The Newsletter 77 Summer 2017

The ambivalent political identities of Chinese Indonesian artists in the 1950s-1960s

Brigitta Isabella

The identity of Chinese Indonesians is closely linked to the way they perceive themselves, as well as how they are treated by society and the state. Chinese Indonesians have had to negotiate issues of nationalism, citizenship and loyalty in articulating their identities. This was certainly so amongst Chinese Indonesian artists of the 1950s. The case of Yin Hua Mei Shu Hsieh Hui (印華美術協會) or Lembaga Seniman Yin Hua (Yin Hua Artist Organization, YHAO), formed in Jakarta in April 1955, is a prime illustration of how national forces have pulled the identities of Chinese Indonesians in ambivalent directions.

There are two lenses with which to view YHAO. One is through the issue of national citizenship and the other through national identity. Both issues placed YHAO in a tug of war between Indonesian and Chinese political and cultural identities. These issues were shaped by a variety of forces such as decolonization, nationalism, the bilateral policy between Indonesia and China, and the overseas Chinese community in Indonesia.

YHAO had approximately 92 members from Jakarta, Surabaya, Semarang, Solo, Cirebon, Pekalongan, Malang, Bandung and Tanjung Pinang, probably making it the biggest art organization in Indonesia at that time. YHAO enjoyed the patronage of none other than President Sukarno. The Chinese government also supported YHAO’s first exhibition in January 1956, and later invited ten YHAO members to visit China for five months in the same year. YHAO was soon drawn into the politics of diplomacy between Indonesia and China. YHAO’s first exhibition from 7-14 January 1956, at the Hotel Des Indes, Jakarta, was a case in point. President Sukarno and the Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia, Huang Zhen (in office from November 1954 to June 1961), attended the opening and praised YHAO’s first exhibition. The show turned into a diplomatic gesture, which immediately transformed YHAO into a symbolic bridge for Sino-Indonesian relationships, providing China leverage through Sukarno's well-known passion for art.

However, Indonesia-China relations were full of contradictions. The official Chinese endorsement of YHAO’s first exhibition sent, on the one hand, a clear message of transnational unity with overseas Chinese in Indonesia (Fig.1); on the other, this endorsement contradicted Chinese state policy, which encouraged Chinese Indonesians to distance themselves from Chinese transnational patriotism, and to choose Indonesian citizenship, but withdraw from Indonesian domestic politics in order to play down the negative association of ethnic Chinese with communism. It was never clear if the overseas Chinese would neglect their cultural identity if they opted for Indonesian nationality. For YHAO, however, the political aesthetic imposed on it was Maoist-Chinese in orientation. As such, when expressing identities and culture in its art works, YHAO had to oscillate between Chinese transnational political aesthetic and Indonesian nationalism.

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Meanwhile, the Indonesian government also desired close ties with China. However, due to its own deteriorating economic situation, Indonesian domestic policy was unsympathetic to the rights of Chinese in Indonesia. On paper, after 1955, the Chinese in Indonesia could freely choose either Indonesian or Chinese nationality. But throughout the 1950s-1960s the government established many discriminative policies that made most of them feel alienated and unwanted. Under such circumstances, YHAO formed a dual attachment to Indonesia and China. Although the sense of overseas Chinese patriotism is present in YHAO’s organizational practice, there are artworks in the 1956 exhibition that praise Indonesian nationalism, as represented by the works of Ling Nan-Lung (Fig.2) and Tjio Tek Djin (Fig.3) that depict the figure of Sukarno respectively in sculpture and painting, both entitled ‘P.J.M. Presiden Dr. Ir. Soekarno’.

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These works were criticized by the Chinese Indonesian art critic, Oey Sian Yok, as “merely a competition to get attention from the authorities, not to mention that as a painting, the quality of the portrait is not that high”. While Oey was referring to the work of Tjio Tek Djin, it was clear that she was pointing implicitly to YHAO’s desire to seek Sukarno’s patronage. Yet, YHAO’s tribute to Sukarno was understandable in counter-balancing the endorsement from China. While demonstrating political attachment to both Indonesia and China might be considered opportunism by some, it was actually a means for the ethnic minority community to feel secure.

Nevertheless, when the New Order government took over in 1967 all Chinese-related cultural expressions, from family name to language, were banned. YHAO disappeared and many of the artists of Chinese descent in Indonesia went into exile as stateless individuals. YHAO’s place in the history of Indonesian art was not examined until the Reformasi era.

Brigitta Isabella is a member of the research collective KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre, based in Yogyakarta, and member of the editorial collective of Southeast of Now, a new peer-reviewed art journal (