Jan 24, 2021 Last Updated 1:30 AM, Jan 22, 2021

The Theft of Sita

A spectacular joint Australian-Indonesian performance bursts boundaries

Robin Laurie

The premiere performance of Theft of Sita took place at the Adelaide Festival in March this year. It was an outdoor performance set among huge old Moreton Bay figs, beautifully lit against the black night sky. The audience sat in rows of steep bleachers looking down on a square of wooden staging. Ten musicians, five of them Balinese gamelan players and five from the Australian Art Orchestra, took their places. Five puppeteers, a Balinese dalangand four Australians, emerged onto the stage and lit the screen light or damar. A large fabric screen descended from above at the front of the stage and we were in the enchanted forest of creation.

Before us lay the idealised classical landscape of the ancient Ramayana story, complete with shadow puppets of the lovely Sita, her princely lover Rama, and their farting, chatting servant/ clown companions Tualen and Merdah, the latter a father and son pair from the Balinese wayang kulit known aspunakawan. A range of whimsical and funny animal shadow puppets pass across the screen. But there is always trouble in paradise. Sita is captured by the giant demon Rahwana and carried off to his kingdom of Langka. Then huge logging machines invade the forest and begin demolishing trees...

This Ramayana begins conventionally, but quickly explodes into a metaphor of the tumultuous events surrounding the overthrow of Suharto. Computer-generated images and photographic projections of demonstrations coexist with giant shadow puppet logging beasts. There are white water rafters and withering paddy fields in Bali. And Langka becomes a futuristic city of gleaming steel and glass towers, and of rubbish tips. Giant screens lift and disappear, perspective shifts from screens at the front to screens at the back of the stage. Shadow puppets emerge on tiny screens in the middle of the space and then shift again.

In those turbulent days of 1998-9 two main avenues of expression for radical views were satirical political comment by performers of all kinds, including the wayang, and the internet. Theft of Sita consciously brings together these two screens, the fabric screen of the wayang and the electronic screen of TV and the internet.

The working behind the scenes was as complex as the images in front. Associate director and puppeteer Peter Wilson describes how the puppeteers had to work from trolleys lying on their backs, keeping the puppet level as they hurtled downstage, or trying to look at the puppet as they moved backwards away from the audience.

Through all this impressive scenery wander the determined and shrewdly amused figures of Tualen and Merdah. Their mission from Rama is to rescue Sita from the clutches of the demon Rahwana. Theirs is a people's mission. Normally that mission belongs to the nobles and to the White Monkey General Hanuman and his army, but these do not appear in this version.

The clowns pass through burnt-out forest landscapes. Tualen explains to his son the strange and remarkable transformation of forests into toilet paper for the west. The two punakawan continue on their quest, engaging in a struggle to restore water to the rice paddies of Bali, traveling through a surreal world of factories, electrical pylons and freeways, before at last coming upon the awesome sight of Langka just as Rahwana's black limousine glides ominously past. Merdah and the army of the poor then join students and demonstrators. Together they storm Rahwana's palace as his financial empire collapses. The night I was in the audience, as the demonstrations reached their peak, a real helicopter flew overhead. One of the unpredictable pleasures of outdoor performance.


How did this epic collaboration come together? Director Nigel Jamieson and composer Paul Grabowsky were offered a commission for the 2000 Adelaide Festival. Sydney-based Performing Lines produced. Nigel and Paul wanted to do something based on the Ramayana story. Nigel had invited the Balinese dalang I Wayan Wija to Australia in 1998 for the Australian Theatre for Young Performers. Nigel wrote versions of the Sita script, eliminating some characters, as he felt it would be hard for western audiences to recognise too many. He sent these drafts and ideas to Wayan Wija.

A team of puppeteers, designers and the composer went to Bali to rehearse in November 1999. It was the height of the tensions around Timor and the choice of a new president. I Wayan Wija decided that because of the political tensions he was unable to continue with the project. Nigel and Arif Hidayat, the Australian-based interpreter for the team, went off on their own mission to find a new dalang. The rest of the team meanwhile found a shed in Denpasar, negotiated streets filled with demonstrators and burning tyres, and began experimenting with the lights and computer images using equipment they had brought with them. Nigel and Arif finally met I Made Sidia, who teaches at the arts college STSI in Denpasar and is the son of the famous Balinese dalang I Made Sija. Made is a mask (topeng) dancer and choreographer as well as a dalang. He had worked in New York on a version of the Mahabarata epic with one of the more experimental New York groups, Mabou Mines, as well as throughout Asia and Europe.

Nigel and Peter both tell the story of Made's arrival at the Adelaide rehearsal space in February this year. Peter was lying on the floor manipulating one of the giant logging beast puppets. Made had just got off a plane. His puppets, traditionally imbued with the sacred power of the gods, had been confiscated and gassed by Australian customs. He arrived in the space, saw what Peter was doing, took off his coat, lay down on the floor, picked up another puppet and the two puppeteers began playing together.

What are we to think of these international collaborations? Are they not manifestations of cultural globalisation in which western idioms inevitably dominate? Doesn't the commercialisation of the ticket-buying international festival circuit destroy local culture? Global television and western economic dominance certainly do threaten cultural diversity as never before. But a project like Theft of Sita is different. Decisions were not made in some far-off place that caused another country's economy to crash.

