In honour of his disappeared father, artist Dadang Christanto holds forth the memory of Indonesia’s 1965 massacres, despite considerable personal risk. By Susan Chenery.

Dadang Christanto’s blood relations

Dadang Christanto is a haunted man. His art comes from suppurating wounds that cannot heal; from the poetic images comes a shout of pain.

It comes from the indelible memory of the eight-year-old boy whose father disappeared one night in 1965, the man dragged from his house in the village of Tegal, Central Java, by soldiers after a failed coup attempt on Sukarno’s military regime, conveniently blamed on the Indonesian communist party. It comes from the half a million or more people killed in just a few months. “They were killing farmers who did nothing,” the artist says. “They just wanted the land.”

At the time, Christanto’s mother would get leads that her husband might still be alive. She would go to the prison, but he was never there. Her son remembers her despair. More recently, he has spoken to someone who saw his father in the parking area of the police station covered in blood. “He was tortured.”

The families of the victims were formally shunned, left to bear a lifelong stigma. “If you want to kill the grass, you kill under the root,” Christanto says now. “That is the Suharto military thinking.”

Christanto’s sister was a brilliant journalist who declined promotion because to do so would mean scrutiny. “If you have a communist or a victim of the regime in your family background, you can’t go into the public service or go to a high position.” Christanto himself had to fake documents to attend university. “Otherwise I could not go.”

It was forbidden to talk about the “unspeakable horror” of what had happened. Families were unable to openly grieve. His work is designed to bear witness to one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. To tell the world the truth about what happened and give a voice to those who were silenced. Everything he does, he says, “starts with me, my memories”.

1 . Ascetic life

Christanto now lives in rural isolation, in northern New South Wales. He retreated to friends there following the breakdown of his marriage three years ago. When an old schoolhouse came up for sale he bought it. Its huge sash windows look out to cattle pastures and a rainforest escarpment. It is a light-filled space, a quiet place for a man who admits that peace of mind is elusive because he will never “surrender” or become complacent. “I am a survivor. Pain all the time. Honestly, it is hard, I will tell you this. Sometimes I think I should fix my personality problem.”

His is the frugal existence of the ascetic. He is a small, animated man. Though his English is fractured, the emotions erupt from him: passion, anger, outrage, all cheerfully deployed. “He is really compassionate,” says Vanessa Van Ooyen, senior curator of the Queensland University of Technology Art Museum, where a major exhibition of his work is showing until the end of February. “There is a beautiful nature that comes through.”

An artist and activist, Christanto says that in Indonesia his message had to be metaphorical and hidden. “He used satire,” says Van Ooyen. “He says the politicians were too dim and humourless to understand.”

When he arrived in Australia in his 40s in 1999, to lecture in art at Northern Territory University, Christanto was finally able to fully express himself. He quickly become a major international artist, whose installation works have been shown at the Venice Biennale and the Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil. He has shown in Australia and in Tokyo. The Japan Foundation, he says, has an “unlimited budget”.

A monumental sculptural installation, They Give Evidence, is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection. Larger-than-life terracotta figures stand in mute eloquence carrying the bodies of men, women, and children in outstretched arms. They are elegiac, offering to share the load of the oppressed. Audiences who have seen the work in Japan and Australia have spontaneously left flowers and poems.

There is more. Boot Head, a painting that shows a boot shape comprising anguished faces and the vivid red of dripping blood that permeates his work, symbolises the dreaded sound of the military boot on the pavement as it came to take people away.

The Count Project consists of large ink works on rice paper, with which he was counting the number of victims of violence. “Each head of the victims has scratches of red and black in the brain as a record of the darkness and violence of the memories.”

Returning again and again to the massacre of 1965-66, like gnawing at a wound, there is Red Rain – a work of red threads fall like raining blood from a total of 1965 very small, beautiful, sorrowful heads encased in plastic. It is a seminal work, now housed at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

When he was in high school a friend told Christanto that she used to see the trucks coming to dump the bodies in the river. The village children would throw coconuts at them floating past, not understanding what they were. The dead were blocking the waterways. “And on the river she saw the blood. It was everywhere. It is very common in Indonesia for a river to become a mass grave.”

Blood in the water is an image that has tormented Christanto. His 2004 work Heads from the North consisted of 66 bronze heads floating in the marsh pond at the sculpture garden at the National Gallery. After burning joss paper and smearing the ash on his head he walked into the pond and stroked each one in remembrance.

He would come back to this in River Series in 2009, with paintings of bodies, sometimes decapitated, floating languorously down East Java’s Brantas River. There is a delicacy to these paintings. He keeps going to the river, he says, not just because he keeps thinking about it but because “the next generation – they don’t know”.

When he returns to Java he takes flowers to the places where the massacres happened. On one trip to his home town, a friend said that he knew one of the killers and would introduce them. Christanto cancelled his train and went to meet his nemesis, asking if he could record the conversation. “He said that in that time he was 20 years old and in the militia. Yes, he killed. He did not apologise.”

In May 2006 hot volcanic mud began flowing from a gas-drilling borehole in East Java, wiping out 11 villages, displacing 50,000 people who were never compensated.

