Indonesia’s Banned Communist Art

In the early hours of 1 October 1965 a group of Indonesian army officers calling themselves the 30 September Movement assassinated six army generals. Unrest quickly spread across Jakarta as several thousand members of the Indonesian National Armed Forces attempted to stage a coup d’état against President Sukarno. Due to poor planning by the rebels and the superior military strategy of Major General Suharto, the future president, by the end of the day the coup attempt had collapsed.

The reasons for the assassinations are still disputed, from claims it was an internal army affair led by junior officers resentful of the generals’ corruption, to conspiracy theories about CIA and MI6 collusion. However, official blame immediately fell on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In the months that following, a violent anti-communist purge by the army resulted in the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists.

These events also brought an end to Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat (LEKRA), a communist art movement that was banned in the aftermath of the coup attempt. The group was founded in August 1950 by artists and writers keen to follow the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, and associated artists specialised in paintings highlighting the struggles of the Indonesian people. As the purge gained pace, members of LEKRA were killed or imprisoned for the controversial subject matter of their art. One such artist was Hendra Gunawan, who was released only in 1978.

Image: Hendra Gunawan, War and Peace, 1950. Oil on canvas, 94 x 140 cm. National Gallery, Singapore.

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