In this kind of project a group of people work together intensely over a period of time, in a cheap, large room somewhere. They discuss and argue about issues of power and culture, politics and gods, life and art and how they are to be represented. If it's a good process, understandings and accommodations and creative transformations occur. By all accounts, Theft of Sita was a good process. Arif and Peter both tell me this was because it was in fact something new for all of them.


But doesn't this process ruin the authenticity of the Ramayana? The story was totally transformed, new puppets were invented, the god-like voice of the single dalang in charge was abandoned, overtly political comments on environmental issues and the voices of the people were heard. However, no culture is static. Wayang has constantly adapted to new political circumstances, new social values and technologies.

New puppets have often emerged. Helen Pausacker, a Melbourne based dalang, tells me there have been puppet bicycles and motorbikes. When President Sukarno used to arrive everywhere by helicopter there was a period in the 1960s where the god Visnu would descend in the same manner. TV and video created a demand for faster action and more realism if wayang performers were to attract younger audiences. Multiple dalang and multiple screens, electric and coloured lights have all been used before in Indonesia. Sometimes the puppets even move through film projections of exploding volcanoes. These changes are popular with audiences. There are rock songs in the middle, comedians (pelawak), singers, and people get up and dance. In one wayang performance the dalang smashed his puppets in a manner reminiscent of Who concerts.

Indonesian environmentalists have used traditional performance structures before. The Earth Cleansing (RuwatanBumi) of April 1998 was a series of performances based around Earth Day. Clearly traditions are not only located There, in Indonesia, and innovation Here, in Australia. Barbara Hatley notes that western interest encouraged Indonesian performers to explore their own traditions in the 1970s. Conversely, interaction with Asia has encouraged western performers to explore ritual and spiritual aspects of performance.

Indonesia's crisis is creating turmoil and change. The phrase Think Globally Act Locally is heard in Indonesia as well as Australia. Theft of Sita is global in its concerns with the environment. It recently performed at a festival in Germany. It is local in that it is part of creating new cultural relationships and artistic collaborations in our region. In Indonesia progress became modernity, became development, and now democracy is the word on everyone's lips. Theft of Sita ends with images of the celebrations following the overthrow of Suharto. A confused Merdah and Tualen nervously approach the ballot box. Plot mirrors politics.

Robin Laurie (nibor@vicnet.net.au) is a performance director in Melbourne. She was a founder of Circus Oz, and has just been in East Timor recording traditional dances and songs for a CD. 'Theft of Sita' will be part of the Melbourne International Festival in October 2000.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Meet Semsar

A well-known artist explains his work, his activism, and why he is in Canada

Read more

Skin signatures

Once feared as the mark of a criminal, tattoos are today almost a teenage fad

Megan Baker

Athonk knows his art form like the back of his tattooed hands. The owner of Pure Black Tattoo Studio in Yogyakarta can tell you that Australians in Melbourne have the most desirable tattooing skin because the needle easily penetrates their fine, cold hide. Indonesians have the least suited skin. A red heart tattoo on his throat beats as he swallows.

His passion for tattooing grew out of drawing comics. Athonk studied at the Indonesian Institute of Art (ISI) in Yogyakarta until lack of funds put an end to formal education. He then learnt to apply his artistic skills to skin through friends, magazines, and a trip to study the art form in Australia. A vast collection of photographs proves his technical competence. Designs range from small simple turtle motifs to large detailed tribal patterns applied to limbs and backs.

New Order tattoo artists used to work underground. In the early 1980s Yogyakarta was the least safe place for tattooed Indonesians. Tattoos were a sign of a previous prison sentence. The government embarked on an operation to 'clean' the city of troublesome citizens. 'Mysterious gunmen' (petrus - penembak misterius) shot down tattooed street thugs known as gali (gabungan anak liar). Men with tattoos were told to report to the police. Their tattoos were noted, and in some cases forcibly removed with a hot iron. The stigma forced artists underground, where drugs or alcohol became payment for artwork and hence part of tattoo culture. Athonk once received a chicken from a poor client.

The tattoo artist creates a lifetime mark. The relationship between designer and client at times resembles that of psychologist and patient. In a state of pain, Athonk says, clients easily 'confess all'. One got a tattoo because he was ordered to marry someone he did not love. Rebellion continues to be a prime inspiration, like the anti-military 'peace punk' tattoos in the US in the 1970s. Many clients make a ceremony of the process, inviting friends, preparing party food for the minute of completion.

Hygiene is a big concern. In the 1930s tattoo studios in New England were blamed for the spread of syphilis. Athonk worries about street tattooists who use dirty tools. Few studios use gloves as they are expensive and artists do not know where to purchase them. Athonk tries to educate other artists by organising Tattoo fashion parades and establishing the Java Tattoo Club. Artists need to learn the technicalities of tattooing machines and the latest ink types, as well as how to apply designs to skin. There are too few skilled tattoo artists to meet increasing demand. Studios not ready to 'go public' continue to operate from small outlets in heavily touristed areas of Yogyakarta like Sosrowijayan.

