Civil protest is as easy as one, two, three.
Well, at least, for Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, which recently revealed its three-step recipe, gleaned from galvanising marginalised communities in its home country for more than 20 years.
Founding member Mohamad Yusuf says that Taring Padi usually starts work by carving woodcut prints for an event or public gathering, then it gets the community involved in printing and painting cardboard placards. Taring Padi, as artists and folk-inspired musicians, will then round things up by teaching pertinent socially-aware songs to the community.
“Music is important. One day the paintings and placards may be gone, but when we play the music it stays in the mind,” says Mohamad, during a recent talk at the Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, where the Indonesian collective is displaying some of its prints as part of the Afterwork exhibition there.
This Jogjakarta-based underground artist community formed in late 1998, during the Reformasi uprising and the fall of then Indonesian President Suharto.
Through the years, Taring Padi, best known for producing cartoon-like posters embedded with political and social justice messages, has gone on to empower the next generation of artists and activists in Indonesia.
Taring Padi’s vision – art and music – is firmly grounded in the progressive, inclusive and militant. In art, it uses the cukil (woodcut) technique on paper or canvas, while it also organises street theatre performances, punk rock gigs, outreach programmes and charity events.
During the Ilham Gallery session, Mohamad and fellow Taring Padi member Yunanto Setio Broto, discussed the collective’s works and career.
In 2011, Taring Padi’s retrospective book Seni Membongar Tirani (Art Smashing Tyranny) was published, giving the masses a glimpse into the collective’s participation in the social and political changes in Indonesia since the Reformasi movement.
Mohamad concedes that the collective has not been particularly organised in archiving its career.
The Seni Membongar Tirani book, which has sold out, needs a reprint, and Mohamad mentions a crowd-funding initiative to get it updated and reissued.
“We’re really bad at that (archiving),” says Mohamad.
“We are a collective, but as artists, we work alone. As for the idea of archiving, we didn’t care, and we didn’t have time or money for that in the early days. To make the book, we tracked down our friends to find who had art pieces or old woodcuts,” he adds.
This was exacerbated by the loss of Taring Padi’s first home – a squat based in the Indonesian Art Institution’s ex-campus in Jogjakarta – which was badly damaged in the Pangadaran earthquake and tsunami in 2006.
However, Taring Padi members are not the sort to get hung up on material losses. The entire collective moved to a new workshop, purchased with the proceeds of its art sales and public contributions.
Mohamad’s pragmatic stance on the matter is that everything is constantly being archived online, so even if Taring Padi didn’t compile or curate its output, someone would be saving it, somewhere.
The 42-year-old believes Taring Padi can still make substantial change in an era of Change.org petitions and social media movements.
He explains Taring Padi’s grassroots activities, including integrating younger members into the collective (the youngest member is 23), focusing on projects with communities geographically-closer to its base in Jogjakarta, and most importantly, taking the time to understand an affected community’s concerns.
Mohamad, whose medium of choice is signature woodcuts, says despite the advent of digital printing, there is a certain “artistic character” that comes with woodcuts that never fails to fascinate the communities it works with.
He vividly recalls a project to oppose the building of a coal power station at a fishing village in Batang, Jawa Tengah a few years ago.
“The whole village became a printing press of sorts after Taring Padi demonstrated how to use the woodcuts,” he says.
The fishing village also put its artistic talent to use, making a giant mural in its town hall and designing its own protest signs.
“For me, it was a very amazing time; we only made a sample of how to print twice, then the whole village – fishermen, mothers, children – brought all their Tshirts and printed them from 7pm to 4am the next day!” says Mohamad.
Part of the secret of Taring Padi’s success is down to how it empowers and educates a community to take action using the tools the collective provide, but Taring Padi never makes it an art project for the collective’s own glory.
“Art can make the hard thing soft, make dead things beautiful. It can make people cry, or make them brave, or educate them. In my life, the art way is the best way,” sums up Mohamad.
Afterwork is on at Ilham Gallery, Level 5, Ilham Tower, No 8, Jalan Binjai in Kuala Lumpur till April 16. Opening hours: 11am-7pm (Tuesday to Saturday), 11am-5pm (Sunday). Closed on Monday and public holidays. Free admission. For more info, visit www.ilhamgallery.com.