Amrus Natalsya: A Journey of an Artist Full of Struggles

On that day, Amrus Natalsya never imagined that he would be invited to travel around Indonesia by the Chief of Staff of the Navy, Subyakto. He was invited for a reason. His task was to create a statue of the “Indonesian Maritime Heroes.” As quoted from TEMPO magazine’s edition of June 30, 2008, Amrus once descended to stroll and enjoy the view on the warship Corvette Gadjah Mada. He walked slowly from the officer’s cabin to the bathroom wearing only briefs and a singlet, with a towel draped around his neck, while the people he passed wore neat uniforms. Unconsciously, Amrus walked through the corridor, passing Sukarno, who was entertaining guests. “Who is that person?” Sukarno asked the person next to him. “Amrus Natalsya,” he replied. Upon hearing the answer, Sukarno just smirked.

Amrus Natalsya was born in Medan on October 21, 1933, to Rustam Syah Alam and Aminah, the eldest of seven siblings. Amrus’s family belonged to the middle class. In Ibrahim Soetomo’s book Amrus Natalsya: Carving Ancient Ships from the Chinatown of Kota Tua (2021), it is mentioned that Amrus’s father worked at the Horizon Cross expedition company in Medan, while his mother took care of the children at home.

In elementary school, Amrus’s teachers were amazed by his talent for drawing. All of his works were never graded below eight by the teachers. “My first drawing was a map with symbols of mountains and streets of Medan City during the Earth Science lesson (geography),” said Amrus in the article “The Fighter” (2015). During junior high school, Amrus studied at Muhammadiyah School. Indoctrination about the evils of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) infiltrated his subconscious. “PKI is not a good party,” he replied when asked by his teacher about his opinion on the PKI rebellion in Madiun. Since childhood, he has thought of adding the surname “Natalsya” to his name. The word was taken from his ancestors’ hometown, “Natal” in South Tapanuli, and “Syah” was his grandfather’s first name. Amrus’s special interest in art began during that period. He enjoyed observing the traditional Batak and Nias carvings around him. He spent his time in elementary school drawing ships and boats. “He always got good grades for drawing,” wrote Ibrahim Soetomo.

When the 1945 revolution broke out, Amrus’s family moved to Pematangsiantar, North Sumatra. Despite the difficulties, Amrus’s desire to visit museums continued to burn. “Young Amrus was considered a failure in becoming a role model for his siblings. He loved wandering around,” recorded the same TEMPO edition. It was this wandering that determined Amrus’s life journey to become a painter. However, instead of agreeing to become a painter, his parents wanted Amrus to become an architect. Hearing this, Amrus remained steadfast in his life choice.

One day, Amrus secretly boarded a ship bound for Java. His childhood dream of going to Java to study at the Indonesian Academy of Fine Arts (ASRI), established in 1950 in Yogyakarta, flew away. He left behind everything he loved to pursue his dream: his parents, siblings, and birthplace. Amrus entered ASRI in 1954. His choice immediately fell on the painting and sculpture department. It was a blessing for Amrus, as he directly learned painting techniques from the masters, such as Hendra Gunawan, Trubus, and Sudarso.

After some time studying painting, he felt bored. Amrus didn’t want to be bound by rigid class schedules. He would learn if he wanted to. “Then he moved to ASRI afternoon classes, which were intended for students who wanted to become independent artists. The two previous departments were regular classes taught in the morning,” said Ibrahim. Amrus’s ability to sculpt was not separate from the role of Michael Wowor, his roommate. Amrus considered Michael a great sculptor. For a month, Amrus learned directly from Michael before he departed for Italy. In 50 Years of Earth Struggle (2011), the first statue, “The Forgotten Blind Man,” completed by Amrus, immediately entered Sukarno’s collection list in Yogyakarta.

In Yogyakarta, Amrus found freedom in art. He met and befriended various painters, like Affandi and Sasongko. Agus Dermawan T., in the book Heaven of Hendra’s Turmoil: From Revolutionary Bride to Iron Grille (2021), revealed that Amrus joined the People’s Painters (PR) with Hendra. In Yogyakarta, Amrus also shed the indoctrination about the PKI that had been ingrained since junior high school. “The party that I hated, I considered to be defending the people. Well, you won’t love what you don’t know,” said Amrus. The People’s Culture Institute (Lekra) actively supported all activities initiated by the People’s Painters. The massive promotion carried out by Lekra for the People’s Painters caused Amrus and several other painters to be nominated as cultural ambassadors abroad. “Amrus Natalsya and Batara Lubis were sent to Austria to attend the World Youth Conference (around the mid-1950s). When they returned, they visited Moscow, Budapest, and the People’s Republic of China,” wrote M. Agus Burhan in the book Indonesian Painting from the Japanese Occupation to Lekra (2013).