The tattooed community considers non-tattooed people 'stark naked' (telanjang bulat), a term Athonk claims originates with tattoo. In the early 1990s the music of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns 'n' Roses had a 'phenomenal' influence on Indonesian youth. They wanted tattoos of the cover image on the first Red Hot Chili Peppers album. Now Indonesian youth, aware of a new 'individuality' which comes packaged in consumerism, are requesting more self-devised designs as well as common popular hearts and roses. Their choice of designs provides a visual reading of attitudes in a transforming society.

Athonk also owns the only professional studio in Jakarta. Many clients come from wealthy families. In fact most are teenage girls who come to the studio with their parents. Tattooists are increasingly seen as 'fine artists'.

But 'sensationalism' remains part of modern tattooing culture. Foreign tourists come to Indonesia in search of the more raw tradition lacking in the West. They ask for exotic tribal designs, symbols of eternity and spirituality, or pictures of Javanese wayang puppets.

Javanese do not have a strong tattooing tradition. But tattooing is an integral part of the more tribal Dayak and Mentawaian cultures. Bunga Terong, the top part of an eggplant, originated in Borneo and is now an internationally recognised tattoo. In Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) women tattoo symbols on their foreheads to indicate skills such as weaving which increase their worth in the eyes of potential husbands. Men were expected to earn their tattoos by taking heads.

Megan Baker (megabak@hotmail.com) studies at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Find Athonk near Supermans in Sosrowijayan, Yogyakarta

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Of pigs, puppets and protest

Radical Yogyakarta artists get among the people

Heidi Arbuckle

It is World Food Day, Yogyakarta 1999. Dr Syarifuddin Karamoy, secretary general of the Department of Agriculture, is due to open an Agricultural Expo. But his address has been delayed. Outside, a chorus of voices. Farmers, students and activists are chanting 'anti-revolusi hijau' (anti-green revolution), 'tolak bahan pestisida' (refuse pesticides), 'cabut SK 527'(withdraw the proposed bill). Most vocal of all is 67 year-old Magelang farmer Mbah Seko. He holds up a petition signed by 260 fellow farmers from the vicinity of Yogyakarta - Klaten, Pacitan, Bantul and Kulonprogo. The petition is clear - withdraw the bill that proposes to re-introduce several harmful pesticides.

Most striking about this demonstration is the diverse array of supporters the anti-pesticide cause attracts. The people (rakyat) are young and old, rural and urban. Among them is an unusual group of rakyat who have been particularly active at protests the last few years. They are not your ordinary animate Indonesians, but shadow puppet (wayang)adaptations of real people. Made from simple materials like cardboard, bamboo stakes, and paint, these life-size wayang characters represent members of a newly democratising Indonesian society.

The puppet-masters (dalang) of the protest wayangis a group of radical artists, members of a progressive arts network called Taring Padi. Taring Padi refers to the sharp tip of the rice plant, and is a metaphor for people's power. The group emerged in 1998 following the popular movement that brought down President Suharto. Many of those involved in Taring Padi were active in student politics throughout the 1990s. They were among the architects of the radical art actions that highlighted the Yogyakarta protest movement in 1998.

Yogyakarta is renowned historically as a centre for radical cultural protest, particularly in the visual arts. Radical Yogya artists have embraced anti-colonial and revolutionary causes since early in the twentieth century. Like their predecessors, Taring Padi artists promote the concept of people's art - seni kerakyatan-a loose term that defines the artist's social commitment and popular orientation. Taring Padi attempt to put this credo into practise through concrete action, rather than just aesthetic empathy for the plight of the 'oppressed masses'.

Mainstream art, the conventional system of curators, galleries and art collectors, is something Taring Padi avoid. Rather, they cultivate relations with other progressive organisations including students, farmers, and the urban poor. Such was the case for the World Food Day action, when Taring Padi collaborated with Mbah Seko and his group of organic farmers called Petani Lestari (Conservation Farmers), as well as with activists from the environmental non-government organisation Keliling. At the demonstration, activists shared out the protest wayangamong themselves. The cast of wayang figures symbolised the various 'actors' involved in the pesticide 'drama'.

Taring Padi dalangs do not narrate their wayang performances. Rather, the characters themselves tell the story. The pesticide drama involved the general public. Mothers holding babies, school children, workers, and religious figures were all depicted as the potential 'victims' of polluted food. The protagonists were the 'enlightened' farmers, who knew the effects of poisonous farming inputs and were willing to boycott them. The antagonists included the 'capitalists' and corrupt bureaucrats who were intent on re-introducing dangerous pesticides for their own financial gain, impervious to the public interest.

This adaptation of the popularwayang tradition subverts standard wayangconventions whereby the people (rakyat)are portrayed as bungling clowns (punakawan), 'unrefined' and characterised by crude features. In contrast, protest wayangportray positive, realist images of the rakyat, who are wise to the deceptions of their conventionally 'benevolent' rulers. Power-holders, who are normally characterised by their 'refined' features, are here depicted as beast-like creatures often resembling pigs, wolves, rats or grotesque monsters. These characters don modern day attire such as business suits and military greens, often juxtaposed with symbols of the traditional elite, or the 'national' Indonesian icon, the kopiah or male Islamic headdress.

