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

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Imagine if the Makassans had stayed                                                                                                                 
They’re geographically adjacent, regionally together and economically married. 
Historically both were British colonies. They share the same founding father, an adventurous naval officer prone to take long sea voyages.
Today (26 Jan) Australians remember the arrival of what they call the First Fleet in 1788.  Eleven ships brought about 1,000 British settlers and convicts to start the New South Wales penal colony.
No-one asked the Aboriginal inhabitants for permission to land, though they’d enjoyed exclusive possession of Terra Australis Incognita [the unknown South Land] for around 50,000 years.  Their descendants call this Invasion Day, a time for tears not cheers.
For most Australia Day is a chance to swap desks for beach.  They’ll barbecue lamb chops, hear rock concerts, watch fireworks and wave plastic flags made in China. 
It’s no slander to say the event is more frivolity than formality; tomorrow’s news will include police statistics about arrests for alcohol-fuelled violence.
Eleven days later and just across the Tasman Sea, sardonically known as The Ditch, New Zealanders will recognise their national day - the 6 February 1840 signing of the Waitangi Treaty between Maori chiefs and the British Crown.
Waitangi is in the Bay of Islands on the east coast of the North Island.  The name means ‘weeping waters’.  Appropriate because the treaty, revered as the founding document of the South Pacific nation, didn’t stop the later outbreak of racial wars.
British explorer Captain James Cook landed in Botany Bay [now in Sydney] 18 years before the First Fleet furled its sails.  At the time perhaps half a million Aboriginal people were living off the land in several hundred small scattered tribes speaking different languages.
The official British policy was assimilation, but the land-hungry settlers had packed contempt with their firearms and Bibles.
Before Cook northern tribes had regular contact with Sulawesi fishers.  They had mastered deep-sea navigation, metalwork and pottery.  They carried guns introduced by the Dutch and Portuguese.
Had the Makassans been more interested in territory than trepang, the ‘sea cucumbers’  gathered for the Chinese food trade, then Australia might now be called Jawa Raya [Greater Java].
But the arid Australian interior probably looked too uninviting and the natives’ culture too strange - though that didn’t stop the fishers taking women back home.
The first Australians island-hopped through the Indonesian Archipelago when the seas were lower. They were nomadic, following seasons because much of the land was infertile. 
They had sophisticated hunting weapons like the boomerang and woomera spear thrower but no wheel.  Nor did they have natural protection against sicknesses unknown on the island continent.
The British brought smallpox, flu, measles and sexual diseases which had a devastating impact. So did the introduction of alcohol.
Skirmishes between settlers and residents were an unequal contest.  There was no war, just widespread dispossession. Now Aborigines form just 2.4 per cent of the national population.
Different in NZ; when Cook called in 1769 the Maori had occupied Aotearoa for about 600 years; they’d navigated south from Eastern Polynesia, so are not related to Australian Aborigines. 
Grouped in iwi or tribes and often fighting each other, the Maori had long settled in fortified villages called pa and spoke much the same language. They had vegetable gardens, reared pigs and lived well in a land of fertility.
Through trading with European and American whalers they got firearms. Consequently the easy British takeover of Australia was not duplicated in NZ – and that’s reflected in today’s events and Waitangi Day. 
In the mid 19th century 20,000 British troops battled 4,000 Maori opposing European settlement. Though outnumbered they fought ferociously and cleverly, using guerrilla tactics.
The New Zealand Wars took around 3,000 lives.  Though radical Maori sometimes use the event to air grievances, Waitangi Day celebrations are now more solemn, religious and rich in protocol than those for Australia Day.
Maori form 15 per cent of the national population and hold powerful positions in business, the public service and Parliament with 25 of the 121 seats.  [There are only three Aborigines in Australia’s 226 member national legislature].
Te Reo Maori is an official language and used in the national anthem. However the position of Maori as the second largest ethnic group after Europeans may soon be overtaken by Asian immigrants.
Though English dominates vocabularies and accents are diverging, just as they are between Indonesia and Malaysia.
Unlike Indonesia and the US the people of Australia and NZ did not fight their colonial masters for freedom.  On 1 January 1901 Australia became a self-governing Federation and a Constitutional monarchy through an act of the British Parliament. 
On Waitangi Day there’ll be banner waving, though this may be the last time the NZ ensign with the Union Jack is used officially. 
Indonesians, so totally engaged with the Merah Putih [Red and White] find it weird that a nation would want to change its most potent international symbol. 
But in March a binding referendum will decide whether the old flag – often confused with the Australian ensign and suggesting control by the Mother Country - should be hauled down in place of a silver fern and Southern Cross design.
Australians are nowhere near getting a treaty, a new flag or even a Bill of Rights. When NZ refused to join the Australian Commonwealth last century, the tiny nation set its own course, distinctly different from its giant neighbor, and socially more progressive, particularly with race issues
Sydney organizers have pledged ‘greater focus’ on indigenous events today, which says much about past functions; the focus of Waitangi Day has always been a celebration of  inclusivity and respect.
(The author is a journalist with a Masters degree in Australian Studies. He lives in East Java.)
An edited version was published on 27 January 2016 in The Jakarta Post.

