POST D- May riots 98 told through Chinese Whispers

Throughout my research I came across an installation-based performance artwork called Chinese Whispers by Rani Pramesti. Similarly to other current contemporary Indonesian artists, the work confronts aspects of Indonesian history that deals with migration, discrimination and racially fuelled violence. The artwork investigates a part of Indonesian history by giving voice to Chinese-Indonesian women and investigating ethnolocality within Jakarta and surrounding cities. These stories are interconnected with the notion of spatial scales relating to the development and definition of ones identity. “Ethnolocality…a term I coin to name a spatial scale where ‘ethnicity’ and ‘locality’ presume each other to the extent that they are, in essence, a single concept.” (Boellstorff, 2015). This concept of ethnolocality is provoking when set alongside Chinese Whispers, as the artist states upon reflection of her experience of the May 1998 riots, “that was the first time when I realised for the first time in my life, that in the eyes of many, I was not Indonesian, but rather, Chinese” (Pramesti, 2014). The Chinese-Indonesian population according to the 2010 census accounts for 1.2% of the population of Indonesia, researchers say this number is potentially much higher as many Indonesians are reluctant to admit they are of Chinese decent as they fear discrimination, only in 2000 was a law revoked that forbade Chinese cultural performances and the use of Chinese names. Pramesti investigates how discrimination and fear can caused a confusion of identity.

Rani Pramesti within her installation space 'Chinese Whispers' 2014
Image 1: Rani Pramesti within her installation space ‘Chinese Whispers’ 2014

The installation is based around moving through a maze in pairs wearing headphones that play interviews with Chinese-Indonesian women.  The whispered interviews demonstrates the hushed fear of the Chinese-Indonesian women to speak and understand the May Riots, the installation attempting to open up conversations about race, identity and violence in Indonesia. The installation is also multi-layered as it is held in Melbourne, not only confronting the multi-dimensional identities of the women as Chinese and Indonesian, but also as migrants of Australia. Parallels can be drawn with the ethos and work of Ruangrupa, a group of artists in Jakarta whose main priority is to identify the “lack of space in Indonesia for artists who want to collaborate with the public, unmediated by the political parties or art dealers” (Crosby, 2008). Indonesia presents an interesting backdrop to artistic exploration of particular voices and stories as its past and present is infused with layers of political, social, economic and racial complications, disallowing for a particular voice or story to be heard or even developed over a corrupt government and the layers of cultural and social identities interfused within each other. This highlights the importance of an open and democratic art scene in Indonesia, “art has social and cultural functions whose ‘products’ are truth, reality, and ‘the making of our own history” (Crosby, 2008). Indonesia’s art community attempts to piece together a multitude of histories and realities, connecting with the varied and multifaceted history of Indonesia in an attempt to understand the past and where the country is headed in the future.

Youtube video, an account of the May 1998 riots, contextualising the chaos and confusion of the event in history.

  1. Boellstorf, T. 2006 ‘Ethnolocality’ in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 3:1, 24-48, DOI:
  2. Pramesti, R. 2014 ‘Chinese Whispers: the art of reflection’ in Inside Indonesia, Oct-Dec, viewed April 27
  3. Crosby, A. 2008 ‘Ruangrupa: Mapping a collective biography’ Gang re:public : Indonesia-Australia creatice adventures, Gang Inc., Newtown, NSW, pp. 129-134
  4. Image 1: <; viewed 27th April
  5. YouTube Clip: <; viewed 1st May

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