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A Tribute to Lempad, and Layers of History #uwrf14

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This year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival’s tribute went to I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, the first UWRF tribute to a son of Ubud. It was particularly fitting that the tribute took place in front of one of the temples that Gusi Nyoman Lempad designed and executed for his royal patrons. Rio Helmi reports.

Presented by journalist/social commentator Wayan Juniartha, the event launched with a musical performance by a group of  boys from Padang Tegal whilst slides of Gusti Nyoman Lempad flashed on to the screen, including one of my favorites of him with his son Gusti Made Sumung. Once the music was over Wayan Juniartha, a.k.a. Jun,  introduced the film Lempad of Bali, produced and directed by John Darling and Lorne Blair. As it so happens, yours truly also worked on the production of this film as stills photographer and finding /setting up locations.

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A slide showing Gusti Nyoman Lempad with his son Gusti Made Sumung photo Rio Helmi

It was really touching to watch the film again after some years; the scenes showing Ubud back in 1978/79 particularly stirred a bit of nostalgia. The audience seemed captivated both by Lempad and his work, as well as the various now historical scenes. It felt strange that I, who played such a minor crew role in this film, was the only one of the original crew on stage: both Lorne and John are now long gone, and Made Sumung my old landlord and mentor even longer before them.

When I look back and remember what a struggle it was to make this film for John and Lorne – just getting the material into Bali at the time was no mean feat, and so much volunteer effort by so many people went into it – and see the reaction of people now I  really feel it was worth it.  At one point Jun and I looked back over the crowd and saw people packed right back over bridge.

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The scene just before the film started to roll. photo by Anggara Mahendra

After the last credit rolls, Jun invited Agung Rai, Hedi Hinzler and myself to talk about Lempad. Up first, I seized the opportunity to emphasize how important the role of Sumung was to Lempad’s international recognition. I remember distinctly how Gusti Made Sumung guided this film, the long conversations between him and John, his slightly mischievous yet rational explanations. An intriguing man himself, he had attached Dutch high school, taught to analyse in the western manner, yet remained completely Balinese. He used his knowledge of the outside world to be the conduit for his father, both helping Lempad understand the foreigners who arrived on his doorstep, and helping the foreigners understand the enigma that was his father.

Sumung was manager, interpreter, publicist, marketer, but above all loyal son and provider for his clan. The symbiosis of Lempad and his son is often overlooked by many who talk about Lempad’s work.

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Scholar Hedi Hinzler who spent years working on Lempad, explains some of the facts. photo Anggara Mahendra

It is a fact that Lempad was more adaptable to western artistic and architectural esthetics as a result. Hedi Hinzler bore this out in her short talk, somewhat interrupted by the rain that began to spatter down (the organizers swear that weverytime hey do an event on that stage for UWRf it rains!). Hedi pointed to the extensive correspondence that existed amongs the Europeans living in or linked to Bali in the 30s and 40s, how much they discussed Lempad, commissions for him and so forth. Thinking of Lempad as simply isolated in his own culture, creating without any “outside influence” would be a myth.

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Gustra of the UWRF team gallantly shelters Agung Rai from the rain with an umbrella nicked from the decor. photo Anggara Mahendra

Agung Rai finished up by stating that no matter what, Lempad for him was a Balinese artistic genius through and through. And at that point the rain got so heavy that UWRFs GUstra simply grabbed one of the decorative umbrellas off the stage and dutifully stood behind Agung Rai and sheltered him from the rain. Turning around again I saw some of the more hardy of the audience huddled under their umbrellas

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A hardy audience  photo Anggara Mahendara

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 Jun, Jengki, and Rio commiserating about the weather.  Photo Anggara Mahendra 

The evening was meant to continue with poetry readings, kicking off with a poem by poet “Jengki” from Denpasar, but unfortunately the rain washed us out. But tribute to one of Ubud’s greatest sons had been paid, and soon we wandered off yet another Ubud Writers and Readers Festival event.

this post originally appeared on the ubudnowandthen.com blog roll

The rains are here!