Monday, January 25, 2016


Revenge of the Banyuwangi Ninjas                      

Moral panic is a ghastly phenomenon – and no culture seems immune. It happens when a bizarre but unproven story is fed by wild rumors which result in persecution.
The Massachusetts Salem witch trials of the late 17th century in the US are among the most famous; more recent examples include the 1980 Lindy Chamberlain dingo-baby case in Australia.
In 1998 the sickness struck villages around Banyuwangi [known as the ‘warehouse of sorcery’] on the east coast of Java when around 100 people, including five women, died.  They were slaughtered at night, usually with sickening brutality and their corpses sometimes mutilated, by mobs inflamed by claims the victims were casting spells and causing harm.
The killers, often premen [criminal thugs] among the outraged locals, were said to have wrapped sarongs around their heads as disguise.  At the time American comics featuring similarly dressed fictitious ‘Ninja Turtles’ were popular, so the murderers were dubbed Ninjas.  But there was nothing amusing about these characters
There were as many explanations as victims, but the most popular was the conspiracy theory, with a wide range of masterminds from the army through to ‘mysterious forces’.
Australian academic Dr Nicholas Herriman won’t buy these notions in Witch-hunt and Conspiracy even though they had credibility among some of his colleagues.  Understandable because: ‘in Indonesia conspiracies generally lie beneath unusual social, economic, political and, especially violent phenomena.’

He found no evidence of tension between religions; nor does he accept that local economic crises were at fault. Another idea that Muslim preachers, who were often large landowners, were targeted is also dismissed.  
For Herriman a chance confluence of disparate factors created an environment where weird rumors gained credibility and spawned other fantasies. These led to the breakdown of the moral principles that normally sustain communities.  Dark matter indeed.
How can otherwise civilized people living in harmony lose their humanity and turn into frenzied beasts?
In faraway Jakarta President Soeharto had been dethroned; the political world was in turmoil.  This fear and uncertainty tilled fertile ground for accusations of sorcery to take root. The collapse of the New Order government undermined law and order. This created opportunities for grudge holders to take revenge against neighbors with reduced chances of retribution.
Reports Herriman: ‘While I often sensed that people feared a local ‘sorcerer’, through all my interviews I did not obtain data that equated this fear with the ‘terror’ that is the ‘human condition’.  Informants seemed to evince a sense of relief following the removal of the ‘sorcerer’.’
Reformasi also liberated the media long shackled by an authoritarian regime. Not all reporters swallowed their essential scepticism pills before venturing into the field to check Ninja stories. 
Unfettered tabloid journalism fed well on the killings and in turn enriched the paranoia in isolated communities with limited access to wider views and little trust in modern medicine.
Rational explanations for illness –frequently a distended stomach - or sudden deaths of livestock or people were discarded in favor of supernatural causes. As the gossip spread so did panic, with villagers setting up roadblocks to catch ninjas.
Individual and community ills were projected onto the victims. Some were mentally sick; others just different from the norm in small communities by being lucky or successful and so arousing jealousy.  The excuse of ‘community justice’ was often used.
When tales about neighbors dancing naked in cemeteries were whispered it seems no-one was prepared to ridicule the reports.  If they did they became suspects. Ancient rituals were revived, like the ‘shrouded oath’ where the Koran is chanted over a person wrapped in a winding sheet who swears never to ensorcell again – ‘or let me die like this.’
Just as medieval European witch-ducking ‘proved’ survivors were evil and so had to be killed while the innocent drowned anyway, the same twisted reasoning applied in Banyuwangi.  One victim was stabbed but didn’t die, saved by his ‘magical powers’.  These demonstrated that he was a sorcerer.
If an accused heard they’d been marked for murder and fled, this showed absence of innocence. If they stayed it meant they accepted their guilt.   
For foreigners the Ninja killings indicated that Indonesian rural society hadn’t shifted much beyond the primitive beliefs of the European Middle Ages. 
But those who’ve lived long in the archipelago know better than to apply Western logic to chance happenings, even without having their brains curdled by watching sinetron [TV soap operas] plots which often feature demon doings.
Beliefs in the paranormal lie close to the surface even among the well-educated. During the 2009 election former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono PhD told the Antara news agency: ‘Many are practising black magic.  Indeed I and my family can feel it.’
At times it seems that almost everyone knows an unfortunate friend-of-a-friend suffering after being cursed by a colleague they’ve offended.
Herriman’s accounts and analysis of the events were undertaken for a doctoral thesis.  He lived in the community and interviewed around 150 people; these included men jailed for taking part in the killings [most got light sentences], relatives of the victims, religious heads and community leaders.
Not an easy assignment: ‘I became conscious of, unwittingly involved and almost carried away in this world of fear and suspicion.’ Nightmares followed.
The author began his research believing that a ‘conspiracy of some kind’ lay behind the killings and set about searching for the evidence.  He didn’t find it.  He consulted a dukun [white magic practitioner] about his future career – would it be in the US, Japan or Australia? He was told the first two.  He now teaches anthropology in Melbourne.
The killings abruptly stopped when the police and army, prompted by the media, intervened.  Only three of the 250 men charged were acquitted.
That should be the end of the story, but like vampires who rise from their crypt with the full moon for their next draught of haemoglobins, so the Banyuwangi ninjas will live on so long as ancient irrational fears trump common sense.
Witch-hunt and Conspiracy                                                                                                                    by Nicholas Herriman                                                                                                                       Monash University Publishing 2016 

