What can artists offer in facing the parliamental and the presidential elections in Indonesia? Of course, there is always something to do. For example, the artists can participate in promoting a fair general election. They can also educate the people about the freedom of choice, promoting this idea via their works.

“Pursuing a political position should not be defined as seeking an opportunity for committing corruption.” This expression is printed on a poster clearly, around 41 cm x 61 cm in terms of size. There, we find a man wearing a tidy suit and tie and sitting on a chair with a charming smile.

The man is pictured with many hands. Each hand holds a bag, which features many pictures: the mark of “$”, Indonesian money Rupiah, factories, houses, and some lampooning expression of “money for education” and “foods for the needy”.

Let us look at another poster. There, a man wears very tidy suit with tie—but standing on the scattered human skulls. He smiles innocently. From these human skulls, some expressions of protest come out. Most of the expression protest human rights abuses in Indonesia: the murder of Munir (an Indonesian human right activist), the May in 1998 tragedy, the Tanjung Priok tragedy, the kidnap of some Indonesian democratic activists, the murder of Marsinah (a woman Indonesian labor), and so on. Interestingly, a flag is present with the following protest: “Don’t forget the old sins.”

The two abovementioned posters are among 22 posters, which were produced by a group of artists who name themselves as “Taring Padi” (Fangs of the Rice Plant) founded in Yogyakarta. These graphical works, according to an information I got, were printed as many as thirties times, all of which were distributed in many important cities in Java, such as Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Blora, Pati, and Surabaya. Despite of this limited copies, the public can enjoy them, as they were posted in the crossroads, bus stops, walls, and many public corridors.

“Those posters were distributed during the legislative election campaigns from the mid March to early April. Twenty two artists participated in the design, according to Moch Yusup alias Ucup, a prominent member of Taring Padi group of Yogyakarta.

Interestingly, some artists in Jakarta, who called themselves as “Atap Alis” (lit. The eyebrows of roofs), responded to these Yogyakartanese posters. The Atap Alis has many members including some artists from Profagrafik group, some students of the State University of Jakarta (UNJ), and some artists from Sanggar Pondok Ranggon group. These artists produced as many as twenties posters, made from woodcut, and pictured with silkscreen techniques. Each of the twenty posters was copied as many as 50 times.

Poster Atap Alis also expressed some critical insights to the national election in Indonesia. For example, one of the posters reads “the former presidential candidate, who failed in the bid, should go to garbage bin.” In addition to that, we see a hand which plays chess with bad looking pawns.

Another poster features the pictures of politicians with charming smiles. These politicians are pictured with the same faces, conveying the following message: “A series of promise. I will get the position, and I will forget my promise. ”

Both the “Taring Padi” and the “Atap Alis” voice criticism to the 2009 legislative and presidential elections. The posters they produced remind the people that politics is not building a dynasty. But politics is an attempt to solve many existing problems in the country, with the enforcement of law. Additionally, what we need now is to bring Indonesian corruptors to the court. Some posters also voice the people’s needs, such as cheap basic education for people, health services, cheap and convenient public transportation, and the issues of unemployment.

These graphic works contain quite communicative contents, for they feature pictures and simple texts. Although with only black and white colors, they are still atractive for the public audience. By contrast, the posters produced by the legislative candidates and hanged on the streets bear very colorful pictures and complicated texts. They are confusing. Their messages are hard to be understood.

What are the goals behind making these posters?
“In many campaigns, the politicians only delivered promises and treat the Indonesian people as mere objects. We want the people to be more aware of political game. Let them understand more, what the election is about. Choose and decide carefully. Please remind these political leaders about their promises, when they are chosen as their representatives in the parlements, ” said Ucup, whom I met in the Taring Padi studio in Sembungan, Bangunjiwo, Kasihan, Bantul, a district in Yogyakarta.

The Taring Padi group was founded by a number of artists from the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) of Yogyakarta in 1998. This group has a long record in advocating people’s interests. In the 1999 general election, they produced 12 posters which were copied as many as thousands times. These posters voice conflict preventions and ask the people to appreciate the value of humanity and brotherhood.

The Alis Langit group also hopes that their works can encourage the people to understand more the meaning and consequences of the general election for the sake of the nation’s future. “Political campaigns were just like selling drugs. The people were so confused. We need to remind the society about their rights in the election, including the right to remind the promises the politicians have made, ” said Baja Panggabean, a member of the Atap Alis group.

Looking at History
Suwarno Wisetrotomo, an art observer from Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Yogyakarta, assessed the posters made by the Taring Padi and the Atap Alis positively. Their works restore the functions of art as a medium for the enlightenment of people. Their works also demonstrated that artists can take part in the process of political education by giving guidance, right information, and critical insights to the general election. The messages contained in their works can easily be digested by people. Their messages are clear and aimed directly to the public.

“These artists restore the function of art, that is, to serve Indonesian people. It is indeed an alternative path of art in that, instead of fulfilling the market demands and commercial purposes, these artists have educated the people, ” said Wisetrotomo.

These artists seem to have taken the right path in their works. They have aimed their works for the purpose of building the socio-political awareness. Historically speaking, propaganda in the posters was part of the struggle of Indonesians for their independence in 1945. The story goes that some artists also used posters to promote the awareness of nationalism and patriotism in the young Republic of Indonesia.

By the year 1946, for example, Mochtar Apin and Baharudin MS printed a graphic works made from wood which contains the following words: “memorizing one year of the Independence of Indonesia.” These works were sent to many neighboring countries. In 1947, Affandi made lithographic posters featuring a man who breaks a chain. This man cried: “Move forward brother! (boeng ayo boeng)”. Similarly, Suromo also produced a number of woods with photographs portraying the daily life Indonesians during the struggle for independence.

By Ilham Khoiri

 (originally published in Kompas Daily Newspaper on Sunday, April 12, 2009)