Dolorosa Sinaga, Creating Lasting Memories
*Jakarta Globe, 16 June 2009
Standing amid life-size bronze sculptures set directly on the wild grass and broken ceramic tiles outside her East Jakarta studio, Dolorosa Sinaga focuses intensely on the work before her. Fine silver-wire spectacles sit close to her face and tight braids encircle her head. Her hands, shaping a plaintive face into being, are caked with gray clay.
Known to her friends as “Dolo,” the petite sculptress from Sibolga, North Sumatra, is concentrating on an interpretation of the Shroud of Turin, the ancient cloth believed to bear an image of Jesus Christ. It is one of two pieces she plans to include in a group show at Edwin Gallery in Kemang, South Jakarta, in August. The ethereal figure stands tall as a child, its body shrouded in a cloak.
Taking a brief break from her work, she opens a small tin can, takes a pinch of tobacco and begins to roll a cigarette. Lighting it, she begins to speak. Often chortling with self-effacement when complimented, the warm and down-to-earth mannerisms of the 56-year-old artist are immediately disarming.
Seating herself at a table cluttered with miniature sculptures in her shaded studio, she pulls a small bronze figure toward her and, running her hands over it, says, “I can close my eyes and create a figure. That is how well I know the human body.”
Dolorosa, who has exhibited professionally since 1987, is best known for her depictions of the female form. She molds and casts effigies that portray women from all walks of life and all ages in a variety of situations — images of mothers, daughters, dancers, queens, freedom fighters and heroines.
“I am not one-sided,” Dolorosa says. “If I am really angry with one person, I still need to be able to smile with others. So in my art, I can be angry but, on the other hand, I can still make a figure that can affect someone with its beauty.”
She points to a fiberglass sculpture entitled “Mother and Child” (2004), of a mother with her head wearily resting on top of a chair, one of her arms dangling, her child standing before her. A friend, Dolorosa says, once told her, “You can almost hear the mother sigh.”
Yet, with the mother holding her child’s hand, Dolorosa managed to convey the maternal affection behind the fatigue.
“Perhaps I simply can’t work with anger,” she says. “Even when my dancer is screaming, she can move within her pain and still remain beautiful.”
It was rage, however, that inspired “Solidaritas” (2000), a bronze sculpture prompted by the 1998 riots and systematic rape of ethnic Chinese women, which led to the eventual resignation of President Suharto later that year.
“Until now, I ask how could that have happened? Many people don’t believe the rapes occurred,” Dolorosa says. “I am certain they did happen and that fact has become a black page in our nation’s history.”
The piece, of seven women cast in black bronze standing in a row, one with her fist in the air, now stands in the International Monetary Fund gallery in Washington, DC, as a reminder of that dark year.
The events of 1998 signaled the beginning of Dolorosa’s use of political elements in her art. She has since distanced herself from metaphoric visuals, and now creates beautiful, albeit direct social commentaries about the injustices faced by Indonesians. These include her harrowing sculptures of the victims of the Lapindo mudflow and a single haunting figure of Wiji Thukul, a poet often critical of the New Order government who disappeared during Suharto’s rule.
Insisting that the 2006 Lapindo disaster, which left 10,000 people displaced, should not be forgotten, Dolorosa created three sculptures of the event. One, “National Monument Lapindo Brantas” (2006), is a seated fiberglass figure of a desolate man, his head hanging down and his feet in a pool of mud. The couple featured in “The Gushing of Mud Will Never Cease” (2008) have faces that appear to merge into the mud that oozes at their feet, almost encasing them. Their mouths are open, as if screaming silently.
“I speak on behalf of how I look at certain issues. I want to convey the suffering of these people to others, like an agent, like a trumpeter,” Dolorosa says.
Each of her works tells a story and contains a message, stemming from her life experiences and deep concern for women’s rights and social issues, and the relationships between men and women.
Having focused on the female body for more than two decades, she began including more male figures in her work only five years ago. (Prior to that her only male sculptures were of Wiji and the Dalai Lama.) As a female artist making statements about the issues faced by modern women, Dolorosa said she considered it only fitting to involve men.
She received reactions of both pleasure and displeasure from her audience at the masculine inclusion. “People say, ‘Wow! Your character is changing,’ ” she says. “I can’t help it! I can’t please everyone.”
If the approval of the public is not foremost on Dolorosa’s mind, public awareness is.
“Women should not be the only ones fighting for our rights. Men need to be invited to be problem-solving partners. If a woman is aware that she can change her circumstances, then the other party needs to be invited to see that change.”
For the articulate and outspoken artist, sculpture was an obvious medium with which to communicate her messages to the general public.
“Rosalind Krauss, an American art critic, was one of the people who helped me understand sculpture,” she says. “She said only sculpture can give me the power of expression because the power of expression lies in the movement that is frozen yet alive in the eyes of the audience.”
Dolarosa spent much of the 1980s studying at some of the world’s finest art institutions, including the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, after graduating from the Jakarta Institute of the Arts, School of Fine Arts, in 1977.
Her study of the human form began at Saint Martins. Each day consisted of studying a male or female nude, examining their poses. “I studied the anatomy of the body until I wanted to vomit,” she says.
“It was a process of innovation, creativity and frustration. The result was not important. The most important thing was the learning process.
“We had to make sculptures from our understanding of the nude poses, of what was happening inside the body, and then provide our own interpretation on how the form should look.”
Dolorosa starts with wax or clay to make a preliminary model, sometimes adding cloth or plastic as the whim takes her. She either starts with a clay mold before making a positive image in wax, or makes the wax positive directly. The sculpture is then cast in bronze or fiberglass, and a patina applied, resulting in somber metallic colors of chestnut brown, gold leaf and viridian green.
Her hands are her tools, but it is her emotions that speak most clearly in her art and the process of creating it.
She approaches each piece individually, like an actor who embodies a certain character in order to make it come alive. When she sculpted her bronze seated figure of the Dalai Lama, Dolorosa said, she had to smile in order to recreate his tranquil face.
While many artists consider aesthetics most important when creating, exploring forms and colors merely for the visual enjoyment of their audience, that was not the path Dolorosa chose to take.
“I never work for the sake of aesthetics. It comes on its own. That is what makes me different from the others, perhaps.”
Although creating beauty has never been her motivation, it is a constant in her pieces that can capture strength and fragility, power and helplessness, sorrow and love, all at once.
In her emaciated, protracted bodies can be seen the influences of the artists she admires — the elongated forms of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the visual metaphors of Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte and the later works of subversive French artist Marcel Duchamp.
“If you look at a painting or sculpture, you are dealing with a two-dimensional and three-dimensional subject. With a painting, it is in front of your eyes. It is instant,” she says.
“But if people look at sculptures, they have to read the gestures and the visual language of the human figures they’re looking at, because only then will they be able to read the emotions behind these figures.
“Every sculpture,” Dolorosa says, “needs to move an audience. If they can’t, then you can consider that piece unsuccessful.”
Indicating her studio and its falling shadows of old and new sculptures with a sweep of her hand, she explains that her work requires an investment on the part of the viewer.
“My sculptures are not free. They demand for people to take pause and reflect. If I come here and can no longer stand and find value in my own works, they no longer have meaning.”