Taring Padi and their theatre of protest wayang have 'performed' at a number of events throughout Central Java and in Jakarta. Their dramas take on issues like the role of the military, the 'conviction' of New Order 'criminals', electricity and fuel price hikes, and the debt trap. In February 2000 they created about twenty wayang characters for a mass action in Jakarta to oppose renewed loans and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The anti-debt coalition KAU that organised the action timed it to coincide with a meeting of the international Consultative Group on Indonesia to discuss debt rescheduling.


Taring Padi often uses wayang for 'agitation' purposes and to depict conflicting class relations. But Taring Padi's artwork also promotes pacifist causes. In the period before the June 1999 elections, a number of Indonesian cities experienced heightened unrest. Political commentators predicted 'civil war', and the media fuelled the volatile pre-election atmosphere by nurturing perceived religious, ethnic and racial tensions. As a response, Taring Padi began to produce a series of woodcut posters which carried messages promoting solidarity and peaceful social interrelations.Between March and June 1999, they distributed approximately 10,000 woodcut posters throughout major cities in Java, Sumatra and South Sulawesi. The woodcuts, hand-printed on draft paper, were pasted on city streets, on churches and mosques, on village notice boards, in food stalls, in market places.

Among their other artwork, Taring Padi issue a popular pamphlet called the People's trumpet. A series of banners and murals resemble the work of Mexican muralist Diego Riviera. Taring Padi banners are often commissioned by other organisations. The women's division of the National Human Rights Commission ordered a series of them. Titled The evacuation, the banners depict the harsh realities of the refugee crisis in Aceh by focusing on women's daily struggles.

But Taring Padi also use banners and murals for community purposes, and invite local people to be part of the painting process. Taring Padi's creative ethos involves a collective, process-oriented production of artwork. They want to eliminate illusive notions of the artist as 'genius' or 'eccentric' individual, and of the artwork as somehow 'sacred'. Taring Padi artwork does not carry recognition of the 'individual' artistic creator. It is stamped instead with the Taring Padi 'kerakyatan' insignia - a sprig of rice, red star and cogwheel.

Most Taring Padi activities are self-funded. Many Taring Padi artists are hostile toward the art market. The group ekes out a living from informally selling posters, postcards and books. They are lucky to have an advantageous living arrangement - the group squats in the former visual arts campus of the Indonesian Institute of Art (ISI) in Yogyakarta. The abandoned arts campus is now a melting pot for young Yogya radicals to meet, camp, and plan their 'revolutionary' activities. The buildings have not escaped their rhetoric. Graffiti, painting, and poetry cover its inner walls, quoting Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and the Indonesian poet Agam Wispi.

But they are by no means an in-group. They also engage in more community-oriented events such as creative activities with village children, theatre performances, workshops, and even wedding receptions.

Under the New Order regime, artists of social conscience struggled to maintain a community-oriented approach to their artistic activities. Persistently plagued by bureaucratic red tape and harassed by the military, artists and the community became forcibly detached. Now, amid the wave of recent reform in Indonesia, new possibilities for a lively community arts network are opening up.

Heidi Arbuckle (a.heidi@mailcity.com) recently completed her honours thesis on Taring Padi at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. She lives in Yogyakarta and studies at the Indonesian Institute of Art. Contact Taring Padi at taring99@hotmail.com.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Punks for peace

Popular punk rock band Superman Is Dead in show. (Purnawan Hadi/Flickr)

Underground music gives young people back their voice

Jo Pickles

Halfway down the road to Parangtritis, in the isolated Gabusan Art Building, wedged between sugar cane and rice paddies, a crowd of Yogyakarta youths endure the intense mid-day sun to watch an underground music concert.

Outside, near the parked motorbikes, the atmosphere is vibrant. Small groups cluster in narrow strips of shade to dodge the harsh noon glare. Some chat and joke as they wait for their favoured bands to come on. Others rest in silence, conserving energy before they perform, or recovering from a stint of brutal pogo dancing inside the airless hall. Not all the spectators are from Yogya. Many travelled from neighbouring cities in Central Java or from further afield in Bali or West Java to see the poster-billed bands and check out new local talent.

Vibrations from the hall hum through the air. Each time watchful police open the venue's doors to let sweaty bodies slip through, broken lyrics and fast drum phrases spill out into daylight.

Like most underground concerts these days, this event showcases several music genres: the loud angry disorder of Punk, the low growls and grunts of Grindcore, the melancholic and nihilistic screeching of Doom Metal, not to mention Black Metal, Brutal Death and Skacore.

Distinctive musical styles are coupled with dramatic fashion. Metal fans decked out in monochrome black contrast with the vivid ripped punk style, as do the checked shirts, braces and black boots of the skinheads. This is an 'anything goes' space, both stimulating and disseminating self-expression.

Underground concerts are not unique to Yogyakarta. The scene has flourished throughout Indonesia since the early nineties. Similar events are mirrored in Bandung, Malang, Denpasar, Blora and numerous other cities.

