SEMBUNGAN, Java, Indonesia — In 1998, after decades of rule by repressive authoritarian regimes, democracy came to Indonesia. The government of Suharto, the Army general who had run the country like a private fiefdom since 1965, was brought down by mass street demonstrations in Java, the island where half the country’s population lives. Artists played a prominent role in the democracy movement, functioning collectively as an amateur propaganda ministry. In Jogjakarta, the city in Central Java long acknowledged as Java’s arts capital, “people power” found a spirited partner in an informal artists collective that would take the name Taring Padi. Almost anarchic in its idealism, the group comprised a fluid membership ranging from a dozen to 20 artists and performers, mostly but not exclusively male, many of them students or recent graduates of the Indonesian Art Institute, one of the country’s leading art schools.
The group coalesced during this period of social upheaval in the late 1990s, turning out a flood of satirical, often inflammatory posters and pamphlets, before the rise of social media and viral videos. Bold and vigorous in their expression, Taring Padi bitterly denounced the corruption of President Suharto and the harsh tactics of the Army and state police that served him with ruthless efficiency. The group focused on gritty graphic art, producing mostly hand-printed woodblocks, but some members also performed in music ensembles and street theater. They made shadow puppets that lampooned political leaders, and enacted savage, sometimes obscene satires of the events of the day. The group also orchestrated free-form events similar to the Happenings staged by Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Theatre in New York in the early 1960s.
In the euphoric interregnum after the fall of Suharto, as atrophied political institutions struggled to create a functional democracy, the group assumed a formal identity. They took a name, Taring Padi, an agricultural term for the spiky first growth of the rice plant, and on December 21, 1998, they published a manifesto, an aesthetic statement just as revolutionary as the fiery political rhetoric of the democracy movement. “The Five Evils of Culture” rejects the concept of art for art’s sake and proclaims social justice as a defining goal of art. The manifesto denounces institutions such as museums that make value judgments about art, setting one artist’s work above that of another. Going a step further, it denies the principle of individual expression as a fundamental principle of art-making. It condemns “a system that destroys art workers’ morality through working only for individual interests without thought of community interests.”
The finely detailed, large-format posters and hand-printed pamphlets that Taring Padi made for the democracy movement in Jogja (the common name for Jogjakarta) were the work of many hands, never signed and given away for free. The nascent art market in Java, based on the Western system of galleries and museums served by agents and critics, was attacked as a corrupting influence that led artists to put personal gain above service to the rakyat, the mass of people in Indonesia’s primarily agricultural economy.
The atmosphere at Taring Padi House, the collective’s clubhouse, for a lack of a better word — the concept of a “headquarters” was anathema — was one of genial anarchy, like that at American hippie communes in the 1960s, such as the Merry Pranksters commune and the Hog Farm (though without the drugs). As a matter of principle, Taring Padi was leaderless, and the group never formulated requirements for membership: anybody who showed up and wanted to help was a member. However, Mohamad “Ucup” Yusuf, a prolific, remarkably talented woodblock artist, who was one of the group’s founders, has been a constant, steady presence as Taring Padi has evolved, and he has served as a spokesman of sorts for the group. This suspiciously leader-like role fell to Ucup (pronounced OO-choop, a Javanese nickname for Yusuf) primarily because of his obvious lack of interest in leading, enhanced by his personal charm.
For the past 12 years, Taring Padi has occupied an open-air studio adjoining a two-story frame house next to Ucup’s own home in Sembungan, a village on the outskirts of Jogja. Like many villages in the conurbations of Java, it is tucked away off a busy highway jammed with overloaded trucks. Turn down a narrow, shady lane, lined with simple tin-roofed houses, and you quickly find yourself in a tropical forest of soaring bamboo and fragrant pines. The most prominent feature of Taring Padi House is a 20-foot-long cement slide for the children, in front of the house. When I arrive, a half dozen boys and girls abandon the slide and crowd around me, leaping with excitement to have a foreign visitor, and lead me up the hill to meet Ucup.
He lies sprawled on a bench in the studio, strumming a ukulele, which he sets aside to greet me. The tour is accomplished in five leisurely minutes, as he tells me the brief history of Taring Padi House. In the chaos that ensued after the fall of Suharto, the group lived in a squat in a public building, which is now part of the Jogjakarta National Museum. After the government kicked them out, they rented a house where they lived until the devastating earthquake in Jogjakarta in 2006 made it uninhabitable. A year later, they were still living in tents. On behalf of the group, Ucup bought the land next to a small plot he owned in Sambungan, where they built the complex of simple structures that today serves as their clubhouse.
