SOEGENG SOEJONO : DONT CALL ME HERO
Meet Factory , Prague, Czech Republic 2019
In 1955, Indonesia's first president, Ir. Soekarno, initiated a program called MAHID (Mahasiswa Ikatan Dinas), which aimed to send undergraduate students from across Indonesia to study abroad. This program was established during a period when Indonesia had strong connections with socialist countries in terms of military, trade, culture, and education. MAHID enabled students to study various subjects such as science, social science, music, art, engineering, language, and psychology in countries like Beijing, Moscow, Bucharest, Prague, Brno, Sofia, and Havana. The intention was for these students to become experts and return to work for the Indonesian government.
In 1963, Soegeng Soejono, a student from Madiun, participated in the MAHID program and went to Prague to study pedagogy and child psychology at Charles University. However, the political landscape in Indonesia drastically changed in 1965 with the G30SPKI tragedy, which involved the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and resulted in a power shift from Soekarno to Soeharto, leading to the establishment of the New Order regime. The PKI members faced genocide, carried out by the military and paramilitary groups. This event also affected Indonesian students studying abroad, as the embassy conducted screenings of each student. Students were interrogated about their stance on the new regime under Soeharto. Those who supported the new regime were immediately brought back to Indonesia, while those against it had their passports confiscated, leaving them stateless.
Soegeng Soejono, also known as Bung Yono, was one of the students who opposed the new regime and chose to remain in Europe without a passport. He and his friends started a new life in Prague as political exiles, hoping to return to Indonesia someday. However, that day never came until 1998 when Soeharto resigned following large-scale student demonstrations that marked the beginning of the reformation era in Indonesia. Bung Yono worked as a laborer, an illegal worker in Germany, and an Indonesian language teacher at Charles University. He married a Czech woman named Barunka, and they have two sons. Eventually, in 1989, he decided to obtain Czech citizenship for ease of living.
Since his arrival in Prague in 1963, Bung Yono has been collecting photos connected to his personal life and the lives of Indonesian students. He collected these photos and videos for personal reasons, believing they might be useful someday. While many people consider him a hero, he humbly states that what he experienced in Prague is nothing compared to the innocent people who were killed in Indonesia under accusations of being communists. This project aims to present the daily life of a political exile living as an ordinary citizen in Prague. Through Bung Yono's photo collection, viewers can gain insight into his life and the lives of other Indonesians in Prague.
The video work represents three different times. On the left side of the screen, there is a video of Bung Yono's return to Jakarta after 30 years, while on the right, there is a video of him reading his first letter sent to his family from Dobruska, Czech Republic in 1963. This video represents the 30-year gap between his initial arrival in Prague and his return to Indonesia, showcasing the range of emotions including excitement, affection, laughter, and tears. It reminds us of the reasons he spent 30 years in Prague. The intention is to raise questions in the audience's mind about what transpired during those 30 years and encourage discussions about the dark history of Indonesia.
The installation also includes a large-scale photo honoring Bung Yono's contributions to the Indonesian diaspora in the Czech Republic. He played the role of a grandfather figure to Indonesians living or studying in Prague, and they called him Eyang, meaning grandfather or grandmother in Javanese. By presenting his photo on a large scale, akin to important figures like politicians or actors/actresses, the artwork aims to give him a sense of importance. This installation has been exhibited during an open studio in Prague earlier this year, and Bung Yono was pleasantly surprised by it. The use of everyday HVS A4 paper in the artwork demonstrates that everyday objects can hold significant value when we give them meaning.
Through this installation, I aims to shed light on how the misuse of power can alter the course of people's lives. The hope is that this work will bring appreciation to Bung Yono's life and spark discussions about the events that occurred in Indonesia from 1965 to 1967. I met Bung Yono in 2017 through contacts made during a residency in Stockholm. Three Indonesian exiles in Stockholm shared their stories, introducing the artist to Bung Yono. We stayed in touch and agreed to collaborate on a project. In 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in an art residency program in Prague, where we spent three months exploring the memories of the exiles and creating several artworks. A longer version of the video documentary is still in progress.
This work was made by the support of Meet Factory, Czech Republic.