United by the desire to reclaim artistic creativity, the underground movement offers musicians an escape from the clutches of commercial culture. Hollers, screams and growls are let loose. Unlike the mainstream music world which is engineered by profit-oriented major label corporations, expression is not restricted. 'When I'm fed up, this music lets me get out my emotions and become positive' says Dempak, vocalist for the Bandung hardcore punk band Jeruji.

For many of the kids at this concert, music is more than just a hobby. Close-knit communities of young people sharing an interest in underground music have emerged throughout Indonesia. Underground youth cultures provide a network of like-minded people to experiment, hang out and jam with. A place of refuge from families who don't understand the aspirations of their youth, and from a society preoccupied with other issues. These groups provide a sense of belonging and family-like support for members who choose nomadic life on the streets in preference to living at home. Distinct from other more segregated social structures, the underground scene is open for all to join and participate in. Money and education are not barriers.


With its roots in the underground movement, punk is the most theatrical youth culture in Indonesia. Intentionally in your face and necessarily cheap, punk dress code, music and lifestyle have been adopted by young people from a cross section of classes, religions and ethnic backgrounds. Uni students, street kids, salespeople and the unemployed unite in a show of studded jackets, gravity-defying hairstyles and pants patched with angry slogans. They have redefined these symbols of a western tradition in a new setting.

The seventies British punk scene grew out of a climate of high youth unemployment, poverty and illiteracy. Found objects were given new 'absurd' contexts: over-sized safety pins pushed through earlobes and spiked dog collars buckled around human necks. These visual statements set out to ridicule the conventions of respectable social life. The tough non-conformist attitudes of punkers were a reaction to a conservative government which offered limited prospects to its youth.

Indonesian punk has a similar history. According to those who have been involved in the scene for almost a decade, some of Indonesia's youth began parading punk fashion as a rebellious visual stab at unappetising social 'norms'. At that stage, fear of repercussions ensured that they rarely voiced discontent with the establishment openly.

Ironically, the increased freedoms after the fall of the New Order produced an intellectual rift that divided the punk scene. One section chooses to remain uninterested and disenchanted by politics. Others look to punk activism in other parts of the world as a blueprint for how to voice concerns. 'It's time for us, the next generation, to open our thoughts, hearts and ears to fight for what we are sure of and what is right' cries a cut-and-paste photocopied leaflet, handed out during a concert in East Java.

The Do-It-Yourself ethic long associated with this branch of the underground music movement encourages young people to be active in a sub-culture they can call their own. The realisation that anyone can record their own music or publish a homemade fanzine is self-empowering. Alternative distribution systems replace dependence on the unattainable and limiting commercial media. The movement values independent thinking and self-education. Most opinion pieces in underground newsletters cockily invite critical feedback.

Samples from political speeches are mixed into three-chord thrash and then coated in layers of rebellion and dissatisfaction. Weapons of consumer culture such as packaging are appropriated and disarmed. Album covers, for example, are used as a space for critical commentary. Stamped with images selected to stimulate a reaction, this medium opens another doorway for bands to communicate directly with their audience. The compilation Punx 'n Skins: Street Sounds of Revolution is wrapped in the printed aspirations of the thirty bands involved in making the album. A short text inside the simple cover dedicates the album to the ideals of freedom, togetherness and the environment. It states its opposition to injustice and oppression. The words 'ELIMINATE THEM!' ('Basmi mereka!') in bold capitals are aimed at the corruptors who have eaten through Indonesia's bureaucracy.

Music is not their only medium of criticism. Concern for the future of Indonesia often leads these youths to the forefront of heated demonstrations. They assert their personal beliefs and try to raise awareness in others through street posters, stickers, badges, fanzines and handouts.


But sharp spikes, superfluous zippers, and tattoos still twig a sensitive nerve in today's Indonesia. In the rare event the media looks at this group of young people it usually paints an ugly ('jelek') portrait. When last November the weekly tabloid Adil published a feature article on 'Bandung's sea of gangs', it described the punk community as 'disturbing' and placed it on a par with the thugs who rule Bandung's underworld. Music mag Mumu in its April edition said punk members were paid to take part in demonstrations. ('They are happy to do it as they are getting paid' - 'Mereka sih senang-senang aja disuruh seperti itu karena diberi uang'). Prejudice stemming from conservative values also comes in more sinister forms. Random beatings, threats and tales of harassment are not uncommon.

Punk and other underground music may have originated in the west. But Indonesia's youth have indigenised these cultures and given them new meanings. Amidst Indonesia's current upheaval, they offer young people an identity to participate in, and a support base. Even more important, the underground has broken down barriers to expression and given youths back their voice after a long period of silence.

Jo Pickles (joanna_pickles@hotmail.com) is a student at the Australian National University, Canberra. She was in Yogyakarta with Acicis (the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies).

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000


Some directions in post-New Order theatre

Lauren Bain

Many within the arts community in Indonesia experienced a sense of euphoria after the fall of Suharto. Two years on, is theatre really 'floundering and directionless' as a recent article in The Jakarta Post suggested (6 August 2000)?

Under the New Order the performing arts were subject to tight state controls. Yet theatre groups were to varying degrees able to resist and to make critical comment on many aspects of New Order society.

