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Publication Date : 11-03-2013
Splashed across concrete walls, Indonesian street art reveals untold stories of political consciousness
Against the rosy picture that the Indonesian government and optimists have painted about the country, the walls on its streets tell a different story - one of a struggle for freedom of speech, ongoing campaigns against corruption and the encouragement of religious tolerance.
Imagery has always held ubiquitous power and influence. From Picasso’s Guernica and the propaganda mills of the World War II to the Parisian posters of May 1968, a mere image can mobilise a movement and spread a sentiment.
In Indonesia, these images are found on urban walls and public spaces rather than typecast posters of paintings. Their power, however, has been just as widespread and long lasting.
This influence will be digitally archived by the Indonesian Street Art Database (ISAD); a project determined to see the historical messages of street art remain in public consciousness.
The Director of ISAD, Andi Rharharha is a renowned street artist famous for his political stance again corruption and his tagline “SAVE KPK”. In 2011 he launched the ISAD with a collection of like-minded artists and the support of the street art community.
“Indonesian street art can be traced back to 1945 when it served as propaganda for Indonesian independence. We are still finding new evidence of how important street art was throughout this period,” said Rharharha.
Rhararha and ISAD are convinced that visual histories of their streets will help Indonesians understand the development of their political thought and cultural consciousness.
ISAD has now recorded over 2,000 pieces of street art across the entire archipelago from the northern tip of Aceh to Balikpapan and Bali.
With the independence era long over, street art has remained a vital component of youth culture and urban landscapes. It continues to serve as a vehicle for political communication beyond the traditional media or government control.
For Rharharha, “the unique aspect about street art in Indonesia has always been its influence”.
Traveling around Jakarta today, a trained eye will notice messages protesting official corruption, poverty, inequality, and most recently, religious intolerance and sectarianism.
Yet in a city renowned for public protests and large rallies, street art plays a supplementary role by encouraging political and social consciousness.
“The public is certainly aware of the existence of street art, especially those that have a social message or protest against the government,” said Adi Dharma, a street artist and former hip-hop producer known as Stereoflow.
The most vivid example of this influence was the Berbeda dan Merdeka 100% (Different and Free 100%) movement that began in West Java on February 13, 2011. In protest of a series of religious killings, the movement spread to over 20 Indonesian cities in just one day.
The message of interfaith tolerance and human rights was carried from one side of Indonesia to the other by graffiti, stickers, and stencils.
“Berbeda dan Merdeka 100% showed just how influential street art can be in Indonesian culture,” said Rharharha.
But Indonesian street art is more diverse than the protest works of the independence era. Although protest still remains a key feature of Indonesian street art as is the case worldwide.
“Indonesian street art first spoke for our independence as a nation. The movement has now grown to incorporate the fun side of popular culture and express the character of a growing city”, said Riksa Afiaty, the program director at ISAD and street artist.
Indonesian street art places high value on the public spaces of a city as venues that define a city and convey the stories of the people that inhabit it.
“Street art is part of our history as one nation, Indonesia. But it is also a vital part of urban culture and tells a story about city life and the people. The message always relates to the political and social issues of the time,” said Rharharha.
In urban Jakarta, the ability of public spaces to tell the stories of their people is increasingly under threat. Many street artists like Rhararha and Riksa see themselves as on the front line to reclaim their cities’ landscapes.
As Jakarta grows into a commercial metropolis with domestic consumerism continuing to drive GDP upwards, roadside billboards have come to splash the city with the colours of corporate advertising and consumerism. It is a new visual narrative that signifies the rapid development of the city.
For the street artist community, the encroachment of these billboards and advertising are threatening the character and soul of Jakarta, and reflect the encroachment of corruption and the influence of commercialism upon culture.
“Many of the billboards have become a form of visual pollution in this city. Public space should not be sold to the owners of capital. Street art is about reclaiming these spaces,” said Rharharha.
The vast majority of these roadside billboards are illegal in Jakarta as they violate regulations or are not granted an official permit from the administration. Historically, the city has rarely enforced this rule yet in recent years more stringent efforts have been made.
In an advertising ploy, corporations have adopted street art techniques for branding purposes and to penetrate a market of culture-conscious youth and a growing middle class.
“Advertisers simply took on street art techniques for aesthetic appeal, they do not reflect the passion for street art that we ourselves know,” said Riksa.
This passion is a defining feature of ISAD’s goal to develop street art through popular culture, by holding public screenings, regular presentations and light conversations in places that engage youth and creativity.
ISAD is scheduled to come online (isad.or.id) in the coming months thanks to the hard work of those involved. There is certainly a great deal of support for the initiative from the tight-knit street artist community.
“There might be differences of street art definitions and practices but when it comes to doing our thing on the street – it’s just a whole lot of love and respect,” said Adi Dharma.
The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post.