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 January 2016)                                                                                         


Sunday, January 17, 2016


Keeping the spirits alive    
She looked comfortably well-off, the type often labelled an Ibu-Ibu.  Soberly dressed in muted colors and a full headscarf, she seemed a model of Malaysian propriety.

But an hour earlier she’d been bare-shouldered in a clinging batik shift floating face down in a spring-fed pool.  Long fish darted past her broad hips. The blue jilbab unwound as her hair swirled among the pink petals cast on the surface.
On a stone shelf  in the blackness behind  a younger local woman sat cross-legged in front of produce from the world’s most fecund island. Before the bathing  she’d meditated in total darkness. 
As the Malaysian entered the water the Indonesian sang in kromo, the ancient high-caste language of Java, with a backing chorus of frogcroak.
Bats zipped across the benign face of a pregnant yellow moon. Blink and they’d gone.  A black cat rubbed legs wasting its contrived affection.  No meat among the offerings.
Had it prowled past  a Western wedding, marital harmony would have followed. For sure. Omens and superstition are not exclusively Javanese.
Cattle lowed in mangers distant.  The limp breeze flicked the two candles’ flames, though too weak to shift smoke from incense sticks and kretek cigarettes.  A mosquitoes’ nirvana  -  but the evil ones stayed away.
For worrying long moments it seemed the lady in the water had perished and gone to another world.  Her body was corpse-still, the water unruffled. Slowly she drifted to the side, touched the stones and came to life. Reluctantly she stepped  out helped by ritual leader Nono Setyonggodo.
On the pool walls reliefs of the Tantri Tales, a Javanese version of the One Thousand and One Nights fable.  Also a date from the Saka Calendar: 1337.  This placid place  was built, or consecrated, in what we now call 1415.
So 600 years ago women were bathing here though minus headscarves, for Islam had yet to reach every crevasse of the island.
In the East Java temple complex of Panataran [sometimes spelt Penataran] the faith was Hindu. Imported from India it inspired priests and architects, artists and craftsmen to build a splendid array of monuments on the southwest slope of Mount Kelud, ten kilometers from the city of Blitar.  
They took about 250 years to do the job.  Later they fled east to Bali when the dynasty collapsed through family feuds and the advance of Islam. The remains were rediscovered in 1815 by Sir Stamford Raffles, the British governor of Java, and partially reconstructed last century.

