Sun, 04 Jun 2000

Acehnese artist tells of region's pain

By Amir Sidharta

JAKARTA (JP): Is there room for artistic creativity in war- torn Aceh? That is one of the questions that came to mind when I learned about the works of Mahdi Abdullah, an artist who works and lives in Aceh.

Next Monday, Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Walhi), a nongovernment environmental organization, will organize a fund raising event for Aceh refugees, to be held at the Graha Niaga. President Abdurrahman Wahid is scheduled to appear during the event.

Mahdi's works will be exhibited from June 5 through to June 8 and some of them will be auctioned to benefit Aceh refugees. Mahdi, who is in a formative stage of his artistic career, is developing an artistic style through his depictions of the suffering of the Acehnese.

Telah Luka yang Tak Berdosa (The Innocent have Suffered) shows the torso of a woman with a crying baby beneath her. The woman's head is bent to the left, while to the right of the torso there is a dead bird. Above, there is a row of dead trees, suggesting loneliness and sorrow.

About this work, the artist writes, "prolonged conflict in Aceh has had an impact on the environment (birds, trees, women and children)." Those are entities of hope which have been destroyed.

"My art is a manifestation of the narrative of the reality of humankind and the environment. I believe that the subject and object that supports the reality of life also participates in expression that is being processed."

The visualization of images without borders is built from sediments that have settled in the brain, and then slowly stretch outward until they touch reality in certain experiences, writes the artist.

In other works, figures -- mostly women -- are seen in refuge, taking their children and belongings that need to be saved. Although many of them are shown without faces, the expression of anxiety, distress and haste can be felt in the painting.

There is an impression that the work, entitled Terusir dari Tanah Sendiri, Evicted from Their Own Homeland, is like an unfinished painting.

On the other hand, the work can also be seen as a finished work composed with elements of sketches. The faceless figures are not merely so because the artist has not completed their details, rather, they suggest the fact that this painting is not merely a record of a certain historical event but a daily phenomenon in which anyone can suffer when they are forced to flee from their homes.

The conditions in Aceh have certainly influenced Mahdi, and have undeniably lead him to employ the sketch technique. However, they have also influenced and stimulated his creativity to explore new ideas. Mahdi is the chairperson of the Fine Art Committee of the Aceh Art Council, artistic editor and caricaturist of the Kontras tabloid and head of Media and Technique Division of the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Architecture Association.

His paintings also depict everyday life in Aceh, when the intensity of war briefly ceases. Religious life becomes a significant theme. Islamic hope is what offers optimism among the Acehese while war tears apart their homeland. Although full of sorrow, the Acehese still want to make an effort to open up their homeland to other societies and peoples.

This can be seen in Membuka Pintu, Opening Door, where a woman dressed in traditional Aceh costume sits holding up a container filled with fruit. The container, called ranub dalam lampuan, symbolizes pemulia jamee, honor to guests, who are visiting Aceh.

The woman sits with her head bowed, suggesting that she is cautious in accepting guests. To the right of the canvas, a man is making a great effort pushing a door open.

Above can be seen rainbow-like facets, symbolizing hope. Apparently, artistic creativity and activity in war-torn Aceh is actually a way of survival. Will the war and violence end? When? Is there still hope? Art still offers some hope, at least for Mahdi Abdullah.