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Never a number

Categories: Asia-Pacific, Genocide, Human Rights, Indonesia, Shared humanity, West Papua

by: Watershedd
Leave feedback | 31 Comments »

On the ground floor of the Art Gallery of NSW I saw one of the most moving pieces of sculpture I can remember visiting. It did not surpass the sublime La Pieta, Michaelangelo’s masterpiece of sorrow and loss, but its impact was every bit as forceful. In the dimmed light of the large room, a single exhibit comprising twenty evenly spaced figures in ranks spoke such volume that I was reminded how easily people become numbers, a head count. In the rank and file of the regimented clay and resin sculptures, I was initially reminded of the Terracotta Warriors of Chinese fame. But where each of the warriors found in Xian had a unique face, there is little variation in the clay sculptures despite the hand carved faces in this exhibit; the major difference is the molding of genitalia. Notably, the male sculptures flank the female in each of the outer columns.

They Bear Witness, by Dadang Christanto. Exhibit at the Art Gallery of NSW.

They Bear Witness, by Dadang Christanto. Exhibit at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Christanto Dadang created this exhibit, They Bear Witness, in response to his own experiences of human rights abuse and loss and it is undoubtedly the very personal nature of the message that gives it such power; the best art comes from immersion in the deepest of emotions.

It is not the nameless sameness of the clay figures that brings home the import of loss – it is the variability in the clothing they hold, stiffened with resin into the shape of the forms that once would have worn them, bereft of the body that should have been within. The sameness of each clay figure is broken by those clothes … persona, however superficial, is held in the arms of each. A few have the clothes of infants laid on top of those of the adults, making the total “body count” closer to twenty-five. These are the men, women, children dug up from mass graves, burned at the stake, gassed in the chambers, bombed into oblivion, starved through warfare. Dadang’s sculpture is the victims of Indonesian ethnic repression of people of Chinese descent from 1966-1998, but it could equally be the Jews of the Holocaust, the victims of the Bosnian genocide, of Kigali, of West Papua.

Dadang’s exhibit reminds us that the head count in any conflict and at any grave can so easily become the mental barrier between analytical assessment of the loss and the sheer horror that each and every “number” was an individual, a person with their own hopes and dreams, unique to them. These are the spirits of the deceased holding what once marked them as individuals when they still had flesh to fill their clothes.

I’d gone to see the Archibald finalists. And whilst I found some of the paintings interesting, even beautiful, it was my wanderings throughout the rest of the gallery that left me staring at the lines of Dadang’s artwork, consumed by the simultaneous scale of the exhibit with the simplicity of the message – they were numbers in a head count of genocide, but they were also people with names, now lost to time.

There’s a large piece of Christanto Dadang’s soul in They Bear Witness. It calls to you imploring you not to look away, but rather to recognize the dress, the print of the fabric, the tiny infant’s clothes on top. Impassive faces in clay unable to speak or express other than to show what they may have been found wearing at the depth of the mass grave.

I could walk around and give each sculpture in the exhibit a name. And whilst a rose by any other name may well smell as sweet, the rose itself would not respond to being called a daffodil. There is power in names and there is power in art. Christanto Dadang reminds us all that human rights abuse on a mass scale should not only be counted, but the individuals given due acknowledgement, even if we cannot identify who they are.


  1. Great post Anne, I like your style. Yes no human being should ever be just a number.

  2. Watershedd we’re never a number, great post, you are an evocative writer.

  3. No Watershedd, we’re are never a number. Great post, keep them coming!

  4. Mahmud Ahsan via Facebook says:

    I hope that this sculpture serves as a permanent reminder of the injustices that humanity serves not only to all other creatures living on this rock, but also to each other.

  5. Never a number, always an individual!!!

  6. No human being should ever be just a number.

  7. A very moving sculpture and thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing both.

  8. Genocide and greed, two peas in a pod!

  9. White greed via a yellow man – genocide of yellow and black in its path.

  10. A very moving and thought provoking sculpture, and Watershedd a very insightful post. Thank you for sharing both.

  11. Thanks for your post Watershedd, when next I’m in Sydney I will pop in and have a look at what sounds like a moving piece of art.

