YINING WONG WRITES – The election cycle in Indonesia, sexism, differences in cultural upbringing — graphic designer Sanchia Hamidjaja has covered them all. Recently, I got to speak to her about her experiences as a creative professional in her home country, Indonesia, and her interest in shedding light on the local political climate through art.

Q: What did Indonesia look like when you were growing up? How have you seen it change?

A: I grew up in Indonesia during the 1990s. Our family rode cars everywhere. Even as upper-middle-class citizens, we still witnessed the results of a corrupt government. Traffic was terrible because no one maintained the roads, there weren’t any sidewalks, and there was a lot of unfinished infrastructures all over the place. My parents wanted a better future for me and sent me away to study in 2000. I finished high school and college, with my Bachelor’s Degree in Design communication in Melbourne, Australia.

Having the privilege to study abroad made my life pretty easy. No problem getting the job I wanted in advertising. After graduating, I decided that I wanted to take my education back to my home country. I wanted to relearn our history and culture. Being exposed to other cultures and histories opens up more opportunities to work with diverse communities at every socioeconomic level.

People ask me, why do you want to go back to Indonesia? It’s home, no matter how messy it gets. Now in 2019, we’ve had an elected government system for a long time that is more accountable. There are sidewalks and mass transit systems. Now I go downtown through public transportation and I feel like I’m in Singapore — clean and posh. The traffic is still insane, but I don’t think that’s ever going to change—although Jakarta is ever-changing.

Q: In your most recent work about the elections, you talk about differences in identity as part of a growing divide in your country. Have you personally identified with any particular one?

A: Indonesia, as a majority Muslim country, has thousands of islands, with hundreds of different ethnicities and dialects. I would say, the divide is between conservatives and pluralists. As a Chinese Indonesian and a Christian, I resonate with the pluralistic values of our country.

Where I live has always been diverse, but I am very lucky. I’ve never been bullied because of my ethnicity here. My mother is half Manadonese and half Chinese, and my father is Javanese and Chinese. Both my parents have Chinese names. It never impacted me in any way, — I do get jokes here and there, but that is part of the culture here. I grew up at a time where Chinese-Indonesians had opportunities to prosper since they were already accepted into society. During the former military leader Suharto’s reign, from 1967 to 1998, the Chinese were prohibited from expressing their traditions, language, and culture. We were pressured to change our Chinese names to more Indonesian sounding names. Suharto symbolically deprived an entire generation of its identity; but that ended more than twenty years ago, and oppression by identity is something we don’t want to happen again, although it seems to be gaining new ground.

Q: Who were the major candidates? How did identity politics come into play?

Jokowi Widodo and Prabowo Subianto were the major candidates this past election cycle, with Widodo winning his second term.

Sanchia Hamidjaja’s illustrations of Prabowo Subianto (left) and Joko Widodo (right)

Widodo is the first president to come from a non-elite and non-military background. He grew up selling furniture and lived in poverty. He’s famous for doing unannounced spot checks around neighborhoods, making sure that the work is being done.

I supported Jokowi back when he was governor of Jakarta from 2012-2014. He and his deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, were the dynamic duo. Before Purnama’s election as the first Chinese Indonesian deputy governor, Chinese-Indonesians were prohibited from being government officials. So to me and other Indonesian civilians, their leadership marked iconic progress. They appealed to young people and artists, so, as the new promise of hope, they were subjects of popular artwork, much like Shepard Fairey’s Obama campaign posters.

Local artist’s depiction of Joko Widodo

Subianto, on the other hand, a former lieutenant general, was fired from the military and committed human rights violations during Suharto’s regime. His crimes have never been brought to justice. He was married to the daughter of Suharto, but they are now divorced. Still, Subianto’s campaign gained some popularity. Suharto’s son reemerged recently and created a party that supports him, including oligarchs from the old regime and religious fundamentalists.

Elections have been intense since 2014. Many of my friends unfriended each other on Facebook because of opposing political beliefs, and they stopped talking about politics to their parents completely. Elections have become personal, much like the climate in the US since Trump’s presidency. Much of this is fueled by the rise of fake news on the internet.

Q: Going back to your work, you created a comic strip that sort of shows the current political climate in Indonesia. What was that creative process like?

A: Eleri Harris (Deputy Editor for The Nib) called me and asked me to do an explainer for the election. My friend Max Loh did the Malaysian one a while back as well.

I interviewed some of my friends and family, trying to get to know their political backgrounds better — where they were during the 1998 riots, and where they stand now. I was able to understand my Muslim friends better, and that there are different denominations ranging from moderate to conservative. One of the people I interviewed was a relative who had been a political prisoner in 1965. It broke my heart to see how fearful some like this are to speak out about it, even now.

It was pretty challenging during my research process to sort out which articles were legitimate and which ones were fake. As someone who supports Widodo, it was also hard for me to stay neutral. This was my first time making a journalistic comic piece, so I felt some anxiety about getting it right.

Q: What does it mean to be a creative professional in Indonesia? A political artist?

A: I’ve been working as a creative professional for more than 15 years. What’s most important is to stay busy and keep hustling. There are so many stories to tell in Indonesia.

Sanchia Hamidjaja is a visual artist/illustrator based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Design from Swinburne National Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia in 2004. She started her short career in advertising as a graphic designer and then later as an art director/illustrator in a motion graphics studio, and doing commissioned mural works on the side.  

After 7 years in the advertising industry, Sanchia decided to focus as a visual artist/freelance illustrator. Her works reflect a range of creative fields such as comics and cartoons. She currently resides in Jakarta with her husband and daughter.

To learn more about Sanchia, check out her website at http://the-slyndicates.blogspot.com/

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