The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Afi Shamara
Arisan producer turns Wellywood painter © Duncan Graham 2008

Don’t judge a book by its cover, nor a spouse by their partner’s position – a proverb particularly relevant to Afi Shamara.

She’s a woman driven by her creativity fuelled by reading everything and anything, from the late and once banned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer to contemporary writer and poet Remy Silado – and turning her ideas into action.

“I was so excited to read their books, they made me feel as though I was in another time and space,” said the wife of Amris Hassan the Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand. “My imagination was stimulated.”

Particularly by Silado’s Ca Bau Kan (the Courtesan) which Afi pushed on her filmmaker friend Nia Dinata who was equally captivated. At first they thought about making a 24-episode TV series but soon realised the big screen would be more appropriate.

They bought the film rights and set about raising funds and employing directors and artists for their company Kalyana Shira Films. No so simple.

Women filmmakers in Indonesia are still pioneers in an industry dominated by men who weren’t going to give immediate votes of confidence to tyros in tights.

Like most Indonesian films that don’t fall into the genres of gothic horror or teenage trysts, Ca Bau Kan didn’t please the popcorn-crowd. But it did push the boundaries, positively featuring the Chinese in the context of the Japanese occupation and subsequent revolution.

“I loved it but felt it should have run for three hours,” said Afi. “We had to cut it to two hours to meet the demands of the cinema operators and the result was, well, an impasse. It was short (on financial returns) a little bit.”

Though not enough to dissuade her from further film production. Kalyana Shira released Biola Tak Berdawi (the Stringless Violin) in 2004, again to audience indifference and much criticism of the acting.

This situation changed in 2005 when the women, undeterred by failure and male mockery, produced Arisan, a story based on Afi’s experiences with the Jakarta status-conscious, brand-crazy social set, worked into a screenplay by Joko Anwar.

Even after censor’s cuts the metrosexual comedy was a success de scandale largely because it showed gays behaving like anyone else and in one brief scene, stealing a kiss. The controversy did the box office no harm and an estimated 100,000 people bought tickets hoping to be shocked.

By Western standards Arisan was ho-hum, leaving audiences used to sex and nudity nonplussed. But in Indonesia this was groundbreaking stuff with critics enthusiastically predicting a new era in filmmaking and social acceptance. That hasn’t happened.

“Making films in Indonesia isn’t easy,” said Afi in her home perched above Wellington city at the southern tip of NZ’s North Island. “Raising the money and finding sponsors is difficult, particularly for the films that I want to make.

“I’m interested in educating the audience through documentaries, drama and humor. I want to produce beauty, show slices of life.

“Of course there must be a good story line. Indonesia is rich in many different cultures. There is so much material. Few people know about our extraordinary history.

“The other problems are post-production facilities. We’ve had to use facilities in Thailand and Australia to ensure our films look professional. Distribution difficulties are a handicap. Although we have the Jakarta Film Festival there are no art-house cinemas as in Wellington.”

The capital of NZ is also known as Wellywood because of its top-quality film production facilities. These have been led by local director Peter Jackson whose fantasy epic Lord of the Rings trilogy made the city’s creative artists and NZ’s knock-out landscapes world famous.

Although she’s been approached by a Kiwi cinematographer to get involved with a new script, Afi, 42, knows well how film production can be physically, emotionally and financially draining. “After Arisan I just wanted to retire,’ she said – an improbable ambition for a woman with abundant energy and hunger to learn.

Being a producer also meant absence from her husband and four children for weeks, and spending limitless hours lobbying for funds, negotiating complex deals and placating temperamental artists in the hothouse of egos.

As an ambassador’s wife she does her diplomatic duties at the multiple functions that demand her presence, promoting her homeland and culture with an eye to boosting trade.

This she does with a disarming down-to-earth style, popular in a country that loves informality, and where feisty, multi-talented women with ideas and opinions are respected. Her ‘can do’ approach is at the heart of Kiwi values.

The daughter of the late Faisal Abda’oe, former president of the oil giant Pertamina, Afi spent four years in the US where she studied graphic arts. Back in Jakarta she opened the Sunshine pre-school with five friends. Enrolments raced from seven to 200; she pulled out when success meant expansion into primary education.

“I needed to stimulate my artistic side,” she said. “I have always loved reading and I wanted to express myself.” Producing films provided some satisfaction, but Afi has moved on and is now studying art and attending formal classes.

Although her home offers stereoscopic views of Wellington’s rugged harbor Afi is more interested in portraits, preferring to explore the character of her subjects in acrylic. She takes life classes, enjoys pop art, sees herself as an expressionist and is currently producing some imaginative and confrontational nudes.

“I’m the sort of person who loves to mingle and express myself. I have so many friends and family back in Jakarta, so thank goodness for Facebook (the Internet social network). But I love NZ and don’t mind the cold,” she said.

“There is so much to do and see. In Jakarta we’d be going to shopping malls, but here we can walk through the bush and along the shore, breathe in the fresh, clean air, just being a family.