Panataran, once known as Palah, was a State temple dedicated to the supreme god Siva.  It may have been the favorite sanctuary of Hayam Wuruk, the fourth monarch of the Majapahit Empire.  Although the largest Hindu complex in East Java, Panataran is dwarfed by the 9th century Prambanan temple near Yogyakarta.
The Majapahit ruled Java and surrounding lands aided by the cunningly capable prime minister Gadjah Mada.  This was the archipelago’s  Golden Age. 
Also yet to come was the Duyfken and three other pioneering Dutch barques.  They didn’t breast the horizon till 1596,  changing everything with guns and Bibles.
We have the floating 48-year old lady’s name card, but she’ll remain anonymous lest her relatives, friends and religious authorities in Selangor discover her escapades in East Java. 
They thought she was on a trade trip.  In a way that’s true.  Her business was seeking spiritual succour, but the import barriers are high.
“I couldn’t do this in Malaysia,” she said of her purification ritual.  “Of course people look for spiritual enlightenment, but you have to be careful in my country.  I feel so calm and refreshed. Here there seem to be no problems. Indonesia is so much more relaxed with religion.”
Indeed.  There was nothing furtive about this second of three ceremonies held during October and November, Sura in the Javanese calendar. Up to 50 people gathered to watch or participate around the rectangular pool. The rite went on till early the next day, ending when the food had been consumed.
Panataran’s caretakers work around the clock to prevent pilfering and damage to the site on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List.  They knew what was underway and stayed indifferent; likewise the courting couples giggling in the gloom, keener to explore anatomy than archaeology.
Participants brought large trays of food and drink, incongruously including a bottle of Johnnie Walker  to the ceremony.  This got underway as the lunar light increased. Birth dates were and translated into the Javanese calendar and scrutinized.  After eight women had submerged and departed to dry in the shadows, more than 20 men followed in batches of five.

“The water was cold but felt pure” said Made Polak, 58, chairman of a Malang – based NGO  after his immersion.  “Just before I entered the pool I felt three electric shocks on my back. 
“It’s the second time I’ve done this.  Some are seeking a cure – in my case from a face twitch following bungled surgery.  It went away but has returned.  
“I was told that a big fish swam over my shoulder when I was in the water.  What does it mean?  I don’t know! Perhaps my ancestor was a fish.
“We are trying to link the macrocosm and microcosm, to get closer to nature and resolve conflict.
“I’m one of only two Hindus here. The others are Muslims and Catholics.  This ritual is Javanese, but it contains elements of other faiths.  What does it matter?  We are all human and God is unlimited.” 
Some men had TRI LOKO and Indonesian sentences stencilled on their shirts, a reference to the differently spelt  Hindu concept of Tri Loka  – the physical world, that of the ancestors and the world of the gods.

The Indonesian words translate as: ‘Three different realms are fused into one unified whole.’
Nono Setyonggodo, 58, didn’t ‘t seem hung up about his responsibilities, often retreating for a chat and a filtertip. How to describe him?  He rejected ‘seer’ and ‘sage’ but settled for sesepuh.  This translates as ‘elder’ which seems inadequate.
 “This is Java’s traditional belief,” he said.  “Some call it Kebatinan. [The government has resisted attempts to accept Kebatinan  as an approved faith and classifies it as a cultural practise.]
“This ceremony is Ruwatan. Participants are seeking peace within and a resolution of problems.  If unsuccessful I tell them they’re not ready yet.
“ Men and women are equal;  there’s no discrimination. If you want to make a donation you can.  You decide and how much. If you can’t, no problems.
“There  are other Majapahit Era pools in places like Trawas and Singosari. We use Panataran because there are no distractions; it’s central for our followers.  We have about 1000.
“I used to be a mechanic.  I got my knowledge of meditation  from my grandfather.  He told me I could not practise till I had three grandchildren, which I now have.  Much of the literature was taken by the Dutch to museums in Holland.
“The food represents everything natural.  We used to use tuak [fermented palm wine] but we are modern so include whisky.
“We respect all religions. We are not in dispute. Everyone has their own way to God, to try and understand life and who we are.
“We don’t have trouble because people know this is a Javanese mystical tradition.  We are conserving our culture.” 
The following morning schoolchildren swarmed over Panataran’s temples on an educational excursion, filling their notebooks with dates.  Had they explored beyond their teachers’ instructions  and peered closely at some carvings they’d have enjoyed an illustrated lesson in the contortions of human reproduction.
Those by the bathing pool, where the pictures are family-friendly, were more interested in the fish than the figurines. 
No sign of the previous night’s event.  Not a petal, not a grain of rice, not a flake of incense ash.  Nothing.  All gone, like the people who created this magic place.  The ceremony could have been staged hours –or centuries – ago.
(Historical information on Panataran gleaned from published research by Drs Lydia Kieven and Ann Kinney.)'

(First published in J Plus - The Jakarta Post 17 January 2916)

Monday, January 11, 2016


So near, so far and growing apart                   

Welcome to 2016 and the perennial question: How can we get a warmer relationship with the people next door even if they’re tepid about us?
In 2013 ANU Strategic Studies Professor Hugh White wrote:

‘It will not be easy because in almost every dimension of national life – geography, history, economics, religion, language and culture – Australia is as different from Indonesia as two countries can be.’

