Art galleries can often be controversial and political. That’s why they exist, isn’t it?
One of the National Gallery of Australia’s most political, controversial and poignant pieces is to be found within its delightful sculpture garden, situated between the main gallery building and Lake Burley Griffin.
I refer to ‘Heads from the North’, a memorial comprising 66 bronze heads bobbing just above the waterline among reeds in a marsh pond. The memorial, by Indonesia artist, Dadang Christanto, is to the hundreds of thousands of Christanto’s compatriots (including his father) who were killed in the brutal suppression following an unsuccessful military coup to remove Sukarno as President of Indonesia in September 1965.
The mass killings occurred between late 1965 and early 1966 – hence the 66 heads.
Christanto was eight years old when he lost his father. Unable to grieve publicly at the time for fear of reprisals he launched his work at the National Gallery, in 2004, with a public expression of his personal grief.
According to The Australian newspaper (24 August 2013), “After burning joss paper, he smeared ash on his head, then walked clothed into the pond, where he caressed each of the heads in remembrance of his father and other victims of that tragic era”.
While left leaning Surkaro remained President, Major General Suharto (later President) assumed effective control and his violent suppression of basically anyone who had the audacity to oppose or criticise him is one of the worst, and least known, atrocities of the 20th century. Within a few months around 500,000 communists, suspected communists, left-wing sympathisers and ethnic Chinese were dead and countless more tortured or imprisoned.
A survey published by the Jakarta Globe in 2009 showed that over 50% of university respondents had never heard of the 1965-66 mass killings – clear evidence of Suharto’s desire to wipe the event from Indonesian history.
Just prior to seeing this memorial I had visited the Indian Ocean Tsunami Memorial, just across the lake from the National Gallery, and had been saddened to be reminded of the loss of 230,000 innocent lives to the ravages of nature (incidentally just three months after this memorial was dedicated). Being then reminded of the deliberate and needless slaughter of 500,000 made my blood boil. A Hague Tribunal subsequently found the US, the UK and Australia complicit in these deaths.
The National Gallery’s sculpture garden is open 24/7.
Address: Parkes Place, Parkes Canberra, ACT 2600
Directions: Parliamentary Triangle Area
Phone: (02) 6240 6411