However, Amrus felt that it was unnecessary to stay longer in the People’s Painters. After leaving, he, along with Djoko Pekik, Suhardjija Pudjanadi, and others, held discussions in a studio located in a former lime-burning house in the Gampingan area of Yogyakarta in 1961. The discussion was not without results; they agreed to form a new studio called Sanggar Bumi Tarung (SBT). “Their views on the world are reflected in the name [Bumi Tarung], that life for them is a place of struggle between two opposites,” said one of the writers in 50 Years of Bumi Tarung (2011). Meanwhile, Misbach Tamrin (one of Bumi Tarung’s exponents) jokingly commented, “[The name Bumi Tarung] is bombastic and sensational.”

At uncertain times, discussions on Marxism were often held. Amrus strongly encouraged members to practice Marxism, at least to understand historical developments dialectically. On the other hand, Amrus diligently attended political courses held by the PKI. Sanggar Bumi Tarung was formed in such a way as to be drawn into the ranks of revolutionary realism. They tried to differentiate themselves from art groups that claimed to be followers of socialist realism. “We do not follow or orient ourselves theoretically to Moscow or Beijing. We adhere to our own theory, which is the 1-5-1 theory, as a guideline for creative work,” said Misbach Tamrin.

Amrus’s artistic style continued to grow from the dialectics of his fellow strugglers, who had to fight against stagnation. One day in 1961, Amrus translated his anger at the injustices of power regarding land issues into a work titled “Peristiwa Jengkol” (Jengkol Incident). “If my artwork does not express the truth, then what is the meaning of art?” said Amrus.

The G30S incident was never expected to change Amrus’s life path. The Armed Forces Daily and Berita Yudha newspapers loudly proclaimed that the PKI was the sole actor. He realized that his position was in danger. Since October 1, 1965, Amrus has had to move from place to place. “I hid in the Senen and Tanjung Priok areas, which were full of brothels and lenong dance events,” said Amrus in the article “Surviving from Prison to Prison” (2015). Amidst the hustle and bustle of people, he became a traveling merchant to avoid being recognized by patrolling soldiers.

However, Amrus could not maintain a nomadic life until 1968. One night at his home, behind Trisakti University, Jakarta, when Amrus had just finished painting, a few hours passed, and someone knocked on his door quite loudly. “It turned out to be the neighborhood chief... He said, ‘You are wanted for questioning by the authorities’.” Amrus had already guessed that the incident would happen sooner or later. “They were from the Operation Kalong team. I was on the list of wanted people because I founded Sanggar Bumi Tarung,” he said.

It didn’t take long for the military to take Amrus to a house on Jalan Gunung Sahari, Jakarta. There, Amrus was beaten, and occasionally his head was hit with a rattan. “You are a Lekra member!” accused the soldier while hitting him. Amrus couldn’t think long; instead of being tortured to death, it was better to confess so that the extreme bullying could stop. Although he had confessed to being a Lekra member in front of the soldiers, Amrus still experienced torture for eight months at Kalong Headquarters. Every night, he had to hear the sound of people screaming in pain in other cells. News always spreads about political prisoners who died. After undergoing torture at Kalong Headquarters, Amrus’s detention shifted to the Special Detention House (RTC) in Salemba, where conditions were the same. “If you want to urinate or defecate, you have to use a bucket. Everything [is done] inside the cell,” concluded Amrus. From Salemba, he was transferred to RTC in Tangerang. This time, he was forced to work in the fields under military supervision. Amrus’s artistic talent was utilized by the military by instructing him to work on several wooden statue projects.

His bitter experience of being kicked, hit, and slammed by the military came to an end in 1973, when Amrus was declared free. For the first time since 1965, Amrus was able to hold an exhibition at the Jakarta Cultural Hall in 1981. His work sold well. At that time, he had rented a kiosk in Pasar Seni Ancol. His kiosk was visited by the Mayor of Jeddah, Mohammed Said Farsi. He looked at each of Amrus’s works. After thoroughly examining them, Said Farsi requested Amrus’s willingness to create calligraphy statues from certain types of wood. Amrus agreed to the request. Finally, it was agreed that the project would be carried out in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Six months was enough time to complete the five calligraphy statues with the inscription “Allahu Akbar.” “I am the only Indonesian artist whose work is displayed alongside world artists in Jeddah,” said Amrus in the article “From Calligraphy to Umrah” (2015).

In addition to painting and sculpting, Amrus began to write a number of poems. He produced 300 poems, which were successfully compiled in the Collection of Amrus Natalsya’s Poems. One of his poems, “Colors and Eyes,” tells the story of the May 1998 incident. As a culmination, Amrus held an exhibition with his colleague Misbach Tamrin at the Bentara Budaya Yogyakarta titled “Two Fighters” on Wednesday, December 20, 2023. On January 31, 2024, Amrus Natalsya passed away at the age of 90.