Published: Jul 22, 2007


Barbara Hatley

During the ‘bad old days’ of Suharto’s New Order regime, repressive state control was a major problem for the arts. There were real constraints on freedom of creative expression. Famous figures like the playwrights Rendra and Riantiarno and the singer Iwan Fals experienced dramatic bans of their performances. Local theatre groups, musicians and visual artists had to seek permits from the government and the military before every performance and exhibition. Popular writers and media figures had to tailor their work to conform to standards acceptable to the authorities.

The ending of the Suharto era, and the weakening of state ideological control, was naturally expected to have a liberating, energising impact on artistic expression. Suharto’s resignation in May 1998 was greeted with a rush of celebratory artistic events. At the Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Centre in Jakarta, an open stage was set up where famous rock bands played each night and anyone who wished could perform or speak. Across Central Java, wayang shadow puppet performances were held in thanksgiving for the departure of Suharto and the unseating of unpopular local officials.

The sense of liberation of expression was not confined to the political domain. By happy coincidence, Saman, the first novel of female writer Ayu Utami, with its sensationally explicit discussion of female sexuality, was launched a few nights before Suharto resigned. Utami’s novel pioneered a profusion of works in this new era by other young women, discussing sexual themes with a freedom previously unheard of for female writers.

Missing old targets

But as the euphoria died down and the new era became established, a more mixed picture began to emerge. Oppositionist art, particularly contemporary theatre, which had thrived as an outlet for political critique under Suharto, experienced a loss of focus and rationale. Big names in the theatre world such as Riantiarno and Putu Wijaya experienced a sense of confusion and disorientation as they faced the new conditions. Riantiarno stated that he would never write another play. The poet and cultural figure Afrizal Malna turned to involvement in NGO work for the poor, as a more valid and socially relevant mode of social action. As thousands of people thronged the streets in huge demonstrations and rallies, theatre audiences were tiny. Why would people come to the theatre to hear views they could read in the newspapers, and see on television?

In time, Riantiarno staged successful new political plays, and Afrizal returned to writing. But a major change has taken place in modern theatre’s relations with its audiences, and with its former connection to social and political processes. There is no longer a broad-based movement of protest and reform for which theatre provides expression. One playwright/director joked that he hoped Akbar Tanjung, head of the Golkar party, recently charged with massive corruption, would be chosen as president in 2004. Here would be someone really despicable for activists and artists to confront and lampoon, to get the old momentum back.


Tyranny of the market

Commercialisation and globalisation are major forces facing artists and challenging creativity today. Television and other mass media, heavily influenced by international popular culture, concentrate on spectacle and sensation to attract viewers and advertising revenue. This in turn plays a dominant role in shaping public taste. Audiences at live performances expect glamorous spectacle and humour similar to what they see on television.

Artists respond to these expectations to remain popular. The dalang, the puppeteer at wayang performances, for example, was traditionally the sole master of the event, narrating, acting out all the roles and dispensing Javanese philosophical wisdom. Now the dalang often seems like the compere of a television variety show, introducing guest comedians and sexy singers.

Such trends are not new. But they have escalated since the end of New Order because of changes in government funding. A key factor has been the move towards privatisation of state media. The state television station TVRI, for example, has had to find new ways of financing its own production costs. In the past, TVRI stations used to encourage and stimulate regional performing arts by giving local groups the opportunity to broadcast on television. Now only those groups who can pay for the privilege get to appear on screen.

The shift to regional autonomy, in 2001, giving regency level governments greater economic and administrative control, has benefited the arts in regions where officials promote cultural forms to express local identity. But in other regions, artists sadly report that local government officials are interested only in making money. Officials see art as a drain on resources rather than a resource in itself. With much reduced government involvement in the arts, market forces reign supreme.

Looking to the local

But gloomy reports of declining appreciation of the arts represent only part of the picture. At the local level, artistic activities are flourishing. The East Javanese city of Mojokerto, for example, maintains a lively program of arts events. In Central Java in 2003 and 2004, neighbourhood concerts held to mark Independence Day on 17 August, seemed to be celebrating a new sense of democratic participation.

