chitarum and Konijn Sate on Rooting Art in Family and History

In our third Behind the Naratif post, we consider the challenges that come with making art about or inspired by national history. chitarum and Konijn Sate, two artists from Indonesia, reflect on their approaches to archives, overcoming their fears, and their recent work for New Naratif.

Charis Loke (CL): Chita, you drew your comic Indonesia, 1965: A Conversation With My Parents based on photographs from private family archives as well as public archives. Why did you decide to use that method? How does using historical photographs impact the story you wanted to tell?

chitarum (CT): The drawings in my comics have always been based on photographs—whether my own or from the internet. However, I treated them as references; they didn’t have any significance for the stories themselves.

When I started working on Indonesia, 1965, I knew I could not do the same, because I didn’t want it to be treated as fiction. I felt a sense of responsibility because of the topic. If I use my imagination, it feels as though I’m making things up, similar to how the New Order “created” the nation’s history by building dioramas in museums. Because I’m talking about history, it makes sense for my reference photos to be credible and depict real events, hence the bibliography at the end of the comic.

I also do archiving for visual art projects and once co-organised an exhibition in which artists created work derived from archives. I was deeply inspired by that practice and wanted to see if I could do the same with the medium of comics.

Two panels from chitarum’s comic, one based on a photo of Pak Harto and Bu Tien at a rice harvest event (left), and one based on a photo of poet WS Rendra in the middle of a protest against the banning of TEMPO, EDITOR and DETIK (right).

CL: Konijn, you do a lot of research on Indonesian visual cultures, utilising books and other visual archives as references. How is this important to your process and work? Where do you find your archives?

Konijn Sate (KS): When I was a kid, I tried to be “edgy” and different from everyone else. I would try to draw something unique and be easily upset when I encountered another artist who’d drawn a similar idea. But I realised eventually that when we draw from imagination, it’s usually a composite memory of things we’ve seen before. And because most artists nowadays consume similar sources of visual references and inspiration (from the internet), they have a lower chance of drawing something truly original. Only a few people are blessed with new ideas; it is hidayah.

That was when I began to understand the importance of doing research: to be more conscious of where ideas come from. If we know the origin of our ideas, it is easier for us to synthesise them and alter the details to create something more original. I learned how to find and evaluate information on the confusing web of the internet while studying anthropology. I also go to the National Library to conduct research when I have the chance.

CT: Konijn, I really love your work! It inspired me to explore and tell stories about Indonesia’s culture. It’s great to hear that you also visit the National Library for research; what a treasure trove they are, especially for things that can’t be accessed online. Thank you for constantly sharing your knowledge and learning through your work. The touch of comedy in your short comics is so refreshing too. Could I ask: what will you be working on next? Any personal projects in mind?

KS: I’ve actually been struggling with low self-esteem lately, so I am not quite productive right now, or as funny as I used to be. But thank you for your kind words, they are encouraging! At the moment I’m gathering funds to purchase a hearing aid I need, which is rather expensive. After that, perhaps I might work on some of my unfinished personal projects.

Also, chitarum, I love your name. I quickly associated it with the Citarum River. “ci/cai” means water in Sundanese, and “tarum” is a plant commonly used to make navy dyes. Although the river is, ironically, no longer blue.

I really love your comic about the 1965 incident. It’s sweet to see your dialogue with your parents. And I’m thankful to you and your parents for willingly sharing such an experience with readers. I also have someone dear to me who suffered the impact of the tragedy even though they were born in 1966. When you worked on the comic, were you afraid of anything? How did you handle that, and what helped you to finish it?

CT: Thank you Konijn! My pen name is indeed inspired by the Citarum River, although I didn’t know that “tarum” is a plant!

Even now, I still have so much fear and worry. I don’t think I even have the right to tell such a story. My family and I weren’t impacted greatly. None of them were killed, for instance. There are so many other stories of survivors and victims that need to be heard. I’m still concerned that some people may interpret the comic the wrong way, because it focuses on my parents’ perspectives and my stance isn’t clearly defined. I was actually stuck and stopped working on it for a year or so. Charis’ patience and kind understanding helped me overcome my fear and so I finally finished the comic this year. Charis, did you have any worries when you decided to commission and publish this comic?