  12. Great post Watershedd, keep the pressure on!!!

  13. No human being should ever be a number, the unfortunate reality is that we’re nothing but numbers to be churned over by the mill of greed, self-interest and oppression.

  14. Lets hope that humanity never again has to witness the events that gave rise to this sculpture. It would be naïve to think that it wont!

  15. Never a number, never an excuse for ethnic clearing!

  16. No one should be a number, the sad reality in Oz is that every Indigenous person is nothing but a number.

  17. We are nothing but a number to white Christian bigots!

  18. If only it were true that we were more than a number!

  19. We are nothing but numbers to whitie!!!

  20. I pray to the spirits that humanity will one day stop treating other living beings, including other humans as just numbers – I hope I live to see that day.

  21. We are more than numbers, though sometimes we all tend to forget that important point.

  22. Never a number, always a person.

  23. Watershedd I found your post moving and insightful. Thank you!

  24. Tamara you really need to grow-up girl!

  25. No member of humanity should ever be treated like a number!

  26. We never should be a number, but we always are!

  27. Human nature and personality mean we are never a number!!!

  28. Never a number, always a person – please remember that people like Graeme who lives on the streets of Melbourne are also people, not numbers.

  29. Australia and numbers! The Tampa crisis had an enormous effect. Domestically, the Howard Government’s line attracted strong support, especially in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. The Australian Government’s popularity rating rose throughout the crisis. In the federal election following the arrival of the Tampa, many viewed the asylum seekers as ‘queue-jumpers’, falsely claiming to be refugees in order to gain illegal entry into the country. There were concerns of a security risk, involving a ‘floodgates’ situation where ‘people smugglers’ would deliberately aim at Australia as a perceived ‘soft target’. Australia appeared, once again, as the frightened country. The issue also divided the Labor Party internally, with the minority Left faction of the party arguing strongly in favour of a ‘softer’ approach, including the abolition of mandatory detention.

    The Howard Government was once again showing the world how virile Australians are. Internationally, things were rather different: Australia was criticised by many countries, particularly Norway, which accused it of evading its human rights responsibilities. What is that ?

    It was a kind of welcome back, you ignorant, militantly anti-intellectual, misinformed, uneducated and racist member from Queensland !

    Howard was responsible, although not alone because he was masterful in reaching the darkest corner of the Australian psyche, for the resurgence of ‘views’ not suppressed but controlled for a short time which seemed to be competing with each other to show belligerence and hostility on the issue of immigration and ‘integration’. Out of this miasmatic atmosphere came the more revealing manifestations of what the ‘conservatives’ are all about.

    Such animus was for the time being directed mostly against Muslims. In August 2005 Ms. Bronwyn Bishop, a former senator for the New South Wales Liberal Party who after the Liberals’ defeat at the 1993 election began to be seen as a possible leadership candidate and for that purpose had moved to the House of Representatives, called for Muslim headscarves to be banned from public schools, an opinion also expressed by another prominent Liberal, now Shadow Minister, Sophie Mirabella. Prime Minister Howard, said that he did not agree with this view, on the ground that “as a ban would be impractical.” “Impractical” – see !

    In November 2005 Ms. Bishop expressed the view that “she is opposed to the wearing of the Muslim headscarf, where it does not form part of the school uniform.” This is because “in most cases the headscarf is being worn as a sign of defiance and difference between non Muslim and Muslim students” and then went on to say that she “does not believe that a ban on the Jewish skull cap is necessary, because people of the Jewish faith have not used the skull cap as a way of campaigning against the Australian culture, laws and way of life.”

    Ms. Bishop, cosseted on and representing a leafy northern suburb of Sydney, demanded the ban of headscarves in schools because they made women subservient; then, when confronted with the fact that many headscarved women felt perfectly free, she said they were like Nazis who felt free in Nazi Germany.

  30. No member of humanity is simply a number and shouldn’t be treated as one!

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