A Proliferation of Pigs: Specters of Monstrosity in Reformation Indonesia
On December 11 – 13, 1999, a remarkable millennial event — an exorcism of sorts — was held in the old court city of Yogyakarta in south-central Java. This three-day event featured an exhibition of modern paintings, the launching of a postmodern novel, and a traditional wayang shadow play performance. Named Leng Ji, Leng Beh (If One’s a Pig, We’re All Pigs), the event was animated by the monstrous figure of the celeng, the wild boar. Its host, the prominent contemporary painter Djokopekik, staged this event to ward off the disaster that loomed with the approach of the millennium.1 At the heart of this event was an exhibition of three of Pekik’s paintings, each of which is centered on a haunting representation of a wild boar.
Painted over a three-year period, from late 1996 to late 1999, that spanned the final years of President Soeharto’s so-called New Order regime, its ignominious collapse, and the exuberant period of Reformasi (Reformation) Indonesia that followed, the three canvases present the artist’s self-conscious meditations on power and corruption, spirit possession, and the revolutionary potential of the people (the rakyat). The first painting, The Boar King’s Breasts (Susu raja celeng), was completed in 1996 not long after the Soeharto regime’s brutal July 27 massacre of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party supporters in Jakarta. The second, bilingually titled Indonesia 1998, Berburu Celeng/Indonesia 1998: Hunting a Boar, was painted in the summer of 1998 shortly after Soeharto’s May fall or, as he would have it, “abdication of the throne to reign as sage” (lèngsèr keprabon madeg pandhita).2 The final canvas, the grotesque Without Flowers and Letters of Condolence: The Year 2000 (Tanpa bunga dan telegram duka: Tahun 2000), was painted in late 1999 for the anticipated millennium.
Bringing these three paintings together as the focus of this talismanic event, Pekik offered a visual retrospective of recent Indonesian history and a visual anticipation of its potential futures. For Pekik, the relationship between the documentation of the past in visual art and the animation of historical memory in the present is an organic one. Explicitly calling attention to that relationship, he commented in 2002: “If history is not recorded, not painted, then that history will never rise to the surface.”3 The three wild boar paintings bring the repressed underside of history to the surface by implicitly recalling the thirty-two years of fear and oppression under Soeharto’s New Order and by explicitly documenting its end. Soeharto rose to power through cunning that resulted in the annihilation of the Indonesian Communist Party and its sympathizers by massacre and mass arrest in 1965 and 1966. He ruled for three decades through intimidation and through a curious “reign of culture” haunted by the ghosts of the Left,4 and he oversaw Indonesia’s ostensible development with the economic and military support of the so-called Free World. The 1997 Asian financial crisis shook the foundations of the New Order’s apparent prosperity and, with it, its apparent order. The Free World pulled out its props, and the Indonesian people, in their sudden dire economic distress, remembered their oppression. Following several months of mass demonstrations led by an Indonesian student movement and several days of mob violence, no doubt incited by elements of the Indonesian army, Soeharto was forced to resign on May 21, 1998. Out of the ashes there appeared a moment of popular exhilaration and hope: the time of Reformasi. In June 1999 Indonesia held its first free elections in forty-four years. But along with this rebirth of popular democracy, an extraordinary resurgence of violence cast its shadow across Indonesia. Warfare sharply escalated in Aceh; serious communal violence broke out in Ambon; East Timor was laid to waste both before and after voting for its independence in August 1999; hundreds of so-called witches were slaughtered across Java; churches were torched; and petty thieves were routinely burned alive. Soeharto had fallen, but he had not disappeared — nor had the forces his regime had set in motion.
In December 1999, then, Djokopekik brought together three paintings that commemorated this history, and he did so with the hope of moving beyond it. Bringing the violent underside of history to the surface in art could provide a means to exorcise its destructive potentials. But that creative act could generate other effects as well: this recording of the past in painting could instead release its negative effects into the present and thereby quicken the potential monstrosity characterized by the pig that lies within us all. Art for Djokopekik forms an invitation: “When a work of art is successful, it is as sharp as the surgeon’s scalpel. It can be an extraordinarily powerful invitation — an invitation that can dispel vengeance, but one that can also intensify it.”5 These three paintings form such an invitation, powerful and ambiguous.
