Thursday, November 19, 2009

Suharto and The Last Supper


The late second president, of Indonesia, Suharto, who ruled as a military dictator, died on January 2008 in the country’s capital of Jakarta.

In conjunction with his death, Tempo magazine published in its 4-10 February 2008 edition an image of Suharto and his family in a representation of The Last Supper. The original painting by Leonardo da Vinci depicted Jesus Christ and his apostles having their last supper before Jesus’s crucifixion.

With Suharto depicted as Jesus Christ, unsurprisingly Christians were outraged and protested vehemently against the publication. The editors claimed that they used the picture for its design qualities, unaware of the religious connotations.

Paradoxically, numerous parodies of the last supper featuring cartoon characters and dubious personalities, are widely available online, and are somewhat tolerated more, in Christianized Western cultures.

This issue highlights several points. Kress & van Leeuwen (2006, p.36) state that the electronic media, multiculturalism and globalization, change the semiotic landscape, and therefore the intended message as well.

In creating a document, especially involving images of deities, icons and other items religious significance, there must be research done on audience effects so that there is no backlash from the public, especially minorities, to avoid offending cultural sensibilities.

By putting the image online, the documents message was exposed to a vast audience, most of which they probably did not cater for. This definitely increased the risk of further cross-cultural miscommunication (Shriver, 1997).

Ironically, the original message of the document, which was a critique of Suharto (his family members are depicted as his ‘apostles’ (beneficiaries) while their plates are empty (symbolizing their pillaging of Indonesia’s economy for their own ends), was lost in the maelstrom of criticism. The message unintentionally morphed from political to religious. By Weber’s (1995) standards, the editors were ethical in their apologetic response.

I suggest that all images used in documents, especially those reaching a multicultural, multinational audience, must be accompanied with footnotes carefully explaining the symbolism and semiotic meanings contained within the images.

This is to retain the original context; so that the intended meaning is transmitted to whichever audience that encounters the document.


Indonesian weekly apologises over Last Supper Suharto cover 2008, ABC News, viewed on 11 November 2009,

Kress,G & van Leeuwen,T 2006, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Communication, 2nd Edition, Routeledge, New York

Schriver,K.A. 1997, Chapter 6: Dynamics in document design: creating texts for readers, Wiley Computer Pub., New York

Weber,JH 1995, ‘Ethics in scientific and technical communication’ Wisenet Journal, vol.38 pp. 2-4

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