May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Moving beyond ignorance

Suzan Piper

In the catalogue to the 2002 exhibition Crossing Boundaries: Bali: A Window on Twentieth Century Indonesian Art, Dr. Tim Lindsay essentialised Australian popular perceptions of Indonesia and its arts to a wayang figure, a page of Islamic calligraphy, a Balinese wood carving and a photo of the Dili massacre. The Indonesian equivalent was portraits of the Queen, Cook's flag-raising in Australia, and Governor Philip's hanging of Jacky-Jacky, a couple of Aboriginal bark-paintings, and a photo of Pauline Hanson. A photo of the 'Smiling Bali Bomber' and one of the 'Smiling Crusaders' George and John would now augment the respective collections.

Australia's relationship with Indonesia no longer has the same priority that it enjoyed with Keating's 1994 pronouncement: no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. Significant federal government support for study of Asian languages, including Indonesian, has been dismantled. And recent events have left both sides anxious, distrustful and subject to hearsay and tendentious media reporting.

Australian-Indonesian artistic engagement in the 1980s and 90s were reflected in visits by such established New Order dissidents as poet and playwright Rendra, and writer Goenawan Mohamad, and Australian translations of their works, and that of ex-New Order political prisoner Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Australian high school students of Indonesian studied songs by Iwan Fals, and films such as Slamet Rahardjo's Langitku Rumahku (My Sky, My House). Australian visitors to Indonesia included Banggara, Entracte Theatre and Jigsaw Theatre's production of Treehouse on the environment in Indonesia. Australians inter-cultural performances on the home soil included Mike Burns's Wayang Kelly and Kai Tai Chan's production of Ramayana with two dancers from Bali.

Australia has an ongoing fascination with Indonesian myths, legends and traditions. There are Javanese and/or Balinese gamelan ensembles in every mainland capital and dance troupes in many states. The strong Indonesian textile collection at the National Gallery of Australia is admirable, but we should not view such traditions as fixed and unchanging, nor mistake them as the only face of Indonesia.

The dalang puppeteer has always commented on contemporary events and disseminated information, both state and local. Wayang skateboard was developed by master Balinese dalang I Made Sidia to help Balinese cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (post Kuta bombing October 2002). His dalangs slid across behind the giant three metre screen on skateboards.

Sidia was Head Dalang in the award-winning epic Theft of Sita, the 2000 production of the Ramayana story, a tale of environmental rape and destruction under the late New Order. This Australian multimedia show featured 100 puppets from Balinese traditional to modern, supported by an ensemble of Australian and Indonesian puppeteers and musicians. Other smaller scale Australian productions on local Indonesian legends include MusiK KabaU's Minangkabau folk opera Retno Nilam: The Horned Matriarch (directed by Indija Mahdjoeddin, 1999) and Louis Nowra's The Language of the Gods (Playbox Theatre, Melbourne, 1999).

As countries surrounded by sea and sharing a common ocean border, it is not surprising that we share a common obsession with the sea. Our mutual contact and estrangement by sea has been portrayed in such productions as Ruth Ballint's award winning 2002 d cumentary Troubled Waters on the treatment of traditional fishermen who stray into Australian waters. In 1999 Andrish St Claire's drama Trepang portrayed relations between Makassarese fishermen trading in trepang (sea-cucumber) and the Yolngu people of North Australia from the seventeenth century. This sea motif was reflected in many of the projects funded by Asialink in 2002, which included Deborah Pollard and Urban Theatre Project's Girt By Sea set in Manly. This built upon on the 1996 performance spectacle Badai Pasir (Sand Storm) set at Baron Beach, south coast Central Java, and included artists from the earlier production Monica Wulff, Hedi Hariyanto and Regina Bimadonna.

Girt By Sea explored culturally diverse perceptions of sea, and included beach huts with set works such as Hedi's view of the iconic bronzed Aussie livesaver and Regina's images of boat people and the enigmatic ocean. Monica Wulff broadened the theme in her multi-media installation Troppo Obscura at the Performance Space Sydney in October 2002 which explored the complex relationship between West and Asia through the eye of the camera as voyeur and documenter, with archival footage, videos and performance from colonial days to the present. Like Astiti's evocative painting in the 2002 Bali exhibition, it put the coloniser under the gaze along with the 'exotic mystery of the other'.

