Christian artists in the West suffer our little indignities, but those living in Indonesia are likely to be intimately “acquainted with grief.”
The world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation (86 percent of the population) has made life increasingly unbearable for the Christian minority (who make up the remaining roughly 14 percent) on the archipelago. With special laws and prohibitions on everything from attending church to getting a job, militants in Indonesia expect Christians to surrender and fade away under their afflictions.
It must be especially galling when instead Christians persevere in worship, schooling and even mange to create and exhibit art under highly adverse conditions. Perhaps it is even a little miraculous that Ni Ketut Sri Wardani, a woman artist and a Christian dares to continue painting and publicly speaking about her about her relation with God (as in ΙΧΘΥΣ not الله ).
Sri Wardani claims to be descended from the “first Christian family in Bali,” reaching back only to 1933. She and her husband, Erland Sibuea, live with two daughters in area where the church shrinks to about 1 percent of the population. In this explosive atmosphere of bombings and militant threats, they encourage other believers to expose faith through art to the entire crazy the world.
In the face of this oppression, most of their art doesn’t carry a whiff of the personal threats they live with. Not a smidgeon of self-pity or self-protection projects in pieces such as “Thy Will Be Done” by Sri Wardani, where she focuses on the deep suffering of Jesus before his crucifixion. Almost all of her works have the theme of the “suffering, affliction and punishment” of Christ, especially through his crucifixion.
“Thy Will Be Done” in watercolor on paper has elements of Indian and especially Chinese painting styles, in reflection of Balinese population and history.
Describing her almost violent renditions of the crucifixion and events leading to it for Image Magazine, Sri Wardani said: “I could no longer imagine the integrity of his body … only a broken body full of blood, ugly and no longer smooth. The price of his blood is so dear to pay the ransom of sinful human.”
Another luminously beautiful piece depicts the Prodigal Son with a dark crouching figure in the foreground. The son almost merges into a radiant and vague hulking figure without clear edges, evidently a reference to God as father figure. It is a very simple but effective painting, close to monochromatic and deeply textured for depth.
Sri Wardani’s testimony also touches on art and faith.
Describing a time when she was torn between wanting to continue studying art or doing what the majority of the world would consider more pragmatic, she claims a revelation : “I didn’t study theology, but I use my talent to serve God. I think I can serve God with my painting”
Casting aside a more practical interior decorating option because she didn’t “have peace in my heart” Sri Wardani chose to “serve God directly” through art: ” I asked God for the answer and the next day God showed me that I could depend on Him rather than on money or people.”
Bringing attention to yourself and your Christian God could potentially shorten your life in Bali at this time; it would be a lot easier to just stay home and hide. I salute Sri Wardani and the others who risk their lives to publicly live out the call God placed on their heart through literary, musical or visual proclamation of their faith, disregarding the terrorists around them.
In a place where distributing Christian tracts can earn you a charge of “blasphemy to Islam,” making images of Bible stories takes a special significance. It is so unlikely an activity that the mild action of painting becomes a positive assertion in the face of threat somewhat like passive resistance.
Ketut Lasia is an accomplished Balinese Christian artist who works in the delicate, detailed Balinese painting style. With the rich, varied history of colonies, settlements, religion and trade there, it’s surprising any one type of art ever rooted for long.
Lasia has had the opportunity to participate in exhibitions abroad and learn foreign art styles, but he prefers using the traditional religious art forms but incorporating Christian themes. An example of Lasia’s painting below: “Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples” reminds us that Jesus belongs equally to every culture.
Artists in Indonesia face further professional difficulties getting their work marketed and viewed to a larger audience. They are generally low income and culture-locked out of the larger galleries and web exposure.
Thankfully, a few groups have come to their rescue, including Calvin College, Image magazine and the Asian Christian Art Association. These exhibit, interview and create webspace for Indonesia Christians as well as bring some to cultural and educational events in the West.
One theme I found used by almost every Indonesian Christian artist involved a boat, a stormy sea and God. Christ “calming the sea” isn’t the most common theme with European Christian artists. Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous ocean on every hand, but I think more likely an allegory of perils for believers now in this time and place.
Life is like one big hurricane for many Christians in Indonesia and has shown few signs of blowing over soon. A few years back Catholic school girls were beheaded by militants. Even the U.S. Ninth District Court found in an immigration ruling that “Christians in Indonesia are a disfavored group … mistreated and a substantial number persecuted.”
Terrorists are quoted in court documents as making particular threats to the Christian population of Indonesia such as: “God has no son. Jesus could not help you. Until doomsday, Muslims will not make peace with Christians. Death to all Christians.”
I think that the lives, the courage and work of believing artists in Indonesia are a direct refutation of everything the Islamic terrorists can throw at them and a further proof for the Biblical prophecy that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church.