Seminar on Political Art in Southeast Asia: The Role of LEKRA in Indonesia

This seminar looked at questions of Soviet and European influence on art, and the roles of social realism and socialism in delimiting the content of art and explored the legacy of LEKRA in the depiction of social issues in Indonesian art of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries.

Political Art in Southeast Asia: The Role of LEKRA in Indonesia

Dr Helene Njoto, ISEAS Visiting Fellow, introducing Professor Adrian Vickers to the audience (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Wednesday, 26 October 2016
– This seminar was the fifth in RSCS’s Arts in Southeast Asia Seminar series. Prof Adrian Vickers, Director of Asian Studies at the University of Sydney and Chair in Southeast Asian Studies, presented “Political Art in Southeast Asia: The Role of LEKRA in Indonesia”. 

Prof Vickers began by noting the strong associations of LEKRA (Institute of People’s Culture) artists with communist sentiments. He argued that the historiography of Indonesian modern art, particularly art from the revolution period (1945-1950), has been overly politicised and reflects a Cold War narrative.

Art historians and scholars, he suggested, would do well to avoid portraying LEKRA artists as more engaged politically than others the Manikebu group (Manifest Kebudayaan), which are popularly portrayed as interested in art for art’s sake.

Professor Vickers, listing 28 bodies, workshops, umbrella organisations and associations where artists of different schools socialised and exchanged ideas (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In light of new sources, Prof Vickers emphasised that the Indonesian art community during the revolution period was multifaceted and complex one, and not as rigidly juxtaposed as previously thought. American art historian Claire Holt’s unpublished archives and interviews made during a field trip in the 1950s allowed Prof Vickers to list 28 bodies, workshops, umbrella organisations, and associations where artists of different schools socialised and exchanged ideas.

Building on Keith Foulcher’s critical work on Indonesian literature, Prof Vickers demonstrated that political engagement of artists was more incidental and less manifest in fine arts than in literature. Dissensions between artists were also due to personal and not ideological disagreements.

He gave a few examples among today’s acclaimed champions of so-called “engaged art” such as Djoko Pekik, Sudjojono, Hendra Gunawan, Affandi, Emiria Sunarsa, Otto Djaja, demonstrating the scarcity, if not the absence of political messages let alone communist references, in the artistic idiom. Paintings were certainly made in a realist fashion, but for the most part to depict ordinary life and scenes. He added that some could even be interpreted as representing the excesses of guerrilla behaviour during the turmoil of the revolution period.

According to Prof Vickers, a more discernible trend among these artists was their engagement with modern art. They seem to have been more involved in the revisualisation of a changing world rather than with the promotion of a revolutionary art.

Dr Njoto moderating the Q&A session (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Questions from the audience ranged from the today’s perception of LEKRA, the artists’ training in sculpture and monuments in China and the USSR, the time lap between the advent of modern art in Europe and in Asia, the extent of exposure of Indonesian artists to modern and European art, the identity of the buyers/clients and collectors. 

The seminar was attended by more than 50 participants from Singaporean museums, universities and public institutions.

Participants at the seminar (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)