Thought Provoking Festival to Mark the People’s Victory

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Eko Nugroho’s mural serves as the backdrop for a stand-up comedy performance. (JG Photos/Tunggul Wirajuda)

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.”

Illustrating aspirations

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

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Classic Tale of Greed and Corruption Takes Center Stage

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Goenawan Mohammad and Gerard Mosterds kept the Faustian theme alive in their Indonesian adaptation of ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’ (Photo courtesy of Komunitas Salihara)

The soldier unloaded his pack, relieving the burden from his back literally and figuratively. Known as Yusuf, the soldier headed home on leave, keen to see his mother and fiance. A skilled violinist, he took out his instrument to play a merry tune, not realizing the stark outcome of his actions.

The scene starts off “L’Histoire du Soldat” or “The Soldier’s Tale,” an Indonesian language adaptation of early 20th century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’ eponymous work. Performed at the Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta last week, the adaptation by playwright Goenawan Mohamad and choreographer Gerard Mosterd stayed true to the Faustian theme of facing the Devil.

As with previous versions of “L’Histoire du Soldat,” the Devil, voiced by veteran actor Rudy Wowor who also voiced Yusuf and narrated the play, lost no time in tempting the play’s protagonist. He started by asking the soldier to sell his fiddle, which Yusuf refused. He then made Yusuf an offer he knew the young man couldn’t refuse: a book with the ability to give its owners enormous wealth and foretell the future. The Devil also offered to teach Yusuf his powers in three days in return for violin lessons.

The soldier agreed and spent the next three days exchanging skills and knowledge with the Devil. When it was time to part ways, Yusuf finally made his way home — only to discover that the three days he had given the Devil were equivalent to three years to the rest of the world. And to his dismay, his fiancee had moved on to raise a family with another man.

Yusuf’s only consolation was the book, which he used to gain great wealth. He soon realized, however, that the riches he has collected still left him unhappy, while the poor seemed more than satisfied leading their simple lives. Neither did the former soldier gain much satisfaction when the Devil returned to give Yusuf back his fiddle. Yet when Yusuf rested the instrument upon his shoulder, he realized he had lost the ability to play. When Yusuf made that fateful deal with the Devil, he had, in essence, also given up his soul.

Desolate, Yusuf resumed his wanderings and rescued a princess in distress, all the while with the Devil not far behind.

Goenawan managed to make “L’Histoire du Soldat” resonate to modern Indonesian audiences by depicting Yusuf as a wayang figure and the Devil as a bottle. Unlike previous versions of the play, which feature Yusuf (or Joseph in his previous incarnations), the Devil and the rescued princess at center stage, Ramuz called for the main characters to remain on the periphery, giving the main stage to dancers representing demons.

While the Devil takes on the classic role of tempter, the play isn’t above showing him subject to the same urges or flaws he inspires, like doubt and desperation, to lead humans astray.

Choreographer Mosterd used contemporary and Javanese dance styles to characterize the demons; the dancers’ grotesque facial expressions resemble gargoyles, while their twisted moves remind one of contortions seen in movies like “Devil Inside” or “The Exorcist.”

Satirical with dark, comedic twists, like men dressed in ballet tutus or women donning fake mustaches, it didn’t take long for the dancers to disturb and unsettle both viewers and performers alike.

Dancer Siko Setyanto, who played one of the demons, said he was happy to play an evil character.

“Playing an antagonistic role has long been one of my goals, and doing so gave me an exhilarating, liberating sense of release,” he said. “[‘L’Histoire du Soldat’] is also a universal story, as it shows that we’re never free of temptation. Humans are incapable of being content with what they have, and are always keen for more.”

Rudy, who’s best known for his roles as Dutch colonial baddies in historical Indonesian movies like “Tjoet Nja’ Dhien,” “Soerabaia ’45”and the 2009 feature “Merah Putih” (“Red and White”), echoed Siko’s premise through his subtly satirical delivery, which derides greed and a lack of gratitude for the blessings in life.

“One element that ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’ highlights is corruption. As a universal problem, corruption ensures that everyone has a price tag,” Rudy said, adding that temptation is inescapable as long as we’re subject to the pressures of our jobs and our constant need to improve our financial circumstances.

“Our unwillingness to change our lifestyles, though its often above our financial means, also compounds our problems and lead us to temptations like corruption,” he said.

Rudy also voiced his concern that Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to this problem.

“Many Indonesians are raised to act for rewards and other incentives, instead of doing so selflessly on behalf of others. They are also inured to pursue gain and power, as reflected best in the country’s elections,” he said.

Whether one agrees with Rudy is very much a matter of choice. What is certain is that “L’Histoire du Soldat” is a worthy indictment of our lives and our choices.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 15, 2014

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Closing the Gap Between the Artist and the Audience

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Painter Patrick Wowor says his take on Indonesian history is meant to jolt the public out of taking the country’s hard-won independence for granted. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

Jakarta. The picture of Sukarno looks out earnestly toward the viewer. Decked out in his iconic tailored military uniform and velvet peci, or brimless black hat, the portrayal of Indonesia’s first president commands the passerby’s attention in much the same way that his charisma and nationalist fervor kept millions of people in Indonesia and the rest of the world in thrall of him for more than two decades.