At one event I witnessed, a lion dance by a local Chinese performance group was followed by housewives in leotards dancing poco-poco, a kind of folk line dance, then Islamic singing and sermonising by a group of earnest young men in pici, fez caps. At another, a group of street buskers performed discordant heavy metal music before a rather pained-looking audience, but were warmly thanked for their contribution by the master of ceremonies, and again by the district head in his speech.

Such events have always been participatory in format. But there were clear, unspoken limits on who performed and how. Performances of the Chinese lion dance, like other public expressions of Chinese culture, were forbidden in the Suharto years, and no Chinese residents ever participated in neighbourhood concerts. Strict Muslims likewise viewed such events as unrelated to their concerns. Street buskers with dread-locked hair and body piercings were tolerated as neighbours, but hardly invited on stage to celebrate their membership of the community. It seems that local artistic practices and shared performance events are providing expression of freer, more inclusive notions of what it means to be Indonesian, participating in one’s local and national community.

Women’s bodies, texts and social activism

Some interesting examples of these complex trends at work can be seen in relation to issues of gender. Two major developments in this area have attracted great attention: the upsurge of literary works by women writers, and the phenomenon of the singer Inul. Inul became hugely famous for her sensational bottom gyrations, their denunciation as immoral by veteran singer and Islamic figure Rhoma Irama, and her defiant refusal to cease performing. ‘Why should they care about me when there are pornographic VCDs and prostitutes in the street? They choose me because I am an easy target,’ was her reported response. Both cases may have important implications for women’s social experience and artistic creativity.

In the previous New Order era, women’s writing and performance were very constrained by official gender ideology and conservative social attitudes. For women’s bodies to burst onto the stage in this way, literally and figuratively, suggests that something significant is going on. Female artists are expressing a sense of confidence and self-assertion which might be seen to connect with broader social trends, such as the active participation of women’s NGOs in the anti- and post-Suharto reform movement, and the recent heightened public attention on violence against women.

At the same time commercial media interests have promoted these women artists as a lucrative marketing venture, exploiting the sensational appeal of their work. Photos of the young, attractive women authors are prominently displayed in all discussions and promotions of their books, grouped together under the sexualised label ‘sastra wangi’ (‘fragrant literature’). Inul look-alikes have sprouted on every television station, dressed in ever tighter, skimpier costumes and gyrating ever more provocatively. Many women viewers express a sense of unease and hostility rather than enjoyment and empathy watching their acts. Has the new freedom of sexual expression for women in the arts been exaggerated and sensationalised by commercial forces and lost its liberating momentum?


Neighbourhood participation

Once again, away from the media spotlight, at the local level one finds a more varied and interesting picture of women’s participation in and assertion through the arts. Examples from the Javanese Independence Day performances mentioned above illustrate women ‘doing their thing’ in a variety of ways. In previous years the line-dancing housewives in tight pants would have been clad in traditional batik dress playing the gamelan orchestra, or attired in conservative suits singing in a choir. Leaving aside artistic issues, the shift suggests a greater freedom of public bodily expression for women past their svelte teenage years.

One neighbourhood show in 2004 featured an all-women performance of the Javanese melodrama ketoprak. The story concerned a struggle between two rural strongmen, played by the director, a veteran actress, and another middle-aged woman. The pair, dressed in black farmers’ clothes with moustaches and beards, swaggered about, flexing their muscles, at one point ordering a man in the audience to give them some cigarettes, which they smoked with gusto. At the end of the performance the whole cast gathered onstage to shout ‘Merdeka!’ (‘Freedom!’) and sing the Indonesian national anthem. This finale could be said to sum up symbolically the nature of the event — a group of women happily contributing to their community and nation by showing that women do it too — act, dance, sing, joke and entertain.


