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Goenawan Mohamad

Indonesia & Performing Arts: A Talk With Goenawan Mohamad

By: Gerard Mosterd


Goenawan Mohamad is one of Indonesia’s most well-known intellectuals today. Looking younger than his actual age, he was born as Goenawan Susatyo on the 29th of July 1941 in Batang, a small town in the north coast of Java. He grew up in a political family: his father was a left-wing activist who was exiled to the remote Boven Digoel camp in West Papua — and, after his return to Java, was executed in 1947 by the Dutch troops sent by the colonial office in the Hague to retake Indonesia.

Goenawan Mohamad

Goenawan Mohamad, one of Indonesia’s most well-known public intellectuals


Goenawan studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Indonesia in the early sixties. He published poems and essays before turning 18. He gained a wider recognition after his essays and poetry were published by Sastra, a respected literary monthly published in Jakarta. Under Sukarno’s ‘Guided Democracy’, with its Third-World revolutionary ideology, Sastra was under attack for being “counter-revolutionary”. The campaign against Sastra writers was launched by leftwing writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer who stood for “socialist realism”.


Fearing an imminent purge, writers and artists related to the magazine issued a manifesto, called “A manifesto on culture” (Manifes Kebudayaan) in 1963. It spoke for a creative life independent from the diktat of political powers; it stood against Stalinist “socialist realism.” Goenawan was one of the first signatories of the manifesto. After a huge political campaign led by supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party, Sukarno banned the manifesto.


Sastra ceased its publication. Its writers were not allowed to publish their works; Goenawan and others used pseudo-names to survive. “Not that we were against the revolution”, Goenawan told me of those years. “We were very much pro-Revolution. But we thought it was possible to be revolutionary without following the precept of ‘socialist realism’. People like Diego Rivera and Neruda were men of the left but were not Stalinist in their arts.” In 1965, just before the turbulent, violent days following the counter-coup by the Army — in which thousands of people were massacred and jailed, most of them accused of being communists — Goenawan left for Europe. He was 24 and accepted as a student at the College d’Europe in Brugges, Belgium.


Not long after he returned to Indonesia, he joined Kami, a student newspaper in Jakarta that spearheaded student movement against Sukarno and his “Guided Democracy”. The newspaper was also highly critical of the military regime under Suharto — and was later banned. Under the Suharto regime, Goenawan and his friends started Tempo newsmagazine in 1971. In its pages Goenawan’s short essays, published under the rubric of Catatan Pinggir (“marginalia”), have been a weekly staple with a large number of loyal readers. This year, Tempo’s publishing wing produced nine big volumes of Catatan Pinggir. In 1994, Tempo was banned.


Goenawan decided to join a growing pro-democracy movement and set up an underground network of information. Three of the members of the network were jailed, one was kidnapped. Until the end of the regime, Goenawan was never caught and detained; probably he was so highly visible internationally that the regime had to be careful not to make him another Amnesty International’s “prisoner of conscience” like Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Goenawan Mohamad with in the background one of his books 'Democracy and disappointment'

Goenawan Mohamad with in the background one of his books 'Democracy and disappointment'


In 1998, Suharto fell from power following a huge student demonstration. During his underground years, Goenawan transformed an unused space belonging to Tempo (which was out of business) into a hub of different activities (theatrical and dance performances, art exhibitions) mostly as a cover. This was the genesis of the Utan Kayu Community (Utan Kayu is the name of the street where it is located), a small art centre known for many innovative works performed in a room with a limited audience. The theatre had no seats; people just sat on the floor to watch plays and dances. After the fall of Suharto, with the help of Jawa Pos, a Surabaya-based newspaper,
Goenawan built another centre, to accommodate the growing need for space for performing arts at Salihara Road, one hour-drive from Utan Kayu. It was on 8 August 2008 that Komunitas Salihara was launched as the new contemporary arts centre. It is located near Pasar Minggu (Sunday Market) and the National University in the South of Jakarta. It was good timing as the “Big Durian”, an Asian metropolis of around 17 million people, had been lacking a decent house for the arts for quite some time. When Komunitas Salihara was created, the Jakarta “National” Theatre (Gedung Kesenian) built in the colonial time was going through a crisis due to an unfavourable change in policy and management.


Until then Gedung Kesenian used to be the main place for the performing arts in Jakarta along with the theatres at Taman Ismail Marzuki, the small Utan Kayu centre, and the European cultural centres like Erasmushuis, Goethe Institut, Istituto Italiano and Centre Culturel Francais. Salihara offers monthly lectures and discussions for free. With a 240-seats black box stage and a gallery-cum-concert space, it has an attractive, on-going program of national and international fine art expositions, dance and musical performances. Though this venue may not be too easily reached by road transport due to Jakarta’s notorious traffic jams and its remotene location from the city centre, it can be reached relatively quickly by train. Get off at Pasar Minggu station and walk or take a motor cycle or taxi from there, which takes you to Jalan Salihara in just a few minutes. Salihara houses an Indonesian-style restaurant (kedai) and a small souvernir shop. It serves as an excellent meeting point as wel.

Komunitas Salihara is truly a unique place in Jakarta

Komunitas Salihara is truly a unique place in Jakarta


Gerard Mosterd: Komunitas Salihara has existed since 2008. How did you get to the idea to set up the Salihara Community? Goenawan: In the beginning I was working for Tempo as an editor. I started it to promote quality journalism but this also enabled me to make a living. As you know for a poet it is not easy to survive. Poetry doesn’t pay. Working as an editor caused kind of a problem — meaning I didn’t have much time to write poetry. But at the end I managed to find a balance.