“I made this youthful painting of Sukarno to show how his idealism and vision motivated Indonesia to win its independence in 1945,” says painter Patrick Wowor. “The picture, which is actually called ‘Bung’ [‘Big Brother’], is also a slice-of-life work that conveys something of the man behind the myth.”

“Bung” is one of dozens of works being shown in Patrick’s exhibition, “Open Studio.” Held at the Balai Budaya art gallery in Menteng, Central Jakarta, the exhibition seeks to turn events of its kind on their head.

Patrick says his exhibition is designed to bring him and those viewing his works closer; he wants to break down the distance between the artist and the audience. Standard exhibitions usually impose barriers, where artworks are usually cataloged, labeled, framed and put up on a wall. In “Open Studio,” some of these works are unlabeled, which compels the viewers to come up to the artist and ask what the works are called.

A set of three different paintings highlights this concept. The first features a gaunt figure, with his head and shoulders bathed in a halo of yellow light. The second shows a young man disdainfully smoking a cigarette, masking whatever thoughts or feelings his eyes might give away behind a pair of sunglasses. Only the third painting is more recognizable, as it feature none other than Indonesian independence icon Tan Malaka.

The first figure is Henk Sneevliet, a Dutch socialist who founded the Indies Social Democratic Organization, or ISDV, which was the antecedent of the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, and the Indonesian Socialist Party, or PSI. The halo is a train’s headlight, in line with Sneevliet’s job as a railway worker; but it can also be a metaphor for an important but otherwise unknown figure to emerge from the shadows of Indonesian history.

The figure with the cigarette is Wikana, a youth activist who kidnapped Sukarno and took him to the town of Rengasdengklok to coerce him into declaring Indonesia’s independence in 1945.

“His efforts paid off, as he was named Indonesia’s first minister of youth affairs and sports, from 1946 to 1948,” Patrick says. “Tan Malaka seems the most recognizable of the three. Yet he’s the most enigmatic of the trio, due to the enduring controversy about his legacy and the mystery surrounding his life before his death in 1949.”

It would be all too easy to assume that Patrick is giving a visual history lesson that covers ground skirted by the Indonesian school curriculum. But the artist insists that he is doing so much more.

“As figures from Indonesia’s independence era, the subjects remind us that winning freedom isn’t enough,” he says. “One constantly has to make efforts to maintain freedom and keep it alive.”

Patrick does so through his paintings, and creating them is a reminder for him of his reason for being.

“If we won’t do so, then there is a steep price we have to pay,” he says.

He makes the point in his painting “Pemerintah” (“Govern”). The work, which depicts an armed soldier intimidating an unarmed civilian, alludes to the army takeover after an bogus coup attempt blamed on the PKI, as well as other human rights violations perpetrated during the 32-year rule of the strongman Suharto.

The theme is one that has struck a public chord recently, amid concerns that victory in the presidential election for Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era general and the former son-in-law of the late ruler, might throw the country back under authoritarian rule.

Patrick’s perception of history also played a role in holding his exhibition at Balai Budaya, a preeminent art gallery and cultural center where great Indonesian artists like the painter Affandi and playwrights Rendra and Goenawan Mohammad made their debuts. He hopes his exhibition will help raise the gallery’s profile.

“Its the least I can do to this cultural edifice and the major role it played in the development of the arts in Indonesia,” he says.

 

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 21, 2014

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The Kenyah Dayak’s ‘Journey Home’ to Their Tribal Roots

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A scene from “The Journey Home”. (Photo courtesy of David Metcalf)

To foreign observers, the 800 inhabitants of the village of Setulang live in a rustic idyll at the edge of a pristine forest. But these members of the Kenyah Dayak that live in the North Kalimantan district of Malinau yearn for a paradise steeped in the traditions of their tribe.

“I left our original homelands when I was a small boy. But I have happy memories of my time growing up in the forests and playing in the rivers,” says Pilius, a village elder, who last saw his ancestral lands in 1969.

The land that Pilius remembers is an area of forests which they call Tala Olen , or “the forbidden forest.”

The tribesmen, particularly the elders, feel a spiritual connection to Tala Olen’s forests, rivers and land, located in an area called Long Saan, which is an eight-day journey by canoe up the Kayan River.

There are strict cultural rules about cutting down the trees in the forest or damaging it in any way, a reverence that has not changed despite their move to Setulang for economic reasons. The draw of Tala Olen is also felt by their descendants who are charmed by the elders’ stories of paradise.

“My grandfather told me many stories of growing up [in Tala Olen ] and how they lived back then. His description of it made it look like paradise,” says Herman, a young villager. “I would love to visit and pay my respects to him.”

But the Kenyah Dayak’s ancient way of life and their culture of preserving the forest is under threat. Here in Kalimantan, logging and dam projects are destroying huge swathes of the forest.

Environmentalists estimate that over 52 percent of Kalimantan’s forests has already been lost.