His comments could have been published yesterday; they’ve not been gainsaid, only highlighted by others to illuminate the contrasts.
Yet applying all White’s factors – and particularly history – distant Japan is the country we should most distrust and our northern neighbour the one we should like best.  Curiously the reverse holds.

We fought a vicious war against the East Asian nation bent on conquest.  Its fanatical military was as inhuman towards prisoners as ISIS extremists are today.  The Japanese bombed our northern ports and came close to invading.
The generation that suffered hated the enemy and passed down its abhorrence.  Loathing lapsed as Japanese technology triumphed; we found Toyotas efficient and – traitorous to confess – hardier than Holdens.
We got a taste for sushi and tempura but found the language difficult and culture opaque. They have a far-right military group glorifying its evil past, and which still finds ‘sorry’ the hardest word. They continue to slaughter sea mammals and ignore our outrage.

Yet this month one-time Australian ambassador to Japan John McCarthy told ABC Radio our friendship with Japan is ‘the closest relationship we have in Asia’.  His former department says this is ‘underpinned by a shared commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.’

On his pre-Christmas trip to Tokyo Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joined the chorus:  There has never been a better time to be investing in the friendship between Australia and Japan’.

Although Turnbull added that he was ‘very disappointed’ with Japan’s decision to resume whaling in Antarctic waters that didn’t stop him inviting PM Shinzo Abe to Australia this year.  He was officially last in Canberra in 2014 when he addressed the Federal Parliament.

Turnbull also posed with ASIMO labelled ‘the world’s most advanced humanoid robot’.
Contrast this enthusiasm with Turnbull’s earlier visit to Jakarta, promoted as a chance to reset the relationship following the execution of two Australian drug traffickers.
Unlike his predecessor Turnbull didn’t remind President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo of Australia’s aid after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. 
Instead he reached back seven decades, overlooking the point that the unions did much of the heavy lifting in helping decolonise the archipelago:
One of the shining moments, proudest moments (in) Australia’s contribution to global affairs was the diplomatic support provided in the immediate post war era for Indonesia’s struggle for independence and sovereignty.’
If this heartstring pluck was supposed to inspire a tear and a hug, it didn’t work. Even after more than a year in the job the leader of the world’s third largest democracy still does banal well.
Jokowi replied: ‘The close proximity of our two countries is a fact.’ 
Turnbull did snap selfies but in a grossly overcrowded and basic market. If he did offer a visit the card wasn’t opened. 
The prelude to Turnbull’s trip was a deputation of 344 businesspeople encouraged by the perpetual alerts that Indonesia is too big and important to ignore.
It’s by far the largest economy in Southeast Asia and expanding fast. The World Bank reports it’s ‘now one of Asia Pacific’s most vibrant democracies that has maintained political stability and emerged as a confident middle-income country.’

Australia relies on exports of primary produce, modern technology and efficient services.  We’re the country next door but do little business with our giant neighbour. There used to be 400 Australian companies; now there’s 250.
By contrast Japan is Australia's second-largest export market and fourth-largest source of foreign investment. 

Turnbull’s rhetoric was later warmed up by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. As a prelude to a December meeting with her counterpart Retno Marsudi (plus Defence Ministers) she said:  ‘Australia enjoys a constructive partnership with Indonesia, which is vital to our economic, strategic and security interests.

All important, but no mention of friendship.  Or culture, education, science, art, invention and innovation that accompanies talk about Japan - just the standard trinity of business suits, planners with portfolios and uniforms with guns.

Although the Lowy Institute’s poll on our feelings towards Indonesia show they’ve cascaded to the lowest point since 2005, (on a par with Russia and Egypt), we certainly like Japan, ranking the country just below Germany, the US, UK and NZ. 
And they seem to like us; More than 350,000 Japanese visit Australia every year. The number from Indonesia is less than half, though paradoxically we send more than a million to Indonesia.
Most head to Bali which even DFAT has trouble recognising as part of the Republic.  Its travel warnings state: ‘We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Indonesia, including Bali’. 

Do we find it easier to relate to the Japanese because they play rugby (introduced by former Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs player Max Mannix), drink grog, work hard, are smart innovators, don’t bother others with their religion and have rapidly adapted to Western ways and values?
In 1945 both nations started with huge handicaps.  The Indonesians fought a guerrilla war for four years to expel the colonial Dutch and consolidate their independence.

