Artists take to the streets in Solo in 2006 to defend freedom of artistic expression
When I first went to Indonesia in 1970 to study Javanese language and performance in Yogyakarta, I remained blissfully unaware of the traumatic events that had touched the lives of the artists with whom I interacted, and their wounds that were so raw. This was only five years after the 1965 coup and the subsequent massacres and arrests of people deemed to be communists or communist sympathisers. My drum teacher’s brother, for example, had been imprisoned without trial, but I never knew this until he was released, and even then the family never mentioned it. In 1970, people were still being detained, and there were deep unspoken divisions between friends, and within families. Only five years earlier, all arts had been highly politicised, but now there was no sign of this. Politics were never discussed, mainly because of fear, but also shame, desire not to look back, and hope in a new beginning. For those artists who accepted foreigners like myself as students, our ignorance was probably a welcome part of their forgetting. We were unwittingly part of the conspiracy of silence.
Fast forward to 1998. As the Suharto regime finally ended, I was working in Jakarta at the Ford Foundation, where I had been since 1995 (having previously worked as Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy from 1989-92). I was by now uncomfortably privy to the tight link between arts and politics in Suharto’s ‘New Order’ Indonesia, dealing closely with artists and NGOs who were finding creative solutions and using foreign grants to circumvent heavy state control on their activities. I was also interacting with the state apparatus for culture, which could block activities that foreign agencies supported. To a certain extent, this sense of manouvering in the cracks of power was similar to that of the artists themselves, but for them the risks of tripping were real and great.
New Order authoritarianism
By 1998, state control of cultural activity in Indonesia was so thorough that in retrospect it is difficult to track its incremental build-up over 32 years. This is partly because the New Order adopted authoritarian practices from the earlier period of Sukarno’s Guided Democracy regime. Censorship and intervention in the arts had been a feature of Guided Democracy, but by 1998 they were part of a well-established control system. Any performance or exhibition had to obtain at least four permits: from the regional offices of the Department of Culture and Department of Home Affairs, the military, and the police. Even so, any event could be shut down immediately if considered to have transgressed limits of tolerated political comment, or to have insulted ethnicity, religion, race or inter-group relations (a prohibition enshrined in legislation in 1984). Village artists had to hold artist registration cards, which they lodged with the local police. Artists invited to perform or exhibit overseas had to obtain special exit visas, which entailed government clearance.
By 1998, state control of cultural activity in Indonesia was so thorough that in retrospect it is difficult to pinpoint its incremental build-up over 32 years
Throughout the New Order, the state steadily developed a strong centralised infrastructure for culture. The tertiary art schools, most of which were established under Sukarno’s regime, were now better funded under the Department of Education. Artist-teachers became civil servants and the schools became the primary source of performances for state ceremonies. Through the provision of venues, facilities, staff support and project funds, the state was the major sponsor for performances and exhibitions all over Indonesia, at the art schools, state-run venues, and the cultural centres or Taman Budaya in regional capitals.
In fact, over the long Suharto durée it became increasingly impossible for artists to operate independently of the state system. Although private sponsorship was possible, businesses were wary of supporting unpredictable performances or exhibitions, because they feared adverse reaction from the authorities. Similarly, there were few privately-run arts venues. Difficulties in organising permits for events and in obtaining funding, together with the constant threat of closure, deterred individuals from establishing alternative arts spaces, and restricted their activities.
Thematically, there was a minefield of topics that if touched on, could draw the authorities’ ire. ‘Excessive’ regionalism was to be avoided, for it could easily be perceived as a threat to national integrity. Regional languages were sensitive – tolerated in the traditional arts, but dangerous if used in the media or for contemporary public cultural expression. Anything that attacked the New Order’s sacred doctrine of development was taboo; for instance, injustices in land seizure or inadequate compensation for landowners. Anything that questioned the regime and its authoritarianism, corruption or cronyism, or that in any way questioned its version of history and justification for its existence was ‘subversive’. And there could be nothing that questioned the power of the military.
At the same time, however, Indonesian artists, somehow tip-toeing through this minefield, developed sophisticated allusion, satire and humour. The overarching frame of authoritarianism provided a common vocabulary and symbols they could use in creative protest. Artists counted on the fact that the authorities usually did not understand the sophisticated subversion in their work. And while corruption was one of the many crippling aspects of the Suharto regime against which artists protested, one can also say that it was corruption that gave artists ways out. For all the required permits, registration cards, or State Secretariat approval to receive foreign funds, bribes could be paid. State authoritarianism was never a monolith with clear rules, but rather a maze of interlocking power structures that could be played off against each other. Artists became adept at negotiating this maze in a dangerous game of survival.
After Suharto: decentralisation and local cultural expression.
A zapin dance spectacular sponsored by the district government
When Suharto resigned on May 21 1998, it took some time for changes to take place in the arts world. There was no immediate euphoric group response. People did not yet fully believe that the regime had ended. Even though many artists were activists, they were not prepared or organised to make unified demands for systemic change, as were the journalists who immediately demanded (and achieved) the dismantling of the Department of Information.
The dismantling of the New Order’s centralised system for culture took place gradually and as a result of other political changes rather than as a response to demands of those in the cultural sector. Confusion over ‘culture’, and what the state should do with it after 1998 was evident in the redefinition of ministries. For the first time in the republic’s history, culture was separated from education, taken out of the Ministry of Education and Culture and attached to the Ministry of Tourism, with various name changes and reshufflings of sub-departments. It is now called the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The reshuffle is indicative of a shift of priority from culture as a national concern of heritage and edification to culture as commodity.