“We don’t exactly know what will happen in the future. Will the next generation keep our agreement [to conserve the land], or will they damage it, and open new land to loggers to serve their self interest?” Kenyah Dayak elder Kole Adjang asks.

“ We hope that by example [sic], our great grandchildren will also take care of our land and Tala Olen.”

Taking the Dayak’s home

In the face of these threats to Borneo’s cultural history, photographer David “Dayak Dave” Metcalf is seeking to help reunite the Dayak with their ancestral homelands.

As with many indigenous peoples throughout Indonesia, such as the Asmat and Kamoro tribes of Papua or the Badui in Java, the Kenyah are hampered by poverty. As such, they can’t afford the cost of the journey to Tala Olen .

Metcalf seeks to provide the means for the villagers to revisit their homelands, a journey that he intends to chronicle in a film he will title “ The Journey Home .”

“I came up with the idea of granting the tribe their dream of visiting their ancestors’ burial grounds deep in the heart of the forest,” says the Bali-based New Zealander, adding that the journey entails more than the just the nostalgia of homecoming.

“We need to raise funds to make the film. As things currently stand, the logistics are only sufficient to take six elders to Long Saan,” says Metcalf, who is also the author of “Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage: Cultural Journeys of Discovery”, a chronicle of his travels through Indonesia.

Metcalf is putting on a fundraiser at the opening of an exhibition on indigenous photography in Jakarta’s Kunstkring Paleis cultural exhibition hall on Aug. 12.

The evening, which will feature eminent Indonesian designer Harry Darsono and New Zealand Ambassador David Taylor, will include performances of traditional Dayak dances.

“We hope that through raising funds to bring the elders back to their ancestral village and making a multimedia documentary about the journey, we can raise awareness of the threats to their unique way of life,” Metcalf says.

He adds that similar events will also be held at the American Club. To date, Metcalf has raised about $2,000 of the estimated $25,000 that he needs for the project.

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A scene from “The Journey Home”. (Photo courtesy of David Metcalf)

Collective effort

“The Journey Home” will be shot by a film crew from seven nations; among them New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. They include American documentary filmmaker Jason Houston, who was known for his work with the Dayak in the Malaysian side of Borneo, Robby, a member of the Indonesian world music group Navicula, and Bali-based artist Wolfgang Widmoser, whose work inspired much of the look for the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.”

Native American Kevin Locke, an elder from the Lakota Sioux tribe, will also be taking part. While the cultural connection between the Dayak and native Americans is very strong, Locke’s participation marks the first time that a connection between these two cultures has been undertaken.

“One of the primary purposes of [“The Journey Home”] is to raise awareness in Indonesia and other countries about the importance and wisdom of indigenous cultures around the world. This journey is about connecting cultures through art, dance, song and ancient wisdom,” Metcalf says.

“By creating a wider expression and voice for indigenous cultures globally, we can find common ground through music and dance and ancestral prayers.”

Most of all, the film will showcase Kalimantan and its place in the world.

“Kalimantan is Asia’s Amazon, representing 1 percent of the earth’s surface but 5 percent of its flora and fauna, including untold numbers of trees and plants still undiscovered by mankind. As one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes on the planet, we want to raise awareness about the Dayak people that live in Kalimantan’s forests and rivers,” Metcalf says.

“This is all the more imperative, as Kalimantan is also facing the fallout from coal and gold mining, the latter which is poisoning its streams, aside from better known problems like illegal logging and deforestation.”

Metcalf and his team of filmmakers plan to release “The Journey Home” in Indonesia and abroad by the end of this year. He also plans to pitch the film to Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 14, 2014

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Art to the Rescue of Jakarta’s Kota Tua

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“Clouds of Thoughts” by the Creative Public Spaces Program

Jakarta’s Kota Tua, or Old Town district, is a riot of colors, as more than 10,000 kites fill the skies. Bright primary colors can be seen as far as the eye can see. Blue kites aligned toward the Kota train station, while red ones fly over the sidewalk. Last but not least, a sea of yellow kites hovers over Fatahillah Square, the center of the festivities.

Titled “Clouds of Thoughts,” it’s all too easy to assume that the fiber film installation piece is party bunting to celebrate Jakarta’s 487th anniversary. But its creators — Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) architect Diana Ang, SHAU Architecture and Urbanism founder Daliana Suryawinata, and Indonesian contemporary art denizen and Dia.lo.gue Artspace gallery co-founder Windi Salomo — intended the work to have more meaning.

The three of them conceived the Creative Public Spaces Program to establish temporary and permanent urban public places in the Old Town, and they believe public spaces are places where people can coexist and express themselves. A collection of these voices are collected in the “Cloud of Thoughts,” a canopy composed of messages of hope from Jakarta’s citizens.

The initiative, which was supported by the government, the Indonesian Diaspora Network and the Dutch Embassy, as well as corporate sponsors like BNI, AirAsia Indonesia and Walls Ice Cream, is the most far-reaching of its kind yet made.

“I hope the Old Town will become the jewel of Jakarta,” reads a message on one of the kites from Jakarta Acting Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.

