Citra Kader (Kolektif Videoge), one of the MB Artist in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, sitting in front of their work "Neighbor Recipe Note". Image source: Documentation Tim MB Labuan Bajo.

Makassar Biennale: The Concept of Community Literacy and The Eternal Artistic Question

Wilda Yanti Salam shares an insider’s view of the Makassar Biennale’s ongoing attempt to undo the conventions of biennale-making in eastern Indonesia’s first biennale. This article is published as part of the inaugural AE x Goethe-Institut Critical Writing Micro-Residency 2021/2022.

Makassar Biennale (MB) is the first biennale to be held in the Eastern Part of Indonesia. The doorway that led me to join MB was Tanahindie. It is a community-based organization founded 22 years ago and focused on the study of the city through various experimental practices and the reproduction of citizen knowledge using vernacular methods. I joined Tanahindie in 2018 as a young writer and researcher. A year later, I was recruited as a member of the MB committee. Since then, I have been observing, while also being involved in the event that is driven by the union of these two words: MB and Tanahindie.

The Concept of Community Literacy

Throughout my involvement over the past five years, I have experienced and witnessed the close connection between art as a method of community literacy, and the practices of citizenship that the biennale aims to promote,  involving people of Makassar, especially young adults, as part of the committee and participating artists. As the organizer, Tanahindie is open and welcomes anyone who is interested in joining without limiting their selection to specific standards, such as work experience. MB wants to make this event a catalyst and a learning opportunity for the people of Makassar.

I was one of the young adults who got the opportunity to be involved for the first time. I was entrusted to be the publication manager in 2019. I did not completely understand the scope of duty, and what I had to do at that time. Everything was new and felt real the moment I started experiencing it myself. The keyword of my process is ‘learning by doing’. There were no specific standards and guidelines that we had to follow at that time. I learned by looking for references, discussing, and imagining how to tell the public about the biennale on social media.

Most of the participating artists are also beginners like myself. The biennale is fostering, in that it invites young people and artists, rather than well-known and experienced ones. Some of the participants did not even identify themselves as artists. It is something that MB wants to stimulate, to actualize the knowledge and life experiences of the citizens in their own way as an artist. For example, Muslimin Mursalim [1], a Parepare-based participant. He presented a work entitled Ma’dange that stems from his experience as a cook and his knowledge of making dange’ (a food made from sago cooked in rectangular molds, which has a plain taste). Mursalim inherited this from his grandmother. He then became interested and started learning to become an artist.

I was asked many times, “Why did the organizer not involve well-experienced artists for the biennale?” For me, this interesting question needs to be reconsidered. If the participants are “considerably good” about creating artworks with particular artistic aesthetic standards, why can’t we accommodate the in-experienced? What about the young adults who are still  figuring out their interest in becoming artists and engaging local participation to organize the activities? Will there be opportunities for them to experience and learn about the biennale? Meanwhile, we face difficulties in discovering young artists and colleagues who had the experience of organizing exhibitions to host MB in their respective cities.

The Nuance of MB Team Curatorial Workshop from 5 cities at the Pangkep Karst Site.Image source: Artefact Kitab Maya.
The Genealogy of Makassar Biennale

MB was first held and initiated by the Colliq Puji’e Art Movement group in collaboration with the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture in 2015. With the theme “Trajectory”, MB is expected to be the doorway that leads to observing, recording, and interpreting the history and events of Makassar city along with its visual artistic projections at that time.

Starting from 2017, MB has been managed by Tanahindie entirely. As a result, the event, which was initially organized and driven by a network of artists in Makassar, has changed almost completely. In the process, Tanahindie mobilized all of its resources consisting of Penerbit Ininnawa (an independent publisher with a network of academics and researchers), Kampung Buku (a community library that has become a co-laboratory bridging community and cultural activists), along with the existing artist network of MB and Tanahindie. This configurational working ecosystem is what drives MB until now. 

In March 2019, I was one of the contributors to the book Kota Diperam dalam Kota (City Soaked in a Drinking Stall). The book was published and launched as part of the MB 2019’s pre-event activities. I was wondering, what kind of art event is MB? However, I reserved that question for later until I worked for the biennale.

