17,000 islands of imagination. That’s the tagline of last year’s guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Indonesia. The amount of islands correlates directly with the numbers of ethnic groups, languages, foods and eventually the cultures. In a very superficial manner, these different cultures can be presented and always be presented by showcasing different ethnic groups and their cultural properties. They will look distinctly different from one another, but that’s it.
Why then we always see this superficiality? This cliché? For starter Indonesia is a huge country, as an Indonesian myself, it would have been impossible for me to visit all of the islands in my life time. Someone (who clearly have too much time on their hand), have made a calculation and he stated that it would take a person 45 years to be able to visit each one of them. Indonesians are then presented with dilemmatic situation, we are blessed with so many cultures and yet there are very little that we can understand.
These tangible cultures come in many forms; food, dances, houses, dress, music and poem as well as the landscapes. They have been able to invite and lure people from all over the world to document it in various form of art; from painting to photographs, from novel to short stories and countless others. Among those, I will concentrate on photography, a medium that has allowed travel postcards, guidebooks and mass media to portray Indonesia as that great exotic country.
As part of our national identity, our government had tried to educate us regarding the Indonesian cultures, however they can only go as far to introduce us to the superficial or the cliché, or what I like to call the tangible cultures. Indonesian photographers who were brought up with Indonesian education, then could only photograph what they understood about the tangible Indonesian cultures. The booming of the economy post Reformasi also allow these Indonesians to become tourists in their own country. We visited exotic places, pointed our lenses to the locals and snapped some holiday pictures. These activities of documenting the tangible culture resulted in two things; first it expanded the collective archive of Indonesian culture; second, it granted-to a certain degree-a superficial pleasure of understanding one’s culture without understanding “it”. “It” would refer to the philosophical nature, the elusive aspect, the intangible form of a culture.
On Saujana Sumpu, Yoppy Pieter tried to document one of the most iconic Minangkabau culture, merantau. In a superficial sense the act of merantau means travel. The act is done by the male side of the Minangkabau society so they would be able to get experiences, knowledge, jobs and finally returning back to their village to get married and settle down.
Merantau or migration is not foreign concept for Indonesians, there are even government program for that (transmigrasi) that put people from densely populated area to a less populated area. The program is usually take people from Java island to Borneo, Papua or Sumatra, where the government will give a piece of land and support them. While transmigrasi has its own problem, merantau also had one. What happened after a few generations, the males of Sumpu are no longer returning to their village, creating a population gap and problems such as the lack of productive younger population that can maintain the villages.
When I was first asked by Yoppy to edited this project, I jump right in without any hesitation in because he has been at that time have created various projects such as "Afterbirth" (at that time it was known as "Kelana") and "Half Breath Battle" but he never have a book project at the ready. The process began with two questions: “What do you want to convey?” and “How do you want to convey it?”. We have discussed the former, let’s talk about the latter.
Looking at the materials presented and available to us, there were two approaches that we can take when we sequence the book, the first is to approach it as a documentary product, sequencing the pictures by chronological order. The second approach, the one that we took, was by creating another layer of stories or narrative, where in this approach we have the following; a boy as the main protagonist, his family who are left behind, the crumbling villages and the villains.
The story started when the boy left the village, just as any other boy doing the merantau ritual. Time passed and the village, which are depleted of men (and women) were in constant danger from unseen forces. The boy finally returned to the village as a man, where he helped in restoring his crumbling village and bring peace. On the published version, this narrative is divided into three chapters; the first is where the boy left the village, the second is when the unseen danger lurks and the third is where the boy return. The final chapter also invited the inhabitant of Sumpu to return to the village where they have been born and raised, whether they have returned or not I have to yet ask Yoppy about this.
Coming back to the topic of intangible culture, with this book Yoppy's not only presenting his ability as a photographer but also as a storyteller, where he has been able demonstrated to us flawlessly the method to document the elusive aspect Minangkabau culture. I am not entirely sure whether it would work with other cultures in Indonesia however by going to the superficial, knowing your approach and opening up to more creative ways, others too can create a body of work on Indonesian culture that’s beyond the cliché.