Subverting the stereotypes

Such local-level performances of popular theatre and music reflect gender attitudes in the surrounding society. In modern ‘high art’ on the other hand — theatre, literature, visual arts — gender questions are more directly and deliberately addressed. Current gender stereotypes are criticised and new directions are explored. Examples of the work of several young women theatre performer-directors in different regions of Indonesia show these processes at work. Inonk (Wahyu Widayati) and the group Sahita in Solo, Cok Sawitri in Bali and Shinta Febriany in Sulawesi subvert conventional images of female and male to suggest new possibilities of gender identity.

Inonk was previously the main female performer in the Solo theatre group Gapit, playing wise old grandmother figures in plays evoking the struggles of poor Javanese communities in the age of ‘development’. Gapit ceased performing after the tragic death of its director and leader in 1997 but Inonk has maintained the legacy of its strong, lower class old women in innovative dance performances. Inonk and fellow members of the Sahita group perform the stately court dance srimpi, traditionally presented by young daughters of the nobility. But instead of fulfilling the expected image of refinement, elegance and youthful beauty, they appear as grey-haired, wrinkled, bent-backed market sellers, in worn village clothes.

Such performances challenge the dominance of youth and beauty as constraints on women’s activities and standards for judging their worth. Sahita’s representation of unambiguously old and imperfect female bodies performing lofty court dances defies these restrictions and claims space for ordinary women’s bodies. Another major theme of Sahita performances is assertion of underclass identity. Some observers see rebellion against elite culture in the group’s subversion of the conventions of court dance, and of the image of palace womanhood. Inonk and friends describe what they are doing simply as ‘membumikan srimpi’ (bringing srimpi down to earth), making it part of the practice of ordinary people.

While Sahita celebrates ordinary women, the Balinese performer Cok Sawitri engages with an infamous figure from historical mythology, Calonarang. A widow with magic powers said to have disrupted social order in the realm of eleventh century king Airlangga, Calonarang’s standard image is that of a terrifying witch. Cok Sawitri, however, portrays her as an heroic victim of centralised political power and patriarchal order. Shocked and angered by the 1996 attack on the headquarters of Megawati’s PDI political party by Suharto’s thugs, Cok Sawiti saw connections with Calonarang, as a lone female figure with her followers, attacked by the mighty forces of King Airlangga. She performs a monologue where Calonarang describes this unjust attack and her scapegoating by history. Beyond current politics, Cok is interested in deeper issues of male and female nature. ‘Why does the feminine disappear in the exercise of power?’ she asks. ‘Almost all power becomes hard and brutal…’

Shinta Febriany likewise critiques models of male power, presenting alternatives to stereotypes of male ‘strength’ which entrap men and promote violence. Her play, my name is adam without capital letters, begins with three male actors carrying out household tasks: cleaning the stage, moving cooking dishes around, feeding white mice. The men become ‘objects’ of domestic activity: women actors smear them with butter and sprinkle them with flour. A woman performer creates a huge penis out of butter, and on the tip a sparkler is lit, like a candle on a cake, to celebrate men’s liberation. The men shave their heads, as a bodily marker of their new status. The mood of the performance is playful and humorous, but its message is serious and confronting.


New opportunities and challenges

These three examples show women artists employing different dramatic strategies to challenge long-accepted gender stereotypes and present alternatives. The current ideological emphasis on democratic participation arguably allows women more opportunity to speak with their own voices and control representation of their own bodies. This more inclusive climate has likewise opened up artistic expression to other previously marginalised groups, such as Indonesians of Chinese descent, and those with leftist political backgrounds, now writing their stories after long years of silence. Indonesian arts and artists today face many challenges and contradictions. Yet at the same time, increased freedom of expression offers new opportunities, and pride in local identity stimulates artistic activity. Like Indonesian society as a whole, the situation of the arts is dynamic, fluid, evolving.

Barbara Hatley (barbara.hatley@utas.edu.au) is head of Asian Languages and Studies at the University of Tasmania.


Inside Indonesia 83: Jul-Sep 2005