Ride the Wave, Follow the Wind

Elia Nurvista & Ayos Purwoaji


Cultural Roots and the Diaspora

According to the records, Javanese people started arriving in New Caledonia precisely 125 years ago. This wave of migration was marked by the travel routes of the Saint-Louis, a steamboat that brought hundreds of contract coolies from Batavia to the island of Nouméa in 1896. In this French colony, they eventually took on jobs such as domestic servants, plantation laborers, or blue-collar workers in nickel mining.

From that moment on, the shipping routes from Java to Nouméa became quite active. The steamboats were commuting the workers. Up until the year 1948, a number of 19,590 Javanese contract coolies were recorded to have been transported to New Caledonia. Most of them eventually returned to Java after their contracts ended. But there were also many who chose to settle in the foreign land for generations to come.

In a 2014 population census, around 4000 people, or 1.43% of the population in New Caledonia was listed as ethnic Javanese with French citizenship. This Javanese diaspora community still cultivates a collective memory by preserving the “traditions” inherited from their ancestors, similarly to how the descendants of Java in Suriname are still practicing the Javanese religion (kejawen) until today.1Allen, P. (2013). Diasporic representations of the home culture: case studies from Suriname and New Caledonia. Asian Ethnicity, 16(3), 353–370. Perhaps, by preserving their “traditions” in this way, they hoped to confirm their existence and link their “Javanese” identities with “Java” which they imagined as their roots.

The history of European colonialism, the discovery of cartography, the expansion of transportation, and the emergence of internationalist ideas caused the phenomenon of migration and the appearance of an indigenous diaspora all around the world. This physical displacement has also created communities of people who are detached from their homelands. In these new lands, they reorganized the ways of life they once knew in order to form a mixed culture through processes of negotiation and assimilation which continued over several generations. In this hybrid condition, how do the diaspora communities across the world define the roots of their identities? And how do they perceive the concept of “nationalism” which presupposes the unity of a community within geographical boundaries?

Jogja Biennale XVI Equator #6 seeks to respond to this phenomenon by proposing the theme of “Roots < > Routes,” which tries to reveal the spectrum of issues between culture and mobility, such as those related to indigeneity and racialism; territorial borders and diaspora; mythology and modernity; situated knowledges and ecological crisis; to the ideology of development and the limit of growth.

Through this title, various questions are reopened and put forward, such as, is it still important—and in what ways—to discuss origins or locality in a world that is increasingly global and connected? How do we determine borders in a diasporic reality? And, can we revive situated knowledges in the midst of ongoing processes of modernization?

The concept of “roots and routes” itself has been researched for a long time in anthropological and sociological studies to argue how the attachment or detachment of humans with their geographical locations is significant in shaping culture.2Gustafson, P. (2001). Roots and Routes: Exploring the Relationship between Place Attachment and Mobility. Environment and Behavior, 33(5), 667–686. This is often the fundamental concept used to study topics such as racialism, ethnicity, minority politics, hybridity, diaspora, migration, and the fundamentals of solidifying identity within societal groups.

Some of these aforementioned issues are extremely relevant when looking at the relationship between the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago and the Oceanic region. Besides their shared cultural roots and history of European colonialism, these two regions also confront more or less identical contemporary social issues. Among them are the phenomena of migrant workers and a small-scale economy that’s dependent on remittances; an environmental crisis caused by industrial exploitation; the erasure of mythologies and situated knowledges caused by modernization; to solidarity movements built around issues of racialism and the spirit of decolonization. These are some of the issues being addressed in the various works by the 34 participating artists of the Jogja Biennale XVI Equator #6.


Decentralization as Praxis

In addition to the substantial concerns over the social problems in both the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago and Oceania, the Jogja Biennale is also invested in the concept of decentralization. In recent months, the term “decentralization” has become increasingly significant in an economic context, due to the proliferation of blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies. Some argue that the use of blockchain technology will become the future, capable of shifting various infrastructures, starting from the basic model of economic transactions to even the art market (which has up till now been considered hierarchical and centered around a handful of hotspots), making it more evenly distributed and democratic.

As an institution, the Jogja Biennale can also be seen as a new form of centralization. Since the concept of the Equator Biennale was first introduced in 2011, Jogja Biennale has tried to establish its own position as an important event in the field of global art which, until now, has been centered in Europe and the United States. In each of its editions, the Jogja Biennale has included artists from countries and regions across the imaginary line of the equator, spanning India, the Arab states, Nigeria, Brazil, to the countries of Southeast Asia. From these various locations on the planet, artists have been flown in to show their works to a small handful of art enthusiasts in Jogja. What the Jogja Biennale has been doing is no different from the existing operating logic of other international art events, which through financial might can mobilize artists from everywhere to grab the world’s attention. It could be said that the journey to embrace the equator—which initially was meant as an attempt to build solidarity across the art ecosystems in developing countries—has only turned the Jogja Biennale into a new form of centralization.

Therefore, in order to avoid this tendency of centralizing, and as part of the closing event in the series of the Equator Biennale, we want to test the following premise: can Jogja Biennale, as an art event or art institution, be decentralized? To what extent can we decentralize the biennale itself?

This time we try not to position decentralization as a conceptual framework that only fades away in discussion forums. Rather, we wish to encourage decentralization as a real practice that one day could be imitated and multiplied. As an endeavor to realize this, Jogja Biennale XVI Equator #6 features the Docking Program, which has been organized in collaboration with a number of art collectives and institutions from the eastern region of Indonesia, among them the Loka Budaya Museum of Cenderawasih University (Jayapura), Paparisa Ambon Bergerak (Ambon), SkolMus (Kupang), and the Komunitas KAHE (Maumere).

All of the partnering art collectives and institutions in the Docking Program are at liberty to decide on the theme, time, and type of event, which will be done according to the various contexts of each location. Conversely, the curatorial team of the Jogja Biennale will only oversee and assure that the proposals and discussions carried out during the planning stages of the Docking Program unfold transparently and that the variety of opinions are weighed in an equal manner. Various forms of support will be explored by the two parties, both financial and social. Through intensive discussions held over many months, we have finally agreed to run the Docking Program using various themes and forms, while also responding to a wide range of issues, from the celebration of a cultural movement in Papua, the ecological crisis caused by reckless development on the Ambon coast, the daily lives of migrant workers in Kupang, to a proposal for carrying out social and artistic intervention on an ethnographic museum in Maumere.

The efforts to decentralize art institutions like this need to be further tested and evaluated. To give an example, are these efforts effective enough to narrow the gap and equally distribute access and opportunities for art practitioners living outside the so-called “center”? What would be the most appropriate way for this type of decentralization to not be a mere intellectual sweetener? And how can we avoid the exploitation and systemic silencing which often occur within Indonesian art circles?

We are aware that the Docking Program of the Jogja Biennale XVI Equator #6 is still far from the imagined ideal of decentralization. Nevertheless, manifesting decentralization as an institutional act is an effort that needs to be supported, developed, and persistently evaluated in the future of the Indonesian art ecosystem.


Translated by Adelina Luft and Ellen Lee