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Semsar Siahaan

The Shade of Northern Lights: A Current Reflection


How many people do you know would collect orange seeds, put them in a pocket, and throw them on land where they can fruitfully grow? We know one, Semsar Siahaan (1952-2005) [Ed.]**.

A sensitive character in a desensitized world, Semsar concerns himself with issues of humanity and disparity. Born in Medan, North Sumatra, 11 June 1952, Semsar spent his later life contemplating and working in British Columbia, Canada. There, came the idea for one of his most iconic works, G-8 Pizza. It showcases not only his stellar technical ability in painting, but also his concerns in life.

Semsar indeed is a man who feels. He considers his soul stolen by the agenda of global organizations.

Pizza, a global favorite, is a metaphor for the world. Right in the center are characters symbolizing strong economies controlling the human race standing behind them, i.e. on the periphery of the pizza/world. Eight slices are portions of the world divided among these G-8 countries.

Semsar’s other paintings present similar elements and messages. One created in Canada presents a view of how Native Americans are treated. Nature, a spiritual symbol of ancestry for the Native Americans, carelessly destroyed.

It wasn’t just Canada that shaped him though. In Jakarta, his works were carried by protesters against the new order regime prior to the fall of Suharto. Indeed, his concerns on humanity and disparity had been present during his university days in Bandung, Indonesia, long before his move to Canada.

The following article was written in 2004 as a companion to Semsar’s exhibition event at Indonesia’s National Gallery. It was written by our advisor, Serrano Sianturi, who was then the Managing Director of our parent organization, Sacred Bridge Foundation.

What truly intrigues us is the relevance of Semsar’s concerns 13 years after this article was written. Are we not still living in the same world Semsar grew up in? Disparity is far from over, especially when differences are involved. Even within the borders of developed countries today, disparity amongst different races and/or religions is still blatant.

Globalization is also a struggle. US President Trump’s immigration ban is a direct attack on the free flow of people. Continuing presence of protectionism very well affects free flow of capital. Meanwhile, the use of politically correct culture solely to avoid public outcry means free flow of information still struggles to transform us into a knowledge society. I think we can all agree how easy it is today, still, to find ignorance.

We hope the following article can be a way to reflect how far we have come and where we should go.


Throughout history, humans realized one decisive revolution, the industrial revolution. Within 150 years after its commencement, world’s gross domestic product has grown twice as large as total production of the last 6000 years. The industrial output of the 150 years is equivalent to two-thirds of the output of those 6000 years. It is an amazing achievement, no doubt about it. However, with the enormous growth, along came huge costs, such as the sky rocketing population level, relentless exploitation of natural resources, and environmental degradation, among others.

Now that we are entering the third millennium, the abovementioned problems are far from being solved. Yet, humans are already anticipating the formation of another revolution, with its own major problems. This time it is technology (comprising acceleration, convergence, and digitalization) and economy (including deregulation, privatization, and globalization) that are driving change.

It is safe to say, within the context of technology and science, that we are now living in an age of miracles. Humans have successfully climbed the steps to heaven when we explored outer space, drew the genetic code of humans, unfolded the mystery of the human brain, and created information advancements. They have brought us well being, but also left us one open question: are they accompanied by an equally sound progress in our ethics?

We have left, it seems, the age of ignorance. With information technology, we can now tap a gigantic pool of information within minutes, if not seconds. Misery in Africa, war in the Middle East, natural disaster in South Asia, forest fire in Sumatra, we can now get hold of such knowledge almost instantly thanks to our technological progress. The question is thus whether we have become more sensitive than our ancestors to human problems? Are we now in a better position to help our suffering brothers and sisters? If we have to answer with a reluctant “no”, then we have to ask further, what was the point of reaching those technological advancements in the first place?

Within the realm of economy, problems lie not only at the ethical level, but also in implementation. After the collapse of Soviet Union, capitalism has become the only globally dominant economic system. However, within the decades of “lonely” capitalism, we have seen more contradictions and problems than before – although there have also been plenty of proofs for increased welfare and justice. Capitalism becomes confused when it plays the role of the sole world economic system. It can no longer uphold one of its dogmas, competition, after its competitor abandoned the race.

There are other problems. The main principles of capitalism, “let the market rule” and “free competition”, actually contradict another important principle, democracy. The rule “one man one vote”, coined to protect equality and analogized with free competition where everyone has a chance, is really contrasting economic inequality, where only a handful dominates because of the same free competition principle.

Deregulation and privatization have also been conducted in the name of free competition, with the aim of reducing government intervention in the economy. Efficiency, an objective of market economy, is sought to be attained. Unfortunately, this ‘positive’ intention results in the government’s weakened problem-solving capability in handling economic issues. Simply remind ourselves of diminishing budgets and facilities for, among others, education, health, small and medium enterprises, and the arts, to look for proof. Also keep in mind that these problems occur in both developed and developing countries.

Globalization, basically the free flow of trade, capital, information, and human resources, has brought more benefits to economically advanced countries. For developing countries, this discourse has been hampered by the establishment of economic blocs. Every bloc is busy creating regulations to protect itself against competition from other blocs. This is ironically the reverse of free trade, a principle of free competition.

Free flow of capital, hoped to provide developing countries’ access to foreign investment, has not been sufficiently regulated. As a result, an investment can move between countries at anytime. Not only has economic stability become difficult to maintain, availability of employment becomes unpredictable. Furthermore, the under-regulated money market has made the concept of trade-of-balance irrelevant in the calculation of foreign exchange rates. A sound foreign exchange rate has become very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.

