May 16, 2022 Last Updated 8:50 AM, May 6, 2022

Letter from Makassar

Published: Jul 30, 2007

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 The success of the much more open Makassar Arts Forum was soon to make the arts council model look outdated.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 (, is an arts networker in Solo, Central Java.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Latest Articles

Book review: Beyond the pale

Apr 27, 2022 - JOOST COTE

A major research project on Dutch extreme violence in the Indonesian war of Independence, 1945–1949

Obit: Hugh O’Neill AO, 1933-2022

Apr 13, 2022 - TIM LINDSEY

Contesting the religious soundscape

Mar 23, 2022 - ANDY FULLER

A controversial regulation governing the call to prayer sparks a campaign aimed at taking down the Religious Affairs Minister

Essay: Hey Holland, you’re welcome!


Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch came at a price – Indonesians are still waiting for them to acknowledge it

Book review: Activists in transition


Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.


Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar