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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Jatiwangi Art Factory: Cultural work that breaks the mould

By Nia Agustina, translation by Eka Wahyuni
(1,980 words, 6-minute read)

In one corner of West Java, Indonesia, in the Majalengka Regency, a group of volunteers work hand in hand to distribute Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), groceries, food, and medical equipment to people who have to work outside the home during the Covid-19 pandemic. These volunteers were the Relawan Jabar Baik (West Java Good Volunteers), initiated by Ginggi Syarif Hasyim, one of the co-founders of Jatiwangi Art Factory (JaF), and his “motorcycle club friends”, formed as a show of solidarity and support for each other.

Besides sharing material aid, Relawan Jabar Baik traveled to the Puskesmas (community health centre at the sub-district level) to provide free rapid tests and PPE to health workers. All of this support came from the public donations, as well as small entrepreneurial efforts by the members of the Relawan Jabar Baik themselves. Indeed, in most areas of Indonesia, this kind of “gotong royong” (the spirit of working together and helping each other) is what ultimately has helped the residents through this Covid-19 period, especially amidst all the government aid schemes that could not reach the residents quickly due to administrative complications.

This fundraising is also supported by one of JaF’s monthly programmes, Pasar Kejutan Apamart (Apamart Pop-Up Market), a monthly pop-up market where local residents and communities can sell their products, from crafts to food and beverages. When the government started banning gatherings of people in March 2020, most events and shows migrated online – and so did Pasar Kejutan Apamart. T-shirts, spiced drinks, and various food items produced by members of the Relawan Jabar Baik were sold in packages through Instagram and other social media. For example, if you bought three packages of spiced drinks (said to be good for health), one of them would be donated to health workers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: Relawan Jabar Baik distributing donations for health workers. Right: Selling spiced drinks for a cause. Photos: Relawan Jabar Baik, Rempah Embassy Instagram

These donation models are re-interpreted by JaF as an investment within the framework of a sharing movement it calls “Hit and Run”. Director of JaF 2020 Elgea Balzarie (Gea) shares that “Hit and Run is based on the spirit of giving unconditionally”. JaF’s discourse on Hit and Run was part of a recent exhibition, LOOKING FOR ANOTHER FAMILY at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, a collaboration project with Korean group Budnamugage, which took the form of an investment booth. Due to the pandemic, the exhibition ran in an online format.

The collaborative initiative between residents and JaF has been its working principle since the beginning. As said by Arief Yudi Rahman – who along with Ginggi, Loranita Damayanti, Deden Imanudin and Ketut Aminudin started JaF in 2005 –  JaF works with the “addressed public” (in Indonesian: “publik yang beralamat”), referring to people they know closely: “not just by their demographic facts, but also their names, their relatives, where they went to school, where they work and even the addresses of their houses”. JaF’s librarian, Ika Yuliana, adds that “JaF is located in the centre of a village surrounded by residents’ houses, village halls, and schools, so how can we not involve them in our works?” So it is not surprising that almost everyone involved in its initiatives knows each other because they are neighbours or even relatives. Hence in this kind of crisis, JaF will organically move with the communities.

JaF is located in Jatisura village, one of the villages in the Jatiwangi sub-district, which is included in the Majalengka Regency area. Historically, Jatiwangi has been a centre for tile craftsmanship since 1905. Since the 1930s the Dutch East Indies government paid special attention and started to replace the roofs of government buildings and housing of government employees with earthen tiles, and in 1977 when the New Order echoed the PELITA (Five-Year Development) programme, craftsmen were increasingly motivated to increase their production. However, Ika shares that “there were already signs that Majalengka would become an industrial area”. “Since 2010, Majalengka began to enter the garment industry, shoes, and others. In the future it is likely that such industries will enter more, coupled with the construction of the Kertajati International Airport. This is one of the reasons for the collapse of the tile craftsmanship business, despite many other factors. From the data we took in 2019, Jebor (tile factories) has decreased by almost 60%,” she adds. 

As an initiative in the community with a contemporary cultural and artistic approach, JaF tries to re-explore the historical roots of Jatiwangi as a centre of tile craftsmanship through various programmes which have been carried out regularly over the past 15 years. This approach in investigating the roots of history is not merely about romanticism and nostalgia. Instead, many contextual offers suit the contemporary space and time, yet are still based on the needs of residents.

Genteng (clay rooftile) music band rehearsal at Jebor Hall JaF in 2018. Photo: Jatiwangi Art Factory

In 2019, JaF hosted the Indonesia Contemporary Ceramic Biennale (ICCB), which had previously been held four times in Jakarta. The premise of the 5th ICCB started from a chat between curators, artists and architects with Ridwan Kamil, the governor of West Java who is himself an architect. In his campaign, he pledged to help Jatiwangi, especially its tile industry which was in a slump. This spawned a discussion about the diversification of tile products, how to rebrand the city, and how the city should be in accordance with the dreams of its residents – unique because these kinds of decisions usually come from the government to the residents (top-down), not vice versa. Perhaps most importantly, the notion of Jatiwangi becoming a  “terracotta city” was born, offering residents the possibility of once again living off the clay.