The late New Order saw increasing numbers of theatre companies producing non-linear, non-text based works using physical performance forms. This form of theatre invited multiple, pluralistic responses from audiences, and in a western theoretical framework could be described as 'postmodern'. Much of this work was also highly critical of the New Order state, but perhaps because of its non-text based format was largely able to avoid censorship. By saying the 'unsayable' without using words it perhaps positioned itself outside the parameters of perceived threats to New Order hegemony and thereby subverted it.

Teater SAE, Teater Kubur, Payung Hitam, Bali Exsperimental Teater and Teater Re-Publik are all groups which produced work along these lines, each in its own unique way. Most are producing it still. Numerous other groups including Teater Api (Surabaya) and Teater Ruang (Solo) continued to use text in their work but also developed a highly physical performance style.

But how has reformasi impacted on this type of theatre production? Is this style of work, this idiom, still an appropriate strategy for subverting the status quo? In fact if there is no clear 'status quo' is it possible to be radical? Many theatre groups and artists are grappling with these questions.

Some maintain that the impacts of the New Order are still so widely felt that there is no need to adapt styles of performance which were successful at that time. The most recent production of Payung Hitam, under director Rachman Sabur, is DOM: Dan orang mati, performed in June 2000. It created a sometimes terrifying spectacle of chaos, violence and confused national identity - a chaos in which the audience itself was also clearly implicated, as massive military search lights passed overhead. Huge floor-ceiling banners, bearing the outlines of the heads of Suharto, Habibie and Wiranto moved back and forth across the stage. Both thematically and stylistically DOM is very similar to the work Payung Hitam have been producing over the last five years. The work is still powerful, and the performance well crafted and disciplined, but for how long will this approach be valid?

Other theatre groups are challenging the paradigm within which for example Payung Hitam work. For Yogya-based Teater Garasi, subverting what they call 'dominant theatre culture' is an important agenda. Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, the group's artistic director, argues that in order to 'subvert' the dominant theatre culture of the late 1990s, it was necessary to return to what he refers to as 'simple' themes - such as relationships between men and women. In addition, Teater Garasi chose to deal with these themes through performing realist text based theatre. Yudi Tajudin also argues that the kind of abstract, physical theatre which dominated the scene in the late New Order was 'killing acting', a trend which Teater Garasi's style of work attempts to reverse.

Whilst Teater Garasi deliberately defines its work as 'subversive', their method of subverting the dominant theatre culture could be seen as a return to a more conservative style. It is also perhaps ironic that a company which draws heavily on postmodern/ cultural studies theory should be so concerned with saving 'acting' - or perhaps the notion of 'the actor' - from the 'threats' posed by physical and overtly political theatre.

Perhaps Teater Garasi's approach exemplifies a more general shift away from a deliberately political theatre culture. 'Theatre (in Indonesia) has become the media of agitators' lamented one artist-academic in Kompas recently (22 June 2000). Nano Riantiarno, director of Jakarta's Teater Koma, who experienced consistent problems with censorship under the New Order, says that he is deliberately taking a more 'mainstream' approach to his work since the fall of Suharto.

Whilst there is a need to question whether the styles of work used under the New Order are still valid, the idea that theatre which does not deal directly with political themes is 'apolitical' is surely a naive misconception. Although Teater Garasi argue that they are 'relaxed about ideology' their work still has ideological implications.

It should not be surprising if there is a sense of a loss of direction within Indonesia's theatre community. Many other types of groups in Indonesia are also re-evaluating their position in relation to structures of power. Theatre artists are developing new modes of critique, and in some cases are re-evaluating strategies which may have been successful under the New Order. If theatre is to continue to be radical in the post New Order era, it is critical that both the continuing use of 'New Order' idioms and the strategies used to 'subvert' this 'political' style of work are themselves opened to question.

Lauren Bain (lhbain@hotmail.com) is a PhD candidate at The University of Tasmania. She is researching contemporary theatre of the reformasi era from her base in Solo.


Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Letter from Makassar

Artists rebuild community identity in new, democratic ways

Halim HD

Centralism violates everything that is good about society and the arts. It is the cause of the disintegration now threatening this nation of thousands of islands once held together by some common memory and some common hope. When we decided that 'decentralisation' would be the theme of an arts festival in Makassar, South Sulawesi, some of my artist friends enjoying the good life in Jakarta wrote to tell me they thought it was a poor idea. But those who came, not just from around Makassar but from all over Indonesia, thought it was fantastic.

We started talking about the concept of a Makassar Arts Forum in a coffee shop in front of Fort Rotterdam in July 1998, just two months after Suharto resigned. It was going to be something entirely democratic and separate from the official arts establishment. That coffee shop became our secretariat, where anyone could drop by and discuss ideas. Asmin Amin was there, a well-known activist in a non-government organisation (NGO) combating HIV/Aids in South Sulawesi. Another activist there was Shalahuddin, better known for his interest in maritime ecology and organic farming. These people had worked with theatre groups such as Teater Pilar and Teater Petta Puang, and with the music and dance troupe Batara Gowa, to spread their message all over Sulawesi since the mid 1990s. I was in Makassar for another festival, but these people asked me and some other arts activists from Java to stay and help them organise the arts forum.