“I hope that Jakarta’s Old Town will take its rightful place with its counterparts around the globe,” reads another from Jakarta Heritage Trust member Robert Tambunan.

Other messages strike an equally poignant chord.

Street sweeper Nia Kusniawati and Antique Bike Community member Suparno say they hope the capital will be able to overcome its seemingly insurmountable urban problems.

“I hope that the quality of public transportation will be upgraded,” Nia writes, while the latter says, “I’d like to see Jakarta free of floods, pollution and traffic jams, making it more conducive for bicycling.”

Diana says the kites, which will fly until the end of the month, representing the best of Jakarta and its people. “Kites symbolize hope, youth and dynamism. One can see the last point with a flying kite, since it doesn’t stay still,” she says of the work, the centerpiece for the Kota Tua Creative Festival, a project for Jakarta’s anniversary on June 22.

Reinventing the Old Town

“The quaintness and character of the Old Town can be a draw in itself and the reason behind its revitalization,” says Diana, a graduate of Rice University.

“The squares, plazas and other public spaces that are unique to the Old Town will gain appeal, as they provide an alternative to the malls which dominate Jakarta.”

Diana, Daliana and Windi started off by turning one edifice, the Tjipta Niaga building, into an art gallery featuring the works of 26 contemporary Indonesian artists. However, Diana says there is only so much they can do for the crumbling buildings of the Old Town.

“It’s not always feasible to restore the old building to its original purpose. For one, they sometimes have to be reinvented as art galleries, music halls or cultural centers because their real purpose is long past” she says. “And the materials to make them are also not always available. And even if they are, they’re sometimes prohibitively expensive.”

The Tjipta Niaga building is just one that benefited from another initiative hatched by the trio of artists, along with the Erasmus Huis Dutch cultural institute, Rumah Asuh and the Jakarta Old Town Reborn (JOTR) initiative.

The JOTR engaged seven Indonesian and Dutch architectural companies, including Andra Matin Architects, KCAP, and Niek Roozen Landscape Architects, to collaborate with the government and the building owners to renovate the Tjipta Niaga, Kerta Niaga and Samudera buildings, as well as the Kota train station. But another structure that is set to receive the group’s attention is the Kota Bawah building.

“The Kota Bawah building is unique as it has a tree growing out in the middle of it,” says JOTR curator and architect Yori Antar. “We want to highlight its unique characteristics, as the tree and vines growing in the courtyard remind one of temples like Angkor Wat.

“We hope to reinvent the building into a hotel, cafe and cultural center. We hope to do the same to the rest of the Old Town, and turn it from a decrepit symbol of Jakarta’s urban decay into the capital’s leading center of the arts,” Yori says.

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Colorful onthel bikes in Jakarta’s Kota Tua district

Getting the world to take notice

Yori also notes that Kota Station and the Old Town waterfront are acknowledged by UNESCO as leading examples of 1920s and ’30’s Art Deco architecture.

Now, a group of companies under the Jakarta Old Town Revitalization Corporation along with the Education Ministry and the Jakarta administration is set to take UNESCO’s attention a step further.

“We intend to submit a bid for the Old Town to UNESCO as a World Heritage Site by March 2016, after we start our research in two to five months’ time,” says Lim Che Wei, a spokesman for the corporation, which includes Ciputra, Agung Sedayu Group and Plaza Indonesia, as well as state companies like the Pos Indonesia and Pelindo, the Indonesia Ports Corporation.

“If possible, we might even do so by March 2015 if we get our research and paperwork in order by then,” Lim says. “At 342 hectares it’s the largest of all Dutch colonial cities. But it has yet to be named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while its counterparts like Galle in Sri Lanka and Paramaribo in Suriname were listed as such in 1988 and 2002.”

Lim says the Old Town fulfills UNESCO criteria, namely its significance in human history, interchange of value, traditional human settlements, and architectural value.

“The Old Town’s legacy encompasses major periods in Indonesian history, starting with the Pajajaran Kingdom, the Portuguese and Dutch East India Company eras, as well as the Dutch colonial period and the Japanese occupation before Indonesia’s independence,” he says. “Among the elements we sought to highlight, aside from its better-known Dutch influences, are evidence of Bugis, Chinese and Arab settlements, to highlight the Old Town’s multiethnic character.”

Education Ministry official Wiendu Nuryanti is just as upbeat.

“Indonesia’s bid to name the Old Town as a World Heritage site reflects the government’s seriousness and will to preserve the Old Town,” she says.

To date, the Jakarta Administration has allocated over Rp 150 billion ($12.6 million) for the Old Town’s preservation. Lim’s consortium intends to renovate 85 historic buildings in five years, creating more than 11,000 jobs in the process.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 6, 2014

Click here to read the original article

 

Reaching Out to Humanity Through Art That Touches

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“Terbang Merdekalah” by Yani Mariani Sastranegara

The boys jostle for a grip on the pole as they try to climb to the top. Under them, a number of their peers stand at the base of the pole, lending their shoulders to help the climbers reach their goal in this depiction by Indonesian artist Afriani of the traditional Indonesian pastime of panjat pinang, or pole climbing.