The alun-alun Majalengka, or Majalengkan square, currently has a terracotta design. “Some time ago, there were orders for souvenirs from clay for local government events,” says Ika. JaF, mainly through Arief and Ginggi, manages the terracotta production with its network of tile factories. Although at the moment, not all tile factories can manage the extra load, because additional capital is needed to make moulds, for example, the vision is that if the Terracotta City branding is successful, the clay-based industry in the Jatiwangi area might once again be revived. Ika adds: “Indeed, the historical roots here are tile factories. It becomes a question when (the city) suddenly turns into the centre of the garment industry, for example. At the very least, the Terracotta City programme will be tested until 2023.”

In this whole journey of JaF, many programme costs have been borne independently, from JaF members, the residents, and certain programme grants. JaF itself does not expect much from the government, but rather provokes through real work, such as creating festivals that also invigorate and support the residents, as well as special programmes such as Relawan Jabar Baik. Some of its efforts have indeed succeeded in attracting the attention of both regional and central governments, but JaF tries to facilitate community initiatives with existing resources, and existing networks. Looking at how JaF works, we can draw similarities with the characteristics of art and cultural work in various cities in Indonesia that live and develop with their main capital in the form of social capital, gotong royong.

As JaF programmes usually involve a crowd, in the midst of a pandemic its strategy had to be rethought. The May edition of its monthly discussion series, Forum 27an (it is held on the 27th of each month), was implemented online through Google Meet. With the headline “Let’s Meet, But Virtual First!”, it was fashioned as a forum for friendship, for people to hear stories from each other, to make sure that others were fine, and further, to share ideas about movement strategies in the middle of the pandemic. Gea stated: “We were quite surprised, even with the online format of Forum 27an we were able to reach a wider audience, even to our friends from abroad who were participating, which in the offline Forum 27an was very difficult.” Some shared how they were surviving the pandemic by starting to farm. There were also discussions of how people were familiarising themselves with online meetings, how festivals were being interpreted in this kind of pandemic, questions of what the ideal number of spectators for an event in a festival could be. And can festivals be carried out from private spaces such as bedrooms?

Forum 27an started going offline in July 2020. Photo: Jatiwangi Art Factory

With Majalengka being a green zone (an area with a small risk of Covid-19 transmissions) and seeing how Majalengka’s government regulations had begun to allow the opening of public spaces, the July 2020 edition of the Forum 27an finally went offline. It followed government health protocols: the event was held in the spacious Jebor Hall in JaF to allow for physical distancing, and everyone who took part was required to wear a mask and wash their hands in the provided space before entering the room. Although now explored offline, the Forum 27an is now streamed online, to allow participation from networks originating from other parts of Indonesia, or even from other countries.

On 11 August 2020, JaF and the residents organised its annual Jatiwangi Cup, an inter-jebor bodybuilding contest conducted via live streaming with the tagline “Show that we are healthy and determined”. This tagline seems very contextual to the current conditions – that in the midst of this pandemic, the most important thing is to keep healthy and stay “determined” to survive and work. This bodybuilding competition, with participants comprising roof tile-making workers of the area, is an embodiment of the roof tile-making industry in Jatiwangi. Through the contestants’ muscular bodies, we can read the history, the experiences, and the pride of the citizens in cultivating clay.

The connection between the residents and the clay is also manifested in the triannual Ceramic Music Festival (CMF), run by JaF. This event champions “ceramic music”, where music is made from clay instruments, as a new culture to connect to the earth. The next CMF is scheduled for 2021, though Gea remains cautious when talking about it. “In previous years, this festival was able to gather thousands of people, so it needs to rethink its format, because even though the prediction of the pandemic has started to stabilise, the possibility of really getting back to normal is still not clear enough,” she says. 

Outside the programme with the West Java community, JaF is also part of Lumbung, a curatorial concept of Jakarta-based art collective ruangrupa for Documenta Fifteen. The prestigious arts event in Kassel, Germany is slated to be held from 18 June 18 to 25 Sep 2022. The concept of the Lumbung is a manifestation based on a re-understanding of the granary, which in Indonesian society is used as a storage space for rice and other foodstuff. Says Gea: “The intention is to help each collective involved so that it can keep going on, but the technical and realistic plans of this Lumbung are still being discussed with other collective friends involved.”

JaF is also working on a number of other programmes – especially as long as the pandemic is not over – such as creating YouTube content around its archive. “JaF has been running for 15 years, so maybe there is something that can be rethought when unpacking the archive. Then the education programme – maybe we invite friends who have been to JaF, to create educational content with skills that they can teach,” Ika adds.

With these plans in place, the work of JaF feels complete – starting from a research space, to education space, advocacy space, facilitating space, and creative space. JaF shows how contemporary culture and art can become essential when it is created in response to and is contextualised to the lives of its local residents.


This article is supported by Splice Lights On. Click to read essays about the arts in Vietnam and Philippines, as part of this series commissioned during this time.

Nia Agustina is independent dance dramaturg and critics currently based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She founded the Paradance Platform in 2015, and is the co-curator of Indonesian Dance Festival (2016 – present). Her activities revolve around nurturing young Indonesian dance practitioners. Since 2017, she and her husband, Ahmad Jalidu has been running gelaran.id, a website for performance art and performing arts critics and review.

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