Tue, 10 Jun 2003

Celebrating world ethnic art in time

Diane Butler, Contributor, Surakarta, Central Java

To understand why a growing society of contemporary artists gather with local communities near temples and consecrated land, perhaps it is meaningful also to consider the significance of nature, historic landmarks and indigenous cultures in this current era.

Two such examples are found in collaborative art programs at Candi Sukuh in Central Java and the Xochicalco Pyramid in Morelos, Mexico.

In April 1997 artists from Padepokan Lemah Putih-Solo, a school founded by Suprapto Suryodarmo, in cooperation with the School for New Dance Development Amsterdam-Ria Higler and Sharing Movement, a circulation of artists from Europe, North America, Indonesia, Asia, Africa and Australia, initiated a month-long International Movement Art Teacher's Society Meeting.

We shared art in nature and the sacred sites of Java; Candi Sukuh, Candi Cetho, Candi Kalasan, Candi Borobudur and Parangtritis.

Candi Sukuh, an archetypal ancestor temple of fertility typically built against the hillside oriented to the mountain, is poorly termed in tour books as erotic or pornographic. This is a pity, as it is clear that pan-Indonesian ancestral figures are connected with natural fertility, welfare of the land and associations with the imperceivable world.

With the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism in Central Java, the form of many of these folk divinities were transformed to include the beliefs of surrounding ethnic groups, aboriginal and tribal peoples.

From the main entrance gate, at the shrine of the universal ancestor, we paused before relief of male and female genitalia. Progressing through internally carved stone stairs, one traverses the symbolic divisions of the material and spiritual realms.

Midway we encountered relief and figures incarnating the mythos of Dewa Ruci -- the story of enlightenment in the inner world, Sudamala-ruwatan, "purification" of the demon Durga transformed to the radiant goddess Uma. And Garudadeya -- ultimate harmony and release blessed by amerta, "the elixir of life". At the gate of the temple three tortoises support the world at the beginning of creation.

A rainstorm descended, as we contemplated in stillness, moved and sang chronicles from the diversity of our ancestors and of life experiences in the elements. Continuing steeply upwards to the main pyramid, one ascends headfirst as if passing through the womb of the great creator. The storm subsided as we reached the uppermost pelinggih, "ancestral seat", opening our insight to the vast expanse of nature.

Practice in Candi Sukuh brought us closer to an experience of cultural kinship through our adaptation of ancient mythos in modern mythos.

While scholarship reveals much about the historical role of sites, the teachings of a place embedded in the land can also be received as synaesthesia (felt experience), regardless of one's cultural background or knowledge of the details constituting the history. In another sense, the accumulated wisdom of indigenous cultures is both preserved and embodied through the informal oral and physical traditions of storytelling, drama, dance, music and art.

In July 2001, artists shared in Xochicalco, Mexico. Geo Legoretta, of Saktala, invited indigenous peoples from surrounding seven villages of Tapalehui, Aztec, Mayan and Seri tribe of Sonora to join contemporary artisans from Mexico, Peru, U.S., Puerto Rico, Indonesia, Europe and Australia for Celebration Ethnic Art in Time.

At the height of its history, links to the area could be traced to every corner of pre-Hispanic Mexico. We entered the city complex of plazas and pyramids in the same way as the 10th century migrating ethnic Olmec-Xicallancas had done.

I was reminded of the terraced altar temples of Central Java as we circumscribed an ascending spiral to the hilltop temples. If we had made that same journey 1,000 years ago, we may have encountered fertility-centered religions with seasonal festivals, animal offerings and contests of dexterity.

Beneath the ceremonial heart of the city, a network of passages and rooms form a large underground catacomb. At the opening of the renowned Observatory Cave, a glyph dated "9 Reptile Eye" (743 A.D.) indicates the year of a solar eclipse when priests from allied villages came to agree on a standard new calendar.

Entering the tunnel, we assembled below the ancient hexagonal passage carved in the ceiling designed for observing the path of the sun and perhaps also the stars. As the sun crossed the Tropic of Cancer in 2001, low harmonic tones mingled with drumming continuously filled the dim cavern, giving voice to the arrival of an orb of light illuminating the chamber.

Witnessing this, one is immediately in touch with layers of history -- ancient, present and future -- and the enduring cycles of human and nature.

In an art pilgrimage, we continued to the ancient ceremonial Grand Plaza and Temple of the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl. The noon heat glistened upon our ritual circulation. At first, the meter of the villagers and city artists seemed so disparate -- almost inharmonious. Gradually, a third rhythm arose -- the meeting of the ethnic and modern in time.

In the years that followed other programs were offered in regions of Europe, the Americas, the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

In August 1997, Sandra Reeves Helen Poynor, colleagues from Sharing Movement (UK), and movement videographer Beate Stuhm (Germany), organized Sharing Time near the Benedictine Abbey Buckfastleigh, Dartmoor, the UK.

From Surakarta artists Suprapto Suryodarmo, Jarot Darsono, Agus Bimo, Mugiyono, Slamet Gundono and Dedek Wahyudi joined. The movements of the late Ben Suharto (Yogyakarta), in silent homage to the rice farmer, and Sister Rhona (UK), in joyous liturgical song and dance on the knoll, are etched upon our memory.

In June 2001, Jamie McHugh, from Tamalpa Institute, founded by Anna Halprin, and myself -- Dharma Nature Time Foundation, offered Art Human Nature in Bolinas, California. Twenty artists opened the program in a solstice ritual with elder movement artists Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, Barbara Dilley and Suprapto Suryodarmo.

Each March, Yayasan Dharma Samuan Tiga (Bedulu, Bali), and July, Franca Fubini (Italy), offer annual programs called Sharing Art & Religiosity. Near the areas of Pura Samuan Tiga-Bedulu, Bali, the 11th century birthplace of Bhineka Tunggalika, "diversity in unity", and Assisi, Italy, the native land of St. Francis, artists and societies join together to study historical sources of conciliation.

Knowledge of our root cultures is inspired by the teachings of nature in relation to the seasons, agriculture, village traditions, mythology and philosophy.

Yet, whether east, west, north or south, many cultures are in danger of losing this primary connection. As nature is increasingly seen from the velocity of technology and production stemming from urban culture, we are urged to bring about more balance amid tradition and invention.

Sharing art and living heritage, side by side with local village artisans, ceremonial masters and society, awakens the vitality of the cultural environment.

Neither romantic nor attached to the past, the spirit and wisdom of the land and the lineage of humanity continues and is celebrated in ethnic art in time.