To intensify the effect of the invitation, Pekik held a book launch and wayang shadow puppet performance in conjunction with the exhibition of the three paintings. He hired Java’s then most popular dhalang (puppeteer), the so-called demondhalang Manteb, to perform the wayang, commissioning him to create a play (“A Play of Which Pig, Mr. Manteb? THE BOAR!”). Its performance would come to form an exorcism of sorts, of which I say more below.6 The launched book was a remarkable multilingual and multimedia hallucinatory novel, titled (half in Javanese, half in Indonesian) I Await Your Applause: Without Flowers and Letters of Condolence (Tak enteni keplokmu: Tanpa bunga dan telegram duka), by the well-known author Sindhunata (1952 – ).7 An accomplished poet, novelist, and cultural critic who publishes in both Javanese and Indonesian, Sindhunata is a Javanese Jesuit priest of Chinese descent with a German doctorate in philosophy from the Munich School of Philosophy of the Society of Jesus.8 He is also a close friend and confidante of Djokopekik. His novel, composed of fragments of visual images, Indonesian and Javanese poetry, biographical sketches, historical memories, and speculative flights through the supernatural worlds of Javanese “tradition,” forms a surreal literary exploration of Djokopekik’s life and his paintings in the contexts of late New Order and Reformasi Indonesia.
When I spoke to Djokopekik in 2002 about the generative relationship between his art and Sindhunata’s novel, he explained how the book came about:
Perhaps 75 percent of it came from the way Father Sindhu himself saw the paintings, translated the paintings. Yeah, 75 percent is Father Sindhu; 25 percent came from his joking around with me. Shooting the breeze, joking. . . . So he looked at the paintings on his own, and then he illuminated them with his own thoughts, his own interpretations. Added to that were all those times we got together. . . . I didn’t ask him to write this book — I didn’t tell him how to write it, what to say, not at all. “Go ahead, translate my paintings yourself.” So I didn’t talk to him about the paintings one by one. No. It was the work of Father Sindhu to enter into and translate my works of art.9
The writing of the novel was, then, animated by Djokopekik’s paintings and informed by a series of informal conversations between two friends, artist and writer. It was inflected by moral, political, philosophical, and theological meditations engendered, in part, by the writer’s vision of the artist’s paintings and of his life. Entering into the paintings, Sindhunata in his novel traces a nonlinear path through Djokopekik’s remembered pasts and fantasized presents, through the political turns and social upheavals surrounding the fall of Soeharto, and through a journey of self-discovery that moves from hatred and vengeance to pity and compassion and finally, almost, to the anticipation of a problematic untamed redemptive transcendence. My analysis follows Sindhunata’s path to trace out its own trajectory: it weaves my selective reading of his novel with my reflections on the wild boar paintings and conversations with the artist. It is, needless to say, also colored by my observations on recent Indonesian history.
The Artist and His History
Djokopekik (1939 – ) was born the youngest of twelve children in a small village in the Purwodadi residency of central Java.10 His parents were illiterate farmers, and Pekik was the first in his family to finish high school. When he was twenty years old, he moved to Yogyakarta, where he entered the Akademi Seni Republik Indonesia (ASRI), the country’s premier art institute of the day. By the time he left ASRI four years later, in 1963, he was already recognized as a young artist of great promise. Around that time Pekik — with a number of other ASRI students, former students, and faculty members — became active in the Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (Institute for People’s Culture; LEKRA), a left-wing cultural organization loosely associated with the Indonesian Communist Party. Both art and artists were highly politicized during this period: each political party sponsored its own studios and groups of artists. The bitter contention among rival artists and studios at that time was, in Djokopekik’s words, “unhealthy.”11 Pekik was one of the leading figures in Yogya’s influential Bumi Tarung (Fighting Earth) studio, a LEKRA-sponsored studio dedicated to the production of artistic works both of high aesthetic value and in service to workers and peasants.12 Countering the celebration of art for art’s sake put forward by the universal humanists, the Bumi Tarung studio followed LEKRA’s revolutionary dictum, “Politics is the commander.” It was a time, Pekik recalls, that his art fought the “seven devils of the village” (seven types of village-level exploiters), and things got dirty. From the perspective of the present, Djokopekik at times muses that he himself has now become one of those devils.13
Following the failed September 1965 putsch that preceded Soeharto’s rise to power, Djokopekik was arrested along with countless other left-wing activists, artists, students, teachers, workers, peasants, and others. Some five hundred thousand to 1 million of these men and women were summarily executed; hundreds of thousands more spent years in prison without trial. Djokopekik was among those imprisoned.14
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I am deeply grateful to Djokopekik for his willingness to engage me in conversations critical to the writing of this essay, and to his son, Nihil Pakuril, for providing many of the images reproduced here. I am also grateful to Dwi Marianto for introducing me to the artist and for participating in some of these conversations. I also owe thanks to Webb Keane, Danilyn Rutherford, Patsy Spyer, and Karen Strassler for their comments on earlier versions of this article. I am especially grateful to Marilyn Ivy for her many helpful suggestions.
- Like most Indonesians, Djokopekik, also known as Pekik, has no surname. He signs his name doubly: Pekik/Djokopekik. He is also referenced as Djoko Pekik.