Japan had been bombed with atomic weapons.  Almost all its industry had been destroyed. The Allies’ occupation lasted for seven years.  But by 1949 Japan had won its first Nobel Prize.  It now has 24, mainly in physics. We have 13.  Indonesia has none.

Japan joined the UN in 1956; instead of dwelling on its catastrophic and humiliating defeat the nation set out to rebuild and learn; it’s now the world’s third largest economy with a population one-third of Indonesia’s 250 million.
Till a year ago Indonesia was our major aid recipient and (Bishop again) a ‘trusted partner.’  If that’s the best we can say this commentary could be recycled a year hence.

If we can get close to the Japanese, why not the neighbours? They are overwhelmingly friendly and funny, their culture and country alluring.  What’s the problem - Indonesia or us?  Readers’ suggestions welcome.

First published in New Mandala 11 Jan 2016:

Sunday, January 10, 2016


Visit Indonesia 2016 – A streetscape named desire

Diplomatic relationships between Cuba and the US have been restored.  Now the Caribbean republic is expecting shoals of tourists, many keen to snap the 1950s American fin-tailed monsters of their youth still used on the island.
Visiting this living car museum makes a U-turn in time when Chevy convertibles, Bel Airs and Thunderbirds cruised the turnpikes.
Here in the Archipelago the quaintly-titled Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy displays our wonders through its Visit Indonesia campaigns.  These feature volcanoes poking puffing cones out of mist-bathed jungles, coral reefs swirling with marine life, gorgeous dancers in batiks that stretch the imagination.  
No veteran Buicks but we have something equally rare to promote and draw in the dollars, available in only eight other nations. As these include Somalia, Eritrea, South Sudan and places better known for terror than tourism, Indonesia has to be the 2016 must-see.
And so accessible. No need to sit for hours in a bus struggling to clear suburban traffic snarls and make it to the mountains before nightfall; just stay in the comfort of your city hotel and gaze through the smog at sights not seen elsewhere for decades.
Blink back the tears of nostalgia! Gasp as you recall lost pleasures through the fog of memory: Amusing, entertaining, and informative - streetscapes of cigarette advertising.
But come soon – there’s a powerful group of killjoys working to take the color from our lives and make our drab cities even grayer.
Their foundation for righteousness is based on the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
This claims ad bans ‘protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.’
Most nations agreed -168 signed.  Though not Indonesia, thank goodness.  We’re big enough to light our own brand.  Butt out WHO, we’re the Frank Sinatras of the tropics. We do things our way.
The billboards and banners which enhance our cities and brighten our towns can’t show people enjoying a drag.  You may think this a silly rule, but it’s actually a Good Thing.
That’s because it’s given the ad guys the chance to show creativity, which is what President Joko Widodo has been calling for - a clever country.
One winner produced a stack of white coffee cups with the top one steaming. The product was cappuccino-flavored.  It didn’t mention nicotine.

Others show daring hipsters doing dopy things in SUVs on mountain tops, out-of-focus bimbettes in the background. Some sell sophistication, with men looking diplomatic in foreign lands. The captions are as challenging and witty as political election slogans.
The English words add to the prestige and help visitors relate. ‘Open new ways’, ‘Never say maybe’, ‘It’s time for action’ and ‘Love + Pride = Bold Choice’.  

Here’s the wordsmiths’ latest nugget:  ‘Feel the continuous freezing experience.’ This is also available in morgues.
One designed to blow smoke in the face of the anti-tobacco lobby mixes bold and plain type: ‘Don’t Quit’.   Irresponsible? Loosen up, have a laugh.

The prematurely aged wheezers peddling pedicabs under the banners look nothing like the macho models;  no-doubt the transformation will be Clark Kent into Superman once they inhale. 
And here’s something extra for the amazed visitors, though they have to be awake after 9.30 pm to enjoy aja. TV ads featuring the lithe and lovely relishing the good things in life by spending Rp 16,000.  Should the health warning flashed at the end annoy, just blink.

Australian addicts pay 20 times that sum to get the same kicks in a plain package.
These commercials are big-budget top quality productions employing actors, crew and camp followers; if the naysayers win these busy folk will have to shoot educational docos.  Likewise the tobacco farmers; they’ll have to grow food.
The advertisers’ cleverness is breathtaking.  Sex is used, of course, but also culture which would otherwise perish.
Tobacco companies are altruists.  It’s a little known fact.  For example they sponsor pop concerts for the kids, even though the posters don’t show company logos. 