While working as curator assistant for MB in 2021, I had to work with people and artists,  that were, most of them completely new.  One of our tasks was to organize a symposium, the implementation of which turned out to be completely different from the one that I organized in 2019. The format followed the general standards of a symposium. It was a formal symposium in a rigid building with arranged chairs and speakers ready with their presentation materials. The event was properly prepared. The MB 2021 symposium, in turn, was held in Pangkep, in the middle of karst mountains with the absence of internet access. This situation is significantly unusual compared to the one I encountered before. The symposium was conducted modestly on a carpet, where we sat relaxing on the floor and exchanged stories formally. In the evening, we recite poetry and sang under the sky. I never thought a symposium could run like that. I felt like I was on vacation. This symposium took place under a stilt house instead of a white cube. The atmosphere made us feel more liberated to speak and express opinions because the situation was informal and less tense. 

Apart from personnel changes, MB is continuously experimenting with management and curatorial formats, regardless of what is right or wrong in  the process. The openness to such a process has its roots in the locals’ nature and the history of each area where the MB event is happening, without the intention to generalize them. In his curatorial note, Anwar ‘Jimpe’ Rachman, Director of MB, cites Lawrence Blair’s theory about differentiating the wisdoms of people living on the edge of the Wallace Line that marks the separation between two very different types of wisdom–continental and oceanic. For Blair, this region (Eastern Indonesia) is known to have a thick ‘treasury of oceanic thinking’. Thus, it is irrelevant to compare the Makassar Biennale with its two biennale predecessors; Jogja and Jakarta, since both are located on the island of Java.

Based on this reflection, in 2017, MB set the eternal theme of “Maritime”, which was initiated by Anwar ‘Jimpe’ Rachman and Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka. Jimpe explained that “Maritime” is not only defined as a sea or ocean but as a living ecosystem. “Maritime” is a ‘way of thinking’ about how MB is conducted’. On another occasion, he also explained that this eternal theme is a landscape that people in Makassar and Eastern Indonesia are familiar with. 

Another experience was the opportunity to learn to design activities according to the needs and abilities of the biennale working team. Previously, my colleagues and I were more accustomed to being participants or stuck being the worker of the events. People at my age are often tokenized as statistics and not allowed to be involved in designing and contextualizing ideas and concepts. There is frequently confusion here and there. The confusion that, at first glance, will be seen and compared with the other biennales as a sign of incapability. However, for us this is a sign of learning.

The practice of designing activities for young people is necessary. Since the arts and cultural events held in Makassar are sometimes merely a monument and celebration for the invited speakers. It is not a space for learning nor a catalyst for the internal team.

Splitting the Venue

With the concepts of “Maritime”, the biennale hopes to align with the local context in each region that host the MB event. Among other things, by giving freedom to each community of organizers to form their own teams, assembling their implementation and hospitality practices according to their resources. The curator acts as a ‘companion’ to assist and provide artistic considerations towards the process of creating the artworks and strategies for organizing the event.

In 2015 and 2017, Makassar was the center of activities. But from 2019 to 2021, MB experimented with other models and logics by dividing the program into several regencies and cities. Tanahindie shaped MB into a joint platform that is currently being produced and driven by a network of literacy community and activists in six cities. Namely Makassar, Parepare, Pangkep, Bulukumba (South Sulawesi), Labuan Bajo (East Nusa Tenggara) and Nabire (Papua). This is an effort to consolidate and connect to each other’s context.

Documentation of the Opening Symposium Makassar Biennale 2021 in the middle of Karts Mountains in Pangkep Regency, South Sulawesi. Image source: Artefact Kitab Maya.
Residency as a Reference

Makassar has been well known as the gateway to the eastern part of Indonesia since a dozen centuries ago. Thus, we feel the need to share this spotlight, by holding a residency program in Bulukumba, Parepare and Pangkep, which we can connect to other arts and literacy communities.

The residency also works as a method of collective learning for the participating artists and the people involved as host. Another urgency of holding a residency program is to encourage the local team to host ‘guests’ with their own abilities and to mobilize on social capital. For example, the Bugis people likes hosting guests in their homes, which helps us to save some budget for other priorities. This custom certainly varies, depending on the habits of the community in each respective location.

Due to budget constraints, artists in residence often stay at the exhibition site or the team member’s house. We understand their needs for personal space or the comfort of sleeping on a mattress with nicely scented sheets. Therefore, the MB committee and finance team will usually explain the internal reality to the artist from the start to lower their expectations about the residency facilities.