Aptly named “Team Work,” the 40-year-old’s take on this annual Independence Day spectacle and its characteristics of togetherness and helping out is set next to “ Pulang Kampung ” (“Coming Home”) and the somewhat more ominous “ Mulai Terdesak ” or (“Getting Desperate”). Afriyani’s idyllic depictions of life, as well as the feelings of serenity and well-being that they engender, strike a chord in the exhibition “ Bakti Seni Untuk Kemanusiaan ” (“Art For Humanity”).

Held at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center in Central Jakarta, the event highlights the works of 18 artists and is sponsored by the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI). Curator Vukar Lodak says it represents a departure in depicting art.

“Previously, art was shown for its own sake before its emphasis was changed into art for the people,” he says. “Now we seek to create art that goes beyond the aforesaid purposes, artwork that aims to maintain life and highlight humanity.”

Vukar adds that the proceeds from the exhibition will go toward funding PMI programs to care for needy, elderly people throughout Indonesia. He points out that Indonesia ranks 71st out of 91 countries when it comes to caring for this population group.

“Out of more than three million needy elderly, the state only manages to care for 26,000, which is a mere 0.2 percent of their number,” he says.

Yani Mariani Sastranegara epitomize Vukar’s message with her sculpture “On the Twilight Wind.” The poly resin and tin structure’s streamlined shape conveys the idea of being free to roam and find one’s destiny, as well as going into the unknown with confidence and an upbeat outlook.

Yani, a graduate of the Jakarta Institute of Arts, also has a metalwork sculpture featured at the exhibition, titled “ Terbang Merdekalah ” (“Fly Free”), and made on similar lines. Perched on a pedestal, the hybrid human and bird seems set to take to the skies on its unfurled wings, as if to let its spirit take flight to transcend humanity and its problems or issues. Set against fellow artist Marsani’s paintings “ Tari Kecak ” (“Kecak Dance”), “ Anak Nelayan ” (“Fishermen’s Child”) and “ Gembala ” (“Shepherd”), the individuality of the former make an interesting contrast to the latter’s emphasis on teamwork. However, the dynamism that they share makes for worthwhile common ground.

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“Beban” by A. Firmansyah

Yani’s futuristic take is balanced by fellow sculptor A. Firmansyah’s more primal work “Beban” or “Burden.” Made from the wood of the jackfruit tree, the totemic sculpture shares the streamlined contours of “On the Twilight Wind” and “Terbang Merdekalah.” But the 36-year-old takes a different touch, as his aerodynamic element evokes that of a leaf or twig blowing in the wind.

“Objects and incidents are my silent notes,” says Firmansyah about his sculptures, which he only started making in 2011 after working in theater for more than a decade. “That’s why I opted to make my sculptures from bamboo and wood.”

Like his theater work, “Beban” can only be said to be poetry in motion, while its woodwork harks to its organic roots.

Aceh-born Wahyu Oesman takes on a similar idea of poetry through his works “Exodus” and “Kuala Lamthoung.” The moon figures prominently in the paintings and captures the viewer’s attention, whether it be as a larger-than-life element lighting the commuter’s way home in “Exodus” or illuminating dark waters in “Kuala Lamthoung.” But Wahyu isn’t blind to the effects of urban pressures as shown in his paintings “ Sudut Kota ” (“City Corners”) and the more whimsical “Underwater City.” “Sudut Kota’s” realistic portrayal of city life belies the pressures that traffic, overpopulation and other urban realities inflict on the psyche, as the vehicles seem to give no room or space for individuals. On one hand, “Underwater City” is perhaps Wahyu’s take on the grim prediction that parts of Jakarta will sink by 2030. On the other hand, the work could aptly describe how the plethora of vehicles will swamp Jakarta and the psyche of its people.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 27, 2014

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Weaving Light and Culture in a Celebration of Rich Cultures

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For Indonesian painter Rasmono Sudarjo, portraying Mount Bromo and its neighboring peaks of Semeru and Tengger in a new light is all in a day’s work. Instead of taking the higher ground to show Bromo’s iconic crater or the green ridgelines ubiquitous to the three peaks, the 67-year-old chose to portray the “Sea of Sands” in the painting “Bromo.”

Sunlight washes over the volcanic sands, giving a golden hue to its fine black texture. Rasmono’s ethereal use of light also extends to “Melasti,” his stark yet sensitive look at the traditional Balinese ceremony of the same name. Beams of sunlight shine on the ceremonial procession, affirming the participants’ belief that a divine presence is heeding them. Rasmono also pays tribute to the age-old ceremony for its timelessness, and how it and other traditional religious ceremonies seem to confirm the Balinese people’s identity.

“Bromo” and “Melasti” are part of “The Charm of Cultures,” an exhibition of 30 paintings made by Rasmono over the past two years. Held at the Kunstkring Paleis in Menteng, Central Jakarta, the works depict an idyllic view of life in Indonesia and China.

