Indonesia (1) : On cultural expression

July 9, 2009

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It’s de rigeur in weblogging to pepper text with photos. It’s a sign of the times; in days of yore, prose was strong enough to stand on its own two feet. These days, one needs a graphic. A decade or two ago, I would have equated this to a variation on primary-school student activity, but days, it’s as I say de rigeur and there’s no escaping!

So I’m playing the game, but also turning the conceit on its head. Today’s photo is telling because of what it doesn’t say, as much as what it does say about cultural expression in Islamic Indonesia. The book is titled “Islamic Art”, there’s not a single mention of Indonesia. It’s as if Indonesia didn’t exist. I’m not critical of the author or the publisher – it was published in 1975 -, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of coming to grips with the notion of cultural expression in Indonesia, a significant part of which is Islamic. If titled “Arabic Art” I could understand why the world it describes stops at Iran. I’m struggling with the implications of ‘cultural expression in contemporary Islamic Indonesia’ and this book exemplifies I guess that struggle.

So what is “cultural expression”? I’m familiar with aesthetics, culture, cultural heritage and cultural hybridity, but cultural expression is a curious turn of phrase. It certainly sounds all-encompassing and obviously includes the arts, but could it – in an Indonesian and/or Malaysian context – go beyond the visual and performance arts – to women in advertising, newspapers and media, the internet? Far beyond art-as-artefact, art practice and museums: the creation, fashioning and retention of cultural objects? Far beyond, perhaps, just literature and cinema?

In a Japanese context, moving beyond literature and cinema seems superficially easier: matsuri, manga, tea ceremony, geisha. Beyond the artefacts associated with traditional music, theatre and opera, textiles, ceramics, paper and ink. Even manga can be broken down to include still cartoons (and movie stills), films, text-only prose, graphic novel/cartoon books, cosplay, memorabilia, manga events and even ‘additional’ texts (prequels, sequels and taking characters out of their original and constructing new stories by new authors).

In a Chinese context, there is literature, cinema and architecture, thanks to the Olympics. Plus the diaspora of painters.

Can one legitimately extend ‘cultural expression’ (a term which seems often to be used in an Indonesian sense, crowded with Dutch connotations) be extended to advertising, journalism, tourism and food? Do we include religious observance and ritual, religious preaching, mass political movements and their dynamics? To what extent is Indonesian cultural expression an extension of Javanese culture and the power of Java in the modern Indonesian state, in contrast to cultures (and traditional/modern cultural expression) in islands other than Java? For most Australians, ‘Indonesian cultural expression’ is synonymous with Bali. Yet nothing could be greater in terms of history, art, religion and ‘contemporary society’ than the differences between Bali and Java, or Bali and the rest of Indonesia. As a Westerner visiting Java, I have to admit to having been more interested in the museum ceramics and night folk theatre of Jakarta, even Taman Mini, than interrogating Islamic Indonesia. More interested in Borobudur and the Jogjakarta imperial court. Similarly, in his recent television documentary on gardens around the world for the BBC, Monty Don visited Bali to investigate both the traditional garden styles as well as the ‘applied’ contemporary notion of the ‘tropical’ or Balinese garden.

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