Coming to the US in 1990: a huge celebration of Indonesian culture

Try to point to Indonesia on a map, and you're likely to get your finger wet - at least figuratively. With 17,000 islands sprinkled like emeralds on a blue blanket of ocean as wide as the United States, this Southeast Asian archipelago has a rather watery identity, especially to many Americans.

Oh, parts of its geography are known. ``Isn't Indonesia part of Bali?'' some say (wrongly). Or they know of Java (as in ``cup of''), or Krakatoa (the big bang of volcanoes), or the wilds of Borneo. But rarely the whole of Indonesia.

As a result, the world's fifth most populous country has decided to mount some ``cultural diplomacy'' to put itself on the mental map of Americans.

Both US and Indonesian private groups are busy bringing together the best of this country's arts, dance, and music - in a way that Indonesia has never done for itself. The show they are putting together will go on the American road in mid-1990 for more than a year.

The Festival of Indonesia, as it's called, will have three traveling museum exhibits of this country's ancient objects, selected from dozens of the world's museums and private collections. Live performances, such as shadow-puppet plays and Balinese dancing will be included, and so will folklife and craft displays in an exhibit on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Even though it's still two years away, the festival has dropped a big stone in Indonesia's cultural pond. Dozens of performing groups are vying to be chosen. Art traditions are being explored. Museum workers are learning the science of conservation.

Disputes are also flaring up over who and what really represents Indonesia. For example, some dances and rituals now done as living traditions have never before been performed on a stage. And many pieces of what the West calls art carry a mystical aura here because they are still actively used in rituals. According to traditional Indonesian belief, taking a sacred object away from those who possess it also takes away its power. The objects are symbols of legitimacy and spiritual authority. Some exquisite pieces, such as wavy sacred daggers called kris, will not be shown, and in fact were not even shown to exhibit organizers.

``We have to be careful of the magic,'' says Helen Jessup, guest curator of the New York-based Asia Society Galleries.

For three years, Dr. Jessup has roamed these islands, putting together the exhibit on Indonesia's ``court art,'' which covers the period since the 15th century. The courts were once mighty little fiefdoms or grand trade emporiums ruled by rich sultans or rajahs.

Indonesia's 80 or so active and inactive courts have since lost their political clout. But a few of the biggest and most famous, located on Java, still command respect, and their sultans continue to act as patrons of the arts.

``This is the first time anyone has tried to link themes between the courts - such as the royal regalia, the shadow puppets, the dance, the music, textiles, and masks,'' says Jessup. ``Indonesians see this festival as a way of collecting their national heritage and saving it.''

As an entity, Indonesia was patched together by Dutch colonialists, despite hundreds of languages and other differences. But its cultural depths were dug over 500 years ago when Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms flourished, patterned on Indian models. As a busy maritime passageway between China and Europe, the islands have been the southern water route of the historic Silk Road. And A more recent overlay of Islam makes the culture even more complex.

A second exhibit will bring together, also for the first time, Indonesia's ``classical'' art now housed in American, European, and Indonesian collections. These works are mainly Hindu and Buddhist sculptures up to the 15th century. The curator is the former director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Jan Fontein, who is working on the exhibit while living in the old Javanese capital, Jogjakarta. One purpose of the classical exhibit, Dr. Fontein says, is to ``get away from the notion that everything took place in Java.'' But it's difficult to avoid the fact that the largest and most beautiful monuments are on Java, such as the Borobudur, a 1,000-year-old Buddhist pyramid.

``The people living here today are in every respect the descendants of the people who built those monuments,'' he says. ``They live with these temples as part of village life. In fact, I see the same gestures and movements as those on the reliefs of the monuments.''

The third exhibit, called ``Beyond the Java Sea,'' puts together 249 vibrant artifacts from the so-called Outer Islands, once known as the Spice Islands, plus pieces from Sumatra. Here is Indonesia's diversity at its best, from Borneo's Dyak tribe to the people on stone-age Irian Jaya who live on a bay called ``Bird of Paradise.''

``Each of these tribes, so called, thought they were possessors of the very best in art,'' says the Smithsonian Institution's curator of Asian ethnology, Paul Taylor, lead organizer of the exhibit. ``They didn't think they were inferior in any way to Java.'' The objects range from stunning textiles to a bark coat decorated with natural paints.

The festival idea itself was inspired by a similar venture, the Festival of India in 1985-86, which helped boost that country's trade, tourism, and image in the US. This more modest show will cost about $12 million. Its originator is Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, who was Indonesia's foreign minister until early this year and is a well-respected patron of his nation's arts.

The festival will open July 4, 1990, with the classical art exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

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