“Culture and nature are recurring themes in my work. I’m fascinated by places like Bali because of their staunch hold on their culture,” says Rasmono, a Surabaya-based notary and owner of an art gallery. “I find the beauty of cultural objects and costumes as well as nature’s splendor to be equally fascinating. So whether it’s people going about their daily routines or a slice of life from nature, I always try to highlight them with lighting and vivid colors, a method I learned from combining photo and painting techniques.”

In “Long Ji,” Rasmono vividly captures details like the scarlet shades of the girl’s traditional costume and the intricate weave of her basket. The yellow-green colors of the rice paddies more than give viewers a better idea of her world; their undulating lines also provide an aesthetic balance to the painting.

“Overall my art falls under the realist genre, as I go into details such as lighting and color. I also opted for realism as it makes my work more accessible to the wider public,” says Rasmono, a graduate of the Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology (ITS) in Surabaya.

“But unlike photographs that seek to portray what the eye sees, I seek to capture the essence of my subjects. Painting also gives a different perspective through its use of shades, an element highlighted and counterpointed by light.”

This is seen though his paintings “Tugas Pagi — Xia Pu, China” (“Morning Duty — Xia Pu, China”) and “Perjalanan” (“Journey”). The motes of sunlight shining through the trees in both paintings seem to guide the farmers to their future, while also affirming their identity. The sun can also be a metaphor for increasing awareness about them by outsiders. 

Rasmono also uses lighting to highlight the drama behind Indonesian traditions in paintings like “Makepung Lampit — Bali” (“Lampit Race — Bali”) and “Makepung Kerbau” (“Buffalo Race”). The racers put their gaudily decorated oxen through their paces to an unseen finish line. The strain as they try to control their oxen is obvious, given the breakneck pace. The animals can be an apt metaphor for Indonesia, due to the similarly mind-boggling changes in the country.

But Rasmono’s dynamic use of light and vivid colors can apply equally well to the spiritual world, as seen in “Tari Kecak” (“Kecak Dance”) and “Sinar Harapan” (“Ray of Hope”). The former alludes to the trance-like hypnotic state the dance is known to induce, while the ray in “Sinar Harapan” is a metaphor for the enlightenment and spiritual quest that we seek in our lives. But regardless how one interprets Rasmono’s work, what’s for certain is that the thoughts behind it, like his methods, are wholly his own.

“I’m disinclined to do paintings on order, because doing so kills creativity,” he says. “If one does commissioned paintings for one’s livelihood, one will be known as a hack instead of a true artist.”

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 25, 2014

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Pushing the Limits in Style With the New X5

The All-New BMW X5 XDrive Bromo Adventure

BMW X5s at Bromo (Photo courtesy of The Peak/Suhadi)


The car hurtles across the black volcanic sand, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. Moving with the rugged, nimble deftness of an off-roader or all-terrain vehicle, it tackles the sharp inclines and steep embankments carved into the landscape without losing its stride. The car also weaves its way through some foliage, coming out the other side as neat as a showroom-fresh model.

The car in question is none other than the highly anticipated 2014 BMW X5, which was launched for the Indonesian market in April.

The X5 comes with a choice of two gasoline engines with TwinPower Turbo — a 3.0-liter straight-six powerplant churning out 227 kilowatts, or a 4.4-liter V8 behemoth producing 335 kW.

With this much power under the hood, BMW is out to prove that there’s more to the new X5 than the clean lines and plush, comfy interior that make it a luxury sports activity vehicle. So to make its point, the luxury carmaker invited local motoring journalists out to the “Sea of Sands” — the volcanic flats at the foot of East Java’s Mount Bromo, an active volcano.

The All-New BMW X5 XDrive Bromo Adventure

Photo courtesy of the Peak/Suhadi

Trying times

Set against the verdant backdrop of the Bromo-Semeru-Tengger mountain range, the area has long been one of the favorite playgrounds for off-road enthusiasts in Indonesia.

The engine of choice on the day was the 3.0-liter, dressed up as the rather clunkily named X5 xDrive35i M Sport. The name aside, the engine delivered from the get-go, as we started out on a drive to Seruni Point in the wee hours to catch the sunrise.

The car shot through the mountain roads without missing a beat, effortlessly weaving through hairpin bends and sharp turns on its way up.

The drive down toward the sandy plains was also an impressive experience. The car’s Hill Descent Control driver assist system did wonders on the descent, stabilizing the car by limiting it to speeds of between 10 and 20 kilometers an hour and enabling the driver to concentrate on steering.

The new X5 also featured improved situational awareness by providing real-time information about the car’s roll and pitch in the dashboard display.

The full-time, intelligent all-wheel-drive system that makes up the X5’s xDrive transmission actively manages the power split between the front and rear wheels at all times, providing top-class traction and stability for all road and weather conditions.

The car can also offers improved cornering dynamics, allowing it to suppress oversteer and understeer, and the Dynamic Performance Control takes the handling and stability to new levels.

“The xDrive transmission, which was perfected in the new X5, is designed for the driver to get a feel the car and get on top of things, whether on urban streets or off-road,” said Jodie O’Tania, the head of corporate communications at BMW Group Indonesia.