CL: When you pitched the idea for the comic to me, I wanted to commission it because it encapsulated a principle underlying many New Naratif comics: that history isn’t just for academics or intellectuals to write about and dissect, that personal narratives and artists’ voices are just as important, that stories are a starting point for more discussion. The way in which you described your approach of conversing with your parents convinced me that you could handle this story with the nuance and care it deserved. The editors made sure to do several rounds of edits on it, and several Indonesian team members also contributed their thoughts and suggestions. A similar approach was taken for Peeling Back the Facade of Indonesia’s Colonial New Capital, which Konijn illustrated.

KS: This was actually my first time making an illustration for an article about current issues or social issues. While I was honoured, I had to overcome my own anxiety in order to take the opportunity. I’m curious about how you decided I was a good fit for the piece.

CL: When I commission artists to do editorial illustrations for New Naratif’s features, I look for artists who have lived experiences that are relevant to the region or topic of the piece. Having followed your work for years, I knew you cared a lot about local visual culture and whose stories get told. You’re also able to deploy a range of visual styles depending on the project. I had in mind travel posters from the colonial eras, the style of which you’re adept at replicating, and it felt fitting for a story that asks: for whom is this new capital city being built?

Would you be able to share the thumbnails you came up with for the illustration and talk through your thought process? Did you use specific visual references when working on this?

KS: Ah, I know it’s a bad habit, but I rarely make thumbnails. Most of the time I just directly go to sketches and improvise along the way. But this isn’t ideal on a short deadline, so for this piece I created thumbnails to show for feedback.

Thumbnails and visual references for the header illustration for Peeling Back the Facade of Indonesia’s Colonial New Capital. Konijn Sate

I tried to explore a more symbolic or conceptual approach in the first and second thumbnails. For the third, I went along with your suggested idea of an ironic travel poster, but tried to find a style that would fit the narrative. Once the team chose the third thumbnail, I began to work on the illustration, sketching out the building and then finishing it because I was impatient to see how it would look. Satisfied, I then sketched the other elements like the people and rendered them. I must say, this isn’t what I’d suggest other illustrators do.

My process involves a technique of separating each layer of colour for a more realistic, vintage printed look.

The colour-layering process using digital tools to imitate physical print media. Konijn Sate

CT: Konijn, how do you balance your own interests and the client’s requests, when working on commissions? I personally find it very hard to do commissions, so I really admire illustrators who are able to do so while maintaining their personal touch and interests no matter the project, like you.

KS: This is a tough question to answer. As a freelancer, having a strong personal “brand” is important because it tells potential clients if my interests and work would fit with their project, and vice versa. But on the flip side, I’m less able to work with clients that don’t have anything in common with me.

CL: That reminds me of two approaches to freelancing. The first is where you’re known as a Swiss army knife, able to jump into vastly different projects and be what clients need you to be. The second is where you’re known for your unique voice, which includes style, interests and specific problem-solving approaches. And Konijn, you’re so well-known for the niche you occupy that people come to you for exactly that.

To conclude, what are some stories which you both think would be interesting to see in comic form? What stories do you wish other artists (or yourself) would tackle?

CT: Not to impose on others, but I would like to see more research-centred comics on local culture and history because comics are a powerful tool for knowledge transfer. For example, if you read manga, you get accustomed to Japanese culture through their stories. I wish comics from Indonesia and Southeast Asia could have the same impact on readers. The older generation may disagree as they had their fair share of great local comics in their youth, when comics from outside of Indonesia hadn’t made their way in yet. But my generation has countless options available to us.

To make a comic that’s based on such research can be exhausting. You’d need time and effort. Comic artists in Indonesia are usually self-published while in Japan, they tend to have editors to help with the research work. I’m personally interested in doing more historical comics but I may need to collaborate with a historian or researcher.

Panels from chitarum’s comic Indonesia, 1965: A Conversation With My Parents, without speech balloons.

KS: I agree with chitarum. And I think we can start with simple stories. For example, in Bali, women used to wear earrings made from palm leaves. Palm leaves were also used as writing surfaces at the time. I came across a cute story where Balinese girls would hide love letters in their earrings so they could deliver them secretly. Such a simple story is reliant on specific details and research, but I believe it’s impactful enough on its own—just like the animated short Bao, directed by Domee Shi.

CT: That’s such a sweet and inspiring story! I can totally imagine you making such comics (please do)!

Interviews were conducted in writing and edited for length and clarity.

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