Dadang Chistanto was born in Tegal, Central Java, Indonesia, in 1957. Of Chinese heritage, he converted from Christianity to Islam as an adult.
In the late 1970s Dadang studied at the Indonesian Art College in Yogyakarta and later joined the Bengkel Teater group led by the celebrated writer and poet WS Rendra. Here he started to explore social and political concerns through literature, music and performance. In 1987 Dadang joined the Indonesian New Art Movement, and by the 1990s Yogyakartan artists such as Dadang were gaining a reputation internationally as well as within Indonesia.
They give evidence reflects a traumatic incident from Dadang’s childhood. In 1965 at the age of eight a number of soldiers came to his house and, while he and his family were asleep, took his father away. Dadang has not seen his father since then, and still does not know why he was taken away.(1) It is still something Dadang finds difficult to discuss with his mother.
The political situation in Indonesia at this time was volatile. An attempted but failed left-wing coup against the government sparked a physical assault on those involved, including many artists and intellectuals. Ethnic Chinese were also targeted as they were seen to have an association with Communism. It has been estimated that between 100,000 to 2 million people were killed in Indonesia during this period.(2)
The 1990s was once again a time of government upheaval and breakdown of law and order in Yogyakarta, and Dadang has also produced works which reflect on these events.(3) The resignation of President Soeharto on 21 May 1998 and the fall of the New Order regime, which had been in power since 1966, brought new artistic freedoms in Indonesia. For example, previously exhibitions could be shut down at any time and artists and writers randomly arrested; now, formal government permission was not needed for such exhibitions. However, Dadang’s experience with They give evidence reveals that another type of repression and censorship remained which no longer comes from the government, but from society itself.(4)
The figures Dadang has produced are evidence of an injustice suffered, both physically and mentally, within a society tainted by power, poverty and oppression. He is a firm believer of non-violence and through the works he produces truly tries to convey an awareness of the importance of a peaceful society.
Dadang moved to Australia in 1999 and currently lives with his wife and two children in Darwin, where he lectures at the Charles Darwin University. What accompanied this move to Australia was a sense of freedom to express his own suffering and question the decisions humanity makes for itself. They give evidence is dedicated to all the victims and survivors of the brutal military regime in Indonesia of 1966–98.
(1) Christine Clark, ‘Dadang Christanto: keeper of memories’ in Caroline Turner and Nancy Sever (eds), Witnessing to silence: art and human rights, ANU, Canberra 2003, p52
(2) Clark 2003, p55. Clark notes that the generally accepted number killed was
(3) See Caroline Turner, ‘Dadang Christanto’, Speaking for humanity: art and social justice (exh cat), Beyond the Future, the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery 1999
(4) Hendro Wiyanto, ‘The big hearted art of Dadang Christanto’, Latitudes, vol 32, Sept 2003, p47
Issues for consideration
- Discuss why the artist has chosen to name this work They give evidence. Consider his personal journey and influences.
- Research both historical and contemporary artists who address social and political unrest in their art practice. Discuss the underlying forces that cause change in society. Compare the responses of these artists to Dadang Christanto’s art practice.