Well here I am, post monsoon Bali, early monsoon Thailand – and the rainy season hit Miyazaki today. urgh. But now I know why they have umbrella locks in this town – felt like grabbing an umbrella myself!!!dsc_8339.jpg

suvarnabhumi airport: on to Fukuoka

So many people think that to travel constantly for work is glamorous. Yep, all those security checkpoints, the moving goalposts of international safety, the crazy taxi drivers, and in Bangkok all the exercise getting to the waiting lounge.
Not to mention that the sponsors of my exhiition in Miyazaki have informed me that they are picking me up at the airport tomorrow morning… and then we get on a 5 hour bus ride to Miyazaki. Oh the comforts of home!
Anyway the passengers on this flight look pretty relaxed – Japanese back from Holiday. Either that or Fukuoka is pretty relaxed…
Finally got the uploading for images to the blog to work, so I did post two images that I printed on canvas and painted. Will try and do more from Japan. I decided to restrict myself to one camera and two lenses. A little discipline, think more carefully about what I shot. We’ll see. (Okay I do have my little lumix with me as well as the D3). Miss the days of my Contax G2 film rangefinders, they were fast, light, discreet and sharp as a tack. Hmm wonder when someone is going to make the first digital rangefinder with the capacity that the D3 has?

OKay they are calling the flight. More from Japan!

Paint those photos!

One day a friend of mine, David Travelian, showed me some simple oil painting techniques which I applied to some photographs I had printed on canvas. It was a big buzz for me, years ago I had tried my hand at painting but turned to photography instead. So far I have done about 12 canvases, and as each one develops the interesting thing is that there is always an unpredictability about how the colors will respond to the various densities of photographs, which I have printed a bit sepia in the first place. Most of the images I have done are black and white, and the couple of color ones I have almost completely desaturated before printing. It’s kind of fun imagining colors (skin tones are a special challenge!) Not to mention how fun it is to get messy and mix it up with oil paints.

CORRODED COMMUNITIES > CORRUPTED NATION

Indonesia’s heavily institutionalized generation has had enough. Today thousands have promised to take to the streets to protest against the rather spectacularly lame way in which the government, in particular the president, has dealt with two highly charged cases – the attempt to frame Anti Graft Commission leaders and the Century bank scandal. This morning local networks aired footage of a stern looking president warning against any violence by provocateurs which the government intelligence agencies supposedly know are set to move. Mostly this has backfired and become fodder for critics who see it as fear mongering.

Many people take this as either overblown caution or perhaps even trying to stir up fear. What it obviously does is take the focus off the actual issue itself, which right now is not just corruption per se but the government’s failure to act decisively on these cases where there is clear indication of dereliction of duty. This morning’s papers carry President SBY’s slightly stagey promise to wage “Jihad” on corruption – a rather blatant attempt to reach out to different communities. The rhetoric, in the light of huge public disappointment with the government’s perceived attempt to cover-up these two cases, probably will backfire as well. People are tired of talk, whether it is Obama or SBY. They want results. They want the various institutions that have been funded by their money to deliver.

At this point it is an almost impossible demand to fulfill. While on the surface, and of course in very proper terms, it is a perfectly fitting demand, and the president should act, but in reality this mind-boggling corruption has seeped into the very foundations of these institutions and requires a much more powerful antidote.

What this corruption has done is to eat into the heart of the community. Indonesians, like most people in the world, crave community. We all create our own personal communities of choice, but these are always sustained within and interact with larger networks defined by traditions, philosophies, economies. The reality is Indonesia has patched together more than 200 ethnic communities into a nation that can hardly avoid being a dysfunctional family until it manages to knit itself into a larger, wholesome one. With the help of today’s hyper-communication, a newer generation is trying to do so in a somewhat organic albeit haphazard way.

