Last week I returned from a nine-day research trip to Indonesia—an incredibly rich, transformative experience with a jam-packed itinerary. I was one of 10 performing arts presenters, funders or organizers from the U.S. who traveled there to witness dozens of performances, both traditional and contemporary, and meet with artists and arts organizations. Organized by the Asia Society (New York), the New England Foundation for the Arts (Boston), and the Kelola Foundation (Jakarta), the tour was as much about cultural exchange and the breaking down of misconceptions (on both U.S. and Indonesian sides) as it was an investigation into new artists and new forms. Asia Society’s Rachel Cooper, a trusted friend and colleague and an expert in Indonesia’s music and dance, was our expert guide.
A diverse, inspiring, sprawling country, Indonesia is more than 17, 000 islands spread over thousands of miles. So in traveling to Jakarta, Surakarta (Solo), Yogyakarta (Jogja) and Ubud, Bali, we only saw one sliver of it, but these places are viewed as something of a cultural corridor, if you will. (Ubud is home to Cudamani, who performed at the Walker last fall in collaboration with Ragamala Dance.) I had been planning my own research trip to this country, not just because of the vibrant arts presence, but also the remarkable conversation happening between traditional and contemporary work, and the fascinating, sometimes volatile mix of what Indonesia is today: Muslim and Hindu (and many other faiths), simultaneously traditional and post-modern, rural and urban.
Indonesia has layers of complex nuanced history, with wildly distinct regional differences but also unifying national elements. Both Bali and Java are noted for classical dance and gamelan traditions, so to witness firsthand the distinct differences between these approaches was fascinating. Beyond the stunning cultural traditions thousands of years old, we got a sense of how many artists are experimenting with contemporary dance, music and performance, making work that often draws deeply from the country’s rich traditions – and sometimes works consciously in opposition to them.
Yet the people of Java and Bali are, of course, also negotiating the realities of 21st-century urban life, one filled with millions of Facebook users, cell phones, pop and hip hop music, video downloads – and contemporary artists are incorporating these elements or their influences into their work. Each of the four cities I visited had seemingly vital scenes with young performers sharing their work with each other and their communities, people making new things without a lot of financial resources. One afternoon in Solo, we saw five contemporary dance artists each show us 20 minutes of their works, and our sense was that this was only a fraction of artists making new dance in Solo. Overall, we saw about 40 ensembles, from youth gamelan orchestras to experimental performance artists, to royal court classical dance to a kind of street theater done in a radical way (on a stage) for primarily young audiences. In addition, we were meeting with cultural organizations, new galleries and performance spaces, many of which had only started in last five years.
Being in each city for only one or two days was kind of heartbreaking; just as we were starting to grasp a feel for a place—the smell and sounds, the local concerns and cultural structures—we had to move on. It’s not just the art we saw, but the architecture and food, the homes and streetlife, that gave us the context to really feel rather than just watch or analyze the culture from the outside. Wherever we went, even where it seemed people were struggling financially, we were presented with full plates of food and drinks and warm welcomes—there seemed to be such a sincere and deeply rooted generosity and graciousness built into the national character. The trip was just another reminder of how essential it is for curators and programmers to travel and spend time in the countries that they plan to actively present work from; it offers a whole different view of artists and their work that you don’t get at international festivals. Granted, eight days was all too short for a country like Indonesia, but it was a good start, an introduction to draw on for the future.
Another striking thing was the amount of interest in and awareness of the U.S. there seemed to be – not just because we were visiting just weeks before President Obama’s visit. Many people wanted to know what Americans think of Indonesia and its people. There was a great deal of appreciation, and surprise, that ten arts leaders from the U.S. would take the time to come and learn a small amount about the arts in Indonesia; several major publications, including The Jakarta Post, the largest English language paper in Indonesia, interviewed us and followed each step of our trip. Indonesia is clearly interested in being seen, understood, and considered an important part art of the global arts community.
Photos courtesy fellow traveler Margaret Lawrence, director of programming at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center.