The Japan Foundation Asia Center carries out
mutual exchange programs and cooperative work
between the people of Asian countries and regions.


SENO JOKO SUYONO & SAMANTHA LEE――Performing Arts Journalism in the Philippines and Indonesia

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews with and conference presentations by professionals whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works with through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Indonesia: Tempo magazine

Fujiwara Chikara (hereinafter Fujiwara): I look forward to talking with both of you today, and am intrigued by your backgrounds. Although I work in different countries in Asia, I cannot say I am fully familiar with the performing arts scene in various regions. I suspect the reality is that other Japanese artists or journalists also only have limited knowledge on what is happening in the field across Asia.

Today, I would like to ask you about the state of journalism in the Philippines and Indonesia as it relates to performing arts. I am merely interested in your personal views as I understand that you cannot fully represent your respective countries, in the same way I cannot represent all of Japan.

Seno Joko Suyono (hereinafter Seno): I am the editor for a magazine called Tempo. It mainly covers political content, but I am managing editor for the performing arts division, and publish related articles on a weekly basis. The magazine looks like this [flips through some pages of the magazine]. This is a 12-page article I wrote on Sardono Kusumo, a famous dancer and choreographer in Indonesia. The article covers a retrospective exhibition of his works to date held at the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Fujiwara: That is a substantial article!

Seno: Tempo sets aside a large number of pages for its arts and culture column. Since Indonesia does not have dedicated art magazines, we have no choice but to allocate page space to the arts and culture in general-type magazines like this.
Among other personal activities, I am also active as the curator for the Indonesian Dance Festival (IDF), and I write articles about all of its dance performances.

Fujiwara: Around which period did you start writing articles for Tempo?

Seno: I started roughly twenty years ago. The bulk of the articles I write are about performing arts, but I also cover visual arts. I also write articles on traditional art, but my focus is writing about contemporary art.

Seno Joko Suyono

Fujiwara: I have heard that the arts and culture scene in Indonesia is split between Jakarta and Yogyakarta. Is that true?

Seno: This is indeed the case, Yogyakarta is smaller in size than Jakarta so there is a closer relationship among artists. Indonesia's art colleges are spread across three cities. Jakarta has the Institut Kesenian Jakarta [Jakarta Institute of the Arts], Yogyakarta has the Institut Seni Indonesia [Indonesian Institute of the Arts] Yogyakarta, and Bandung has an art department at the Institut Teknologi Bandung [Bandung Institute of Technology].

Fujiwara: So, I assume Tempo covers art activities held in those three cities, right?

Seno: Tempo covers the entire nation of Indonesia. Its coverage is not limited to the Java Island, the Bali Island, or the Kalimantan Island.

Fujiwara: I see…. In Japan, for example, major works of contemporary arts are mostly created in Tokyo, and related information has also been skewed toward Tokyo for a long period of time. Although it is true that there are other cities, such as Kyoto, the idea that arts and culture can originate from different locations has yet to fully take shape. With that said, the seeds for such a trend appear to be present.

Seno: Of course, the tendency for arts and culture to centralize in certain locations can also be found in Indonesia. For contemporary art, in particular, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Bandung are the three major hubs.

The Philippines: The Rise of Online Media

Fujiwara: Moving on to you, Samantha, the first question I would like to ask you is what your main occupation is.

Samantha Lee (hereinafter Samantha): I am an independent film director, and also work as a multimedia editor for CNN Philippines. However, my work is heavily geared toward online media, and I have little involvement in print media. Articles on art in the Philippines still mostly appear in traditional paper-based media such as newspapers and magazines. This is because Filipinos still enjoy traditional art such as paintings, sculptures, theater, and dance.

Unlike Seno, I do not have twenty years of experience in the media field. I have been involved in online media for just two years now. But although I am still young, the same can be said about online journalism as a medium, and I believe the current era provides an opportunity for this relatively young format to be increasingly noticed.

For example, I see that your PC carries a KARNABAL Festival (community art festival held in Manila, Philippines) sticker.

Chikara Fujiawara's laptop with the KARNABAL sticker
Chikara Fujiawara's laptop with the KARNABAL sticker

Fujiwara: That is right. I have participated in the KARNABAL since 2015.