It soon became clear that the official arts bodies were rather afraid of these influential NGO 'outsiders'. Word was that people in the Makassar Arts Council, the South Sulawesi Arts Council, the Indonesian National Arts Coordinating Body, and South Sulawesi Taman Budaya thought they would politicise the arts. The arts councils were set up in many regions under the New Order in the 1970s. In fact these institutionalised artists had themselves long politicised the arts. They had lots of money, were close to officialdom, but had only weak roots in the community. The success of the much more open Makassar Arts Forum was soon to make the arts council model look outdated.

Andi Ilhamsyah Mattalata, a local businessman and retired sportsman, said he was prepared to help out financially. He lent us some space and a telephone. We scrounged around for a computer and paper, and for more volunteers.

By this time it was nearly a year since Suharto's resignation kicked off reformasi. Friends wanted somehow to commemorate the date. We used donated old newspapers to wrap the 5-6 metre high walls of the historic Fort Rotterdam in newsprint. The idea was to celebrate the new press freedoms, and to remember that we are surrounded by news all the time. The participants also wrapped themselves in newsprint and paraded around town - buskers, dancers, theatre players, street kids, painters and even some sidewalk sellers, about 150 of them! All the kids joined in, as did lots of motorbikes, bicycles and cars. It was like a spontaneous carnival. For three nights from 19 May '99 there was music in the streets, and dancing, theatre, poetry reading, and art shows, holding up the traffic for a kilometre or more till midnight. Every night new groups came to participate. They liked it because it was so democratic, and there were no bureaucratic hassles like funding proposals.

At the same time the South Sulawesi Arts Council (Dewan Kesenian Sulawesi Selatan) was putting on a visual arts show with artists from around South Sulawesi. I heard they spent about forty times more than our meager two million rupiahs, and there were rumours of corruption. The governor and deputy governor opened it, but hardly anyone came because it was held at the cold and inaccessible Mandala Monument, built to commemorate the 1962-63 Mandala Operation led by Suharto to recover West Irian for the Republic.

Good art

In the 1970s the Makassar Arts Council became a place where ambitious people snuggled up to the governor and to big business, perhaps with an eye to getting into parliament themselves. Any artist close to Golkar was guaranteed to get lots of projects and official appointments.

But times have changed and now younger artists can see that this is not the way to promote good art. In the 1990s many new groups began to emerge who knew that to express themselves freely they needed to keep their distance from power. At the same time a NGO movement grew more influential among the people and also began to hold cultural activities. This offered new opportunities to the artists. As an arts practitioner on the ground, I can see that many of these younger independent artists see this as their protest against the Jakarta 'centre'.

Finally it was 7 September 1999, and the ten day Makassar Arts Forum was ready to open. It had been organised by just three people, Asmin Amin, Shalahuddin, and Pak Andi Mattalata, with minimal funds. But none of the artists made a fuss about how little they were paid. Local coffee shops sent packed lunches, some of the artists themselves contributed coffee, rice, bottled water. All personal contributions. It was amazing.

Nearly all the artists from around South Sulawesi came. More turned up from all over Indonesia. There were painters, dancers, musicians and theatre artists from Yogyakarta, Solo, and from so many other cities in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, all over Sulawesi, Lombok and Irian Jaya. Four hundred artists altogether. There were foreigners as well, from Australia, the US, Switzerland, Canada, South Korea. We worried about how we would feed them all. We went around to the restaurants in town and many contributed food or some money. Villagers sent fried bananas or cassava. All this happened outside the well-funded official arts organisations.

The 'decentralisation' theme was there as an expression of self-confidence by people on the 'margins', and as a statement welcoming difference. I thought it was a wonderful recognition of diversity and generosity, of empowerment.

Mak Cammana played the rebana - a traditional drum. She comes from a village in Polewali-Mamasa regency, in the Mandar region of South Sulawesi. She learned the rebana from her father and her grandfather. The rebana player is an important person in the community. They do not merely make music but also teach the Q'uran and officiate at weddings and circumcisions.

Mak Coppong performed the old courtly dances from Gowa, also in South Sulawesi. They are very slow and require a lot of discipline. Unfortunately many talented dancers are lost to the art when they marry and their 'modern' husbands forbid them from going on. Quite ironic, because there are older women who have danced all their married lives. The form remains very popular in the villages for traditional ceremonies.

In the New Order, these art forms were always shaped for public display by the demands of officialdom. These were occasions for officials to demonstrate their own ideas, and they would interfere in what the artists wanted to do. Sometimes officials themselves would dance, or at least train the dancers. It was all about their own ambitions.

The model of the Makassar Arts Forum has in fact been developing since the 1980s. In Solo, theatre groups have long organised themselves informally, based on mutual solidarity and sharing. Anyone can contribute ideas. News goes out and comes in by letters, telephone, fax or email, through a wide network of friends within the arts community and even beyond. That is how artists in Solo grew close to the NGO movement, which was flourishing at the time as a reaction to the total failure of the political parties to reach the grassroots.

Indonesia still exists. Otherwise all those artists wouldn't want to come from all over Indonesia. Some of them even suggested we should all stay together for six months or even a year and learn together.

