AFG Venture Group Dispatches

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Building Cultural Relationships In Indonesia Through Theatre and Education

Julie Janson, Artist, Playwright & Educator

There is a need to present a positive expression of the Australian-Indonesian relationship and to enlarge the understanding between Muslim and Christian sensibilities through the arts. The Australia Indonesia Institute, which under DFAT has arts and cultural responsibilities, operates on a total budget of less than a million dollars, which is a disappointing reflection on Australia’s lack of commitment to the people to people relationship with Indonesia. Perhaps with the increasing number of Australian mining companies active in Indonesia and extracting considerable profits in a low to moderate tax regime there might be some consideration given to providing support for cross cultural arts programs.

One positive response to broadening the arts and cultural relationship between Australia and Indonesia has been through the work of Asialink at the University of Melbourne. It has given support in the form of numerous Artist Residencies in Indonesia to Australian artists and in Australia to Indonesian Artists. I was fortunate to be selected to undertake two of those playwright residencies in the period from mid 2000s to 2009.There was also support from the Australia Indonesia Institute at DFAT as well as corporate sponsorship by ASEAN Focus Group towards the workshopping of one of the plays, Eyes of Marege.

The host organisations for the various projects in Indonesia were Petra University in Surabaya East Java, the National University of Makassar in South Sulawesi and the University of Bung Hatta, in Padang West Sumatra. I wrote two plays and workshopped and developed them during the various three (3) month residencies. I was also required to teach in the English Departments of both universities in Australian studies and to undertake Shakespearean theatrical performances with student drama classes.

The first project was the play, Eyes of Marege, which focused on the historic and cultural relationship between Aboriginal Australia and Islamic Indonesia that has occurred for hundreds of years between Makassan fishermen trading with Indigenous communities in Northeast Arnhemland. A key part of the exchange in the play was through the music and dance cultures of Indonesia and Australia, which was workshopped and later presented by the collaborating artists.

The Eyes of Marege tells of an incident in the 1920s when a Makassan fisherman steals an Aboriginal sacred object while trading on an island in the Arafura Sea. In the ensuing fight, a proud young Aboriginal man, Birramen, kills the fisherman. Another fisherman, Ahmad saves his life on condition that he sails to Makassar to be tried in a Makassan court. The Makassan fisherman then voyage back to Sulawesi, rejoicing in their return to their families and homeland. Birramen, likewise finds himself mesmerised by the sights, sounds and culture of this southern Sulawesi city. After 5 years imprisonment, Birramen voyages home, “dressed like a sultan in woven sarong and silver bangle” and profoundly enriched by his experience of the Islamic music, culture and peoples of this vibrant sea-faring city.

During a later workshop period in Makassar, key artists from the Indonesian theatre company, Teater Kita Makassar (TKM) worked with the director, Sally Sussman and myself over a two-week period rehearsing The Eyes of Marege. There was a shift in the stylistic focus towards creating a piece of music-movement-visual theatre, building on the striking visual, symbolic and physical performance style of Teater Kita Makassar and the evocative voice, drum and strummed music specific to the trading (Buginese) and seafaring (Man’dar) cultures of Islamic southern Sulawesi. When we finally brought a full-scale production to the Sydney Opera House Studio and the Ozasia Festival in Adelaide 2007, it was the first time that this regional style of Indonesian music had been introduced to Australian audiences.

Asil Ramli (Ram) Prapanca (Director) is Artistic Director of Teater Kita Makassar, a prominent young contemporary theatre company in Makassar, which has produced many acclaimed works locally. He collaborated with us in the workshop process on Eyes of Marege, developed in co-operation with

Musical Director, Arifin Manggau’s South Sulawesi music. The work of Teatre Kita Makssar is physical and highly visually striking, draws inspiration from traditional Bugis or Makassan culture and contemporary forms.

On my second Asialink residency I undertook workshops in, Padang Panjang, a town in the mountains of West Sumatra where I worked with a small Muslim women’s theatre company Teater Perempuan Perkeja (Working Womens’ Theatre). The play Tsunami Tsunami was translated into Indonesian with the assistance of the Australia Centre Medan and was written after I was a volunteer in the Aceh Tsunami rescue. I was on the Batavia, a rescue boat, during the period from late March to June 2005. I worked with Indonesian and Australian and volunteer workers to set up tent schools in villages and towns where the schools and all the concrete buildings had been destroyed.

Tsunami Tsunami, became a powerful piece of writing for Indonesian actors, an Australian female performer, an Indonesian child and musicians. It is essentially a response to an event that captured the world’s attention and led to an unprecedented contribution of aid by individual and corporate Australia. One of the lesser known aid missions was “The Electric Lamb Mission” which consisted of the hiring of a Hong Kong disco ferry complete with disco balls, by a couple of Australian surf charter operators in Sumatra to use this boat to deliver essential medical and food supplies to the tsunami affected villages.

I workshopped and devised the play with Indonesian director Tya Setiawati . We worked in difficult circumstances as an earthquake had devastated the town a few months previously the theatre had sustained a major 7.8 earthquake only 3 months previously. A local school had collapsed and 20 children were killed. The theatre roof was literally half collapsed and there were earth tremors every few days. It was a workplace safety nightmare, but there was no alternative venue in this extremely poor town and seeing the theatre group was not afraid, even if I was, we carried on.

The theatre production of Tsunami Tsunami was performed on 18 June 2008 at the Taman Budaya, Padang (Cultural Centre) and on 20 June 2008 at the Taman Budaya Riau, Pekanbaru. The play was performed in Indonesian language and had 6 student performers (musicians and actors) from the drama school in Padang Panjang (SITSI). The group has a strong performance style that derives from traditional dance (including dancing on broken plates) and declamatory performance on social issues. They performed at the International Women’s Playwright Conference in Jakarta in 2006.

As part of the project I ran writing workshops and worked inter-culturally with Indonesian artists and students to explore the impact and aftermath of the earthquakes and tsunami on local communities. I had travelled to the damaged villages where I made contacts and taught English during the period of my work as a volunteer rescue worker. Many small villages on the island of Simeulue and Nias were visited to bring aid. We also stayed in Lho Kruet on the coast of Aceh where a third of the population of 10,000 had perished. I was asked by the Sumatran community theatre group to write a play that reflected the experience of the rescue workers but also of the communities who lost families and homes in the earthquake and tsunami devastation.

These examples of Australian and Indonesian arts practitioners working in collaboration, illustrate how understanding and cultural appreciation can be built through the arts. What we need is more opportunities for Australian artists to work alongside Indonesian artists and to be funded at a professional level to enable them to bring these arts collaborations to a wider international audience. The support of the corporate sector alongside that of international education and government is crucial and its time for corporations that benefit commercially from the Australia Indonesia relationship to step up to the plate and be partners in building relationships beyond simple commercial gain. There is a growing awareness and in some cases a commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR), one would hope that this will also encompass a commitment to arts and cultural exchange.

About the Author

Julie Janson works as a playwright, screenwriter, producer, script editor and assessor. She has worked on many cross-cultural projects enabling artists to express the connections and clashes between traditional forms and contemporary sensibilities, particularly between Asia, Indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. She has received numerous grants and fellowships, has made several short films and had a number of her plays produced at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre and overseas. Janson worked with the Perempuan Perkeja theatre company toward the presentation of her play Tsunami Tsunami.

Copyright 2010, Julie Janson. All rights reserved. All material in this article is the Intellectual Property of Julie Janson and cannot be reproduced, copied, published, quoted or disseminated without the prior permission of Julie Janson.