Sun, 24 Nov 2002

Kriss and Sarong exhibition displays Indonesia rich culture

Paul R. Michaud, Contributor, Paris

Around five years after its inauguration in the Mediterranean port city of Nice, the Musee des Arts Asiatiques -- a major national showplace devoted to the cultural heritage of Asia and the Pacific -- has decided to exhibit Indonesia's rich cultural heritage.

Indonesia has hardly ever been the focus of a major exposition in France. The country, at least until now, seems too complex to be approached within the same kind of unified framework that usually applies to most countries in Asia or anywhere else in the world.

It is also unusual to have the exhibition take place in Nice, some 825 kilometers away from the capital Paris.

Nice Mayor Jacques Peyrat recently bemoaned the lack of appreciation that his city seemingly elicits from French authorities. During the 142 years of becoming a part of France -- after undoing its ties with Italy -- Nice only received a train station inaugurated by Napoleon III.

"I myself have lived here since 1945," says Peyrat, "and I can tell you first hand with much sadness how we've been constantly ostracized by Paris."

It was a fortuitous meeting with French anthropologist Georges Breguet that finally allowed an exhibition on Indonesia to see the light of day.

Museum of Asian Arts curator Marie-Pierre Foissy-Aufrere said: "Breguet's idea of Kriss and Sarong allowed us to establish a link -- and bridge the all too evident cultural gap that existed -- between the Muslims of Java, the Hindus of Bali and the animist societies of the other islands."

The idea allowed the Musee des Arts Asiatiques to come up with a way of dealing with the apparent complexity of Indonesia, a country with certain historical and cultural unity.

Foissy-Aufrere said: "We realized that there was a common element to all of the country's apparently divergent cultures: A sexualization of cultural objects through which the civilization manifests itself."

In Indonesia, she continues, the traditional concept of the masculine and feminine are different from the West which considers them opposite forces. Instead, they are elements that are equal and indeed complementary.

She and Breguet borrowed 100 cultural objects from museums throughout France, Europe and the rest of the world including from Indonesia.

Kriss (or keris in Indonesian) represents the "phallic symbol par excellence," as well as "one of the most emblematic representations of Indonesian culture." Kriss usually evokes the metallic, hammer and forge, as well as the art of war as practiced by the country's traditional warlords.

As for Sarong, it represents the textile associated with the female universe, "the symbol that best evokes the Indonesian woman," but also the robe worn by men, even if, adds Foissy- Aufrere, it is worn in a different fashion than by Indonesian women.

Sarong also refers to the sheath, which protects the blade of Kriss "from the external elements and influences, therefore preventing the forces of the blade of the kriss from escaping."

There are also jewels called mamuli -- which evokes the feminine gender -- that are in fact worn by men during traditional wedding ceremonies.

Female and male are represented by different colors. The feminine elements are generally represented by dark colors while the masculine by bright colors. It is also manifested in Indonesian's flag "divided in two separate and equal parts, one red, the other white, representing blood for the female and sperm for the male," said both Breguet and Foissy-Aufrere.