May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

We refuse to become victims

We refuse to become victims

Indonesian, Australian and Timor Leste artists collaborate

Angie Bexley

Gembel in Timor
 Angie Bexley 

In December 2006, artists working in three countries created a dialogue across different social, political and cultural realities through the medium of print.

This collaboration resulted in a series of four large-scale maps illustrating stories of state injustices, conflict, environmental and resource depletion, and hopes for the future. ‘We Refuse to Become Victims’ is a statement about the need for cross-cultural communication between Australia, Indonesia and Timor Leste. The project is self-funded and involves the three art collectives of Gembel (Timor Leste), Taring Padi (Indonesia) and The Culture Kitchen (Australia).

The idea for the project grew out of Canberra, where print artists from The Culture Kitchen met with Taring Padi artists living in Australia, Jon Priadi and Aris Prabawa. What began as a Canberra-based project was soon going beyond the boundaries of Australia’s capital. The more they talked, the more the project grew in size and in its capacity to incorporate the perspectives of Indonesian and Timorese artists.

At each stage of the journey, the artists were involved in a dialogue, both conversational and visual, on local and international issues. They communicated through a variety of visual and print mediums, including screen prints, woodcuts, stencil and drawings by hand. The project also resulted in a colourful and lively film documenting the working process. The film is set to a soundtrack which includes songs by Gembel and the Yogyakarta-based bands, Shaggydog and TeknoShit (former resident Taring Padi band).

The Indonesian collective Taring Padi (literally, the teeth of the rice plant and a metaphor for people’s power) formed in 1998 in Yogyakarta.  The group is well-known for having a creative ethos which emphasises a collective, process-oriented approach to the production of artwork. Taring Padi has a history of working in collaboration with other society-focused groups both throughout the archipelago and abroad as part of its people-oriented approach.

Canberra-based print artists formed The Culture Kitchen in December 2006 with the objective of communicating their art, and their social and political concerns.  The artists felt that the way many Australians experience and understand other cultures is often mediated by television and corporate-run news. This project was an opportunity for artists from different cultures to discuss common issues directly, from their own perspective, cutting out the middle man.

The name of the Timorese collective, Gembel, is an Indonesian word meaning ‘vagrant’, and is a direct reflection of how Timorese youth see themselves portrayed by development agencies, the government and international media. The picture of young Timorese as rioting youth, burning and looting houses became a particularly pervasive image during the 2006 crisis that wracked the tiny nation. The members of Gembel wanted to show that Timorese youth are not all rampaging and out of control.  

In this vein, Gembel references ‘Maubere’, initially a derogatory term used by the Portuguese to refer to the Timorese during the colonisation of the tiny half-island (1511-1975). The meaning of Maubere was turned on its head by the Timorese during the revolutionary 1970s, when the word signified Timorese pride and became a strong symbol of the Timorese independence movement. For the group’s loosely affiliated members, the name Gembel signals a similar Maubere pride and the very essence of what it means to be a Timorese youth living on the edge of Dili society in the Borja da Costa memorial park.

Collaboration across cultures

Jon Priadi and myself, armed with the maps, travelled first to Timor Leste to work with the Timorese artists. Because of security concerns in Timor, it was decided that The Culture Kitchen would travel to Indonesia to work with Taring Padi in Yogyakarta. In Yogyakarta, Taring Padi and The Culture Kitchen watched uncut footage of Gembel working on the prints as well as recorded messages on camera in order to gain an understanding of the context and working conditions of the artists in Timor Leste.

In working on the maps, the groups held initial discussions about the range of issues they wanted to cover. Stories, ideas and perspectives were traded and they set to work. One person would start drawing an image, another would cut and another team would print the image on the map.

The Culture Kitchen adapted well to the radically different working conditions of manual printing in Indonesia, such as using ‘feet power’ to stamp the prints on to the maps. The Australian artists also grew accustomed to the sense of collective ownership. Bernie Slater, one of the founders of The Culture Kitchen, explains: ‘Working collectively is different to how we normally work at home. The meaning of political art is strengthened when it is more about people working together making the art rather than having an ownership of the work.’

It is these multiple in-country experiences of working together on the maps that give the project a critical edge. Taring Padi artist, Fitriani, gets straight to the point: ‘In this project, we have worked together, we make the art together, and through this we come to understand what the problems are for our friends in Timor Leste and Australia. They also come to understand the problems we face here in Indonesia. Together, we hope to communicate our concerns to a larger audience.’

The collaboration between Timorese and Indonesians may come as a surprise given that Timorese voted almost 80 per cent in favour of independence from Indonesia. The atrocities committed in the name of the Indonesian state during its 24 year occupation of the half-island have been well documented. But the Gembel artists are quick to point out their shared commitment in seeking justice with Indonesian citizens, saying: ‘No democracy in Indonesia means no justice in Timor Leste.’ This oft-repeated sentiment among Timorese and Indonesian artists alike refers to the protracted justice-seeking process for the crimes committed against humanity during the New Order’s reign. Many Indonesian pro-democracy groups supported Timor’s struggle for self determination.

Now, in independent Timor Leste, the acceptance of progressive Indonesian cultures is also welcomed amongst the Timorese artists. This explains why the Timorese see no problem in adopting an Indonesian word as the name of their collective. Two artists from Taring Padi have been living and working alongside Timorese since independence developing a range of media including film, woodcut, screen printing and crafts made from bamboo and recycled paper.   

A message of hope

We Refuse to Become Victims 1 - Human Rights
Angie Bexley

The final works, measuring 3.30 metres x 2.50 metres, run in a series of connected themes; Human Rights, Resources, Environment and Togetherness. The screen and wood cut print images are striking and tell their own stories. Sinking refugee boars are greeted by heavily armed naval ships; people cower in UNHCR refugee camps; a distressed girl cradling her face in her hands stands astride the conflict areas of Timor Leste, Aceh, and Poso, Sulawesi. Another map shows stencils of tiny human figures spiralling inward as they are drawn into an oil pipe located in the Timor Sea. The final banner is bordered by small woodcuts sewn onto colourful fabric symbolising flags.

The message is one of hope, offering peaceful solutions to the various political, economic, and social conflicts that link the three countries. Taring Padi artist, Doddi, contributes a fine conclusion: ‘We’re having fun here but we’re also talking seriously. We’re talking about social realities in each of the countries and state injustices where the ordinary people become victims. We’ve had enough of being victimised – we refuse to become victims!’   ii

Angie Bexley ( is completing a PhD on Timor Leste’s independence and youth. Angie has been involved with Taring Padi since 2000 and with Gembel and The Culture Kitchen since their inception. ‘We Refuse to Become Victims’ will be exhibited in Timor Leste and Indonesia in 2008. The National Gallery plans to make the film available on their website soon.  The groups are currently looking for external funding for their next collaboration which will bring Taring Padi and Gembel artists to Canberra.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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