Sun, 06 Aug 2000

TUK still leads the way in free thought

By Charlie Stevens

JAKARTA (JP): Three years ago, the Indonesian intellectual and arts community was struggling for survival under a cloud of censorship and government control. There was very little support for the arts and definitely no encouragement for free thought or broad-minded artistic expression.

Into this hostile environment was born the Teater Utan Kayu (TUK), the intellectual lovechild of a group of jilted free- thinkers collaborating for the benefit of press freedom in Indonesia and grouped under the Institute of Information Dissemination Studies (ISAI), which was initiated by Tempo senior editor Goenawan Mohamad.

On Aug. 9, TUK will celebrate its three year anniversary, which is a poignant time to toast the courage and invaluable idealism of the Komunitas (Community) Utan Kayu.

When the weekly news magazine Tempo was banned by Soeharto in June 1994, a number of the magazine's journalists -- including Goenawan Mohamad, Bambang Bujono, Fikri Jufri and S. Prinka -- along with art critics such as Jim Supangkat, Nirwan Dewanto, Asikin Hasan and several others established a center where artistic and intellectual activities could be pursued in a supportive and independent network. The community was initially comprised of three institutions; ISAI, the Kalam literary journal and the Lontar Gallery.

"ISAI was an underground publishing and media watch organization," said Sitok Srengenge, literature and theater curator at TUK. "During the Soeharto regime we would have spies and police coming in all the time. There was intelligence all over the place and because of that Goenawan decided to open a theater so that it seemed like an artistic place rather than political."

"So, the theater came after the gallery and the publishing organization and then came the library, that's how the whole community started up," said Rayya Makarim, film curator at TUK.

Under the Soeharto regime, everything and everyone was subject to the brutal censorship policies of the now defunct department of information. Ironically, this only served to strengthen the resolve of a certain sector of the arts community and by pushing them underground fostered a greater sense of solidarity and artistic courage.

"The whole idea behind this center was that some things never die and one of those things is the arts," said Rayya, who began working at TUK three years ago after graduating from film school in upstate New York.

With the fall of the Soeharto regime and the ushering in of a new reformist government, the climate has certainly freshened up a great deal in terms of censorship and free expression. This is not to say, however, that the Indonesian art world is suddenly flourishing after so many years of stifling control.

Sitok pointed to two major problems in the Indonesian art world today. Traditional performances are dying out and have less relevance for people in these rapidly changing times, and modern art is still too new and unfamiliar to be completely grasped and appreciated by the public. This leaves a cultural vacuum into which falls all kinds of ineffectual art and cultural debris, resulting in a mainstream art world that is floundering and directionless.

There are a number of popular cultural centers in Jakarta, such as Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Center (TIM) and Gedung Kesenian Jakarta. These centers, however, partly receive funding and guidance from the government and inevitably sponsorship becomes a means for the government to determine what is and what is not seen by the art-going public in Jakarta.

"In terms of censorship, the country has opened up a lot since the Soeharto era but this sponsorship is still used as a means for the government to control the arts," said Sitok.

"The big difference between TUK and other centers is that at places like TIM you have to pay to get in, it's much more commercial and there is a lot of control. Here we focus on quality which is the only requirement. And the artists don't have to pay to have their work shown. In fact, we pay them," said Rayya.

"Take, for example, film," she said. "If we just depend on what we get at the cinemas we wouldn't be able to see so much good material. There is something outside of Hollywood and there is a history to all of the films that are around now.

"We've had films and performances that are really shocking. We've shown films like The Last Temptation of Christ, The Year of Living Dangerously and Schindler's List which are all banned films here," she said.

"Today we have a new kind of censorship," said Sitok. "It's not so much from the government but from certain Islamic groups and from society. The strong religious presence prevents many things from being shown, such as wayang for example, which goes against the idea of a single god. The same thing happens with certain traditional dances that are seen as erotic, such as jaipong traditional dance from West Java or tayub from East Java. We can facilitate these performances so that people can get used to them and hopefully come to accept them."

One of the Komunitas Utan Kayu's current projects is to develop six other cultural communities outside of Jakarta -- in Medan (North Sumatra), Tasik Malaya (West Java), Semarang, Surakarta in Central Java, Yogyakarta and Denpasar in Bali. As a response to the restrictions placed on the art world by a relatively new religious fundamentalism, the six cultural centers will continue to uphold the Utan Kayu community's policy of free expression.

"In these smaller cities there are not so many opportunities to see modern art or films. We had the idea, for example, to show broad-minded Islamic films," said Rayya.

The Komunitas Utan Kayu's status as one of Jakarta's only truly independent and alternative venues offering high quality and refreshingly challenging material has meant that it is a popular site for students, activists, independent journalists, intellectuals and religious groups to gather, watch, or just sit in the Tempo Cafe scratching their chins and nodding in enthusiasm.

"We were the first community but there are other places like TUK who are also very active. But at a certain point they couldn't move forward so we took over that role," said Sitok.

The Teater Utan Kayu is celebrating its third birthday Wednesday with a party that will undoubtedly feature a lot of socially challenged artists and intellectuals as well as a jazz band, some great food and lashings of exotic free thought.