Another common focus is our engagement with our pluralist societies. Indonesian musician and theatre worker Sawung Jabo has taken up this theme with his Sydney-based plays, Landing (1999), and Hip Hop Horse with City Moon (2000), a collaborative performance combining kuda lumping, hip hop music and Vietnamese legend. His forthcoming play Merantau, devised with Don Mamouney of Sidetrack Performing Group and Suzan Piper, examines questions of mobility and migration, home and belonging, through the framework of the Indonesian community in Sydney. A major thrust of the 2002 tour to Indonesia of world music a cappella ensemble Voices from the Vacant Lot was to present the lesser-known multicultural facets of Australia. Similarly in post-98 Indonesia recent literature, film, theatre and art is exploring the contributions of Indonesian Chinese, workers and the position of women in the national history and psyche.

Our respective and mutual repositioning in the 21st century is a crucial theme. Awas: Recent Art from Indonesia conceived around the end of the New Order was one of the first post-98 visitors to Australia. It sought to articulate contemporary Indonesian art's representation of the rise of awareness of the local community, the voice of the (previously silenced) majority. It also voiced the experience and hopes of becoming 'modern': the social conflict due to disparity, socio-cultural plurality and the cultural crisis due to loss of faith in the various meta-narratives of modernity. Artist Heri Dono (represented in Awas) and Dadang Cristanto have been frequent visitors to Australia since the first Asia Pacific Triennial art exhibition from in 1993. There are fine emerging Australian painters of Indonesian background, such as Adi Jumaadi with his Javanese inspired scenes.

Many Indonesian-background contemporary musicians are also gaining a voice in Australia, taking the local global. Sydney bands, for example, include percussion trio Anything But Roy, Seorkesnyah (dangdut), Songket (Sundanese-inspired), Tommee and the Neighbourhood (eclectic) and GengGong (blend of Bulgarian/Turkish and reworked regional Indonesian songs, with mask dance) who just completed their second self-funded tour to Indonesia.

In late New Order Indonesia a network developed of cultural outposts outside the sphere (and hopefully reach) of New Order orthodoxies. These include Komunitas Utan Kayu, Jaringan Kerja Budaya and Jaker, but there were also many lesser-known outposts. In Australia community groups and small cultural organisations have played a significant role in the much lauded, but chronically under-funded, sector of 'people to people' contacts. Cultural news and links has spread through magazines such as Inside Indonesia, Tasmania's Coastlines and Inspirasi the net-zine of the Australia-Indonesia-wide Australia Indonesia Arts Alliance . There is a need for informed community representation on the boards of funding bodes and bi-lateral focussed agencies, and a need to better employ the new technologies that close the spatial gap.

Many of the Australian projects described above would have been impossible without funding from federal, state and other national and major arts bodies and organisations. The Australia Indonesia Institute has contributed much since its inception in 1989, as has Asialink with its more recent three month residencies for artists and arts managers from both countries. It should be recognised that ongoing engagement between our two countries as yet rarely enjoys great commercial success. The feasibility of many ambitious and worthwhile projects is often dependent upon the good will of underpaid, overworked activists, leading to the classic burnout syndrome. Current political and economic circumstances and priorities affect the scope of many grassroots organisations and cultural projects in Indonesia and Australia.

It is time to look forward, informed by and building upon previous developments, but also keen to explore new modalities and new horizons. It is important to also look beyond established hegemonies and encourage the vigorous fresh art and products of engaged artists. What is needed is dialogue with the many emerging voices of Indonesia, and collaboration as partners.

Existing links have so far failed to establish a broad public profile for Indonesian artistic activities in Australia. Australia lacks the presence of a cultural institute in Indonesia, like the Goethe Institute and the British Council.

Australia needs to come to terms with Indonesia as a modern nation, making the difficult transition to democracy post New Order. Greater Australian support for the study of Indonesian language and culture would encourage better understanding. The arts have the ability to transcend the spoken word and transform not just concepts but perceptions. It is time to dust our respective single bookshelves, and relegate worn-out artefacts and emblems to the bottom shelf of a multi-shelf bookcase, brimming with new forms and new ideas.

Suzan Piper ( is a Sydney-based Indonesianist academic, writer/translator and manager with Sawung Jabo of Wot Cross-Cultural Synergy. In researching this article she is grateful for the contributions of Margaret Bradley of Arimba Culture Exchange and Monica Wulff.

Inside Indonesia 76: Oct - Dec 2003

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