Sep 21, 2021 Last Updated 4:59 AM, Sep 20, 2021

Women's voices in the arts

Max Lane

Last April around 100 activists, mainly women, united to organise the first women’s cultural festival to be held in Jakarta for several decades, at least. The festival began on 5 April and ended on 21 April, the birthday of Kartini, who wrote and campaigned on women’s rights at the beginning of the century. The momentum for the festival developed in April 2002 after activists from Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity for Human Rights), staged a performance of an adaptation of Nawal El Saadawi’s novel, Women at Point Zero, a story of the oppression of women in Egypt and that exulted in the spirit of a woman’s defiance of that oppression. It was a unique event also in that it brought together women’s movement activists, community arts activists, as well as TV actors and celebrities.

Two evening performances were sold out and a huge media discussion on women’s rights and sexuality was generated. The co-producers, Faiza Mardzoeki and Yenny Rosa Damayanti, decided to establish a new group, called Institut Ungu, a women’s art and culture centre. They were joined by two other activists as founders: Irina Dayasih and Nur Rachmi. The cultural festival, called Festival April, was Ungu’s first project.

In her report, Program Coordinator, Faiza Mardzoeki, estimated that around 5,000 people attended some component of the festival. The program comprised a film festival, showing more than 50 Indonesian and international films; a fine arts exhibition, with paintings and sculpture by 48 women artists, as well as a literary program and a series of discussions around the issue of the role of art in women’s liberation. It ended with an evening event comprising modern dance and musical performances, as well as public orations by well-known poet, Toety Heryati and novelist Dewi Lestari.

The festival operated at two levels. First, it was a showcase of women’s talent in all fields, sometimes raising issues of political and social commitment, sometimes apolitical or only indirectly so. The variety of talent that was revealed underscored the huge potential of artistic creativity among women and which is not recognised under conditions of general and systematic discrimination against women. Any collective effort of women artists to get their works before the public eye represents an important contribution to the struggle for women’s emancipation, whatever the individual political outlook on the issue of women’s liberation of each artist.

The paintings and sculptures from the 48 women represented works of artists based in Jakarta and the regions. Themes ranged from expressions of sexuality and sensualness, through to depictions of everyday life, as well as that of political protest and struggle.

The film festival also showed a great range of talent. This was especially seen in the exhibition of short films which has boomed with increased access to relatively inexpensive video technology. Most of the short films aimed to tell the stories of women’s experiences which clearly the film makers thought had been undervalued in society in general: daily life in the home; or a young woman’s first menstruation, for example. Among these too were films by women about general subjects: from the adventures of street children to problems of drug taking.

The discussions during the literary sub-festival and the day long seminar on the role of art in women’s liberation represented the other side of the event: the attempt to come to grips with the issue of repression and liberation itself and the role of the arts and literature as a weapon of liberation. The range and unevenness of views and ideas on this front was very evident. The Festival April was an interesting initiative in that the idea came from women’s movement activists rather than from writers or artists themselves. The Festival brought these two groups together: activists and artists, but sometimes they were only basically united on the issue of the need for solidarity among women to expand a place for women. Perhaps the sculptor, Dolorosa Sinaga, who spoke on the art and liberation panel was the main exception to this. Another writer, the dramatist Ratna Sarumpaet, who had written the drama around oppressed female figures, such as the murdered worker activist, Marsinah, and an oppressed Acehnese woman, Alia, also espoused a strong political position on human rights, but not so much in terms of gender oppression itself.

The Festival April as the first collective effort of women to present their voices through art, and a start to the discussion of how art can be used to further the struggle for women’s liberation. Two clear challenges were revealed by the festival: how to further develop and make accessible the huge artistic talent among women and how to win more of those women to the idea of using their talent in the political battle to end gender oppression.

Max Lane ( is founding editor of Inside Indonesia and a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.

Inside Indonesia 76: Oct - Dec 2003

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