In the hushed strokes of Indonesian artist Maryanto's When the Tree Falls, an urgent narrative unfolds—a testament to the resilience of the Dayak people, the Indigenous peoples of the Borneo island, in the face of encroaching development. This powerful artwork captures Maryanto's journey to South Kalimantan, a region plagued by rampant palm oil plantations, coal mining, and logging, which threaten the very fabric of the Indigenous Dayak community's existence. 

The struggle for Dayak’s land, customs, and right to life becomes a vivid tableau in Maryanto's art. Their portrayal of these struggles through their artwork promotes and urges to protect the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, reflecting on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Life on Land.

When the Trees Fall by Maryanto. Image courtesy of Ocula.

When the Trees Fall  became part of his showcase with Yeo Workshop at the 2023 Art Dubai's Bawwaba. Maryanto's works are easily recognized due to his iconic black pigment, which he scratches over to create highly contrasted white or light hues. Through this process, he is able to unravel the harsh realities faced by the Dayak people, especially due to the pervasive development of palm oil plantations in South Kalimantan. 

The subjects he speaks of flow from how the exploitation of forests creates socio-political complexities for the Dayak, such as transmigration, land ownership, and adjustment to a capitalistic life. 

Palm Spirit by Maryanto. Image courtesy of Yeo Workshop.

In Palm Spirit,  Maryanto has depicted a Dayak warrior’s headdress which can be recognized from its attached hornbill head. The headdress floats on its own without a Dayak's presence, wailing in pain at the sky as palm trees lay dead on its feet, a nod to how the palm oil industry has become one of the major contributors to deforestation in Kalimantan.

The Dayak Indigenous peoples view the universe as a nurturing maternal force that manifests love and sustains human life through plentiful resources. They are guided by the "Sesukup Belumbah Adat" philosophy, which translates to “whatever land your feet step on, you must nurture to the sky,” underscoring the fundamental importance they give to their environment. 

As a result, the Dayaks prioritize their stewardship of their forests, considering it a tangible way to honour the universe and pay homage to their ancestors. Hence, deforestation does not only affect them physically with displacement but also mentally and emotionally, as they feel that they are losing their connection to their ancestors and the universe itself. 

Palm Oil District by Maryanto. Image courtesy of Yeo Workshop.

Likewise, Palm Oil District consists of eleven embroidered crests, which are poignant symbols of provinces in Indonesia. Once revered for lush landscapes, these provinces are now marked by the omnipresence of palm oil plantations. The crests were once hopes of the Indonesian government; they bear symbols of prosperity and environmental protection, but in Maryanto’s exhibition, they were juxtaposed against the harsh reality of how these provinces have corrupted their natural landscape, something that South Kalimantan is increasingly inching towards.

Detail of the Palm Oil District by Maryanto. Image courtesy of Yeo Workshop.

Maryanto's art becomes a catalyst for change; it bridges the gap between environmental activism and artistic expression. In the complex tapestry of Indonesia's environmental challenges, his works stand as visual archives, documenting the history of landscapes corrupted by systems of power. As viewers confront these pressing issues, Maryanto's art becomes a call to action—a brushstroke that demands collective responsibility in preserving the delicate balance between society and land that the Indigenous inhabit and preserve for humanity.

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