Christanto’s response was to stage performances of people caked in mud in silence holding photographs of those who had died. He also made 100 statues and put them on the Siring Porong levee. “They were not in mud when they started. And in one year they are nearly submerged. They will disappear. It is not just the environmental disaster but the social disaster. ”

2 . Political awareness

While Christanto may be addressing specific events, the resonance is universal: suffering, outrage at injustice, a collective history of political violence and crimes against humanity.

“The duty of the human is to become human,” he says. “Milan Kundera said the struggle of man is against forgetting. Everyone has the knowledge. If their knowledge is not used to make a better world, what is it for?”

He reacted to the 2005 tsunami with a 48-hour frenzy that produced Such a Beautiful Morning, a monumental seven-metre painting of outlines of contorted figures left by a receding tide. It was painted with coffee, which looks now like dried blood.

In 1959, when Christanto was a small child, before the massacres that would define his life, his family’s shop was burnt down by the authorities, who wanted family businesses to move to the city. He remembers little pieces of batik fabric from the shop burning and floating to the ground. It was through these textiles and their motifs that Christanto’s mother had taught him about art. In 2010 he brought armfuls of fabric back from a visit and, consulting his mother, started using batik in his painting for the series Batik Has Been Burnt. This series explores proletarian village life, with red slashes symbolising fire, combining beauty with the evocation of nightmare that is so characteristic of his work.

Throughout an afternoon spent at his schoolhouse studio, Christanto reveals an acutely sharp political awareness. He is scornful that the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival would cancel three panels, a book launch and a screening of The Look of Silence, a film by Joshua Oppenheimer that exposed the atrocities of his childhood, because the authorities refused to grant permits.

“They surrendered,” he says incredulously. “They censored themselves. Why not fight? Shutting down the festivals is very common. Ubud should have fought. It was just the local police.”

Travelling to and from Indonesia where his large-scale work is made, he knows that deliberately antagonising the authorities might not end well.

“My posts on Facebook go straight to the generals. It would be easy to kill me as the criminal element. Kill me on the street in a car or motorbike. I am not scared anymore. Sometimes I think, ‘My father was 38 when they killed him, so I am lucky I am 58.’ I am coming to my dream in these years and it has to be finished.”

He worries about his family in Indonesia, who are still too frightened to speak. But, he says, “If anything I am doing is a risk, not doing it is a bigger risk. It is better that I am doing something.”

When the killings of 1965-66 ended, Suharto’s 32-year reign of violence and oppression in Indonesia began. But from 2001 the United States has been releasing documents that show the involvement of the CIA. US officials had pushed for the annihilation of the communist party; the CIA even provided lists of people, as it escalated its involvement in Vietnam. The purge shifted the balance of power in South-East Asia.

Christanto wants Indonesia to understand its history, to be held to account. He wanted to be able to tell his children what happened to their grandfather. “There is a lot of lying,” he says angrily. “It is like a gulag. In Australia people are free to talk about the Stolen Generation and killing Aborigines. In America, after 35 years the documents are open to the public, it is not very secret. In Germany they were very fast to say sorry. But in Indonesia it is not like that. This is part of my struggle. Why after 50 years is there still censorship in Indonesia? In Indonesia they are not asked to open [documents] to the public and until now Indonesia does not want it.”

Earlier last month, on the 50th anniversary of the killing spree, a “people’s tribunal” opened at The Hague. Human rights lawyers are prosecuting the state of Indonesia with crimes including murder, torture and sexual violence. Academic Leslie Dwyer gave evidence that in some cases the victims’ links to the communists were as tenuous as having danced at a Communist Party event. Christanto believes his father was “progressive and left-leaning” and ethnic Chinese, but not a communist. Senior officials in Indonesia have dismissed the tribunal and pointed to the Netherlands’ abuses of human rights during its colonisation.

3 . Nineteen Sixty-Five

Van Ooyen has long wanted Christanto to exhibit at QUT Art Museum. But Christanto asked her to wait for the anniversary. He calls the resulting exhibition, Nineteen Sixty-Five, “my dream come true”: the culmination of 50 years of fulminating.

“It is unrestrained,” says Van Ooyen. “We haven’t seen his work so clearly before.” With many of his major installations included, there is beauty and subtlety in his work. The new painting Indonesian Genocide addresses the Indonesian women’s movement of the 1960s, which was persecuted and violently suppressed. “It is powerful and slightly uncomfortable,” says Van Ooyen. “We see an Indonesian soldier with an erect penis and women, victims of sexual violence, bleeding from the genitals. It is unrestrained because of anger, there is a sense of urgency because this violence is still happening to people around the world. It is a shocking and haunting artwork.” Red Rain has been brought from Canberra. At the time of writing a life-sized horse and a cart filled with 65 heads were being held by Australian customs perilously close to the deadline for setting up the exhibition.

You have to wonder whether the constant worrying away at an open sore is cathartic. Or does it make Christanto feel worse? Can anything make it better?

“I am happy,” he says, “that art can be useful for the people. That I can inform about political problems. I am healing because I am lucky I can make expression. If not then maybe I am crazy.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 28, 2015 as "Blood ties".

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