Tue, 19 Aug 2003

Carla Bianpoen, Contributor, Jakarta

Kebaya, the traditional blouse found in virtually every country in Southeast Asia, has evolved with the changing tides of history. Marked by the culture of the country in which it is worn, it varies from a relatively loose blouse to a high-corseted jacket in lace or other luxury material.

In Indonesia, the kebaya is probably found in as many varieties as there are ethnic groups, but what is predominantly understood as the "kebaya" derives from the kebaya as it is known in the Javanese tradition of the elite. It is fairly tight and worn with a special woman's brassiere -- the long torso -- to cover up eventual unsightly bulges of the flesh.

While kebaya may be viewed as femininity personified in terms of women's clothing, and designers have indeed raised it to the level of high fashion, artists have often linked it with the Javanese tradition of make-believe.

Astari Rasjid, a noted artist who has extensively explored the culture in which she was born and raised, has visualized the fallacy of make-believe in a number of sculptures, with the kebaya looking as if made of supple, silky material, but in fact made of stainless steel to reflect the discomfort underneath the facade of beauty as well as the harsh impositions in real life.

Quite different is the impression presented by Victoria Cattoni's installation and video presentations on the kebaya.

In Reading the kebaya, as the exhibition at Galeri Lontar is titled, it is the videos documenting the reactions on the kebaya that matters. That such reactions are evoked "by design" is another matter.

What is seen in the gallery is two clothing racks hung with about 40 kebayas and three TV sets simultaneously running videos showing Indonesian and expatriate women, and men trying on kebaya's in various styles and materials while commenting on their appearances.

"It makes me feel sexy," or "I must now walk like a princess", or "it's a bit too tight, but lovely", are a few of the reactions of the participants. Sometimes giggling, sometimes shy; most of the time they look happy, with the expressions of wonder, usually seen on the face of someone pleasantly surprised. Men too liked the garment, although one Indonesian man revealed to me he could not possibly wear one in real life since it was meant to be for women.

So, while reactions of the participants included comments on the restrictions posed by the kebaya on one's movements, and some said it made them look sexy, there were also those whose memories of long past times were revived at the feel of the lace kebaya.

"Oh my grandmother used to have one of this style," said one. Others who had never worn one before would enter into a kind of flirtation with the garment and come to like it anyway.

Gathered in a mix of backgrounds and religious beliefs, arguments over whether the style was too showy or too tight would eventually evaporate along with other preconceptions.

According to Cattoni, who has lived and worked in Indonesia since 1998, and currently divides her time between Denpasar and Darwin, the experience of dressing in a kebaya in the presence of other people, works as an act of self exploration, a transformation of stature, and generates memories.

She said that the strong sentiments and reaction of audiences to the work, confirmed for her, that the kebaya could act as a vehicle for comprehension of the changing roles and status of women in Indonesia; and an indication of how women see themselves today.

Cattoni's workshops in Bali and Darwin were reportedly met with great interest and enthusiasm. After Jakarta, she will conduct workshops in Bandung, Yogyakarta and Semarang.

Cattoni's works in the installation at Galeri Lontar are titled Tamasya kebaya, Kebaya Pressed Body, Kebaya Mix, Whose Kebaya Anyway.

The videos are the result of workshops run by Cattoni in an ongoing project that started in interactive workshops and video screening in Bali three years ago and has since then expanded to other places. It is part of a research project that Victoria Cattoni is undertaking as part of a Masters degree for the Art and Design Department of the Northern Territory University in Darwin, Australia.

While the objective is to explore constructions of cultural identity within a number of different contexts - particularly in relation to constructions of feminine identity - in Indonesia and Australia, Victoria Cattoni says she will not analyze any of the data. For her the most important objective is to provide a space where women can express themselves freely. Perhaps this is one way of encouraging cultural interaction and bridging negative pre-conceptions.

Victoria Cattoni's way of doing research could well be taken as an effective alternative to the usual practice, and, while the range of participants must be widened beyond the few places in Bali and Java, it may become a source of valid information for gender studies.

Whether the works are also interesting in terms of artistic endeavor, remains in the eyes of the beholder.


Membaca kebaya/Reading the kebaya Video installation performance Victoria Cattoni at Galeri Lontar, Jl. Utan Kayu 68H, East Jakarta until Aug. 22, 2003 (daily except Mondays and public holidays)