What has been the focus of all the nation building efforts especially during the New Order, and what has carried over into the so-called Reformation Era, is the creation of institutions and supporting bureaucracies. The structures have taken on a life of their own, artificial communities inspired not by common interest and vision but by power (e.g. military) and money. Unlike the natural communities of the past they have somehow managed to de-contextualize themselves to the point of absurdity by defining their position within the community as authorities over rather than supporters of the community’s needs.

Yes there are many problems, social, political and economic, which rack and torture the country. But our institutions have become diseased and impotent in the face of these problems – they focus on spawning programs which rely on the institutions themselves to be sustained. “Community building” has been reduced to a slogan.

With the breakdown of traditional communities, Indonesians are rushing to fill in the gap with informal communities of their own. But where we should be reaching across gaps and embracing our plurality, we are often busy only trying to find psychological shelter for ourselves and our own kind.

A certain minister during the New Order era once told me that the only way to get anything of real value done is to create task forces that minimalize the role of individual, monolithic and encrusted institutions. I was somewhat taken aback by the humble realism of this statement coming from a man sitting on top of crusty department of his own. But it also made me realize how reliant we are on the odd individual for the political will to do something right.

We don’t need any more institutions to control existing institutions. I have no idea whether the Anti-graft Commission’s Bibit and Chandra are innocent of all corruption or not, but the point of the protest was more about due process of law. What we need is for those people in these institutions to realize that they are just as accountable to the community as they are to their bosses. This is what protesters and social media networkers are yelling out to them.

The voices of ‘opposition’ come from all corners, some unthinkable even in the recent past. Recently I was alerted to an extreme case of a 5th grader (yes primary school) being held at the Krobokan jail in Bali (for adults) for some petty crime. Of all the people to alert the community on the outside, it was prisoners themselves. Even these so called hardened criminals (that’s another debate) didn’t have the heart to see a child being held there.

Fed up of waiting, people are creating their own network communities (as opposed to community networks) thru social media and so forth to act and react. It is haphazard, but it is the voice of Indonesians rebelling against de-humanisation and irresponsibility. Thru the agency of these overnight network communities we have school children gathering coins to pay for Prita Mulyasari’s draconian fine, people marching in the streets and so forth. Dear Leader – meet the new spirit of Indonesia. Don’t try to crush it, be a mensch and embrace it.

KPK-Gate

The repelling but mesmerizing direct TV broadcast of the 5 hour playback session in Indonesia’s constitutional court yesterday afternoon of the wiretap tapes made by the anti-graft commission (KPK) is a historic moment for Indonesian democracy. Less than 24 hrs afterward, the two KPK members who had been arrested on trumped up charges were released.

Though it would be grossly premature to say that we are now out of the disease ridden swamp of corruption, the exercise has marked a major change in the way the public learns about the workings of politics in this country. By televising these hearings live, we have moved definitively out of the rumour and gossip grey zones of “indo politics as usual” to a much healthier process of information. Wiretap evidence triumphing over hearsay.

The reaction to this case, in which a pair of businessmen (brothers) accused of graft had contrived to set up and have arrested the two (non-active) members of the KPK using an impressive network of police, prosecutors and members of the judiciary branch, had already been gaining powerful momentum. Not only did a previously issued presidential decree get thrown out of the constitutional court, it created a furor on main street and in cyberspace. A facebook group trying to enlist a million members saw hundreds of thousands of Indonesians sign up within days. All this is ironic proof that President SBY’s days are marked with far greater democracy than Soeharto’s.

In this atmosphere of growing outrage, the televised playback marathon riveted people across the archipelago – the ‘names’ mentioned in these tapped conversations were not only public figures in the capital city. This morning, faced with the prospect of losing whatever shreds of credibility they still have, the Indonesian Police released Bibit and Chandra of the KPK, and arrested Anggodo Widjojo (his brother Anggor is on the lam). They really had little other choice, but tried to save some face by releasing a statement to the effect that: “This does not mean that their case is dropped, but their detention is waived following the mounting public response and in the interest of security and collective order,”.

Though of course the case must continue to be heard, and democracy here will continue to be a work in progress, it is a huge difference from the days when things could easily be swept under the mat. Without bloodshed or burning buildings, the Indonesian public opinion is beginning to make noticeable difference in the due process of the law.

