Going forward: The arts, the future, and Australia-Indonesia exchanges in a changing world

Caitlin Hughes explores: What role can the arts, the media, and education fields play in developing closer links between Indonesia and Australia? How can we find new ways to tell stories about each other? And what could the relationship look like as we find new ways forward?

The global situations we find ourselves in today are so different to the ones we knew only a few years ago. In a world of closed borders, COVID-ravaged cities and towns, hyper-locality and crisis, how can we find meaningful ways to look beyond our shores, and to connect between Australia and Indonesia? What role might the arts play in developing these exchanges?

In the relationship between Australia and the archipelago, there are markers of proximity and closeness, but also of periphery; and so, finding a way to navigate and bridge these differences has become crucial for creating connections in the arts. Through conversing with key players in the arts and cultural sectors, the four-part conversation series, Dekat-Dekat Jauh (So Close Yet So Far), run by Asialink Arts and Santy Saptari Art Consulting, allowed for a chance to reflect on what the field looks like today, what it looked like in the past, and what it could look like tomorrow.

In the final session of the series, the emphasis on tomorrow was particularly important, as the panel discussed new ways forward in the visual arts sector. And, in a present time when the number of people learning Bahasa Indonesia in Australia is below the level it was in 1972 — despite a near doubling of the population since then — conversations on what the future should look like are critical for ensuring that outcomes can be achieved, ties can be strengthened, and new ways forward can be established.

A key theme in the discussion was the idea of relationship-building and people-to-people links. This is of particular significance to the education sector, as an emerging generation of students take part in exchanges overseas; studying abroad between the two countries. The importance of these programs was highlighted by Elena Williams (PhD Candidate, the Australian National University), who noted that exchange programs such as ACICIS (Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies) and AIYEP (Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program) are crucial for not only developing connections across cultures, but also for the creation of immersive learning environments for students studying in-country. These programs then have flow-on effects; cultivating interests in the region, and the development of ongoing connections into the future.

As Elena Williams noted, many of these exchange programs have since been adapted to run online in the pandemic era, and their successful trial-runs mark an important step for the continuation of knowledge-sharing in an era when travel may not be possible. Hikmat Darmawan (Vice President, Jakarta Arts Council) spoke of the work that Indonesian comic and archiving students have done, and the possibilities for collaborations with Australian counterparts. Asialink CEO, Penny Burtt, pointed to the work done by the Asia Education Foundation as further evidence of the power of educational partnerships between schools for continuing this exchange. And, on a personal note, as someone who took part in an in-country field trip to Indonesia as an undergraduate, the experience of structured, immersive learning environments — with the opportunity to meet local arts practitioners on-the-ground — was transformational.

But, with all of these good news events happening every day, the question must then be asked – why aren’t we highlighting these stories? Why aren’t we shining a light on the ways we work together, and our strengths in the region? As Taufiqurrahman (Editor-in-Chief, The Jakarta Post) noted, for too long the media landscape in both countries has focused on the other one in somewhat negative coverage; where Australia is sometimes perceived as the ‘neighbour to the south having problems’ (such as the frequent changing of Prime Ministers, or the 2020 bushfires), or — on the flip side — where Australian news outlets seem to cover two dominant things about Indonesia: Bali, and crises. ‘The lack of understanding comes from both sides’, he pointed out, ‘Of course these stories could make good drama [for Australia], but that’s not the whole point of the relationship’.

So, what could be done to change mindsets and increase awareness of each other through arts and culture? As Chloe Wolifson (the Sydney Morning Herald) noted, one thing that is critical to building stronger bridges in the arts is bringing artists and writers together, and for that writing to be accessible so that ‘mutual insights can be generated through those exchanges’. The consensus from the panellists echoed these sentiments; demonstrating the need for media that not only promotes ‘good news’, but expands our understandings of each other – such as, by embracing and disseminating forms of popular culture. Indeed, as the conversation unfolded, it has become increasingly clear just how important the role of the media is for promoting stories within the arts and culture sector. Finding a way to use platforms to promote this work will be crucial for both Australia and Indonesia.

Read more on the Dekat-Dekat Jauh series here.