OK, they get the brand name in through astute wording of captions. That’s not devious - that’s Bold.  Duncan Graham

First published in The Jakarta Post 10 January 2016

Sunday, January 03, 2016


Chalk thief to gumnut gatherer                       

The Tugu Tani statue in Menteng of a sturdy farmer farewelled by his humble wife is one of the best – or worst - examples of Russian Realism beloved by the late President Soekarno.  The genre is now widely discredited – but what’s the scene now?  Duncan Graham reports from Perth and Yogyakarta.

It all started with nicking chalk while the teacher’s back was turned.

Fortunately when Ninus Anusapati (left) was a schoolboy in the 1960s, whiteboard markers had yet to be invented, so the raw material of classroom instruction was plentiful and wouldn’t be missed.

Most pupils dutifully copied their master’s blackboard scribbles, but to one naughty lad’s creative mind the gypsum could be better used.

Inside each plain stick of chalk lurked an image waiting to be born, wanting only the hands of the right midwife, or in his case, the subtle gougings of a penknife.

It was a rare though not a novel idea; at the time the young Javanese was unaware that the 15th century Italian artist Michelangelo is said to have entertained similar thoughts about beauty seeking release from coarse inanimate objects.

That knowledge and much more, would come later. The journey moved beyond carved chalk when the son of a customs officer resisted his parents’ plans for a career in the bureaucracy. 

 Instead he entered Yogyakarta’s famous Institut Seni Indonesia [ISI – Indonesian Arts Institute]. His parents should not have fretted.   Their creative son was rapidly recognized and is now the national president of the Indonesian Sculptors’ Association.

After graduating in 1984 he won a Fulbright Scholarship to the Pratt Institute and studied for two years in New York.  Now he’s back in ISI as vice rector, uncomfortable that his administrative duties are crimping his once substantial output.

“I originally thought I wanted to be an architect,” he said in a splendid new office on the old campus.   Surprisingly this demonstrates a concern for design. Most government buildings are concrete pillars with infill, as riveting as a stack of shipping containers.

Does this indicate a fresh approach to supporting the arts? ”I hope so, it’s overdue,” said Anusapati, 58, though he doubts that President Joko Widodo is an enthusiastic culture man. 

“Soekarno was interested in art, though he favored a Soviet style in public statues.  These were more political statements than art.

“Nothing cultural happened under [second president] Soeharto unless it was an attempt to legitimize his version of history.  As a country we’ve been constantly searching for identity – but finding nothing.” 

Yet Java was once a workshop of skilled artisans carving detailed frescoes on the splendid temples erected before the fall of the Majapahit Empire in the early 16th century.

Added Anusapati: “Though there are plenty of modern monuments I don’t know of any city in Indonesia that has a public sculpture park. That’s something I’d like to see introduced, like Gomboc’s in Western Australia.”  [See Breakout]

Apart from private commissions his work is in the National Gallery in Jakarta and in galleries in the Netherlands, Italy, the USA and Singapore. He has just returned from completing Sound Tower a commission in Japan involving wooden bells.

Critics trawling for a repetition of ideas and styles will be disappointed.  The man is versatile and his art resists easy assessments.  Much is abstract – it’s the form that seduces.

Anusapati is at ease with a casting on a coffee table that used bamboo in the mold, the carved roots of coconut palms, or a giant bronze of freedom fighter Ngurah Rai who died in 1946 in a battle against the Dutch. This artwork is at the new Denpasar airport named after the Revolutionary hero.

Naturally this eight-meter statue has the subject’s name as title – though labeling works is something Anusapati is reluctant to do. He believes art should speak for itself and let viewers determine their feelings without being guided by words on a plinth.

“The challenge is to think and not be told,” he said. “As artists we are dealing in symbols, not words.  Some people get it – others don’t.  It doesn’t really matter.”

But it does.  Exhibitors need a title in their catalogues. So reluctantly he adds labels, like The Journey for a small empty wooden boat floating in a sea of discarded wood shavings; the work is now owned by Western Australia’s Curtin University of Technology.

At the start of this millennium Anusapati was artist in residence at the university’s School of Art. Every year since an exhibition has been staged at the Gomboc Gallery in Perth’s Swan Valley featuring artists from around the world. However Anusapati remains the only Indonesian so far to have been invited.

“I was among about 14 international artists and we went to a camp deep in the forest,” he said.  “I was fascinated to discover different trees, particularly the hardwood jarrah and gum trees which shed large nuts.  I brought some back for a collection.