“The chassis and engineering enable a comfortable ride for drivers and passengers alike. This is also due in no small part to the X5’s all-wheel drive and independent suspension. The increasingly efficient system also enables the new X5 to use 17 percent less fuel than the previous edition.”

Both the 3.0 and 4.4 engines are coupled to the BMW Efficient Dynamics eight-speed automatic transmission with Eco Pro mode and new functions. The former’s high internal efficiency, precision and short shifts go a long way in improving efficiency and driving enjoyment.

The Eco Pro mode manages the engine, accelerator and transmission to keep the car fuel-efficient at low RPMs.

But open the throttle, and the 3.0 races out to a top speed of 235 kilometers an hour with an average fuel consumption of 11.8 kilometers per liter. The bigger engine tops out at 250 km/h, with an average fuel consumption of 9.6 kilometers per liter.

Intelligent, to boot

The X5 made itself at home in the shifting sand, romping through dunes in a test of the iDrive intelligent drive system. It didn’t take long to see how the iDrive gave the X5 an edge over other cars of its type.

“The X5’s all-wheel drive might make the wheels roll independently of one another, but the iDrive intelligent system takes this a step further,” said BMW test driver Gary Nasution.

“If two or three of the wheels are stuck, the iDrive can seek a wheel that still has traction and distribute power to it to pull the car out. The iDrive’s traction control also enables the X5 to handle steep drops efficiently, while the toggle controls can control its speed at such inclines. In short, the X5 makes off-roading more accessible for everyone, even for those with no off-road experience, with less effort and more thrills.”

Gary wasn’t kidding. The X5’s off-road capabilities, especially with the traction control off, gave it the bumpy feel of four-wheel drives, ATVs and other off-road vehicles. However, its inherent stability and comfort set the X5 in a class by itself, as did its balance of rugged handling and sports car-like transmission.

Aside from its smooth handling and efficient dynamics, passenger amenities are also high on the list. The leather seats and ergonomic use of elbow, leg and head room enable the driver and passengers to get through the bumpy ride or long trips comfortably, while the memory function on the driver’s seat can remember custom settings for different drivers.

Passengers in the back won’t feel left out, as the back seats feature a comfort seating that comes with upholstery and backrest adjustments. The 4.4 takes this level of comfort further, as the comfort seats also extend to the third row.

All this is wrapped up in a more aerodynamic, streamlined package, featuring slimmer rear lights and a new double-kidney grille.

The X5 has long been one of BMW’s best-selling cars, its previous iterations selling more than 1.3 million units worldwide. So whether you’re going to work, the grocery store, or roughing it out off-road, the new X5 is worth checking out.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 19, 2014

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Illegal Migration Takes the Stage in French Puppet Show

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French puppetry troupe Les Remouleurs show ‘Frontiers’ explores illegal migration. (Photo courtesy of Salihara)

The young man heads out to face the unknown, feeling more daunted with every step that takes him farther from home. Aside from facing the unknown, he also has to deal with the mindboggling change from the rural world of his home village to the alien surroundings of the big city. The venality and brutality of the police, and the racism and humiliation inflicted upon the villager by urban denizens are equally harrowing. His experiences jolted him, searing indelible impressions on his mind.

The scene is part of “Frontieres,” a show by French puppet troupe Les Remouleurs, which was performed at the Salihara cultural center in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta as part of the Institut Francais d’Indonesie’s Printemps Francais cultural festival. Half mime and half puppet show, the group used a somewhat mystical backdrop of Thai shadow puppets to take on the ongoing crisis of human trafficking. 

True to its French meaning of The Grinders, Les Remouleurs truly put its anonymous main character through the grind. Special effects specialist Olivier Vallet got this point across by deft use of camera obscura and innumerable props to highlight the character’s plight and bewildered state of mind. This includes depicting his physical and mental experiences as an unsettling chaotic storm, to the metamorphosis of the city as a relentless monster who will break anything or anyone in its path.

Musician Francesco Pastacaldi did much to set the mood. His resonating, momentous drums gave a clear picture of the main character’s plight and challenges, while his more tender violin solos glimpsed at the character’s internal tensions and the toll his experiences take on him. 

The main character’s plight is relieved by an old woman who appears recurringly. 

“The old woman is none other than a people smuggler who moves illegal migrants along. They tend to have ambiguous relationships with their charges, as they alternately help and exploit them,” says Les Remouleurs director Anne Bitran, who founded Les Remouleurs with Vallet in 1983. “She is a vital cog in the [human trafficking] machine, as she knows how the system works and knows which official to pay off. True to her ambiguous nature, she either eases the main character’s way or stacks the odds against him.”

This is made obvious in a scene depicting the perilous boat crossing, the ensuing capsizing of the boat and the main character’s survival. Depicted in the backdrop of a blue sea, one gets a notion of the magnitude of their struggles and the migrants’ perseverance. 