Another thing – the residency is equally related to the geographical condition of Indonesia. This has been resulting in uneven access to art networks and knowledge, that are only concentrated on Java island. It made the seeds of inferiority that grow within us take root quite strongly. Presenting experienced artists will provide benefits in terms of references. But we want to prevent it if it merely causes gaps and puts emerging artists in the audience seat because they feel powerless. Equality remains our spirit and a way of bridging that gap is through our residency program.

The gap we refer to and aim to hack is not only among artists but also between artists and the people at the residency site. Artists could unconsciously create distances in the works they create. On occasion, they tend to extract knowledge from people without the intention of learning together. MB needs artworks that are easy for the general public to understand and could provoke questions or confusion. For us, artists and work teams are the people. Art represents a method to inspire people to discover and be confident in the knowledge that surrounds them.

Archives and Publications as the Key

With limited writing experience and the opportunity to work as a curator assistant for MB 2021, I learned to hack the layered confusion by finding and defining my function. Specifically curating publications. My scope of duty is to accompany colleagues in each city to write for MB publication channels like social media, websites and others. The various texts that we produced become an attempt to frame the narrative of the biennale, to be presented to the public. It aims to make writing as a method of exploring the personal experiences of artists and work teams.

This role made me acknowledge the importance of Tanahindie in organizing MB by using archives and writing as resources. Writing and documenting the work is not solely for communicating the MB event to the public. Disseminating the information to the public, by any means, is equally sharing what is experienced and found by the author.

Our editorial work is not about editing the message or the text structure. It is to encourage the team members, most of whom are new to MB and novice writers. We put together, perceive, imagine and articulate what we understand about MB starting from the choice of diction.

MB’s publication strategy is to embed the word ‘biennale’, which is easily recognizable by the art scene and accelerated the news of the event on the national and international fronts. On the other hand, this word increases public expectations towards MB to deliver the similar standards as other biennales in Indonesia. These two impacts make publication work significant for MB. Not to mention the cost of traveling to areas in Makassar tends to be more expensive. Hence, the only way to get recognized is to publish our works in as detailed and diverse a manner as possible. In the production process, the publication is not carried out by a single team. Instead, gotong royong (working together) with teams in every city. That is why, if you go to MB’s Instagram page, you may find various visuals and audio.

The Eternal Artistic Question

In June 2022, we conducted a curatorial workshop in Pangkep, South Sulawesi. Representatives of the MB team from Makassar, Nabire, Pangkep, Parepare and Labuan Bajo attended the workshop. This was our first encounter since the pandemic restricted our in person meetings. For four days, our conversations began by sharing on the table, the realities that occurred in each city.

We discussed the socio-political and geographic conditions, as well as work culture and team personnel. I was stunned to hear about the challenges in Labuan Bajo. I had only heard they needed to organize and arrange their schedule for the next MB event. Apparently, our meeting in person with Aden and Marto, the reps from Labuan Bajo, provided to us a clear picture of what they are going through. The tourism industry, which is currently being promoted by the government with the luxurious infrastructures built in Labuan Bajo, raises the awareness and needs of the people.

During the warm and slow session, I also questioned, “How long will MB continue to test its format, review every process and repeatedly discuss it, the management that keeps changing, and what about the efforts to learn about artistic practices and artworks that are reputedly unartistic?”. After an intense conversation, my questions were answered by shared acceptance that the artistic practices on MB remain, perchance, the eternal question.

It becomes eternal because every element in MB is always new, and becomes a first experience for each person, starting from the artists and the team, to the artworks produced through the biennale. Moreover, the characteristics of the problems and dynamics in each location motivate MB to continue inventing formats and tests all possibilities. Also, the biennale’s ambition to work more with grassroots initiatives further puts the artistic as the secondary question.

In 2023, we want to try an alternative organizing model in which each city chooses their own curator. If previously, each city team acted as a producer, this time they are encouraged to be the initiator. I myself have no idea what MB will be like next year. But I want to be optimistic by quoting Jimpe’s words, “Through the visual arts method, it feels critical to bring out joy (and maybe something called hope) among the people of Makassar.” Hopefully.