SECTARIAN SABOTAGE ON WWW: Virtual Chaos

Two relatively recent sectarian battles in cyberspace have caught my attention, one because I was affected more or less directly, another because it continues to hit the news. They both involve institutions of faith, and they both involve anarchistic rebellion.

In the first instance, the one in which I was affected, the fight was over a multi-sectarian Buddhist forum which had literally tens of thousands of members. On some days there would be thousands online, spread out between different Zen schools, Modern or Classical Theravada, the various tantric Tibetan schools, Indo Madhyamika, Philosophy, Coffee Lounge etc. You get the point. It was diverse. There were specific forums, chat rooms, beginners forums – it was a huge structure which supposedly gave shelter to Buddhists of any ilk who needed to learn or share, or simply talk about their situation. It was a great way for the far flung to stay in touch.

One would have thought that this huge site, which had wonderful libraries, resources, knowledgeable people, and a peaceful core philosophy handed down by the Buddha would have been a place where we could have all discussed issues in a relatively calm style. Interestingly, it was exactly in the inter-sectarian exchanges that the core philosophy often seemed to go out the window. Logically thinking, one would expect the inter-sectarian exchanges between fellow Buddhists to be a place where common ground would be established. Not so.

It often puzzled me when I saw this, and I do still harbor pet theories of about converts from Abramic religions, but after a while a more convincing and consistent pattern began to show up. Due to it’s anonymous nature (mostly pseudonyms were used) some took great liberties to either flaunt whatever little knowledge they possessed or, worse yet, become quite virulent in their posts. It was a very mixed bag – beginners talking to scholars, renegades challenging established authorities. As it was moderated with strict basic guidelines, some of the more “off the wall” posts would duly “disappear”. Often the moderators, as figures of authority, would come under attack despite the fact they acted in line with guidelines which members ostensibly accepted upon joining.

Positions became more entrenched, and soon the escalation was such that, weirdly reminiscent of the school playground, whenever the specter of
the moderators (or the mods themselves) appeared tensions rose. Entire groups splintered off to form their own forums. And then the seemingly inevitable happened. Somebody carried out a major hack, basically pulling down the entire forum The admins have been struggling for weeks since to try and get the forum back up (somewhat thoughtfully, the hackers have left the various resources on the site accessible).

Though for sure there is plenty of room here for detailed analysis, the broad strokes on this canvas are interesting enough. Unlike the case of open social media like facebook where the range of topics are extremely broad or very personal, and where for the most part identities are fairly open and thus putting a bit of a curb on abuse, in this instance anonymity was the basic order of the day. In theory, this was mostly to protect and to free. In reality it often became a sniper’s hide. An assumption of good faith (pardon the pun) was the foundation of a system designed to allow maximum depth of expression, yet the freedom was not accompanied by a commensurate sense of responsibility or accountability.

Looking at social media in general, on facebook or twitter for example one can pick and choose friends or followers – whereas on the E-sangha forum one’s posts and threads were always public despite the anonymity. You might have noticed the past tense – perhaps I am too pessimistic.

The upshot of the hack is that many have lost contact with what was for them a valuable social resource. Possibly a sense of outrage at the perceived posturing of the moderators motivated the hack, while in the mods’ camp I am sure they feel they acted according to clearly stated guidelines. In any case, there was wanton and unnecessary destruction of a shared facility.

Behind all this something pathetic lurks – and irks me. It is inevitable that if one pursues a way of life in ever deeper ways, one seeks deeper conviction. Instinctively, most people then need to experience some sort of proof. Inherent to that is the danger that, if lacking in guidance, we then conjure up all kinds of theories to fill in the yawning void that we find ourselves looking down into when we are at the top of the arc of our leap of faith. On the other hand we might feel the rush of what we assume to be spiritual/mental enlightenment, which is perhaps just an emotional outpouring that actually obscures our common sense. Whatever the case, the proof of whether it is enlightenment or delusion does lie in the pudding, not in a false sense of superiority. It’s a fine line between exclusivity and alienation.