“We often hear about illegal migrants making perilous crossings on unsafe vessels and the resulting casualties in their wake. But there is a heroic element in the illegal migrant experience that is often overlooked, and which we brought up in the sea crossing,” says Bitran. “The scene is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. But while that epic highlights Odysseus’ heroism and perseverance, ‘Frontieres’ wish to emphasize that the migrants share those qualities, though they remain unsung.” 

“[‘Frontieres’] is inspired by the plight of illegal migrants, refugees and others who were displaced from their homes, whether it be African migrants crossing to France from North Africa, Rohingya stranded in Thailand or boat people attempting to cross to Australia through Indonesia. The crisis is not only ongoing, its also exacerbated by public ignorance,” Bitran adds. “I can relate to the issue because my own grandparents emigrated to France in the 1920’s after they were displaced from Turkey. I also saw the effects of the issue firsthand, as I helped a number of migrant families with their paperwork or their childrens’ schooling.” 

Bitran added that migrants’ hardships don’t prevent them from reaching the pinnacle of success, citing former French president Nicolas Sarkozy as an example.

Vallet agreed with Bitran. “‘Frontieres’ features puppet show elements of East and West, such as Thai shadow puppets and the camera obscura, which has long been the visual effect of choice in western puppet shows. The mixing of both traditions highlights the universality of human trafficking,” he says, while also recalling how the group came up with ‘Frontieres’ at a puppeteer workshop in Bangkok last January. “We opted for the camera obscura, mirrors and other items because they lend themselves well to live performances. Unlike video recorders or cameras that form pictures from pixels, the camera obscura and other items show everything in sharper detail as they aren’t broken down. In short, our methods are traditional yet innovative.” 

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 19, 2014

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Into the Looking Glass and Back to the Past in “Oculus”

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A scene from “Oculus” (Photo courtesy of Relativity Media)

It’s all too tempting to look into a mirror and imagine that what we see staring back at us isn’t what it seems. This might be the main element that director Mike Flanagan, so far mostly known for his work on TV, pondered in his atmospheric horror movie “Oculus.”

Based on his 2006 short movie “Oculus 3: The Man With the Plan,” Flanagan took on the seminal film’s premise of a haunted mirror and expanded it. Shown in the present day with parallel flashback sequences, the film shows the efforts of siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan as the adult and Annalise Basso as the 13-year-old) and Tim Russell (Brandon Braithwaite and Garrett Ryan as the 10-year-old) to destroy an antique mirror that they blame for shattering their family. The project, which entails an array of computers, phones and thermometers to document the event, is also a homecoming of sorts.

We meet 21-year-old Tim just after his release from a mental institution, where he was locked up for the past 11 years for killing his father Alan (Rory Cochrane) after the latter lost his mind and killed their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff).

The tragedy began after the couple slipped into a state of paranoia-turned-insanity, which Kaylie and Tim both attribute to the mirror. Their literal confrontation with the past sets the stage for an encounter that will challenge their perceptions of reality.

The first half of “Oculus” strongly resembles “The Conjuring” in its use of a brooding, dark atmosphere, though it doesn’t have the latter’s constant, relentless pace.

Cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s camerawork deftly weaves through the house’s dark halls to either portray it as a house of horrors or a landscape for Kaylie and Tim’s haunted imagination. Flanagan explores this latter element particularly well. He seamlessly blends the past and the present, as Kaylie and Tim go from recalling flashbacks of their dismal childhood experiences in the house, to facing their childhood selves and demonic tormentors.

In doing so, Flanagan aptly takes a page from psychological thrillers like Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.”

The change is rather unexpected from “Oculus’s” predictable horror movie beginnings, which see Cochrane go from loving patriarch to raging psychopath in much the same manner as Jack Nicholson’s turn as Jack Torrance in “The Shining” or Ryan Reynolds’s take on George Lutz in the 2005 version of “The Amityville Horror.”

But the quartet of Gillan and Braithwaite as well as Basso and Ryan keep the audience very much engaged with their sibling “Babe in the Woods” act, reminiscent of the classic fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” or horror movie “The Glass House.”

Gillan, best known for her role as Amy Pond in the UK science fiction series “Doctor Who,” delivers a fine and intense portrayal of Kaylie, particularly as her obsessive drive to destroy the mirror eventually brings “Oculus” to its unsettling climax.

She is also shown to be fallible, as one of the movie’s rare forays into humor shows her chewing on a lightbulb that she mistakes for an apple.

Braithwaite, on the other hand, balances his on-screen sister quite well with his acquiescing yet skeptical portrayal of Tim. However, his skepticism is derived from vulnerability and repressed memories, instead of the confidence and clarity of logic.

But the ultimate scene stealer in “Oculus” is perhaps the mirror itself. Immobile and inanimate, the mirror inspires loathing and fascination in equal measure for the horrors that spring out from its inscrutable depths. The obsession that the characters feel for the mirror enables it to play with their minds, and shrewdly makes the audience question the Russell siblings’ sanity and sense of perception, as well as their own.

In all, “Oculus” and its mix of shocks, terror and insanity make it an unforgettable horror movie and a worthwhile way to question our ability to face traumas or the demons lurking in the dark corners of our past.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 8, 2014

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