The stand-up comedians strutted across the stage at the Teater Salihara, making themselves at home in it. They deftly tickled their audiences’ funny bones, as they boldly took on the social conventions and stereotypes of their respective ethnic groups, and other issues that are a staple of contemporary Indonesian life.
One comic of Batak descent, Bene Dion Rajagukguk, touched on the ups and downs of living throughout Indonesia, especially Jakarta and other parts of Java. While Bene recalled the cultural differences and challenges with humor and aplomb, he also didn’t shrink from alluding to negative cultural stereotypes stemming from corruption scandals involving figures like former Bank Indonesia deputy governor Miranda Gultom, Democratic Party legislator Sutan Bhatoegana, and former Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) stalwart Panda Nababan, all of them Batak.
Other comics, like Muhadkly Acho a.k.a. Muhammad Kliwon, used his experience of growing up on the mean streets of Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok port area, taking on the stereotypes of the area’s crime and the superstition that plays a big part in residents’ lives. Muhadkly derived much of the fodder for his jokes from presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. He touched on the former Special Forces commander’s characteristics, among them his fiery, menacing rhetoric and thuggish swagger.
“Prabowo didn’t get any votes in Tanjung Priok. Which is no surprise, as thugs are a dime a dozen there,” he said to raucous laughter from the audience.
Fellow comedian Ari Keriting similarly put Prabowo in his crosshairs: “I wouldn’t be surprised if I was made a bouncer at concerts and other public events, because I’m from East Nusa Tenggara. After all, Prabowo did say that fighting and use of force comes naturally for people from the eastern part of Indonesia,” he said.
Comic Ernest Prakasa addressed Prabowo’s notorious temper. He also touched on the smear campaigns against his rival, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a key element of this year’s presidential election. He also alluded to the anti-Chinese slights that he encountered growing up, a point he punctuated with a sense of schadenfreude at seeing Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama run the capital.
“The jokes are a good therapy to deal with the psychological wounds of the past,” he says later. “They might not get rid of the scars, but they are a balm that makes it easier to deal with them. Nonetheless, the prospect of a Prabowo presidency does concern me, due to his suspected role in the 1998 riots, which is still murky compared to his more clear-cut role in the kidnapping of dozens of pro-democracy activists that same year.
“I’m concerned about the prospect of a Prabowo presidency, but I might as well joke about it,” he adds. “Humor might sweeten or allay those concerns, but it won’t get rid of it entirely.”
Lucky number seven
Bene, Muhadkly and Ernest were among the seven comedians who performed at the “Konser Tujuh Hari Untuk Kemenangan Rakyat” (“Seven Days for the People’s Triumph Concert”), a weeklong spectacle of the arts that was held to mark Joko’s presumptive presidential win. The number seven was the key theme of the performances, as each evening featured seven performers who were the leading proponents in their field, performing over seven evenings.
“We didn’t just pick the number seven at random. Jokowi will be Indonesia’s seventh president, elected in the seventh month of the year,” says Joko Anwar, a film director and one of the organizers of the event. “He’s also ahead of Prabowo by seven million votes.”
The event featured some of the leading names in the arts, among them guitarists Abdee Negara and Ridho Hafiedz from rock band Slank, and Dewa Budjana of GIGI. Others include stalwart jazz pianist Indra Lesmana, rapper Saykoji, and songstresses Dira Sugandi, Nina Tamam and Oppie Andaresta.
Joko acknowledged that organizing the event along with others, including fellow director Mira Lesmana and choreographer Jay Subiyakto, had its challenges.
“The show took a while to organize, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought. Many of the acts, such as Indra Lesmana and Slank, were already volunteers in Jokowi’s campaign, as were the literary figures behind Salihara, like Goenawan Mohammad and Ayu Utami. But most of all, they all share the same hope for change that Jokowi seems to bring,” he says. “The performers share the hope of millions that [Jokowi] will work for the public as a president from the people who will work for the people.”
But Joko has no illusions. “If Jokowi makes policies that are unpopular or detrimental to the public good, we won’t hesitate to criticize him. We might give him our popular, political and moral, but we’re not his fan club.”
Aside from the performing arts, the stage was also enlivened by murals that served as a backdrop for the performances.
Seven artists, including Eko Nugroho, Jay Subiyakto and Enrico Soekarno, worked on the murals. Eko seemed to highlight Indonesia’s diversity with an octopus-like mask festooned on a figure. Drawn in the comic style that won his work critical acclaim, the figure echoed its creator’s hopes with the slogan “Kita Adalah Kita” (“We Are Who We Are”) on his shirt. While it’s tempting to see the phrase as mere repetition, a closer looks shows that Eko is urging his audience to go back to basics and rediscover the values that define them.
Called “Masih Ingat Saya, Jenderal?” (“Still Remember Me, General?”), Jay’s drawing takes its title from a famous line from “Pengkhianatan G30S PKI” (“The Treason of the Indonesian Communist Party”), a film depicting the so-called coup attempt that the military blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965, which led to the purge of PKI members and sympathizers that left an estimated half a million people dead.
While the line was originally directed at one of the six murdered generals whose deaths unleashed the pogrom, Jay’s work turned the tables by reminding the remnants of the Suharto regime to account for human rights violations and other crimes.
Enrico’s work took the same angle. “My part of the mural is a reminder for people to be mindful of the remnants of Suharto’s New Order regime. [As Prabowo has shown] in this last election, the regime is still a powerful force that can hold millions of Indonesians in its sway,” he says.
Aside from the artists, Jokowi and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, also did their bit to fill in the wall. Whether their upcoming administration will live up to their promises remains to be seen. But if they ever need a reminder, then the wall and the spectacle that was “Tujuh Hari Untuk Kemenangan Rakyat” might just be what they need.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 23, 2014