Ten years after the beginning of the end of the New Order in 1998, one would have to ask how much the state now actually matters in the arts in Indonesia
The most important change, however, came about as a result of regional autonomy from 2001. With decentralisation, funding for culture became a regional matter. Effectively, this means that public funding and priorities for culture are now determined at a district and urban level by the bupati (district heads) and mayors, and depends both on how important they consider culture to be and whether they think the arts can promote them. Regional autonomy has also made political campaigning a constant factor of life, with endless elections for bupati, mayors and governors. Candidates and political parties employ artists to enliven their campaigns. While this is another income source for artists, it is also potentially divisive for the arts. The introduction of regional autonomy has also fostered the depiction of local cultural distinctiveness, with arts festivals and events linked to tourism. Indonesia’s regional languages or regionally-inflected Indonesian are more prominent in media and the arts. Ironically, though, with regional autonomy and the resultant decline in national supervision for material heritage, there has been a sharp rise in black market trade in cultural artefacts, and damage to historical sites.
Ten years after the beginning of the end of the New Order in 1998, one would have to ask how much the state now actually matters in the arts in Indonesia. The centralised infrastructure has gone, and what exists has little influence. Nor is the state any longer the major arts sponsor. State-related events involving artists, such as election campaigns, are funded by individuals, business interests, and political parties. Even where local officials value the arts and artists as embodying local identity and commit some public funds, they are likely to do so by mobilising local private and business sponsorship. In general, business sponsorship has become much more important as a funding source for the arts. Television stations, cigarette companies and wealthy individuals sponsor events and venues. Small, privately owned and operated performance and exhibition spaces are central to the arts scene. The phenomenon is also generational. Many artists who grew, developed, and suffered during the New Order, now in their late 40s, 50s or early 60s and with some money to feed back into the arts, are creating independent arts spaces and building artistic communities around them.
But dark shadows of the New Order remain. For instance, there has never been any official revocation of permit requirements. Partly, this is because there is no single national body to rescind them, but it is also because during the Reformasi period, artists never banded together as a group to demand their revocation. The situation is uneven. In many places, artists just stopped organising permits, with no consequences. In Yogyakarta, artists usually merely inform their local police of an event, and perhaps request assistance with traffic control. But in Bandung, for instance, the police more frequently demand permits, and by many accounts have recently become more intrusive. In Aceh, the number of permits required for public events has actually increased, with performance clearance required from both the police (at three different levels) and the syariah law authorities.
The main threat to artists these days is not from the state, but from the community, particularly right-wing Islamist groups like the Islamic Defenders Front, the Brigade Hizbullah, and the Hizbut Tahrir among others. The right – or power – of religion to enforce public morality, an issue that came to the fore nationally in 2006 with the debate about the proposed anti-pornography law, has serious implications for the arts. One impact of regional autonomy has been the implementation of regional regulations (peraturan daerah, or perda) often introduced by Islamic parties. These regulations often concern club closing hours, or bans on the sale of alcohol, but the more infamous set out to regulate morality and implement aspects of syariah. While the legal status of many perda is questionable, they have not been challenged and tested nationally for fear of a backlash. This further emboldens certain Islamic groups to take the law into their own hands as morality police, and to threaten events perceived to offend religion and morality, including exhibitions or performances considered erotic or displaying nudity, and any event with alcohol.
The possibility of sudden flare ups – of an exhibition or performance being invaded by a group protesting against moral depravity and offence to religion, and the inaction of police in response – is a real threat to the current vibrant artistic scene in Indonesia. This is because politically-neutral business sponsorship is an important aspect of this vibrancy, and just as business was wary of offending the Soeharto regime, so too will it become increasingly wary of attracting the anger of the Islamic right.
To Indonesian artists in their early twenties who were still in primary school in 1998, the New Order is not even a memory…
So, ten years after the fall of Suharto, has the New Order in the arts been effectively obliterated? Would some young person coming to Indonesia to study, or a young Indonesian artist working today find it easy to get an idea of what it was like back in 1998? To Indonesian artists in their early 20s who were still in primary school in 1998, the New Order is not even a memory, and this shapes a large gap between them and those aged 30 and above. This could be just a personal view because I share the New Order memory with the latter and not the former. Certainly it is difficult for people now to imagine the overpowering centralised state apparatus that controlled the arts until 1998.
But the shadow of New Order repression remains in the permit system that can still be invoked by local officials if they feel they have the power to do so. Older artists are aware that even if they can now act freely, the situation differs elsewhere, and it can always change. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the New Order is the fact that artists in Indonesia prefer to negotiate their own situations rather than fight together for wider common interests and structural change. They find their own ways to balance their independence, freedom and global connectedness with the possibility of local vigilante intervention or re-implementation of lapsed New Order controls.
On the whole, (the rallying against the proposed pornography bill in 2006 was an exception), they fight their own battles locally rather than raise issues nationally which might backfire and worsen their own hard-won freedoms. Negotiating authoritarianism – however this is manifest – is still part of artistic life. ii
Jennifer Lindsay is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. She has worked as a diplomat, arts administrator, foundation program officer and academic, and writes on cultural policy and performance in Southeast Asia; language, media and performance in Indonesia; and translation. She benefited from stimulating informal discussions with many Indonesian friends in writing this essay and particularly thanks Lono Simatupang, Butet Kartaredjasa, Moh. Marzuki, Azhari (Komunitas Tikar Pandan, Aceh) and Ucok Homicide.