Some wanted to make the Makassar Arts Forum an annual event. They thought of Makassar as an emerging centre for the whole of eastern Indonesia. But I hope the forum will not become a monument, an annual ceremony to the greatness of any 'centre'. It should be like sand by the seaside, where children build a castle and the waves wash it away again. We need to live our traditions every day, and not turn them into a ritual. To me, decentralisation is not about making new centres to oppose Jakarta. Makassar is just a small part of South Sulawesi and of the wider region. No area should be sacrificed for someone else's 'centre'. Decentralisation means that every region is its own centre.

HalimHD (halimhd@hotmail.com, pinilih@hotmail.com) is an arts networker in Solo, Central Java.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Naked truth

These young artists revolt against the political crisis with their own bodies

M Dwi Marianto

Young Indonesian artists have started using nudity in new and quite personal ways. One artist showed a video of he and his wife making love to climax on a wet canvas. Just as some segments of society are being drawn into more normative religion, and in the midst of a Javanese society that disapproves of frank personal expression, these artists are brazenly creating a space to make very private statements. This could be their personal revolt against a necrophilic mass media culture that revels in violence, chaos and death. Like so many Indonesians, they want to know what use it is to listen to the big ideas of an intellectual elite that seems so righteous yet is so powerless against the intrigues of that very same elite.

In June I visited the home of Laksmi Shitaresmi (born in Yogyakarta in 1974). She had just given birth to a baby girl. Her husband is also a painter. In their tiny living room I was shocked to see two large nude paintings of Laksmi. The breasts and pubic hair were quite naturalistic. I had seen the paintings before, but what shocked me was where she had hung them, precisely where every visitor could see. Amidst a society growing more puritan, Laksmi didn't care if anyone thought this was impolite. As I sat there snacking in her living room, my eyes were exactly on a level with her genitals. This was significant! Laksmi seemed to want to speak directly, without being bound by traditional norms that in practice stop people from saying anything personal or critical.

Erica (born in Yogyakarta in 1971) is a dropout from the Indonesian Institute of Art in Yogyakarta, and one of the few female painters making a living from her work. At present she is doing a 'bathing' series. Up till now she has been painting playful, nascenes from in and around her home, and she has become quite successful. But in 1999 she began to be more personal. Bathing in my favourite villa is a self-portrait in the bath. Only the pubic area is discreetly scattered with soap bubbles (see cover). She wants to depict bathing as a relaxing and refreshing activity, but also one in which she can shed her restrictive 'cultural' clothing, at least on canvas. That is something many Indonesians long for at a time when so many crises give them a headache.

Made love

Arahmaiani (born in Bandung in 1961) is different again. This artist, who once studied at the Bandung Institute of Technology, has long made critical statements through her art. She has occasionally made use of clearly depicted genitalia, which in her work symbolise domination and militarism in an Indonesian context. As one of the few critical Indonesian women artists her work might appear more radical because there is so little comparison. At a performance in the French Cultural Centre in Bandung in 1999 she took off her shirt (leaving a bra) and invited the audience to take a marker pen and draw or write anything they liked on her skin. This is the first time a Sundanese woman has done this. When Sundanese greet one another they only touch with the tip of their finger. Men and women do not touch at all - they just tip their hand to their own breast when they meet.

I thought Arahmaiani had been the most radical ever in terms of using the body as an artistic medium, until Nurkholis came to my home to show me a video. This artist, born in Jepara in 1969, is well known for his religiosity, and remains so to the present day. He hates pretence and has always acted just as he has spoken. His work could be called surrealist. The body painting on his VCD was truly radical. The first part showed him painting the canvas with his own naked body. That is already unusual for Indonesia, but it was nothing compared to the next part, which involved his wife. They made love, and let their natural movements imprint themselves on the wet canvas. He showed this VCD at the opening of an exhibition in the Dirix Gallery on 1 July 2000. The audience was stunned. Some reacted cynically, others looked embarrassed, while others again congratulated Nurkholis.

The technique came to him after a period of dryness, when conventional painting with the brush no longer satisfied. In frustration he kicked the wet canvas and it left an impression of his foot. He then developed this idea until his entire body was painting on a canvas already covered in wet paint. A simple idea, but it had a big impact especially among younger artists and collectors in Yogyakarta and beyond. I think Nurkholis' search for a new language to express himself is shared by many Indonesians, who are no longer satisfied with the 'true and correct Indonesian' (bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar) they were taught at school to understand their national crisis.

These four artists are looking for an answer to a personal problem, but their discoveries represent an open visual text and a symbolism with much wider relevance. They are working in the midst of a multi-dimensional crisis that directly or indirectly affects their personal lives. They speak visually in a language whose vocabulary is drawn from the body - a very private language.

When I still lived in Rawasari Kampung in Jakarta I often overheard the neighbourhood women bicker. A few times one of them would turn around, bend over and in her fury lift her skirts and say: 'Your face is just like my arse!' Maybe these four artists are like many other people who find themselves simply confused by all the very true but also very remote political analysis in the media. To all that big talk they want to say: 'Why don't you just shut up and learn to control your inner self first'.

M Dwi Marianto (isiyogya@yogya.wasantara.net.id) is a well-known art critic. He teaches at the Indonesian Institute of Art in Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000
Page 2 of 2

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