In Yogyakarta, Street Artists Create Reminder Writ Large

Yogyakarta. Since the beginning of last year the country has been bombarded with campaign paraphernalia. Billboards, posters, banners and flags cover public spaces in an advertising competition to get the attentions of voters.
But in Yogyakarta, amid these eyesores of po-faced candidates sporting the party colors, an interesting visual bustle has emerged.
A number of Yogyakarta street artists is using the campaign period to get people to pause and reflect on their options in the upcoming election. They call themselves Barisan Pengingat , or the Reminder Troops — an initiative to raise awareness of human rights issues in Indonesia.
In its founding declaration, Barisan Pengingat points out that there are at least 75 cases of gross human rights violations that occurred between 1965 and 1998 — including extrajudicial killings and the forced disappearances of student protesters in 1998 — that remain unresolved. Even after the resignation of the strongman Suharto, riots abuses have continued to occur with impunity.
Barisan Pengingat is campaigning to make the resolution of these cases a political priority and fight injustice in the country. It argues that the three elections held since the fall of Suharto in 1998 have not brought much change to the status of these cases, with the list only growing longer with the addition of religious violence and the expropriation of people’s agricultural lands.
Barisan Pengingat believes this is an important issue everyone needs to pay attention to. So in Yogyakarta, it came up with a project called “ TTS: Indonesia Siapa Punya? ” (“Crossword: Indonesia Belongs to Who?”), an idea by veteran artist Ong Hari Wahyu.
“Can the election solve the human rights problems in Indonesia?” said Bayu Widodo, a visual artist and coordinator for the street art for the project. “This we believe is a mystery. Who is going to win? What is their commitment to solving human rights issues?”
The crossword theme was manifested in five works of street art made between March 11 and 14. Each work has its own sociopolitical theme: workers, peasants, pluralism, human rights and the press.
In line with the crossword concept, the works ask questions that encourage people to fill in the blanks. Some of the riddles: the month in which World Human Rights Day is celebrated; the famous author from Blora who was a political prisoner under Suharto’s New Order regime; the human rights activist from Malang who was poisoned.
As a “stimulation,” some answers are already provided in the crossword grid. Other spaces are left blank, in the hope that people will fill in the answer.
“This is actually a simple political education, so that people can see the social problems in Indonesia, and consider their options for the election,” said Bayu, who is better known as the manager of the Survive Garage art gallery and shop.
Every work brings up a figure represent the spirit of each of the five themes. Laborer activist Marsinah is featured in the work displayed on Jalan Parangtritis; the peasant Samin Surosentiko, who fought the Dutch colonial government, is the subject of the work in the Progo area; the face of murdered journalist Udin at the Munggur intersection is meant to remind people of the importance of press freedom; and a portrait of the father of Indonesian pluralism, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, can be seen at the Pingit intersection.
Creating the art required techniques such as posters, pasting, stenciling and mural painting. The artists involved in the project are Bayu, Anti-Tank, Kukomikan, Guerillas and Digie Sigit.
The different techniques used in the making of the works themselves are an attraction. For instance, for the laborer crossword, they made use of a 3.5-meter by 25-meter wall. The crossword was made by Anti-Tank and Guerillas using a poster technique.
Above the big poster there is a little girl appearing to be filling in the squares using spray paint. She was made with a stencil technique by Digie Sigit. To strengthen the message, an illustrative mural depicting the oppression of laborers was added by Bayu and Kukomikan.
The street artists explained that they admired those figures displayed in the works of Barisan Pengingat.
“Marsinah was found dead in a wretched state,” Sigit said. “This I think is related to her activism; at the time she and her friends were demanding the fulfillment of their welfare rights as laborers. Although Marsinah has gone [in 1993], her spirit remains with us. This is our solidarity for Indonesian workers.”
Anti-Tank shared a similar kind of admiration for the struggle of the activist poet Wiji Thukul, who was a vocal critic of Suharto and was among those who disappeared during the student-led protests of 1998.
“Wiji tells social issues through his poems using simple language. I think Thukul’s spirit is the same with street arts. Our task is not just to create random drawings or decorate public spaces. It is the function of street arts to explain social issues through works, which we hope the public can understand,” Anti-Tank said.
A couple of days after the works had been put in the public spaces, reactions began to come in.
Some of the squares in the crosswords were getting filled in. The one concerning Wiji was almost completed.
Barisan Pengingat had succeeded in engaging the public to interact further. That concept inviting interaction made the works more than mere decorations or visual treats for passersby.
But it did not last long. Recently graffiti began appearing over some of the works, including expletives denouncing politics — which was precisely the kind of apathetic attitude that the Barisan Pengingat artists were trying to overturn with their interactive political education.
Some of the graffiti carried the tags “Dyeget” and “Two” — which are commonly seen throughout Yogyakarta and are the calling cards of local gangs marking their territory.
The street art activists involved in Barisan Pengingat have not yet responded to the vandalism, but say they hope there is nothing more sinister than criminal mischief behind the graffiti.
“Hopefully, this attack and destruction was addressed to the individual creators of the work, and not to Wiji Thukul, Marsinah, or to the ideas and notions of this mural,” Anti-Tank said. “If this attack is aimed at figures like Wiji and Thukul, then the political stance of the people that did this should be questioned.”