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Europalia Indonesia: Festival opens with a four-month programme of culture
Every two years Belgium hosts a jewel of a festival, Europalia, each edition focusing on a particular country. This season’s offering runs until 21 January. It presents the diverse and fascinating history, culture and arts of Indonesia, a place that’s little known beyond the tourist hotspot of Bali.
The country consists of 17,000 islands, of which only 6,000 are inhabited, stretching between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. A strategic trading and maritime nation, it was one of the most valuable colonies of the Dutch East Indies.
The festival offers a new look at Indonesia past and present via exhibitions, performances, literature, films and music. And as ever, Europalia features artist residency exchanges, ensuring a cultural legacy for the future.
The Europalia arts biennale has been building cultural bridges since 1969. The current edition involves dozens of institutional partners and spans not just Brussels but all of Belgium. The three themes that unite these various offerings are ancestors and rituals, biodiversity and exchange.
Europalia’s twin flagship exhibitions, both hosted by Bozar, celebrate the traditional and contemporary sides of Indonesian culture. Ancestors and Rituals is an ethnographic showcase of that which unites all the populous country’s hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups: the importance accorded to ancestors, whether mythical or genealogical. The exhibition boasts more than 160 archaeological objects on loan from the National Museum of Indonesia, many on exhibit for the first time in Europe.
Power and Other Things explores the upheavals in Indonesian art since 1835 through the works of 21 Indonesian, European and Australian artists. The nearly 200-year span has seen Indonesia colonised by the Dutch, occupied by the Japanese and, ultimately emerge in 1945 as an independent state at the forefront of the nonaligned movement. The exhibition’s title, drily borrowed from the legal jargon in which the demand for independence was couched, underlines the determining role of geopolitics in Indonesia’s cultural history. The 19th-century works on show reveal colonial tensions while the more recent pieces attempt to locate that history in a contemporary global context.
Another highlight is the exhibition Archipel at La Boverie in Liège. Organised by the National Museum of Indonesia in collaboration with Belgian and French institutions, this historical survey approaches the Indonesian archipelago as a network of nodes within a larger, global network of economic, scientific and cultural exchange. But this isn’t 21st-century globalisation 2.0. Indonesia has been a global crossroads for thousands of years. Archipel presents artefacts from ancient Sumatran and Javanese empires, Chinese and Indian traders as well as various early Muslim and European influences.
If many of these exhibitions hearken back to the old days, Grand-Hornu’s contemporary art museum MAC’s looks boldly forward with an exhibition of cutting-edge work by transdisciplinary Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto. The immersive, site-specific installation On Paradise breaks artistic barriers in its presentation of Indonesia’s colonial struggles. Kuswidananto is also working with contemporary American choreographer Meg Stuart and her Brussels-based company, Damaged Goods, on a new dance production to be premiered in the capital in the context of Europalia in January.
Pioneering performers from different generations are invited to S.M.A.K in Ghent for an evolving programme entitled Performance Klub. The titles honours the artists who used performance art as a protest against the military regime of General Suharto (1967-1998). Artist Setu Legi hs created an in-situ mural to frame the performers.
There’s plenty more performance on the programme, including dance by Indonesia’s most celebrated contemporary choreographer, Eko Supriyanto, and gender-bending performer Otniel Tasman as well as radical performance art by veteran stage provocateurs Teater Payung Hitam and loads of concerts, celebrating especially the traditional Javanese gamelan.
Recreating the sounds and smells of Indonesia’s bamboo culture is Bale Kambang, a floating platform by Eko Prawoto, fittingly installed at the foot of the Mas (Museum aan de Stroom) in Antwerp. Bamboo is prevalent in the country’s decor and architecture and is a sustainable alternative to tropical wood. The platform creates a unique public space and is built entirely out of bamboo, prepared in the Yogyakarta region of Java.
Europalia has also extended an invitation to a dozen of Indonesia’s most eminent writers. Declamatory poet Godi Suwarna is set to tour Belgium performing his dramatic Sundanese verse. The West Java-born artist doesn’t just read his poems – he channels them and brings them to life on stage. New York-based author Intan Paramaditha represents another generation. Writing both award-winning fiction and academic essays, Paramaditha explores gender and sexuality, culture and politics from a young, progressive vantage point.
Europalia also features film screenings and the second edition of the Europalia Curator’s Award, encouraging young curators whose projects recognise the importance of biodiversity and ecological sustainability. Finally, the major research symposium Imperial Zombies, Modern Vampires and Contemporary Ghosts promises a critical airing of perspectives on postcolonial art in the 21st century.
As ever, the festival hub is Mont des Arts in Brussels. Drop in for a heady brew of Indonesian coffee or a refreshing tropical fruit juice, and sample one of the nation’s many culinary specialities. A programme of family activities is organised throughout the festival.
Photo: Mella Jaarsma’s video installation Lubang Buaya, or Crocodile’s Pit, is inspired by a massacre in Jakarta during a 1965 political coup. It invites viewers to place their head inside the head of a crocodile skin while listening to interviews about the event. ©Mie Cornoedus