Behind Painted Features

Art is a form of expression, a form of release for the artist. What the artist is expressing, however, is a topic that is constantly questioned. The modernist view that the purpose behind art is an expression of the artist’s feelings as an individual, seems directly applicable to Indonesian artist Wedhar Riyadi’s artwork titled Keributan Dari Negara Subur (2011).This work is made of three large paintings copied from sepia-toned photographs of historical figures, which have been over-painted directly with bright oil paints, giving the images grotesque, cartoonish features, as if they have been vandalized. These artworks feel confrontational, the warped and exaggerated features leaving the viewer with a sense of unease, and a sense of the deeper meaning that they are attempting to convey.

This painting can be seen as an expression of emotion by the artist towards the Indonesian killings which occurred between 1965 and 1966. These killings were attempts to uproot any communists that were in the country, and their sympathisers. They were demonised; the hype was stoked by the Army leadership, until it finally came to a boil in the form of a coup in the October of 1965. The army began to slaughter anyone who had any ties to the communist movement and their supporters, civilians joining the witch-hunt. People were gunned down in the streets, some beheaded and dumped into the river, to the point where it became clogged with a growing number of bodies. Anyone could be a communist, nobody could be trusted.

This fear of anyone is what Riyadi shows in his paintings. Average-looking people twisted and deformed by imagination into twisted creatures, monstrous and inhuman. Normal photos of people, with painted and imagined features, exaggerated with oil paints, eyes twisted and elongated, searching for weaknesses, grinning, cartoonish devil faces lying in laps, all the faces covered with boards, spikes, red faces and black masses, hiding their true identity as humans. These paintings reflect Riyadi’s emotions about the darker aspects of Indonesia’s past, a sense that the truth was warped and twisted by the mass hysteria that gripped the nation.

There is another view, however, of how meaning in art is created and it can also be seen in this painting. Riyadi’s work clearly illustrates the postmodern belief that the meaning behind art is the production of artists’ interactions with the world around them, and the affect of factors such as politics, society, and even the surrounding environment. This could be applied to Riyadi’s work, through investigating his life. Riyadi came of age during the Asian financial crisis, when the country turned to democracy. This turn to democracy from the old regime would have had a strong influence on the artist’s way of viewing the politics of the past, which in turn influenced this artwork, as the political change gave artists like Riyadi the democratic freedom to express their opinions on the state of government, making the work possibly the result of Riyadi’s personal experiences rather than emotions.

The personal reaction is something that is crucial, and cannot be ignored. This is what happens in a witch hunt—the individual opinions are abandoned, in favour of that of the masses. They forget that every single person they are hunting is still a human, instead seeing a monster to be slaughtered for the greater good. In present times, without an impending threat (real or imagined), this may seem unthinkable and impossible, but it has happened over and over again: the Salem Witch Trials and the Communist Hunts, just to name two. Riyadi’s work demonstrates how important it is that we learn to not conform with the general direction, and instead form our own opinion, our own views, our own ideas on a situation, rather than impose grotesque, exaggerated features on what are otherwise human beings just like us.

Wedhar Riyadi, Noise from the fertile land (Keributan dari negara subur) no. 1, 2011. Oil on canvas, 250 x 180cm. Purchased 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.