‘Uniting a Nation’ in Christian Science Monitor

October 2008

An Indonesian artist uses her canvas to unite a nation

Grace Siregar taps local artists to create public sculptures and other artworks that emphasize themes of peace and reconciliation.

At first, Grace Siregar responded to the political upheaval of 1998 in her native Indonesia with artistic shock. Suharto, the repressive strongman who ruled for more than 30 years, was gone.

In the streets, Indonesians were turning on each other, neighbor on neighbor, ethnic group on ethnic group, to vent their frustration over a generation of political repression and recent economic woe.

Siregar’s oil painting, “My Country,” begun that year while she was abroad in Holland, is a wall-length, sullen, black cloud. “We were famous for our kindness and then we changed to something else – demonic almost,” she says. “I was crying when I painted it.”

But a strange thing happened when she returned to Indonesia and visited East Timor, a restive province that had just suffered through a bloody struggle to win independence from Indonesia. There, Siregar was treated with a surprising tenderness by the ethnic Timorese who had every reason to hate her. Elsewhere in the country, a sense of gentility seemed to be holding on, too.

And so from the ashes of the upheaval came a new mission: to draw fractious groups back together – through art.

Since then, Siregar has been a sort of roving artistic reconciliation show, working to carve out new places for expression as the country explores its thresholds for tolerance in the post-Suharto era. She has gotten rural artists from warring religious groups to contribute to joint art installations in the eastern provinces of Maluku. She has invited a polyglot group of artists to contribute to her free-form gallery in Sumatra. She’s painted peace totems on freeway overpasses and asked diverse painters to depict the devastating Asian tsunami.

Siregar is a classically trained painter who has had works displayed in Indonesia’s National Gallery, but her calling now is helping the country to vent on canvas instead of at one another.

“The most important thing for me now is to make my art contribute to all of Indonesia,” she says. “I’ve had time to think about what I want, and this is what I want.”

Her most successful work so far may be in North Maluku, in Indonesia’s historic eastern spice isles. Post-Suharto violence erupted there in 1999 after a fight between a bus rider and driver in the capital of Ambon swelled into attacks and reprisals between Muslims and Christians. A separatist movement gained new traction among the restless Christian minority.

By the time Siregar and her husband, filmmaker and aid worker Alexander Davey, arrived in 2003, the street battles had stopped but were still fresh in peoples’ minds. She noticed that street artists had been painting murals with reconciliation themes on the sides of old houses and market walls. She sought them out and encouraged them.

At the same time, Siregar, who once worked as a journalist in Europe, started a weekly show interviewing musicians and other performers on a Catholic-sponsored peace channel, Suara Paksi Buana.

After a year building up the cadre of local artists, she and other artists decided to push forward with a demonstrative peace installation, using local materials spread across a large coconut grove in the northern city of Tobelo.

“These guys who were just coconut farmers’ kids were doing the most amazing things,” says Siregar. “They didn’t have any training, but they were born to be artists.”