Peripheries, encounters, and entry points: Artists share perspectives on cross-cultural experiences in Australia and Indonesia

Caitlin Hughes recaps the first session of Asialink Arts’ Dekat Dekat Jauh: So Close Yet So Far conversation series — dedicated to artists’ insights — and reflects on the conversation’s key themes of accessibility, place, and opportunity.

The close proximity between Australia’s northernmost shores and those of maritime Southeast Asia reveal long histories of contact and connection. There are footprints of cultural exchange, trade and travel in this region — lasting ones — between Indonesia and Australia; but although there is a closeness, there is too a feeling of distance. In the pull between periphery and proximity, what can the arts do to help in bridging this gap, and to bring us closer together? Asialink Arts’ four-part conversation series, Dekat-Dekat Jauh (So Close Yet So Far), presented in collaboration with Santy Saptari Art Consulting, was designed to address this pressing question.

Santy Saptari noted during the conversation series that despite close geographical proximities, there has been little interaction between Australia and Indonesia in the arts. Although this is true, artists from both countries have continued to move between cultures; producing works that find new ways of understanding our place in the world, and our countries’ relationships to each other.

In the first session of Dekat-Dekat Jauh, four artists shared their insights on working in the arts across Australia and Indonesia. As the panellists reflected on their experiences as art-makers and travellers, the conversation offered a chance to reflect on key topics that dominate the arts; sharing insights into their experiences of art-making across cultures, and considering how personal discoveries and rediscoveries have unfolded into an endless curiosity about travel and art practice.

Perspectives of place and culture became a significant talking point as the conversation unfolded. Tintin Wulia, who was born in Bali, considered the contrast of daerah (regions, area, periphery), versus the ‘centre’ of Indonesian society and art practice – often thought to be Java. ‘This [regional] perspective trained me to “see outwards”,’ she remarked. ‘Because I’m not in the centre, there are always other centres’.

This was a sentiment echoed by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, who is based just outside of Perth – one of the most isolated cities in the world: ‘While [regional places] could be regarded as peripheral, nowhere is peripheral,’ he commented. ‘Where people are is the centre of [their] world. I can feel like I am the centre of my own world in Western Australia, going to visit centres of other people’s worlds. … The world is bigger [than any one ‘centre’].’

Although these arguments are true, theories and structures of city-centric ‘cultural capital’, as well as the availability of arts infrastructure and arts education, seem to at least imply the existence of artistic ‘centres’ – especially in Java and on the eastern seaboard of Australia. This raises questions about the opportunities available to those from (so-called) ‘peripheral’ areas, and the accessibility of both countries’ arts landscapes to newcomers or visiting artists.

Both Jumaadi and Tintin Wulia spoke of how, when they came to Australia from Indonesia, they ‘didn’t even know what being an artist meant’ at first; and it was only through spending time outside of Indonesia that understandings of what art could be were shifted. Febie Babyrose recounted how, when her artist collective, Tromarama, were developing Open House: Tromarama for Kids at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2015, they were introduced to the ‘9-5’ way of working – in Bandung, brainstorming concepts for artworks could otherwise be a process of ‘days, maybe months’.

It is clear through these anecdotes that ‘making it’ as an artist in new places — even in countries that share a close proximity — is not as easy as it could be. Reflecting on her earlier years in Australia, Tintin Wulia noted that ‘becoming an artist in Melbourne is like becoming a lawyer,’ due to the competitiveness. ‘You have to go to the right school, hang out with the right people, get the right residency, and then you’re an artist. And then you don’t even have to show internationally – you’re an artist already!’

As these comments demonstrate, there is still a need to make access to the arts easier. When asked on what could help artists in navigating new spaces, the importance of promoting language courses and Asian studies at universities was highlighted, as was access to information. Bringing the conversation back to the ideas of proximity and periphery once again, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah noted that ‘we need to [be able to] go to the world – the world won’t come to us’.

More pointedly, as Jumaadi reflected, Australia has a lot more arts institutions today (when compared to earlier decades) that are willing to showcase contemporary Asian art, and art from First Nations communities. Bearing in mind these clear curatorial interests and strengths, perhaps the conversation should now shift to reconsider how both countries can harness these powers, and promote new opportunities for emerging voices.

Read more on the Dekat-Dekat Jauh series here.