Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Art for a better world

Published: Sep 30, 2007

TOM PLUMMER speaks with Moelyono, an artist engaged with farmers threatened by a large dam.

Moelyono is an artist and writer in Tulungagung, East Java. Influenced by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, he has become well known for his successful efforts to encourage workers to engage with local political issues through community theatre.

The Perth based cultural exchange project, the Sam Bung Foundation, facilitated a visit to Australia by Moelyono for three weeks in October. Moelyono exhibited his most recent work 'Those who are bound' (Yang diikat). This multimedia installation included an opening performance in cooperation with Perth artists, students and volunteers. He also presented campus seminars and workshopped with primary school children. Becoming involved with the local community is in line with Moelyono's art practice, which promotes dialogue and is accessible to anyone who wants to take part.

The poor

Moelyono uses art to help marginalised communities develop autonomous spaces. Many Indonesian artists depict 'the poor', but Moelyono criticises them for not actually connecting with these communities to help them improve their situations. 'Contemporary art only objectifies the poor', he says.

Moelyono spoke with me about his most recent work: with farmers from Wonorejo forced to leave their land because of a large dam project. Though started in 1982 to provide Surabaya industries with fresh water, the project was deserted for many years due to funding problems. In 1994 work resumed, and 347 families began to move from their land following negotiations with local officials.

The villagers were offered compensation depending on the size of their land and the type of house they owned. Those with large pieces of land were able to buy houses in the nearby town of Tulungagung. However, the majority who owned only small tracts were forced to move into the hills behind the dam project because the compensation didn't allow them to buy land elsewhere.

Green belt

The main issue at present is connected with the 'green belt' around the reservoir's edges. Villagers were compensated only for land to be submerged once the dam was filled. Now officials have declared that those living in the green belt, up to 100 metres from the water's edge, must also move. They will not receive compensation.

The most immediate side effect has been the disintegration of the Wonorejo community. There is less work. Farmers with large compensation payouts bought houses and consumer items such as motorbikes. Now they realise they can no longer work as farmers. Most seek work in factories or building roads.

The 100 or so farming families who remain in the green belt will become landless squatters in the hills, unless their legal claims succeed. In the Kedung Ombo dam protests of the 1980s, students supported the evicted farmers. But in Wonorejo students don't show much concern towards land issues. In the Nipah dam protest on Madura a strong local Islamic community formed the core of opposition. But in Wonorejo the community tends towards secular religious practices and are therefore less united and less able to organise within the framework of Islam.

Also in Wonorejo local officials were more sophisticated in their negotiations with the villagers because they had learnt from the experiences of Kedung Ombo and Nipah.

Folk art

Moelyono has turned the Javanese trance dance calledjaranan into a forum for discussion. During weekly rehearsals the villagers come together to practise a form of traditional theatre and also to discuss the social realities they face. When the troupe performs in neighbouring villages they develop aspirations ordinary people feel.

At another level, the trance has a cathartic effect which provides both performers and the audience a chance to release psychological pressures built up because of the social situation.

In the Wonorejo area it would not be possible for Moelyono to do this any other way. All outsiders, including Moelyono, were banned from entering. However through his efforts to regenerate traditional folk theatre such as jaranan Moelyono can now meet with the villagers in order to develop dialogue. He hopes it will help them refine consciousness about their situation. Even so, Moelyono had to obtain a special artist's permit, and rehearsals and performances are frequently monitored by local security officials.

Tom Plummer is a co-founder of the Sam Bung Foundation. He recently graduated from Murdoch University, Perth.

Inside Indonesia 53: Jan-Mar 1998

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