Foreword from Listen To The World
Human in essence is a man of symbol. The ability to create meanings of our surrounding and present it as a symbol is perhaps one of the reasons that makes us Homo Sapiens. In doing so, human race proved to be succeeded in not only surviving a harsh world, but also thriving above it. Symbol is an intergenerational form of communication and guidance (ideas, beliefs, values, meanings, etc.) – a sacred bridge – that span across spacetime in order for humanity to making sense of the world they’re living. Hence, symbol by essence, is an abstraction – not a physical material.
As an abstraction, ancestral symbols have been impacted our physical world on day-to-day basis than meets the eye – both as a guidance and a discordance. It is lurking behind our blind spot, shaping our mindset and consequently affecting our behaviour, which eventually giving birth to a new symbol. Gender inequality and racism are to name but a few topics that show just that. Either as guidances or discordance, understanding symbol is instrumental, even more so knowing how diverse cultural symbols are from one region to the other. Otherwise, we will get lost in translation.
Art could be a good vehicle in exercising our mind to translate, understand and even comprehend as well as create symbols. After all, as Pablo Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Understanding symbol comprehensively, ideally gives us an ability to differentiate between the world of symbol and our physical world. Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe) questioned how we comprehend symbol in relation to our reality. In the case of racism, science has shown that human is a single race, yet we still deny it politically.
Symbol is indeed one of the building blocks of changes, but it’s not meant to dictate the world we live in. There are symbols we should preserve, and there are symbols we should correct. The article below explains semiotically how traditional/ancient symbols are still relevant in correspond to today’s context, thus we need to preserve, cultivate, and most importantly, apply its wisdom in our daily live.
Symbols and Visual Meanings on “Respect Each Other, Care the Environment” Murals
By D. Adikara Rachman*
The murals are presented in three level of layers: the underworld, which is about water, the middle world, which is the representation of land, and the upper world, which tells about celestial events. The interconnectivity of the symbols present in all layers of the world is complete cycle in building the visual narrative that is relevant to our current context. The visual narrative serves as the content of the murals, which depicts human interaction that is based on equality and trust, and humans’ connection with their environment in a broader sense, which is based on the awareness of functionality. The murals’ artistic value is formed by the contour in each object that also functions as ornaments. The dots are introduced in every area to fill the space. Bright and contrasting colours are used to depict tropical environment. The decorative elements – the ornaments on the murals – are inspired by the spirit of batik from northern coast of Java, which can be seen in the gender characteristic in wayang and stained glass art from Cirebon. All murals depict the pastoral atmosphere.
On the top right of this 3×3 meters-wall, one can see the picture of an active volcano that symbolises the warm, tropical climate of Indonesia and its fertile land where agriculture, traditions, and creations are born. The picture of a man and a woman facing together, which is shaped in the likeness of that in wayang, is the symbol of regeneration. It represents the next generations of the guardian of the environment, built on an inter-gender dialogue on the basis of equality in terms of roles and positions. The clouds, drawn based on mega mendung pattern from Cirebon batik, represent the weather and climate cycle. On the bottom right one can see a picture of a fish, symbolising a healthy body of water. Other complementing objects such as plants, flowers, water flow, and fields are added to further strengthen the meanings.
This 3×3 meter wall was created as the result of a subjective interpretation of the varied local wisdom in Indonesia, which is further combined into a narrative under the theme “Humans and Nature”. The murals represent the tropical nature of Indonesia. The approach to the decorations – ornaments in the murals – is chosen to remind us on the traditional visual art that is based on context, collective identity signifiers as a spiritual manifestation and life that is seen in macrocosm manner. All these are brought up to remind urban dwellers who may have been alienated from their roots and as a departing point for visual artists to make a creation. The following is the detail of the work:
The photo on left depicts a terraced filed as a symbol of agriculture. The paddy fields and plantations symbolise the pillar of economy of village dwellers. On the top part is a picture of an animal which is a simplification of Majapahit symbol. It represents a lunar calendar system that is connected to every activity and production event. The photo on the right shows the picture of trees, which is inspired by the tree of life (according to Javanese culture). The meaning behind it is that life, in a broad sense, is sacred and therefore must be governed with a delicate, orderly connectivity system. It serves a reminder that ethics is the foundation of our daily life.
The photo on the left depicts a tiger, which symbolises the sad reality of degrading land ecosystem. Tigers are diminishing from the earth and they are in the brink of extinction. The photo on the right depicts some fish, symbolising that a healthy river or ocean ecosystem are important for every living being. It is meant to lead us to rethink about the diminishing water springs and the degrading rivers due to human activities. On the top part, one can see the picture of two children playing, representing the next generations. It serves as a reminder that we are borrowing this world from the next generation and the harsh consequences on the incalculable environmental exploitation. The worst part of it all is the cultural damage and it may be very costly to rebuild it.
Mythical creatures in various local visual tradition in Indonesia are often manifested in different shapes. One of them is in the form of a dragon, which found frequently in the pre-Islam visual tradition in Java. Dragon is the symbol of the underworld or the pillar of the earth. It represents how water must be viewed as the support of life.
Woman is the symbol of the Earth. It means that Earth is the womb where the spirit of a living being began and the space to nurture love. The picture of two women facing each other in the middle of the mural are made in two different colours. It symbolises sisterhood in difference and sameness. On the right side there is a white, dotted line that represents grace, where fertility is brought by rain and wind. Another interpretation is that how nature keep the balance of seasons periodically.
The figure of a man symbolises leadership and courage. It represents the roles and responsibilities based on system, norms, traditions, beliefs, values, and rules that are established collectively. The two figures are facing each other, depicting the meeting of ideas and brotherhood. It means that in brotherhood we must expect differences that must be embraced by everyone and they should be seen as enriching instead of threats or impending conflicts. In the context of culture, differences are part of the dynamic of interrelationship. The white bird between the two figures is the symbol of peace that is borrowed from Western concept. It represents peace as a universal value, and the act of borrowing the concept is the result of openness in our interaction with other culture.
In the 3×3 meter wall there is a picture of an imaginative tree and a deer, which represents nature as one of the sources of many forms of art that has been created by our ancestors such as music, poetry, performing art, storytelling, drawing and crafts that are passed on to us. This part reminds us to create as good as our ancestors within our context, especially that we are now in the middle of a global battle of aesthetic prowess.
The visual symbols on murals are the result of subjective interpretations of many local wisdoms in Indonesia. The symbols serve as a respond to the global issue of humanity and nature that should have never been experiencing profound pressures. The sentence “Respect Each Other” on the mural is an expression of hope and a call to establish brotherhood or friendship to keep humanity from degradation due to our actions. The sentence “Care for the Environment” should be viewed as a reminder for me, you, and our friends to not be part of the environmental degradation. Together, we can rebuild our imagination and make a concerted effort to create a healthy environment for our future.
“Aesthetics is the truth that transcends time”
(D. Adikara Rachman)
* D. Adikara Rachman is the initiator of the mural project, a visual artist, a member of Group Expert in Sacred Bridge Foundation and a permanent lecturer at Art and Design Faculty, Trisakti University. The murals are located in Balai RW 07 Perumahan Nusaloka Sektor 14 – 5 BSD, South Tangerang, which were made from 4 to5 July 2020 by some of the artists of Friday Art Design.
English Translation by Riri Rafiani
Author: Adikara Rachman
Art Education Specialist at Sacred Bridge Foundation since 1999, and also Visual Coordinator at Listen to the World and Vox de Cultura.