Samantha: I have a personal interest in progressive festivals such as KARNABAL, and I post articles on such content online. As you know, new trends such as KARNABAL are difficult to cover in print media. But journalists like me can post articles about it using various media formats. I do not believe the distinction between print media and the Internet is negative per se. This is because the people who watch contemporary shows tend to access online media rather than print media in the first place. Have you seen Battalia Royale by JK Anicoche (art director for KARNABAL)?

Fujiwara: I have seen video footage several times. All characters have their own Facebook page, so this is indeed an art project that lends itself toward online media.

Samantha: Yes. But if this was covered in a magazine, people may not have much interest in it. For that reason, it is important to deliver information in a format that meets the needs of people.

Fujiwara: I see. Would it be accurate to say that in the Philippines, traditional art is generally discussed in print media and contemporary art in online media? Is there such a clear dividing line?

Samantha: While there is no gap in terms of the covered themes or topics, I feel people who use online media have access to a wider range of options. For example, when I want to find out the political opinions of a specific candidate, print media will only carry the information that is actually printed. But online media will provide a wide range of choices, from which I can choose what I want to read. This is the difference with print media. Online media is a more democratic platform, in my opinion.

Fujiwara: In Japan, print media for a long time held a monopoly over information, but it is evident that this state of affairs has changed significantly.

Samantha: I believe the same can be said about the Philippines. I also handle video content, and when I conduct interviews for KARNABAL, I do not transcribe them into text but rather capture everything on video. Explaining performing arts concepts in writing can be difficult.

Samantha Lee

Language Selection when Writing

Fujiwara: My next question is for Seno. I assume Tempo is a paper-based magazine. Is that correct? In Japan, the perception that paper-based magazines are more authoritative has existed for a long time. What is the situation in Indonesia?

Seno: In Indonesia, online media has gradually risen in status by virtue of its convenience. Tempo is operated based on three axes: newspaper, magazine, and digital. I write articles for all three media formats, but the long articles dealing with art criticism are published in the magazine version of Tempo.

Fujiwara: Is Tempo written entirely in Indonesian?

Seno: Yes. However, some articles are translated into English.

Fujiwara: Turning to you, Samantha, do you use Tagalog (or Filipino) when writing? Or do you write in English?

Samantha: I write in English.

Fujiwara: English is an official language of the Philippines, but I believe the country has many local languages. Is that right? For example, I have heard that Filipino artists who are fluent in English still switch to Tagalog when they want to express emotion, and therefore use a mixture of both languages.
If that is the case, I wonder if Filipino people still feel an emotional barrier when it comes to English. What do you think?

Samantha: If you go back in our history, you will see that our education system was built by the Americans. This is because the Philippines was colonized by the United States. Accordingly, I feel English is generally perceived as a medium for academics, whereas Filipino or Tagalog are used to express oneself. When performing, artists almost exclusively use Filipino. However, when discussing and analyzing works of art, we use English. This is because English is perceived as more academic and formal.

Filipino is only spoken in Manila and its surrounding regions, and if you head south, for example, you will notice that different languages are used. All regions have their own songs in their own language and theatrical performances also use the local language. The Philippines is really made up of a large number of regions, and each region has its own unique language. For that reason, the best way to convey your thoughts in various regions, whether in print media or online media, is to use English.

Samantha Lee and Seno Joko Suyono at the Asia Hundreds interview

Fujiwara: Indonesia is also divided into multiple islands. What is the language environment like?

Seno: The performing arts, in particular, mostly use Indonesian. Of course, you can also find performances created in local languages. For example, Sundanese is used in the Sunda region. But Indonesian is understood by all Indonesians, from Sumatra to Papua.
Actually, there is a project that assembled about fifteen Indonesian actors in Toyama Prefecture (Toga Village), where Tadashi Suzuki resides,*1 to create a theater play. I was dispatched to the site, and heard that Mr. Suzuki requested the actors to speak in their local language (Batak actors speaking Batak languages, Javanese actors speaking Javanese, and Balinese actors speaking Balinese).

