Articles on Enrico

Articles Concerning Enrico Soekarno

Activist-Artist Looks for Life’s True Colors

After witnessing the 1991 Santa Cruz cemetery massacre in East Timor, in which 271 unarmed civilians were killed by Indonesian troops, artist Enrico Soekarno renounced the use of color in his work, saying he would only return to it once Suharto was dead.

“Now people keep reminding me — ‘So, Suharto’s dead now, so when are we gonna see the color stuff?’ ” he said with a laugh. He promised that his next exhibition will once again be filled with color. 

It is mid-morning during school holidays. Normally at this hour of the day, he might be painstakingly applying a fine felt-tip pen to acid-free paper for one of his black-and-white ink drawings, but today Enrico is trying to usher his toddlers, Kenya and Dante, off to a nearby playground. In his spacious living room, monochromatic photographs taken by architect Yori Antar and director-photographer Jay Subyakto line the walls between ethnic textiles and wood carvings. In front stand child-sized basketball hoops, around which can be heard the patter of the children’s feet and those of a lumbering rottweiller-German Shepherd mix named Pablo.

When he was younger, Enrico said, he would work intensely until a piece of art was completed, often for three or four days. Since he started a family, the 43-year-old artist has had to learn to allocate his time. 

“I’m still learning. I’d do this part. Tsrrrrttt!” he said, as he mimed drawing rapidly in the air. “Then leave it and play with the kids first. It’s sort of working.” 

The artist is best known for his meticulously detailed ink drawings, though he works in many media. He is often moved by social injustice, and it shows in his art, through which he has commented on issues including censorship, the preservation of indigenous cultures and injustices in East Timor and Aceh. 

Enrico’s attention recently shifted after a 2003 trip to Tibet, during which he witnessed the suffering of the native people under Chinese oppression. Since then, the plight of Tibetans has been featured prominently in his pieces, resulting in both solo and group exhibitions on Tibet. His interest also spawned a book, “Tibet on the Brain,” comprised of essays and photographs by Yori Antar, Raudia Kepper, Jay Subyakto, Krish Suharnoko, Ella Ubaidi and Enrico himself.

His last exhibition was as part of a group show on Tibet called “Heaven in Exile” at the Antara Foto Gallery in March. The show was part of a Tibetan exhibition and film festival organized by Roof of the World, a foundation that promotes the Tibetan cause through art and culture. Enrico started the foundation with friends in 2006, and serves as its chairman.

“The group doesn’t want to be too political,” Enrico said. But when the massacre of more than 500 Tibetans occurred in Lhasa in March 2008, Enrico organized a demonstration and headed straight for the Chinese embassy in Jakarta. 

“It pissed off the Chinese a little bit,” he said. “But what I was most proud of was the fact that there were Chinese Indonesians supporting me. And we got that out on TV, on the Internet, on YouTube. It came out to the world that not all Chinese are bad. And that’s what I want to actually put forward. That these are Chinese people who are against what the Chinese government does and that’s very important.”

Creating awareness and breaking cultural barriers and prejudices is a recurrent theme in Enrico’s art. Addressing tension between East Timorese and Indonesians, he held an exhibition of his drawings of the region. 

“A lot of Timorese who were stuck in Jakarta came [to my exhibition] and were moved. To me, I inspired them to obtain a certain sense of home and there’s also the fact that an Indonesian guy is doing this, for them.” 

By creating social commentaries in his canvases, Enrico’s art became a sort of visual voice for the fallen, the wronged and the repressed. 

“A lot of artists are technically good but there’s no feeling behind it or there’s no strong motivation behind the work,” said Enrico, who aspires to be like controversial artist-activist Semsar Siahaan, who is known as the “anti-Suharto artist.” 

He points to an artwork titled “Anno Domini,” a personal favorite that he drew for a 1998 exhibition. A plain skull sporting an army beret fills the frame. Squeezed into the remaining space are a row of ghostly figures in Muslim attire, while in a corner, the generals Prabowo and Wiranto are praying. The title is a play on words that combines a Latin phrase meaning “Year of Our Lord,” the abbreviation for the Indonesian Army and Aceh’s martial law status known as DOM. 

“You can see it’s the army praying in the Islamic way and this is the most Islamic place, and there are all these dead bodies,” he said. “The point of art is to make people feel something. And if that doesn’t work that means the artist failed or the audience is already desensitized towards suffering in the world.

“If I’m only affected by the beauty of the place, then I’m intense about the beauty. But if I happen to encounter suffering, then I have to show how I feel about the suffering. It’s just my duty to tell the truth.” 

Enrico learned to mine truth from nature, first by drawing landscapes and then venturing into portraits. 

“It’s harder to get to the soul of a person, to get the truth out of a person. But once you can, portraits are amazing!” he said. 

“You actually can tell a lot of stories, even devoid of background. That’s why I did a lot of portraits from Tibet with no background.” Enrico is planning a triptych portrait of former President Sukarno, Marijan Kartosuwiryo and Semaun — three of the nation’s most powerful and controversial men — for his next project. 

“All three were students of HOS [Haji Omar Said] Cokroaminoto,” he said, referring to the leader of Islamic political organization Sanekat Islam. “They went to the same school. But one became the archnationalist, another a archfundamentalist of Islam and the other, an archcommunist and first leader of the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party]. They were all Javanese. I want to play on that,” he said. Under the title of a King Crimson album, “Three of a Perfect Pair,” the series of triptychs would be a return to color and topics closer to home. “My recent works have been about Tibet. But people tend to forget that I’ve also done a lot of work on indigenous cultures,” he said.

“I want Indonesia the way it used to be, with Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [Unity in Diversity] and gotong royong [a concept of people helping each other],” Enrico said. He attributes his patriotic sentiments to sharing the late president Sukarno’s name and birthdate of June 6.

Enrico is a father of two, an artist, a Tibetan activist and a nationalist, but he also rejects categories. 

“Culture-wise, I’m not boxed in. Religion-wise, I’m not boxed in. So I shouldn’t be boxed in for my work. It can still change. I’m still developing,” he said. “Don’t label anything. Don’t ever label anything for anything. Not even for art.”

Titania Veda The Jakarta Globe July 2, 2009

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