Rejecting the Tragedy of Violence

September 13, 2016

Anti-LGBT protest in Yogyakarta 2016. Photo credit: Arahmaiani

Anti-LGBT protest in Yogyakarta 2016. Photo credit: Arahmaiani

That afternoon, surrounding the Tugu monument in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a group of people could be seen carrying banners, chanting in a loud and menacing tone. They wore masculine-looking clothes: army camouflage jackets and Middle Eastern headwear.

This group of young men had an unfriendly appearance, and looked as if they were preparing to head to the battlefield. They were joined by other organizations, also protesting the existence of sexual minorities, of LGBTQ people. They posed on each side of the monument in a threatening manner, fists raised and hands on hips, while some held protest banners, rejecting or condemning members of LGBT groups as people with psychiatric disorders, and harmful to true believers [of Allah]. Their style and appearance signalled obvious hatred and the threat of violence, enough to make anyone feel anxious and concerned that a dangerous situation could erupt at any moment. Indeed, according to social media, they had been directly challenged by pro-LGBT activists.  Anyone who was aware of the tension would have had good cause to feel uneasy on that cloudy afternoon.

As they posed, taking photographs, occasionally shouting slogans, and raising their clenched fists into the air, I saw a young man sitting to one side by the curb. As he sat watching the scene unfold, I noticed that he was knitting! The soft yarn was being turned into a beautiful pattern. It was truly a strange, yet most impressive and inspiring, performance.

Indeed, the threat of violence and hatred had been met with a smart and apposite response — not with a macho counter-resistance, as is common in the context of Indonesian culture, but rather unexpectedly and surprisingly, in a manner that evoked the soft and the feminine, letting beauty emerge. Yet, it was at the same time confrontative in its essence, because it was contextualised through masculinity, manifest physically in the male form. This young man’s action evoked contemplation and awareness of the traditional function of the monument.


Symbolically, the monument forms a magical link between the South Sea and Mount Merapi, marking the location of the palace between the two. Philosophically, the Tugu monument depicts the coordinates of balance between feminine and masculine energy. These seemingly opposing poles are considered to be an inseparable unity. Understanding the balance between these dualities is not to choose between the two – or, in other words, not to be burdened with preconceptions of which side is to be considered the important and powerful one.

The Tugu Monument in Yogyakarta. Photo credit: Crisco 1492

The Tugu Monument in Yogyakarta. Photo credit: Crisco 1492

The monument depicts the position of “The Ruler,” located directly in the middle. It explains The Ruler’s function in the universe:  to embrace and coordinate two kinds of strength and “opposing awareness,” so they become a perfect, balanced whole. This ancient philosophy stands in contrast to the modern way of thinking, which tends to employ a linear approach and a system of binary opposites, seemingly aimed at separating opposing perspectives, as if no connection can be found between the two. When faced with opposites, there is a tendency for modern humans to encourage the choosing of one over the other. One must choose between positive and negative poles, or right and wrong. There is no understanding that the diversity of nature and life can be viewed as a form of unity. The victor is determined as right and the loser as wrong. There is no understanding of the truth as something that stems from a deep and sage wisdom.

The monument, which was built in 1755 by the first ruler of Yogyakarta, Sultan Hamengku Buwono I during the colonial period, can no longer be understood in accordance with the philosophical ideas of the time. It was knocked down by an earthquake in 1867 and rebuilt in its current form by the colonial authorities. The Sultan used to orient himself in the right direction for meditation by aligning with the position of the monument. Its original name, Golong-gilig, refers to its domed-top which rests on a cylinder. When it was rebuilt, the name was then changed to Tugu Pal Putih, the Indonesian translation of the Dutch, De White Paal, or White Pole Monument.

In recent times, the discrimination and stigmatization of minorities has intensified significantly. Some government officials, politicians, and religious leaders of mass organizations have issued statements rejecting such groups, labelling them as suffering from mental disorders. For instance, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission has imposed a discriminatory regulation against transgender people, forbidding men from appearing in makeup, or from wearing ornaments traditionally worn by women.

This discrimination prompts the question: What in fact is really happening, given that these minority groups have existed in Indonesia for a long time and their presence has not caused the reaction it does now? Why has this issue suddenly captured everyone’s attention, and in such a way that it detracts from far more important issues, such as the weakening of the authority of the Commission Against Corruption, the lack of follow-up on high profile corruption cases such as “papa minta saham,” the 1965 activists’ lawsuit against the New Order government for human rights violations (which has yet to receive an appropriate response), or the improper handling of recent massive forest fires which destroyed millions of hectares of land?

The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission regulation is not just discriminatory, but it also lacks any appreciation of the Indonesian art world, in particular the world of performing arts. In Indonesia there are centuries-old traditions where it is common for men to play the part of women for certain performances. No one had ever claimed these practices to be wrong or framed them as a violation of the law, as is occurring in the present. This is a real step backwards for the cultural sector; it demonstrates a lack of civility. The inhumane treatment of minorities functions as a kind of “show and tell”, revealing a culture of violence.

Violence cannot be opposed by more violence. Even the notion is ridiculous and traps us in an unending cycle of violence, forever caught up in violent behaviour, ultimately ending in destruction. Is this the life and culture we desire and want to pass on to the next generation? Will we then blame the “Other,” claiming they are responsible and we are just the victims? Will we become so strongly convinced that the religion that we practice is a hard and cruel religion with no compassion, that we have no need to feel guilty when committing atrocities against our fellow human beings? There are many questions we must ask in this bewildering situation, amidst the confusing manipulation of cultural values. We hope, of course, that we will ultimately find relief from this tense and chaotic situation, and that it will not recreate the tragedies that we, as Indonesians, have experienced in the past. We do not need to add another dark page to our nation’s history.

This article first appeared as a translation by Suzan Piper, published in the Kompas print edition, 12 March 2016, entitled “Menolak Tragedi Kekerasan”. This version has been revised for language by Sidd Joag for ArtsEverywhere. 

Arahmaiani Feisal

ARAHMAIANI is one of the leading figures in the contemporary art scene in Indonesia, working in performance, painting, drawing, installation, video, poetry, dance and music. Her work has grappled with contemporary politics, violence, critique of capital, the female body and in recent years, her own identity, which although Muslim, still mediates between Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and animist beliefs.

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