*1 Dionysus, based on the original text of Euripides, adapted and directed by Tadashi Suzuki. International co-production between SCOT (Suzuki Company of Toga) and the actors from Indonesia, organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center and SCOT.

Personal Exchange Among Nations

Fujiwara: Samantha, I have heard that you were active in Australia before. Is there vibrant exchange between Australia and the Philippines?

Samantha: Although I would not say there is much official exchange between the two nations, there may be some personal exchange among people in the form of friendship relationships. For example, I first met JK Anicoche in Melbourne. He held a performance of Battalia Royale in the city. I heard that people who met him there subsequently visited him in the Philippines.

Fujiwara: I see. Rather than an official relationship between the two nations, international exchange is developing at a more personal level. That seems to be the case in many countries. Incidentally, both Australia and the Philippines have English as an official language. And in terms of religion as well, the Philippines is largely Christian with the exception of a substantial Muslim population on Mindanao Island in the southern part of the Philippines. I assume the common religion makes it easier for both countries to connect?

Chikara Fujiwara

Samantha: That is true, but I believe the cultures of both countries are very different. I believe Australian culture leans more toward European and American culture, while the Filipino culture has a stronger Asian influence (as exemplified by the importance of family) and is more conservative. For that reason, when Australian performers visit the Philippines and do not adjust their performance to factor in specific cultural nuances of the audience, they will not get a favorable reception. Conversely, if a mainstream Filipino play or performance is held in Australia, it will likely be perceived by the local audience as overly traditional and conservative. Accordingly, even though we share a language and religion there is a large gap in the cultural DNA of both nations.

Common areas are limited to the underground and alternative scenes. For example, the version of Battalia Royale that I watched in Manila was based on the emotion of the producer. It had many people being killed and crying on stage, and was distinguished by an intense acting performance. However, the version I watched in Melbourne was more down-to-earth with little violence, and the focus was not so much on emotion but on the dissemination of information. It was a very different performance.

Fujiwara: On the subject of cross-border relations, what is the situation like between Indonesia and the Philippines? They have a different religion, but is there vibrant exchange in the contemporary art scenes of both countries?

Samantha: I believe such exchange may occur as a result of this interview [laughs].

Seno: Haha [laughs]. I believe there may still be more exchange between Japan and Indonesia at present. For example, in the field of theater, there are people such as Hiroshi Koike, Tadashi Suzuki, and Makoto Sato. In addition, there are a large number of Japanese dancers who are participating in collaboration projects in Indonesia.

Samantha: I personally believe that there must be common points or similarities between the Philippines and Indonesia in some of their dance or theater forms. However, I do not know how successful collaboration can be achieved. Simply performing side by side will not add much in the form of change.

 From right: Seno Joko Suyono, Samantha Lee, and Chikara Fujiwara during the Asia Hundreds interview

Impact of Religion and Politics on the Art Scene

Fujiwara: Could you tell me a little bit about the impact of religion?

Seno: Religion has a major impact on art in Indonesia. Traditional art, in particular, is rooted in local religion and faith.

Fujiwara: Does religion restrict how people express themselves?

Seno: This has become a social problem in recent years with the rise in power of Islamic fundamentalists. For example, they tend to criticize movies about communism and are against homosexuality. This was unheard of before the fundamentalists arrived on the scene. To give just one concrete example, a certain group assassinated a large number of communists in 1965 (September 30 incident), and when a movie about this topic was slated to be screened in the small city of Malang, Islamic fundamentalists threatened the organizers and ultimately forced them to cancel the screening. According to the Islamic fundamentalists, the movie showed communism in a favorable light.

Fujiwara: The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a problem around the world, but is it discussed much in Indonesia?

Seno: Although their numbers are still small in Indonesia, they frequently stage protests and, in this sense, have become a social problem.

Fujiwara: I believe Tempo is precisely a publication that handles political content. Are its readers well-versed in political issues?

Seno: Yes, our readers have an interest in politics, and Tempo enjoys a reputation for being a reference source for political opinions.

Seno Joko Suyono

Fujiwara: Do the performing and visual arts in Indonesia cover contemporary politics?