“I walk down to the bookshops and browse and buy. I go to galleries and exhibitions and enjoy the museums.

“If my husband becomes president (he was a politician in the national parliament with Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P party before taking his present appointment in 2006) I’d be pushing for an art culture as in Singapore, museums for children and films for children.

“And I’d like a film censorship system like the one here in NZ where the censor doesn’t cut but rates the film according to the audience so children can’t see adult movies. We should be stimulating our brains, always trying to learn more, boosting our confidence.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 June 2008)


Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Indonesia has changed in the past decade and so must our attitudes, according to Andrew MacIntyre from the ANU and Douglas Ramage from the Asia Foundation writing in The Age (27 May). Duncan Graham has a different take:

Indonesia is changing – but MacIntyre and Ramage are jumping the gun by saying the country is a stable democracy.

Better to wait till after next year’s general election before commenting on the future of our over-populated and under-employed neighbor.

Apologists urge us to overlook the street protests, the outrageous statements by Muslim preachers and the government’s inability to cope with natural disasters as growing pains. If so they’ve been going on for far too long. Adolescence is overdue.

Jakarta’s chattering classes condemn President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for vacillating – a strange response for a former military man trained to be decisive. But they are not alone; disappointment with the man and his nation’s current experiment with democracy is widespread. It’s not all SBY’s fault. He heads a tiny party and has to juggle the labyrinthine politics of a parliament with a gaggle of opponents running multiple agendas.

Like Canadians he has to live alongside a giant and temper his policies accordingly. In this case it’s Golkar, the allegedly reformed political vehicle set up by the late dictator Suharto.

Vice president and millionaire businessman Jusuf Kalla chairs Golkar and is expected to be opposing his boss in next year’s election, handicapping decision making in the run up to voting.

Former president Megawati who heads the PDI-P party will probably try again for the top job. She’s been invisible since loosing power in 2004. Democracy requires a vibrant opposition offering credible comment and alternative policies, something Indonesia hasn’t experienced. There’s a dearth of bright young altruists seeking office so the same old names from the past get recycled.

In the vacuum rampant nationalism is breeding fast. No problem if it’s kept to culture but a real issue when opposing foreign investment and aid, demanding state controls, subsidies and other simplistic solutions to complex economic issues.

Xenophobia is on the rise and a challenge to Indonesia’s relations with the West. Religious intolerance is destroying places of worship and putting dissidents in jail. For most pluralism is a myth.

Australia has moved on since John Howard infuriated South-East Asia by being portrayed as the regional US deputy sheriff; Indonesia has not, and Kevin Rudd will have to work hard to change our image.

Indonesia has more than 40 million unemployed and under-employed, double the population of Australia. The middle-income class is growing, but not at the same rate as the poor. The gap between the haves and have-nots is obvious, ugly and an awful threat to internal stability.

The government continues to ignore its constitutional duty to spend 20 per cent of income on education. An estimated six million kids don’t go to school and 1.5 million teachers are said to be unqualified. Indonesian education is way behind other Asian countries and slipping fast.

Indonesia has not recovered from the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago. Her neighbors have bounced back. The US dollar continues to sit well above 9,000 rupiah and no improvement is in sight.

Short-term visitors think things are looking up because a few cranes have returned to city skylines. Most are building shopping malls, not improving the nation’s infrastructure. Badly run and poorly maintained transport systems along with an unreformed bureaucracy and a corroded legal system make doing business a continuous struggle. Claims for economic growth need to be considered sceptically: Indonesian statistics are notoriously elastic.

A mud volcano that started erupting in East Java two years ago has turned into a huge environmental and social disaster that has been handled appallingly by the central government.

Corruption has grown since Suharto fell, largely because decentralisation has opened further opportunities for graft conducted openly and brazenly. As the US-funded Freedom House report says: ‘… corrupt relationships between powerful private actors, government bureaucrats, politicians, and security officials infuse the political system and undermine it from within’.

There have been many changes, and some positive. The Indonesian press is the most vigorous in the region, though that doesn’t mean it’s professional, unbiased or widely read. There’s been a book-publishing explosion, but much is low-quality religious tracts and translated Japanese comics. Indonesian literature and film is still decades behind the rest of the world.

Australia has been doing well with training programs in education and administration. These need to be enlarged and expanded to have any impact.

Ensuring Indonesian language and culture are properly funded in our schools and universities is critical. Unless we understand our neighbors, their history and the problems they’re facing, misunderstandings are inevitable.

Australia’s military engagement with Indonesia should be viewed with caution. The Indonesian army has long been used as a political police force suppressing internal separatists; if stories from closed West Papua are true the force is being applied with brutality and demands exposure.

All this is not cause for despair; it should help prod Australia and Australians to work harder using fresh ways to improve relationships. That won’t happen if we think all is well and getting better.

Let’s retain the mystery and magic of Indonesia while deleting the suspicion and fear that affects so many Australians and aggravates relationships. But lets do this from a foundation underpinned by a clear understanding of present reality. The turmoil continues; this is a nation in transition.

