Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, January 2001)

Jakarta's Finest

My valve slams shut when I have Jakartan friends at home and my Australian house-guests talk like bigots, about Islam and Jakarta politics. "You cut off your women's hands," they scream, as my dainty decorator guests recoil in horror. "Who are all these people??" they seem to cry. Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression here: I too believe that the politicians and generals responsible for the tragedy of East Timor and the destruction of the rainforests, should not be denied their rightful place in the history books, but this should not include putting the boot-in to the general populace. Some of my best friends are Jakartans. They are generally hysterical, fiercely nationalistic and possessing of a keen wit (particularly in their local patois, Bahasa Prokem, which is like Eddy Murphy doing homeboy talk, without the wild gesticulations). In fact Jakartans hands are generally to the side, or as far away from their chequebooks or wallets as possible. They are understandably "chippy" about the 350 years of colonial occupation and, as educated modern urbanites, quite unbelieving when expats carry on with the "them" and "us" talk. This month was a normal month for Jakarta: The Justice Department and Tommy Soeharto's private army had a standoff in the labyrinthine passages under Menteng; the American Embassy was besieged by religious fanatics; the Foreign Affairs listed Australia as a "country in conflict" and, to the horror of the Balinese, threatened to revoke Australia's visa-free status (a move my demented sister journal the BALI NUSRA seems to condone). Meanwhile le tout Jakarta flies out to Central Java for batik empressario Iwan Tirta's fashion spectacular at the stately Hamengku Buwono palace. Now read on:

29 October 2000: Jakarta International Airport.
In the departure lounge I meet my Turkish friend Çetin Candan who is escorting Jakartan Supermodel Oki Asokawati (it means "Myrna Loy" in Indonesian) to Jogjakarta. Miss Asokawati looks like Sharon Stone in 'Casino': big bouffant hair, pale blue holster top, seven layers of pearls, hot orange flares and pink Manolo Blahnik snakeskin mules with Concorde nose tips. DROP DEAD GORGEOUS. Gliding along the airport corridors she is recognized by everyone-even the X-Ray machine man wants her autograph. She is gracious and courteous, like the Duchess of Kent at Wimbledon. There's definitely something about Oki Asokawati. On the plane the cabin crew are ecstatic: " I'm her bule," I offer, meekly, as they slam the custard puff down onto my tray. "Oki" I ask "I saw you on Hawaiian Seniors 27 years ago and yesterday at the launch of General Wiranto's "Love Songs" C-D and you haven't aged a day. What is your beauty secret?". "Nivea" she said "and Garuda's custard puffs". What a hoot. o o o Later that night I drive with old chums Asmoro Damais and Warwick Purser to the Hamengku Buwono palace for the fashion spectacular and 19th century court dance. As we drive from Tembi village to the palace we marvel at the charm of rural Java, where they even have roads without artshops and views to the rice fields and rivers. House walls are low and perforated in a nice not a nasty way; deco buildings are from the 1930s and the palace is not a hotel. We arrive just in time to hear the Sultan's address. He is kind about Iwan Tirta (the maestro of the evening who is quietly having pups in the models' tent) and loving about his wife HRH Kanjeng Ratu Hemas (whose birthday it is). He tells the crowd that "he hopes he can continue serving his people: We love Hamengku Buwono X because he looks like a matinee idol and behaves like a benevolent monarch. His palace is definitely the best preserved in Indonesia -its ornate pavilions and magical courtyards an extraordinary backdrop for the night's events. First comes the rarely performed Bedoyo Amurwabhumi dance, created by Hamengku Buwono IX. Iwan Tirta has made the costumes: Javanese palace " bridal costumes", in white and gold Dodot alas-alas batik, he explains. The Javanese gamelan music for the start of the Bedoyo dance sounds like a regimental march from "Ghurkas get yer ya-yas out ": part Dutch, part ancient Hindu-Javanese. The dancers weave, waft and waddle in sinewy synchronization-nothing is as sinuous and seductive as Javanese dance. The 300 strong audiences are in a near trance state by the end of the dance ritual and then "Bang" the fashion fiesta begins. Ten feisty models, lean and mean, work the catwalk, chiffon batik shawls billowing in the clouds of incense de l'orient. (see photos above centre and top left). Miss Asokawati appears at the end of each 'wave' with Dietrich-like lighting and solemnity. She is our diva. Next come the disco boys, tits bigger than the girls, in brilliant batik blouses. The male models are all from Semarang, the north coast capital more known for prawn crackers than high fashion. A city definitely on the up and up in the male model league. The finale is living treasure Iwan Tirta's latest collection-a triumph of Javanese feminity, international style and traditional elegance. The models are wearing jewels from the palace collection-all made by the silversmiths of Kota Gede. Women's dresses (leisurewear, day dresses and ball gowns) and men's wear were created by young Indonesian designers from Jakarta, namely: Chossy Latu (women's wear), Samuel Wattimena (men's wear), Edward Hutabarat (traditional sarongs and blouses/kebaya's), and Andre Rais (men's wear).

6 November 2000: Ganesha Gallery: the gallery celebrates its fifth anniversary with a stunning show of modernist sculptures by Indonesian artist Pintor Sirait.
In a recent interview in World Sculpture News Pintor Sirait said: "Does modern mean western? And what does "traditional" actually mean in reality?. With these questions in mind, it is really difficult to define contemporary to define contemporary Indonesian art. His collection tonight proves that he's resolving this dilemma. With titles like "re-engaging" and "half-caste" the artist's work forces its attention upon one(see photos opposite page, bottom left and right). Traditional motifs-batik, native boats, essentials of urbanism (keys, chains etc.)-are composed in a striking and appealing way. His blends of metal-work, timber and photography are particularly successful. At the launch I meet Dayu Suci of Supa Dupa Incense Co., daughter of the late, great Pedanda Dawan of Iseh. She is chatting to my chum Ramon Alwi, son of Des Alwi of Banda fame (see photo far right, with artist Annie Kelly). We talk about the excitement of recent months in Banda (much of Des Alwi's architectural conservation work has tragically gone up in flames) and Banda's important place in world history (Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake were all looking for Banda when they bumped into other things). Sitting in Pintor's elegant installation, talking about those heroic pioneers of miscegenation, I found myself getting misty-eyed with cross-cultural passion.

17 November 2000: The Villa Bebek, Sanur for the launch of Tim Street-Porters "Tropical Houses -Living in nature in Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Java, Bali, and the coasts of Mexico and Belize".
Tim Street-Porter has been documenting tropical gorgeousness for over forty years. His first book "Living Rooms of Rock Stars" (1968) was an early foray into the exotic from which he's never really returned. His eye is both architectural and romantic-publishers, project managers and animal-lovers alike are thrilled with his sumptuous images. He writes crisply and amusingly about the houses, rooms and gardens he photographs. In a market already saturated with books on South East Asia it is refreshing to welcome a book so rich in images from Mexico, the West Indies and Sri Lanka. Congratulations Tim-you've raised the bar once again.

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