Which brings us to the second case, about which I will be briefer, where the battle has become truly public and epic. In this case, at war are two nutty extremes of the social spectrum: the unapologetic anarchist, anonymous troll-like hackers of the internet vs the uber-organized, celebrity studded wealthy Church of Scientology. If you would like to know more, go for it here.

Here the issue is not a movement imploding on itself (at least not yet), but one where the perceived arrogance and secrecy of what seems a fairly wacky and self absorbed bunch has invited an attack from the “anti-organized” in society. Again it is mainly motivated by a sense of outrage at (perceived) arrogance and claims of superiority. What is interesting is the organic, against-their-grain trend for the trolls to somehow to form a loose coalition smacking of organization. Having watched the infamous Tom Cruise video clip, I do have to admit some sympathy for the under-empowered, anonymous trolls. It’s almost like a resistance movement. However, no matter my personal sentiment, Scientology too has a right to exist as long as it doesn’t harm or break the law. We are not talking about Nazi occupied France.

A bloodless arena, the world wide web can nonetheless be a vicious place. The Scientologists have brought all their considerable influence down on the trolls. It has become something of a saga, mainly because of the inability
of the Scientologists to simply shrug it off. As one writer put it – don’t feed the trolls.

What can we learn from these two epic cyber clashes? Surprisingly, nothing much new. Though most of it is happening in the virtual world of digital data,
it is the same old same old. From a somewhat simplistic standpoint, the basic elements are classic. Pride and arrogance, abuse of power and lack of tolerance, attachment and hatred, authoritarianism and lack of responsibility. These are all personal. The systemic aspect of any institution will always struggle with the personal, and vice-versa.

In the case of of the loosely federated “Anonymous” or “Chanology”, despite themselves anarchists banded together to get more impact. It is difficult for us humans to suddenly stop being social. In reality everything we experience, have, and enjoy comes about through the agency of others. On the other hand the manipulation of collective power in the name of some superior ideal is most illustrative of the inability to accept responsibility at the deepest level – compassion and awareness.

Institutions provide powerful tools for us to progress, but they need to be founded in absolute personal clarity. In the end the onus is on each of us as individuals to get with it and accept that the more powerful the tools we have, the more humble and tolerant we need to be.

Why Imagemakers of the Future?

Whether the literary figures who crowded the streets of Ubud during the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival like it or not, visual language is becoming a more popular mode of communication of ideation, ideas, and even ideals, than ever before. Photography, ever more sophisticated and accessible, is becoming ever more central to that language. The photograph has become an indelible part of our communal consciousness, the icons, the shared image -the conveyor of news, memories, and artistic expression.

Because of this the exhibition of 11 emerging Indonesian photographers in the middle of the UWRF buzz took on an extra significance.

Learning the visual language of photography, being fluent in it, takes time and receptivity. And the 11 photographers featured are no exception to this process.
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But what is exceptional is that they are all working sincerely at experimenting with it, at developing their fluency, at communicating their vision, passion, and experiences. Sure, there are plenty of influences of other older photographers evident in their work, perhaps even from the ‘senior’ Indonesian photographers who co-curated the show.

But those senior photographers in their turn were influenced by their predecessors and contemporaries. Meanwhile the language of photography becomes more sophisticated, more complex, more varied. Photography is becoming more and more of universal language as its practitioners gain more an more access to simply doing it.

In Indonesia, like in many other places, photography in all its varieties has developed in leaps and bounds in the last decade. It’s an astounding phenomenon. The digital age has just about broken down the last barriers to affordability and accessibility, yet there are also serious practitioners of such arcane photographic arts as ‘lomography’ and pin-hole photography.

I disagree strongly with one foreign blogger who felt that the show is all too imitative, going so far as to claim some of the work reflects an aimless rebellion and even a lack of courage. Actually it’s all very ‘explorative’. Exploring bodies of pre-existing work, exploring their own realms of experience. They look to the extents of the language they are learning to find ways to express what they have seen and been captured by, and they do so with plenty of courage.

