Indonesia is open for change

An expert on Indonesia, researcher Leena Avonius, Ph.D., of the Renvall Institute at the University of Helsinki, tells us about changes in the Asian region using Indonesia as her example. She is also the author of a comprehensive article in the publication accompanying Kiasma's Wind from the East exhibition.

Although China, Indonesia and Thailand have widely different histories, cultures, political situations and religions, they are all united by the current promises and challenges facing Asia. What is the impact of strong economic growth and the associated social problems on the social fabric of these countries?

Indonesia suffered greatly, both economically and socially, from the Asian economic crisis in 1997, and recovery has been very slow. The economic crisis also ushered in significant political change as President Suharto renounced power in May 1998. This was followed by a period of political chaos, manifest in the fact that since 1998 the country has had four Presidents. This, in turn, has resulted in seesawing reform policies. However, since 2004 the situation has greatly improved as the cautious but steady chain of reforms by the current President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has stabilised the country.

Political chaos and Islamic violence, often targeted at Westerners, drove foreign investors away. In the past few years, the situation has clearly improved. If the policies of stable economic growth and reforms continue, Indonesia can look forward to rivalling China and India as a significant Asian investment and market area. By the same token, international companies must change their way of operation in Indonesia and shoulder their share of the effort to decrease poverty and developing the socio-economic situation.

These three countries have a total of 1.5 billion inhabitants, one quarter of the world’s population. For us, inhabitants of a sparsely populated northern country, lack of space, crowding, scarcity of arable land and urban slums are quite foreign concepts. How do you think the large population affects the culture, its production and consumption?

The majority, approximately 60%, of Indonesia’s 240 million inhabitants live on the main island, Java. Java is hugely overpopulated, with up to 700 people per square kilometre. However, Indonesia is composed of 13,000 inhabited islands, and many of them are quite sparsely populated. So, when talking about the effect of overpopulation on culture, we’re only talking about parts of Indonesia. Overpopulation mainly concerns Java, Bali and Lombok. There is hardly any privacy and everything is done together. This also applies to art. Making art is above all a social process. The materials are worked together, building an exhibition is a joint effort.

The powerful cultural heritage and long histories of the countries on the one hand create resistance, while on the other provide a fertile soil for current change, innovation and emerging new ideas. How does today’s cultural life and art react to the current trend?

The history of the Indonesian archipelago is full of new cultural influences. The earliest outside influences are manifest in archaeological objects, highlighting trade contacts with China and India, and also in ruined temples. Indian influences are very clear as Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms ruled over South-East Asia for centuries. For instance, batik, so archetypal of Indonesia, dates from this period. Likewise, many court traditions, such as theatrical representations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, hark back to this period. The earliest Islamic influences are from the 13th century, and Islam has profoundly shaped Indonesian culture.

During the Dutch colonial era, modern European art culture became part of the Indonesian field of art. Therefore, Indonesia has always been open to change, and in that sense today is no exception. The old does not resist the new, even if traditions are cherished. Indonesia is not as fanatical about indigenousness and originality as Europe is. External influences are downright embraced, which is evident in music videos and films, for instance, but, on the other hand, references to old traditions can always be found side by side with the latest fads. Indonesian soap operas, for instance, draw heavily on old stories concerned with the supernatural.

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