­ture, Hilmar Farid puts it “a deeper level than just social comment”? How did social comment turn into social conscience?

It is a long story which necessi­tates looking at Dolorosa’s life and struggles.

When she wanted to go to art school her father was dead set against it. “I used to talk back at my father. No one else dared to so I was his sparring partner. As a result, he respected me but he could get very angry with me. Once he refused to speak to me for a whole year. He did not want me to be­come an artist but I showed him that I would not move from what I wanted. He wanted me to become a priest and was constantly talking about religion. I did not care for religion then and felt confused because of all the discrimi­nation in it. Only certain people would get to go to heaven. Only certain peo­ple were blessed. Luckily my mother was very supportive and behind my father’s back she would slip me mon­ey to buy paper and paints and uni­versity fees although that only lasted two years before my father began to pay them.

When I was in my second year at IKJ I took part in a national competi­tion for fine arts and won first prize. This is when my father first began to realize that he would not be able to get me to become a priest and after I returned from England my father was far more open towards me. It was then that he began to believe in me. He had already succeeded in his own line of work in Jakarta as the founder of the Bumi Asih group and was much calmer. He even supported me by giving me a large two-hectare piece of land where my studio is now, So­malaing Art Studio. That meant a lot to me and our relationship changed and I developed a special connection with him.”

At IKJ Dolorosa studied all the expressive arts i.e. painting, sculp­ture, cinematography and etchings. “It was my lecturer, Rusman Efendi who first challenged me to try sculp­ture and once I had done that I no longer wanted to paint or to etch at all. I enjoyed doing something phys­ical with my hands which was not two dimensional. It’s very physically expressive and you engage yourself and really work. I liked that.”

IKJ was also to have a big influ­ence on her as it was here that she began to be aware of human rights activities as she witnessed the pro­tests and demonstrations beginning with the MALARI demonstrations in the 1970s. “I saw students near my house near Universitas 17 Augustus taken away by mil­itary trucks. It remained in my mind because they were thrown into those trucks. I saw this from my house and it was a very scary visual ex­perience. It made me start to think, “What is happening here?”

In 1997 after her time in England Dolorosa returned to Indonesia and besides teaching at IKJ (where through her love of music she met her husband Arjuna Hutag­alung who taught music there) I created a discussion group on my land where my studio was together with Hilmar Farid whose thesis was about Pramoedya Anantatur. The group was called the Diskusi Bulan Pur­nama or the Full Moon Discus­sion Group and it was in part to come to know human rights defenders as well as artists. Discussions could be about human rights, politics, art, culture or women’s rights. Members from many differ­ent human rights groups participated such as LBH or Lemba­ga Bantuan Hukum (the Legal Aid In­stitute), Forum 65, Oncor and many more including later the International People’s Tribunal 1965. There Dolorosa came to known many of Indonesia’s civil rights activists.

One of the first to bring her into the field of human rights and intro­duce Dolorosa to other activists was Semsar Si­ahaan, a Batak painter now living in Bandung whose art records the moral decay of Indonesian society. Sam as he is affectionately known is also an environmentalist and he frequently holds protests. Another was Arjuna who helped create the Oncor group which is a community active in the­atre, dance and discussions. The experience with her activist friends brought her to so many important things that she feels we have to care about.

Once there was a dialogue at her studio between Goenawan Muhamad and Sitor Situmorang about issues such as Manikebu and Lekra and later through Sam and Arjuna she came to meet Pramoedya Anantat­ur. “He was very angry against the government,” she commented, “and said that he would never forget how the government had imprisoned him and tortured him until he lost his hearing. He always said that as a vic­tim of 1965 he did not hate but he could never forgive. I think he was telling us something important: it’s not about hate but about a violation that had occurred which needs to be addressed. So, in a way he taught us about what happened at that time.”

In 2017 Dolorosa addressed the 1965 human rights abuse in her two dimensional work entitled Fifty Years of Silence International Peo­ple’s Tribunal. It was banned from an exhibition at the Komnas Perem­puan the morning after the opening of the exhibition as the government did not want her to socialize the tri­bunal which had been created by Indonesian lawyer Nursyahbani Kat­jasungkana and Prof. Dr. Saskia E. Wieringa to judge the 1965 massacre of Communists. Under the final re­port of the tribunal, they issued a final condemnation of the events of 1965. The International People’s Tribunal was not a criminal court and did not have the mandate to car­ry out any sanctions, punishments or compensation for the victims Dolorosa reveals, “I am trying to make sculptures that engage with the things that I try to express. My the­sis is how I see life. It can be through women, through men, through an event that is a human experi­ence. I don’t choose. I notice that I become very involved with where ever my empathy lies and I try to express this through my sculptures.”

She frequently uses figures of women in her sculptures either alone carrying their burdens or united in struggling for freedom, always reflect­ing an undying power in their vulner­ability. One moving example of this is her sculpture entitled “We Will Fight”. It is a sculpture that displays the in­fluence of Kathe Kollwitz naturalism and Munch’s psychological terror. The figure which consists of several women together in disarray reflecting terror is about mass evictions. The figure of women is more appropriate here as men may leave the house as they please but women are all too fre­quently tied to the house because of their children.

So, how did social comment turn into social conscience?

As with most people in Dolorosa’s case the experiences of her life led her there and in that we must per­haps take into consideration not only the experiences of her university life, her discussion group and meeting with activists and the events of Indo­nesian history – but perhaps also the endless crying of a little girl who was rejected and understood pain and sadness and the figure of Sister Ma­ria Dolorosa who said, “No, you are special” to that little girl which per­haps later brought home the lesson of the political response of kindness – as Marion Pastor put it.

Dolorosa’s sculptures have been on display in such places as the IMF Gallery in Washington, the Jakarta Women’s Human Rights Commission building, the Bank of Indonesia, the Soll Art Gallery in Chianti, Italy. Her Semangat Angkatan 66 or the Spir­it of the Generation of 66 stands in Jalan Rasuna Said. She has held 7 solo exhibitions of her sculptures since 2001.

When speaking about what is im­portant Dolorosa explained, “During my student days I did not have this thought about what is important in life. At that time, I just wanted to use every minute of my life as an important ex­perience. I just knew that I would go mad if I did not sculpt. I have slowly come to realize that for me what is most important in life is to do some­thing meaningful and make one’s life meaningful… and that is what I have tried to do through my art… through my sculptures… through my life” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)