At least I am getting some exercise; I smile to myself, as I am pushing the motor scooter with my driver, Beben, up to the main road to fix the flat tire. We had just been to see a performance by Tari Topeng Mimi Rasinah, at the local cemetery. Today was a special day to remember and honour the dead. The performance group is one of only a handful of traditional Indonesian gamelan and dance groups left who practice this art form. I was a lucky to be able to see this much-revered troupe perform. We had arrived mid afternoon and the troupe had already been performing since 2am that morning; they would continue till the evening. As families arrived to pay respect to their ancestors, the entrance of the cemetery resembled a carnival. The centre stage was beautifully decorated and the crowds were entertained with the endless sound of the gamelan as the dancers told ancient tales. For the hungry there were the mobile food stalls, the kids were teased with toy shops on bikes and if you were in the market for a live bird, that could be had as well. But the real action was the gamelan, as the young and the old joined in the loud and colourful spectacle.
After the obligatory ‘Photo please, Mister’ session, we were ready to head back to the Art Factory, only to be greeted by a flat tire. There was only one thing to, and so as we pushed the scooter up the road, I took advantage of the slower pace and had my camera poised.
I had a small band of drummers in tow, a cameraman and Aceng on standby to translate. Just what the local people made of the encounter was hard to say, but judging by the many smiles, they at least seemed to enjoy it. It is late afternoon and we have taken the Baskets of Hope on a local tour. In Javanese food selling style I had the baskets suspended across my shoulders by a large stick of bamboo and the drummers made sure everybody knew we were coming. Curious and shy at first, but come they did. First it was the children who wanted to see what this funny bule (foreigner) was doing carrying these colourful baskets. Aceng explained to the villagers the concept of the Baskets of Hope. Situation explained, now the fun begins as I hand out bits of fabric to tie on the basket and pieces of paper to write down a wish. It is a satisfying experience for me to be able to engage so many local people. I am also very lucky to have so many enthusiastic assistants from the Jatiwangi Art Factory.
After the street performance I was ready for a quite evening. Sitting outside, sipping coffee and exchanging a few anecdotes sounded good to me. As the evening went on more and more people showed up, as is usually the case here. Then someone arrived with a large outdoor video screen and before I could work out what was happening, there was an outdoor theatre set up. Oh, OK, I thought sure; I can stay for one film and then go to bed. And so we watched the 2002 democratic revolution by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Film done, I start to stretch and look for a quiet get away, but too late! As I get up I hear ‘Mister Roman, this way please!’ It’s the late night radio crew and I have just been informed that they have prepared a late night feast and want to meet me. I could not refuse such a generous offer. So it was back down on the carpet and I got another chance to improve my hand feeding skills. I got better at it but I still finished last.
The project is now entering its final stage, and I am focusing on the completion and installation of the art works. There is still the possibility of visiting one more school, or alternatively the students coming and visiting the studio. The staff at JaF are also negotiating with the local health centre for a possible visit. As always, time remains flexible and the schedule continues on its fluid way.
I have always been fairly flexible when it comes to working with other people; I think it’s part of the collaboration process, but I am also realising that this kind of working method suits my community arts projects. It is different to my more personal works with photography and painting. Even if the photographic work demands a level of co-operation between the subject and artist, I retain control over the final outcome.
It did not take long to put my flexible attitude, into action, when later in the evening I was informed that I would, once again, be the special guest on the late night radio chat show. I welcomed the opportunity to thank the local community for their generosity of spirit.
‘So, let me get this straight, I am going to meet a radio fan club in Majalengka and they have invited me to come and eat fruit!’ I had a slightly perplexed look on my face as I queried Arief. He assured me that this was the case, and not for the first time we burst into laughter. We had both come to an understanding about the local schedule. So I crossed out my initial booking for another high school; it was only a mental note anyway.
Earlier that evening I worked out the set-up for Friday’s exhibition opening and the staff of JaF were busy readying the gallery space. It promises to be a colourful show.
So I am up early this morning, ready for whatever comes my way today. Even eating fruit!
My ‘tour guides’ for the day arrives on time and we head off towards Majalengka. Driving through the local traffic reminds me of the art project as we weave our way through a maze of trucks, bikes and horses. Our destination turns out to be a small village where we park the car in the town square and continued our journey on foot. A lush green path, thick with banana plants, guava and old mango trees, leads us down to a small bamboo hut where a local farmer welcomes us. It appears that our schedule was right; there was fruit on the table! Right in the centre of the table was a bowl of guava, but there were also catfish, rice, sambal, and several dishes of vegetables and crackers. The generosity shown to me never fails to overwhelm me.
Back at the Art Factory, the staff had been busy installing the artworks for tomorrow’s opening. The gallery space has been transformed into a colourful space. The arrival of guests from Lyon, France, later that evening ensured that there would be no early night.
Show day! Most of the day was spend fine-tuning the installation and getting the photo show ready. After some minor technical hiccoughs the gallery space finally looked ready for the workshop and the exhibition opening.
The guests started to arrive by late afternoon and by around 4pm we were ready to start the first part of the proceedings. To my delight, Ginggi and his helpers had prepared several short documentaries about the project and this was a lively way to introduce it to the crowd. I then summed up the project and after a short break for prayers, it was time to light up the baskets and allow the audience to ask some questions. This almost turned out to be a wrong move! One of the special guests was the district officer, who seemed keen on asking multiple questions. Unfortunately none of them pertained to the art concept or the project directly. Instead he had keen interest in the financial side of the project. Who was going to own the work? How was I going to pass on the royalties? Did I intend to pay any tax on the money made? It went on and on. The final question topped it all, was I collecting secret information? I managed to assure him that I was not a spy, that my work is in fact self-funded and not based on a profit-making scheme. I also acknowledged his concerns about foreign interference in local culture, and my declaration that I don’t come here as an Australian or a Swiss, rather, that I was here as an artist to explore and not to exploit. He then offered me a high five and I assumed that this settled the matter for him.
I felt a sense of relief that night the project had come to a successful end.
‘Today is going to be a holiday,’ Chief Ginggi, declared, ‘…and we are going to the mountains!’ I had no argument with this and so, accompanied by Melissa and Ted, we set of towards Argamukti village?
As soon as we got half way up the mountain I had a feeling that this was going to be an ‘adventure holiday’. I had seen my fair share of rough road conditions but nothing quite like this road. As we manoeuvred our way up through the ever-prevailing traffic, the road surface seemed to ceased to exist and was replaced by big holes and small boulders.
The reward for a bone-shaking ride was the magnificent Muarajaya.waterfall.
The cooling water falls for over a 100 metres through the lush rainforest. For the first time in a month I felt mosquito free and cool. The peace was short lived as the familiar; ‘hello mister, photo please’ broke the silence.
Back at the factory, the crew had been busy preparing the final chapter of my project, a village showing of the ‘Tile Tales’ photos. So the portable screen was set up in a little side street, plastic chairs were ready for the guests, and the food sellers arrived with refreshments. The moment I heard the locals giggle at seeing themselves on film and on the photos I know that the project has been a success. It was the perfect way to close the project.
Later that evening we reflected on a magical month in Java, followed by an improvised experimental music session, that ensured no one would get much sleep, but as Daniel from Mexico pointed out, ‘Indonesia is not good for sleeping!’
My trip home started off in style as I arrived at Cirebon train station by truck. After an emotional farewell at the factory I was ready to begin my long return journey.
I leave with newfound friends and inspired by the potential of art to make a difference to people’s lives.