A young girl, born and raised in a conservative Betawi family talks her way into birthing ward in an unfamiliar city on her first trip overseas to record one of the most harrowing moments of human life. A young Balinese photographer, ever alert, instinctively takes a parting shot of a forlorn, young Australian prisoner facing a possible death sentence in a strange land. A brash kid, barely a quarter century old, convinces an iconic Indonesian diva to drape herself in toilet paper for a portrait. Another explores, in an ever so-slightly-satirical mode, the metaphoric journey of a doll named Mimi on a typical south-east Asian junket. A Balinese prince leaves comfort behind on a 9 month odyssey exploring the dusty trails of Central Asia and the sub-continent to bring back images vibrant.

All of them have pushed their own youthful boundaries, all eleven are passionately committed to their work, and they are all working photographers. Looking at their work and seeing the quality and vision that is already there, I know that if they continue they will be the future image makers whose work will be indelibly etched into our communal consciousness.

Imagemakers of the Future is on at the Alila Ubud until the 30th of November 2009.
open from 9:00 am to 9:00pm

DISTANCE AND TIME: THE FADING OF EMPATHY

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I always thought that the 30th of September would be a date that would continue to evoke a sense of tragedy in the hearts of all Indonesians. Whatever one accepts as the true version, or even if one can’t fathom any form of truth about what happened 44 years ago, the sheer volume of blood spilled is spine chilling enough and the number of lives shattered or ruined is staggering enough to give one pause, no matter how remote in time it now is.

It so happens this night was the birthday of an old friend who passed away earlier this year. It was also this same night that a major earthquake destroyed the lives of many people in West Sumatra.

And earlier last night, when it still was the 30th, I was shocked, I am not sure why, by the reaction of a young guest from Jakarta staying with us. When I somberly mentioned , admittedly late in the day, that it was the 30th of September, my guest made a silly joke about it, too banal to relate here.

For me G30S, as it is known to us Indonesians, has a very personal aspect – our next door neighbor when I was a boy was one of the generals taken and murdered that night. Our families were friendly. His sons were my friends. Countless others throughout the archipelago lost dear ones, had their lives shockingly disrupted and twisted by the events of that night and the dark days that followed.

But now I must acknowledge that for those who weren’t born yet or whose lives weren’t directly touched, the impact of this event has been dampened not only by time but also by an almost cynical sense of resignation that they may never find out the real truth about what happened that night and in the following months. So I am not sure whether I am shocked that perhaps for this girl’s generation it has lost some of its significance because they have either given up hope of ever uncovering the truth, or because it simply really isn’t that relevant to them.

And I am surprised at my reaction too. After all it is the way life is. For someone who wasn’t even born yet, for the most part the only relevance it has is because they have been told (whichever version). For instance I don’t make light of the Holocaust, but it certainly doesn’t affect me as deeply as those who survived it.

But in this case because these were ‘my people’ and in my lifetime, I felt particularly taken aback by the incident. Part of me lamented what I perceived as a lack of empathy (which of course is my own perception, she might very well just have made a nervous exclamation!).

Though I certainly don’t joke about the Holocaust, I can be “objective”. At times I have even reminded some of my Jewish friends that many other people have suffered genocide, as I feel those killed by the Khmer Rouge, Hutus/Tutsis, Serbs/Bosnians, etc should be remembered as well and profoundly. But I can’t be sure whether I say that out of so called objectivity or whether it’s from the depths of my heart.

What this shows me about myself and my fellow men is that we don’t learn well from experience. We feel the pain when it happens to us, but often little empathy for other who experience suffering. Yet empathy is one of the most important of human emotions, without it we will not survive as a race.

In reality what has happened to the Jews, the Armenians, the Cambodians, the Tibetans, the Indonesian communist suspects of ‘65 who were hunted down like dogs, and too many others – all this has happened to us, these are all our people.