One good thing about Tempo is that half of its shares are controlled by the employees and the other half belongs to a Jakarta foundation that funds sports (mostly badminton) training centres. So basically we were free to use parts of the profit for the purpose of art. We sponsored and funded productions. This did not last, though. When Tempo was closed down by Suharto, the publishing company practically went bankrupt. Luckily, we did have a group of offices that, after the banning of the magazine, we could use for underground activities. We created a gallery. We would have meetings in the gallery, and the police and the military would think we were doing an exhibition or a seminar on arts. We called this Komunitas Utan Kayu. In 2007, I received an interest-free loan — practically it was a grant — from Jawa Pos, a Surabaya-based newspaper owned by Tempo (and by me together with some former Tempo people). Following the suggestion of my friends at the Utan Kayu Community, I used the money to purchase a cheap piece of land in the southern part of Jakarta; it was a parking lot for garbage collection trucks. We transformed it into an arts venue, designed by three prominent architects who did it pro bono. We called it Komunitas Salihara — “Salihara” (a Sundanese word for lantana) being the name of the road where it is situated.


Gerard Mosterd: How do you find the money to run this arts community? Goenawan Mohamad: Parts of it come from my personal earnings as a share holder of Java Pos; other parts from the Java Post and other donors. In the past, we refused to receive government’s fund, but recently our relationship with the Ministry of Education and Culture has improved considerably — and the ministry has a large budget to spend. For our 2012 festival, we got additional funding from the government. It has yet to be seen whether this will be a regular policy.


Gerard Mosterd: You are regarded as an icon, representing a long part of the history of Indonesia, stretching from the independence, the Sukarno era, through the New Order into the present “democratic” time. Goenawan Mohamad:


An icon is dead stuff. I prefer to stay alive.”


And maybe political activity is embarrassingly limited; I always see political activism as an cumbersome necessity — a “sad duty”, as one prominent theologian puts it. The problem is that it is a Sisyphus-like story. In each part of Indonesian modern history there has always been a totalitarian temptation. Living here means you have to deal with this recurrent non-freedom. In the past we had colonialism, then “the guided democracy”, then “the military-based New Order” and later on, after Reformasi in 1998 — after our democratic ideals were institutionalised — we have had religious fanatics threatening to get rid of our traditional tolerance and expressions of difference. It is very exhausting but if we don’t continue fighting, the intellectual and artistic resources of this country will disappear.”

Goenawan Mohamad also updated the text for the extraordinary performance L'Histoire du Soldat

Goenawan Mohamad also updated the text for the extraordinary performance L'Histoire du Soldat


Gerard Mosterd: Do you expect support from outside of Indonesia? Goenawan Mohamad: In the past, during the resistance against Suharto, we had a good network with friends in East Timor, pro-democratic elements in Burma, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. But this was mostly political in nature. On the cultural front, it was, and still is not, very easy. The aftermath of Reagan-Thatcher “market fundamentalism” was a new type of right wing myopia. The Ford Foundation, used to be a generous supporter for the arts has since been transformed into a business-oriented donor agency. Of all nations the Dutch, with its Prince Claus Funds and HIVOS, have been the only progressive institutions in their outlook in promoting cultural activities as part of the social. But I’m afraid – and I am not alone in this — even in the Netherlands “culture” is the first casualty in this time of the Right. I always think Right wing ideas begin with a parsimonious paranoia. You know that in your country some well established institutions such as KITLV were under the threat of being dismantled. The Tropentheater in Amsterdam will close down in a few months.

A scene from L'Histoire du Soldat

A scene from L'Histoire du Soldat


Gerard Mosterd: But Indonesia is not in the same position, isn’t it? Goenawan Mohamad: “In Indonesia conservatism of all kinds, particularly Muslim, is on the rise. The brighter side is of course the consistent growth of the economy, despite the European and American crisis. Yes, the middle class seems to be flourishing, consumers have a strong confidence in their future. But this may have adverse effects as well. First, the income disparity is growing menacingly. It is almost as bad as in China. Second, there is a craze for material culture — and given the fact that business and political elites of Indonesia are culturally illiterate, the funds allocated for true creativity become increasingly marginal.


But let me give you a more optimistic view. All this may end up with Indonesia having a new generation who demands more quality in the artistic and intellectual production. I think it is the role of Komunitas Salihara to prepare the way. Especially we insist on having first class performances that the young can afford to see. As you know we don’t make any money by selling tickets. The prices are reasonable and quite low. 50.000 IDR for ordinary people and 25.000 IDR for students.


Gerard Mosterd: You have been following artistic currents in Indonesia.What is your idea about the Indonesian performing arts, past, present and future? Goenawan Mohamad: I think the golden age of the Indonesian performing arts was during the seventies. That was when the arts centre Taman Ismail Marzuki was fully supported by the city under the governorship of Ali Sadikin, who started it.. Sadikin gave the Jakarta arts community good funding and freedom which is unusual. So we had beautiful, homegrown performances and good artists from abroad were brought in as well — including Marcel Marceau and Pina Bausch. It was Rendra’s best time performing Hamlet and Oedipus. It was the time that Sardono Kusumo created his best works. Then Sadikin stepped down and Suharto placed one of his men in that position. He cut all the money substantially and started to control Taman Ismael Marzuki. A long time of decline was setting in. The arts cannot exist and grow without money. Gedung Kesenian used to be a cinema at that time. Even in Yogya things were not as good for a long time during the eighties.”


Gerard Mosterd: Has there been an improvement since? Goenawan Mohamad: “Almost invisible. We no longer have reliable theatre and dance companies. The quality of contemporary dances is erratic. So is that of the theatre. The good thing is that from time to time, you find surprising talents, It strengthens my belief that creativity, like a flowing current, has always get a way to keep on flowing. ***





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