- The Javanese saying and practice of “lèngsèr keprabon madeg pandhita” hails from the traditional shadow puppet theater and from traditional histories of legendary Javanese kingdoms. The old king retires in favor of his son and then retreats to a mountaintop, from which he delivers sage advice and esoteric knowledge. The “sage” Soeharto, who died on January 27, 2008, was never tried for the wrongdoings perpetrated during his thirty-two years of power. He was indicted in 2000 on criminal corruption charges, but his trial was postponed on several occasions because he was deemed “medically unfit.” In May 2006 the Indonesian attorney general finally dropped these charges, owing to Soeharto’s declining health. He was never formally charged for any other criminal offenses, including the many serious human rights violations attributed to him. In July 2007 state prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit against Soeharto in hopes of recovering up to $441 million that he had stolen from the government through his “charitable” foundations. They also sought $1.1 billion in damages (New York Times, July 7, 2007). In August 2007 the Indonesian Supreme Court, reversing decisions handed down by two lower courts, ruled in favor of Soeharto’s defamation lawsuit against Time magazine over a May 1999 article alleging that he had hidden staggering amounts of money in foreign bank accounts. Time was ordered to pay Soeharto $108 million for “immaterial damages.” This judgment is still under review (U.S. State Department briefing, March 13, 2008).
- Djokopekik made this observation during a visit to his studio by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a novelist renowned for his historical fiction, who endured fourteen years as a political prisoner under the Soeharto regime (Kompas, December 20, 2002).
- For a marvelous exploration of this process, see John Pemberton, On the Subject of “Java” (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994).
- Djokopekik, interview by the author, Bantul, Yogyakarta, July 15, 2002. All cited interviews were conducted in Indonesian; all translations of them, and all other translations from the Indonesian and Javanese, are mine.
- The actual play (lakon) was Pandu Swarga, a work that, according to Sindhunata, demonstrates that even Pandu, the father of the beloved five Pandhawa heroes of the Javanese wayang tradition, was a pig when he was provoked to kill his student, the demon Tremboko (Sindhunata, interview by the author, Yogyakarta, July 16, 2002).
- Sindhunata, I Await Your Applause: Without Flowers and Letters of Condolence (Tak enteni keplokmu: Tanpa bunga dan telegram duka) (Jakarta: Gramedia, 2000); henceforth cited as I Await.
- Sindhunata’s other works include several novels, in Indonesian and Javanese, and volumes of collected essays of political and cultural criticism. Sindhunata is also editor of Basis, a literary and cultural journal.
- Djokopekik, interview, July 15, 2002.
- Most of the biographical material is from my interviews with Djokopekik, July 20, 2001, and July 15, 2002. Notes on the artist’s family background are from Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994), 196 – 98.
- Djokopekik, interview, July 15, 2002.
- Djokopekik explains that the name Bumi Tarung alludes to buruh (workers) and tani (peasants) (interview, July 15, 2002). For an analysis of the aesthetic philosophy of LEKRA to which Bumi Tarung adhered, see Keith Foulcher, Social Commitment in Literature and the Arts: The Indonesian “Institute of People’s Culture,” 1950 – 65 (Clayton, Victoria: Monash CSEAS, 1986), 12 – 26, 105 – 8.
- Djokopekik, interview by the author, Bantul, Yogyakarta, July 20, 2001.
- Djokopekik avoided capture for two months. He was in Jakarta at the time of the putsch and went into hiding among the prostitutes and pickpockets in the area of the Senen market. Returning to central Java several weeks later, Pekik was captured in Yogya in November 1965. When he was apprehended, he was posing as a commercial photographer — shooting the identity photos the authorities required of citizens as they carried out their antileftist “cleansing.” All but one of Djokopekik’s pre-1965 paintings have apparently been destroyed, either by the authorities or by nervous collectors. When a single work, Portrait of a Young Girl, surfaced, Pekik purchased it himself (Djokopekik, interview, July 15, 2002). “Campaign to Catch the Pig,” dramatizing a campaign rally for the Golden Queen of the Flashy Bull party (i.e., the unnamed Megawati). The rally is dominated by the ramblings of a Javanese numerologist who calculates by endless formulas his candidate’s divinely ordained victory, only to realize by his calculations that the rise of the queen also means the inevitable return of the werepig (I Await, 69 – 77)“Tumult of the Pig,” depicting a traditional shadow play performance in which the blissed-out pig is sodomized and brought to climax by the magic spear that had been meant to destroy him — in the end vanishing from the screen to proliferate in the world (I Await, 91 – 99)“Chili-Fried Pig,” depicting the performance of a slapstick parody of the electoral process that brought Wahid to the presidency (I Await, 111 – 29)