  1. Arsuka, Nirwan Ahmad. 2019. Makassar Biennale: Menuju Tanah Suci Maritim/Makassar Biennale: Towards the Holy Land of Maritime. In Makassar Biennale 2019, pp. VII-IX. Makassar Biennale Foundation: Makassar.
  2. Artefact.id. Dr. Hilmar Farid’s at the Makassar Biennale 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sNwDFNYx-Q accessed on July 28, 2022, at 17.00 GMT+8.
  3. Dalay, Fitriani A. 2022. Gerbong yang Melaju ke Timur/The Carriage Going East. In the Makassar Biennale 2021 Catalog Maritim: Sekapur Sirih/Maritime: An Introduction, pp. 16-27.  Makassar Biennale Foundation: Makassar
  4. Lawrence Blair & Lorne Blair, Ring of Fire, Indonesia dalam Lingkaran Api/Ring of Fire, Indonesia in a Circle of Fire, Ufuk Press, 2012, in Anwar Jimpe Rachman, Makassar Biennale dan Proyeksi-Proyeksinya/Makassar Biennale and Its Projections. Makassar Biennale Symposium 2019, p. 35. Makassar Biennale Foundation: Makassar.
  5. Newsletter Wallace, Makassar Biennale 2015 Trajectory. 2021.https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QVAJSWsnZhP6khJcy8aM4aPLSFyhL7x0/view accessed on July 16, 2022, at 13.00 GMT+8.
  6. Rachman, Anwar Jimpe. 2017. Makassar Biennale 2017 Medan Perluasan Wacana Maritim/The Expansion Domain of Maritime Discourse. Makassar Biennale 2017: “Maritim”, p. 4-6. Makassar Biennale Foundation: Makassar.
  7. Rafsanjani, Pengalaman Seni Tiga Biennale di Indonesia/Three Biennale Art Experiences in Indonesia. 2020. https://artefact.id/2020/07/08/experience-seni-tiga-biennale-di-indonesia/ accessed on July 17, 2022, at 12.00 WITA.
  8. Salam, Wilda Yanti. 2022. Yang Dekat Yang Memberi Harap/The Close One Who Gives Hope. Makassar Biennale 2021 Catalog “Maritim: Sekapur Sirih/Maritime: An Introduction”, p. 40-49. Makassar Biennale Foundation: Makassar.
  9. Salam, Wilda Yanti. 2022. Tumbuh Melangkahi Kebingungan/Growing Overhead Confusion. In “Menghampiri Kebudayaan: Sebuah Sorotan Kritis Perihal Kolektivitas Seni dan Solidaritas/Approaching Culture: A Critical Highlight on Art Collectivity and Solidarity”, p. 311-321. East Java Biennale IX and Nyala Publishers.
  10. Salam, Wilda Yanti. 2019. Unjuk Rasa Warisan Nenek/Performing Grandmother's Legacy. https://makassarbiennale.org/unjuk-rasa-warisan-grandmother/ accessed on July 16, 2022, at 16.50 GMT+8.
  11.  Meicieza, Regina Sweetly. 2022. Membangun Akuntabilitas LSM di Indonesia Timur (Studi Kasus Lembaga Tanahindie Dalam Program Pra-Event Makassar Biennale 2020)/Building NGO Accountability in Eastern Indonesia (Case Study of Tanahindie Institutions in the 2020 Makassar Biennale Pre-Event Program).Hasanuddin University:Makassar.
For more information on the Makassar Biennale, click here.
This article was co-edited by Nabilah Said and Theodara Agni. The original article, written in Bahasa Indonesia, was translated into  English by Theodara Agni. The article is published as part of the inaugural AE x Goethe-Institut Critical Writing Micro-Residency 2021/2022. Read more about the programme and the six resident writers here.
Theodora Agni is an independent arts manager and primarily working as a residency manager. She is based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Her practice is inspired by the role of the dramaturg as an intermediary and multitasker.

About the author(s)

Wilda Yanti Salam
Wilda Yanti Salam is a writer and researcher living in Makassar. Currently working in Tanahindie. In 2021, She is working as an assistant curator for the Makassar Biennale 2021 and participated in Residency MARANTAU and wrote Jurnal Setoples Ramuan Pengawetan, a book containing research notes on arts-culture through exploring taste.
My social media account: @whildays (Instagram) dan @Wilda Yanti Salam (Facebook)

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