Ucup shows me what he is working on at the moment. Round woodcuts with a format similar to Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs, heavy with text, have been hung to dry on a clothesline. I have seen some of them pasted on hoardings in the city. Indonesia has just held a presidential election, which is always a source of anxiety in a country where the main outlet for information is social media, awash with rumor and hoax. Taring Padi’s latest batch of agitprop addresses the election in the passionate, idealistic, yet indirect style of discourse they have always favored.
One print alludes to the growing role of religion in Indonesian politics, without taking sides. It depicts an array of places of worship — Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu — above the slogan “Our religion is the religion of peace.” Below, a group of figures in silhouette, holding hands, is captioned in English: “Not for sale.” Ucup, who turns 44 this year, is Muslim, like most Javanese people. It is Ramadan, so he is fasting this afternoon, but the aroma of kretek, the clove-scented cigarettes smoked by most men here, clings to the place. It is easy to imagine a fragrant cigarette planted in his mouth.
Another print, depicting a lightning bolt that strikes a boar’s head and cleaves it in two, has the headline “Corruption Is the Plague of the Country” shrouded in a raincloud, along with this exhortation: “Together, let’s wipe it out from top to bottom.” I tell Ucup that I was in Jakarta in May 1998, when Suharto was deposed, and we reminisce briefly about those heady days, when the power of the people seemed to have no limit, and for a moment anything seemed possible. Disillusionment crept in in the years that followed, as the systemic corruption of Indonesian governance proved to be intractable. In the space of a few years, the zeitgeist shifted from Wordsworth’s evocation of the French Revolution in The Prelude, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” to Pete Townshend’s chorus “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Ucup begins on a jaunty note, remarking, “Yes, we were disappointed, but there is always hope.” He says that the present government, led by President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, “can deal with conflicts arising from racism and religious differences, but they are incapable of dealing with environmental conflicts, which grow worse and worse. In an environmental conflict, the government always sides with the corporations. They are always hoping for foreign investment.” He worries that the connection with the land is being lost. “Slowly, we are losing our land, and therefore losing our culture. The young generation is under the control of technology, which is growing so fast. The price is losing the power of imagination.”
I ask Ucup if he found inspiration in the work of Western artists with a political agenda, and he immediately names Diego Rivera as a major influence. “In 1997, when I was studying at art school, I looked over the shoulder of somebody who was reading a book about Diego, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool. I love that!’” On a visit to San Francisco, he saw the Rivera murals at the Pacific Stock Exchange and City College, which made a powerful impression. They confirmed his penchant for fine detail in a lively, crowded field with multiple points of views; many of his prints function like murals, reduced to an intimate scale.
Ucup volunteers another important influence on his work: Joe Coleman, the Brooklyn-based painter and performance artist whose grotesque, sometimes macabre visions of the dark side of American life have been widely exhibited since the 1980s, in paintings at the Limbo and Wooster galleries, and performances at The Kitchen in New York. The homepage of Coleman’s website features rave reviews from the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Charles Manson. Ucup says, “I saw Coleman’s art as a challenge to work in the same sort of fine detail.” Like Coleman, Ucup laces his images with snippets of apocalyptic text, suggestive but lacking in a coherent philosophy. He shows me a new linocut and points out an enigmatic slogan. He says, “I got that from Doctor Strange,” the Marvel Comics film, and giggles.
When Ucup talks about art created in his studio, even if his is the only hand at work, he refers to it as a piece by Taring Padi. “If one artist does it, it’s still Taring Padi art.” Yet, inevitably, the group has softened its strictures against individual expression and making money from the sale of art. An artist as busy as Ucup has no time to make money any other way to put rice on the table. The linocut with the quotation from Doctor Strange is part of an ongoing series of prints that he sells on social media, using the name Ucup Baik, which means “Good Yusuf.” The central, recurring image is a ghoulish vision of a Javanese bride, more evocative of Bride of Frankenstein or Sissy Spacek’s prom queen in Carrie than any wedding album, surrounded by a constellation of satirical vignettes. When he tells me what he is charging for the print, which is roughly 24 by 18 inches, carved with intricate detail, printed in six colors, and limited to an edition of eight, I tell him his price is too low for the foreign market. He shrugs, tossing his head carelessly, and says, “That’s my price. It’s enough for me.”
When I bid him farewell, Good Yusuf gives me a copy of the latest issue of The People’s Trumpet, the group’s periodical pamphlet, which is devoted entirely to the round prints hanging in his studio. Finally, I ask him to explain the name Taring Padi, which is obscure even to most Indonesians. Taring means the fang of a snake, or the canine tooth of a cat or human; padi is the rice plant. Farmers in Central Java call the first growth of rice plants taring padi, because they look like tiny green fangs rising from the earth. Taring bites, padi nourishes. Ucup explains, “The young rice plant is small, but it can make you feel itchy. Later, it makes new rice plants grow. A small thing can make you feel itchy, and it can also make new life grow. That’s what we hope to do with Taring Padi.”