Free flow of information through the Internet, news, and entertainment media has also not shown substantial progress. We are still a long way from a knowledge society. We also realize now the negative implications of global news and entertainment on local cultures.

Free flow of human resources is actually nothing new. Migrations have happened since the early days of humans. Today however, it is almost completely confined within the economic realm. Previously, migration occurred because of slavery, cheaper land, and ideological differences, among others. Now, it is almost always driven by higher wages. “Brain drain” is one the inevitable consequences.

Globalization is not absolutely “bad”. There have been positive developments. One of them concerns war. Because globalization has efficiently reformed the base of welfare and power to become non-territorial, war is no longer part of the major countries’ conflict resolution. Furthermore, the emergence of transnational activist networks, where people share a commitment towards human rights, the environment, economic wellbeing, as well as inter-civilization dialogue, is an effect of the free flow of information. Whether acknowledged or not, the anti-globalization movement has itself benefitted from the positive side of globalization. Sense of freedom is more palpable in the era of globalization. Democratization sounds louder in many parts of the world today.

This Janus-faced globalization, with all of its contradictions and dilemmas, has puzzled many. It has made people anxious. Bounded as communities, it gave people the right to become suspicious. The confrontations between those who favor and those who hinder have not refined the meaning of globalization. On the contrary, they have caused it to move without direction: two steps to the left, then forwards three steps, to the right one step, only to move four steps backward. For the neoliberals who prefer globalization, the future is bright. For those who oppose it, globalization is nothing more that the internationalization of capitalism, which will only bring more oppression, exploitation, and injustice.

However, injustice is the one issue that can be agreed upon by the two camps. It is also impossible to speak about injustice without mentioning the issue of human rights. They too face serious problems in this era of globalization. The first concern is in conjunction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is too oftenly cited in human rights campaigns all over the world. The use of the word “declaration” has not only limited the authority of this rule, but also made it unbinding. It is thus unsurprising that even oppressive government heads could easily adopt the declaration, because they knew it would not affect their leadership style.

This declaration is doomed to fail from the start, because it ignores the views of indigenous people and Islam. Indigenous people, represented by the Informal Working Group of Indigenous Populations, have claimed the right to self-determination, and asked for the acknowledgement of their societies as different and separated from the general public, but equal contituents of the human race. However, as of today, their demands are locked away at the UN. As for Muslims, the fact that they have not been involved in the formulation of the declaration is one of the decisive factors of the West’s questionable purchase of Islam.

Second, the issue of human rights has become a foreign politics tool for advanced countries in the northern hemisphere, to be used at will against developing countries in the southern hemisphere. Human rights become important when related to their foreign political interests, irrelevant when it comes to their own land. The development of human rights, like other things, should start at home, where infractions are real and painful.

Third, the upholding of human rights frequently confronts problematic conditions. In the case of reconciliation, for instance, which is a way towards peace, rule of law as a pillar of justice too often has to be disobeyed. If, on the other hand, justice has to be maintained, peace may not occur. More often than not, this condition occurs when one regime takes over another, or when two countries engage in war. Another example is the case of humanitarian intervention vis-à-vis sovereignty. We know that sovereignty is but one implementation of human rights. Up to this day, we still reject foreign intervention. However, interventions are often necessary to free people from repression and misery. This “noble” act is, in fact, a violation of the principle of sovereignty.

Another problematic condition rises from the issue of inter-generational economic rights. Poverty alleviation is both urgent and a worldwide phenomenon. Yet, because of its size and earnestness, it often justifies the consumption of natural resources in gigantic proportions, thus taking away the economic rights of our children and grandchildren.

It is this labyrinthine complexity, with all its awkwardness and difficulties, that was depicted by Semsar Siahaan during his domicile in Victoria, British Colombia, Canada. We sense such enormous emotions within his works of art and can feel his sincere intentions to change this sad fact of humanity. We have also found a glimpse of despair in his newest paintings and art installation. Therefore, we believe that this art exhibition is best presented as an aesthetical experience, so that all of us can start to do something to uphold human rights within our own homes. It is all important to summon the citizenry, popular sectors, and vulnerable constituencies of societies to develop a political language and effective means to collect and distribute relevant information. With such an active participation and consultation, there is hope for a culture of human rights and humane relations between state, society, and individual.

Our deepest gratitude to Semsar for entrusting us to organize this single person art installation and painting exhibition titled “The Shade of Northern Lights”. It is a great honor to participate in this outstanding event. We also salute Semsar for his persistence in defending human rights from abuse and ignorance wherever he stands. A word of appreciation is also extended to the State Minister for Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia, TIFA Foundation, Todung Mulya Lubis, UNESCO Regional Office Jakarta. We thank them for their generous support. Not to forget, we would like to apologize for all things short of what has been expected from us in the organizing of this exhibition.

Serrano Sianturi
Managing Director

[Ed.]*

G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man by Semsar Siahaan
G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man by Semsar Siahaan, 2003 Canada
G-8 Pizza by Semsar Siahaan
G-8 Pizza, charcoal on used corrugated cardboard

Featured image at the top of page is a painting by Semsar Siahaan titled “I wish I’m a Seagull“.

*Original article was slightly edited to better match our format.

**Slight edit. We added information about Semsar. He was born in 1952 and passed away in 2005, around five months after this exhibition.


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