Seno: That is sort of the case, yes. I cover such topics in Tempo as well. However, I write many articles that are not directly related to politics.

Fujiwara: What is it like in the Philippines? For example, do you see the situation in the southern Mindanao Island as a concern? Davao City, located in the center of Mindanao Island, is the home of current President Duterte, and when he was Mayor of the city, he ruled with an iron hand, and that contributed to public peace and order. However, I have heard that visiting other areas of Mindanao Island is still dangerous, even today. (After this interview was conducted, a massive battle was fought between government army forces and Islamic fundamentalists in May 2017, leading to a declaration of martial law for the entire island.) On the arts and culture side as well, I assume there must be a considerable difference between Mindanao Island and Manila.

Samantha: That is true. You mentioned before that Tokyo is the center of the art world in Japan. Although I have not spent much time in the southern areas of the Philippines, I have the distinct impression that art is nearly entirely produced in the capital of Manila. However, I cannot give you a definite assessment. For example, various regions shoot their own films, and these hardly ever get screened in Manila. Perhaps the difference in language has something to do with it.

Fujiwara: How about the performing arts?

Samantha: I know there are theatrical plays that are produced in southern regions, but very few become big enough in Manila to be covered in the media. This is probably also the result of gaps in information related to arts and culture by region, and the fact that artists lack sufficient funds to travel is also a problem. This probably explains why there is little art coming out of regional areas.

Fujiwara: Are there political or religious pressures in the Philippines that curtail freedom of speech?

Samantha: Not to a great extent. However, because the performance arts are not considered part of the mainstream by nearly all media, they do not appear on their radar in the first place. You will not find them on TV or in movies either. That is why the government is unconcerned about them. Just last week, a play about martial law under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was performed again. The play alluded to the current state of politics. But nobody touches upon this topic, and nobody is being restrained. The authorities are simply not aware of the performance. In a sense, it is a good thing not to get caught in censorship. This gives all plays the freedom to be performed. However, if such plays gained a wider audience and attracted media attention, the government would most likely order them to be shut down.

 Samantha Lee

Fujiwara: The Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte as their current president in May 2016. He is a highly controversial figure that is alleged to have killed a large number of people in the name of fighting a war on drugs. I believe the play you just mentioned, Samantha, takes a critical stance toward the Duterte administration which organized a hero's burial for the former dictator Marcos.
I feel that the assessment of President Duterte by Filipinos is far from simple but highly complicated. What is the reaction among the Filipino artists and journalists?

Samantha: Historically speaking, the 1970s are often referred to as the golden age for Filipino art. This period coincided with the peak of the martial law established by Marcos, and was a time when all artists produced art in reaction to the political landscape. Duterte assumed actual power in June of last year, so less than a year has passed since. At present, I believe people are also interpreting art as a reaction to the political climate based on our history—particularly the Marcos dictator era—and I feel that artists are actually producing that kind of art. In other words, the type of art is at the same time a pragmatic reaction to current developments as well as a continuation of longstanding historical tradition.

More specifically, there is a trend to revive older movies from the 1970s, dramatize them, or use their music. For example, a screening of the documentary film Forbidden Memory covering the Mindanao Island massacre by Marcos was held in Manila in November 2016. The documentary had been suppressed by Marcos, and was shown to the public for the first time. However, two to three weeks later, President Duterte organized a hero's burial for the former dictator.

In other words, we already have certain elements that make us feel as if history is repeating itself, which is certainly not a positive thing. Now, we just need to figure out how to channel these into art.

Fujiwara: Marcos' estate is another element that has complicated the history of Filipino arts and culture. I heard that Imelda Marcos, the wife of Ferdinand Marcos, was the one who established the Philippines High School for the Arts (PHSA).

Samantha: Yes. Imelda has invested in various art-related facilities such as movie theaters and cultural centers.

Fujiwara: JK Anicoche, whom you have mentioned several times, graduated from this Filipino art school and is now working there as an instructor. In other words, the Marcos estate has served as a platform to support liberal artists, which shows the irony of history. It seems like no matter how you look at it, it is hard to separate art from politics.

The Asia Hundreds interview with Samantha Lee and Seno Joko Suyono