(First published in OnLine Opinion 11 June 08)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Bambang AW (See story below)

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LAN ARTIST RELEASED (C) Duncan Graham 2008

One of the most overlooked of the Soeharto regime’s many transgressions was the suppression of artists.

I’m not referring here to the easy-come, easy-go pop singers and sinetron nonentities who have corrupted the word, but to intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to expressing their emotions and concerns through writing, music, film-making, sculpture and painting.

Most creative people aren’t motivated by greed; they have to put food on their family’s table but few are materialists. True artists are driven folk whose emotions are often in turmoil as they wrestle to express themselves, to produce works of perfection – yet knowing that state can never be achieved.

They feel deeply. They fight day and night with the demon demands they set for themselves. They strive to transform their spiritual concerns and observations into forms that we, the less-talented observers, may understand and appreciate. They show us windows into other worlds, but we have to open the glass.

In the dreary decades of the so-called New Order administration such people were viewed with suspicion because they’d been conscripted by their consciences, not by despots with corrupt agendas.

Independent thinkers are much feared by all authoritarian regimes, and with good reason; the army may have the guns and bayonets, but the artists have pens and paintbrushes, weapons that can pierce the soul.

We are lucky that Bambang Adrian Wenzel is still young enough to know that his best years still lie ahead and that he now lives in more tolerant times. Older artists haven’t been so fortunate; many were so crushed by censorship that their talents have been lost forever.

The gruesome state of the present Indonesian film industry is one legacy of Soeharto’s 32-year oppression of creative thinkers. The shallowness of much Indonesian literature as it flounders for identity after decades of fear is another example. Three generations of Indonesians have had their souls corroded because they were not exposed to the ideas of the nation’s best and brightest.

Bambang, and a small palette of fellow artists in Malang, have managed to sidestep those perils and are now enjoying an extraordinary freedom their brave predecessors could never have imagined.

Here’s a small, but significant, point. Bambang was born into a half Chinese, half Madurese family in the Java east coast town of Banyuwangi almost 50 years ago.

Being an artist with a Chinese background made him doubly suspect in the eyes of the authorities. Even when no criticism was intended, the New Order spies and censors were constantly alert, seeking symbols they could interpret as subversion.

So anything in Bambang’s art with a sniff of Sinology exposed him to risk. Now he can release that part of his once-imprisoned heart and let it roam free in his art, even sign his name using Chinese characters in red.

He can also relax in his large personal library amongst books on philosophy, politics, history and art where he draws much inspiration knowing that Intel (the sinister intelligence service) won’t be kicking in his door to check for forbidden words.

This means that after a long winter his art is now in early spring and budding brightly. He is moving into mixed media, trying new forms, experimenting without having to look over his shoulder or fear the denouncers. This is a time of dramatic social change with almost everything open to question, and Bambang is up there in front.

What he hasn’t lost is his spiritual search. He remains a Catholic but expresses his faith in the subtlest ways. On the sliding scale that has the religious kitsch of burning hearts and mournful heaven-turned eyes on one end, Bambang’s art is at the other pole.

He has also suffered a personal tragedy with the loss of his wife. It seems this has added sadness to his art, though it is never bleak or maudlin. Nor is it forced.

Because his work is so eclectic many will think it’s not Indonesian. I disagree. For too long Indonesian art has been defined by dancing Balinese maidens and landscapes of rice threshers, a school pioneered by the European artists of early last century and unashamedly plagiarised ever since.

In Yogya the tourist market has defined ‘traditional’ art and made an appalling fist of the job, with the magical and mysterious figures from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics reduced to factory-produced cutouts with all the charisma of sliced bread.

Meanwhile the lovingly rough-hewn carvings, the fecund earth ochres and lush greens of ancient Java have been rejected as too primitive.

Bambang’s work draws on so many themes that it continually challenges. He has chosen to live in Malang, at the heart of the ancient Majapahit kingdom, an area saturated in magic, pre-Islamic carvings and holy sites, a landscape of legends, curious customs and darkest secrets.

Here he is creating new Indonesian art determined by committed Indonesians proud of their ancient heritage. He’s blending ideas of the distant past, pulsating present and an uncertain future laced with personal trauma. He’s not beholden to mindless nationalism, business, the State or outsiders.
Don’t assume his art is insular. His concerns for human rights and justice aren’t confined to Java. They are global, gleaned through his extensive reading - though concentrating on Asia.

For the viewer, instant interpretations have to be discarded as new ideas are revealed, many through just a ghost of a hint, a slim key to open the imagination. Surely this is a major definition of good art: it forces us as onlookers to seek and think and open our minds.

Much of his life is spent articulating the plight of the downtrodden and oppressed, though never in a ham-fisted way. His personal quest to help the poor of Porong left landless by the mud volcano that erupted in May 2006 and hasn’t stopped since, is proof of his commitment to justice and social change.

Bambang Adrian Wenzel is an artist of our time setting new agendas for Indonesian creativity, setting a new dawn for the archipelagic arts.

(Published as programme notes for the Yogyakarta exhibition Floating Souls, May 08)