Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by viravira on 19 April 2017 • Opinion
The last few weeks have been hectic for me. After joining a bazaar as a seller, carrying my brand By Vira Tanka, just a few days later I had to have my printed drawings displayed at a spices exhibition. Both, the bazaar and the spices exhibition, were new experiences for me, so it was quite overwhelming. And that was also why I skipped my turn of writing for this blog. Mumun was also a part of the exhibition, but she only had to come at the last day as one of the speakers. A totally pro-bono event, but we were happy to be a part of it.
In years of History education in Indonesia school system, we have known that spice trade was a part of the reasons for the colonialization by the Europeans for centuries. But it seems that not a lot of us really aware that it’s the owning of spice sources and selling them that actually got us colonized at the first place. By ‘us’ here, I’m referring to Nusantara, the big area that’s dominantly become parts of Indonesia today. Mumun have written about that in this post about Spice Tour in Banda Neira, so I will just focus more on the spices exhibition.
The spices exhibition was called “Rempah & Kita”, which means “Spice & Us”, under the series of #JalurRempah (translates to #SpiceTrail) – because what’s a movement without a hashtag, right? From my understanding, it was Gelar, our dear cultural trip organizer friends, who initiated the idea to sort of advocate people, mainly Indonesians, about Indonesian history concerning the culprit, spices. In 2015 they teamed up with a few other communities and a big media company to make an exhibition on the history of spices as a “Museum Week” program.
This year, even without a big financial support from any commercial company, Gelar managed to gather volunteers and contributors to continue the program. Including moi. I mean, even though I had a pretty tight schedule, how could I say no to this awesome cause carried by such passionate and well-meaning people?
Anyhoo. This year’s theme refers more to the use of spices in our today’s life, hence the title. Of course, the history of spice trade is still incorporated in the exhibition, because there would be new visitors and sort of as a reminder to those who had visited before. But there were also sections of: Varieties of spices, Spices as food seasoning and ingredients, Spices and trade, and the sections for which I did the display drawings: Spices and health (which consisted of jamu or closely translated as herbal drinks), and Spices and pleasure (in this case consisted of sex and kretek or clove cigarettes).
I’m not a smoker, and I don’t normally talk so openly about sex. So these two topics were quite a challenge for me, in terms of references and choosing what to display. But that’s what team-working is for!
I was advised to watch the Rara Mendut movie from the ‘80s, which was an adaptation from a Javanese legend, in which a beautiful woman had to use her sensuality to sell pre-smoked kretek to gain money for paying high tax that the adipati (governor, sorta) charged her for not wanting to be his concubine. And then a book about Kretek has been lying around at home, borrowed from my husband’s office, was also a good source of references, textually and visually.
For the spices and sex part, I needed a little more time to decide how sensual I was supposed to make the display. I was afraid there would be too much nudity or vulgarity, but at the same time I needed to make the display grab enough attention for visitors to read the captions. Having that said, I needn’t to worry so much about the content, because we had experts in discussions and sharing sessions. The drawings on the walls were more as illustrations.
Having said that, I found the research to be equally fun as the drawing part. It added much to my knowledge and understanding of spices and its applications, though I know there is still sooo much more I haven’t known about. It sure adds a new destination in my travel wish list: Kudus, a small town in Central Java popular with its many cigarette factories, more specifically I’d love to visit Gunung dan Klapa factory simply because of the odd name (translates to Mountain and Coconut) and their old iconic badge, that is if it still exists.
I wasn’t the only one from Indohoy that was having fun in the project. Being a spice history enthusiast, Mumun gladly contributed as a speaker in the session of “Exploring the Spice Country”. She, together with Mbak Ratih from Gelar, shared their experiences about exploring the east part of Indonesia, namely Banda Neira Island, in search of Indonesian spice history, which also means the history of Indonesia itself. “There wouldn’t be Indonesia if there were no nutmeg in Banda Island,” Mumun said. Sharp and true.
The spices exhibition was held in Kota Tua (Old City), the oldest part of Jakarta. The gallery is exactly on the 2nd floor of the Post Office, which isn’t a very popular gallery. Honestly I had doubt that we’d get enough visitors to call it a success, but boy was I glad to be wrong! Fatahillah Square, the park in front of the Post Office, is always lively with people and their activities, moreover in the weekends. So we had at least some curious tourists coming in.
Plus, Gelar had managed to have speakers with their own fans, community, or simply supporting friends. The “Spice and Design” workshop session was also a magnet to young visitors, coming in a a short field trip still in their school uniforms. So it’s safe to say that the gallery was never empty of visitors!
With that as a fact, I hope #JalurRempah has actually added knowledge and awareness to its visitors. Even better, I hope it has sparked curiosity to find out more about our “hidden treasure” in any way they can.