“Then, as now, refugee boats were sailing from Indonesia to Australia and getting arrested or turned back.  This inspired my work.  Humans are not goods that can be imported and exported.

“I’ve always been interested in natural objects – and also those from industry, how the two can be together or apart.  Sculpture has gone through many changes – the term now embraces all materials.

“You can use anything, paper, cloth, found objects, waste - that would not have been allowed when I was a student. Other barriers have come down, though sculpture remains a minority and male interest – we get few female students.”

Despite the building changes on the ISI campus there’s an avenue of deans, a parade of roman-style busts of worthy academics.

 These seem to fit into the traditional role of Indonesian sculpture – honoring the past rather than exploring the future.

“But I am optimistic,” said Anusapati.  ““The dominance of Western art is vanishing. So are boundaries. It’s now difficult to tell whether this is a Japanese piece of work or European or American.  I like that.”  

The bronze visionary of the Swan Valley

During more than 30 years of running international programs, sculptor Ron Gomboc, 68, has hosted scores of overseas artists – but only one Indonesian, Anusapati – at his Sculpture Park, the largest private gallery in Western Australia.

“We’d welcome interest from the Archipelago,” Gomboc said.  “Please apply. We’re neighbors.  We should be sharing.  Where’s the new generation of Indonesian sculptors?”

Since 1984 Gomboc has been funding an annual sculpture exhibition inviting overseas artists to work and exhibit. It’s an opportunity Japanese, South Korean and Chinese artists and their governments have seized with enthusiasm.

In the creative arts, skills alone are not enough to turn talent into business.  You need a champion, like Vincent van Gough’s brother Theo, to attract the buyers and keep the accounts.

The right name is also important.  Gomboc Gallery is alliteratively artistic, while Sculpture Park suggests open air and little chance of being buttonholed by a curator talking down her nose at a Philistine who’d strayed into an elite environment. 

The gallery is located in Western Australia’s Swan Valley, 40 minutes from Perth’s Central Business District, so no great effort is required to discover the site – an important factor to remember for any Indonesians planning a similar venture.

Ratimir Marijan Gomboc sounds exotic but the man is unpretentious, ruggedly Australian. The Slovenian labels given by his parents didn’t roll easily off the tongue, particularly when the users are monolingual. So his forenames were mangled to become Ron.

Gomboc wasn’t going to let anyone make him an outsider.  Instead the teen who arrived from the former Yugoslavia with his family enthusiastically embraced his new country and made it his own.

He was conscripted and served for two years with the Royal Australian Engineers, putting the time to good use.  During his service with the Army he studied painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. 

So he was well prepared in the 1970s when the arts flourished with backing from a reform government and a booming mining industry with cash to spare for culture.

Gomboc didn’t just start to sell – he became an entrepreneur for sculpture.  He’s won more than 20 international and local awards, including WA Citizen of the Year.

He’s succeeded by creating the 4.5 hectare Sculpture Park with around 100 pieces, and making it open to the public to encourage creation and appreciation.  However he attributes much to his wife Terrie.

“None of this would have happened without her support,” he said, waving his hand across the plantation of steel, bronze and concrete sculptures.

“You can’t do something like this alone.  You need support.  I also thank everyone who’s bought or commissioned my work.”

Two years ago a cultural exchange exhibition was organized with the United Arab Emirates, and Gomboc sees no reason why a similar program can’t be run with Indonesia to the benefit of both nations.

Unlike many other artists Gomboc doesn’t design and get others to make his creations. After leaving school he worked with his builder father so learned engineering skills.

Gomboc is a polymath and can turn his hand from abstracts delighting the avant-garde through to religious figures that traditional conservatives would appreciate.

“I’ve only contracted out once,” he said.  “This was for Northern Spirits ordered by the iron ore company Fortescue Metal Group and now standing in Port Hedland.

“It stands 12 meters and was just too big for one man so I had to get in made in an engineering factory.  But everything else I’ve done myself.”

His other commissions have included a memorial to film actor Heath Ledger [Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight] who died in 2008 from a prescription drug overdose, and the Australian Academy of Cinema and TV Arts awards, Australia’s Oscars.

The Gomboc workshop behind the park is a sculptor’s paradise, equipped with welders, cutters and presses, hoists and pulleys – and a foundry.  There’s all the equipment to handle aluminum, steel and bronze, Gomboc’s favorite metal though like Anusapati he’ll work in anything, including wood.

This makes it an ideal one-stop workshop for visiting artists.  There’s even self-contained accommodation.  All it needs are creative Indonesians.

First published in J-Plus - The Jakarta Post 3 January 2016