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Agustinus Wibowo: Making peace with identities

Dina Indrasafitri
Dina Indrasafitri

The Jakarta Post

Alice Springs | Mon, July 17, 2017 | 02:02 pm
Agustinus Wibowo: Making peace with identities

Book talk: Author and photographer Agustinus Wibowo speaks at the Northern Territory Writers’ Festival (NTWF), Australia. (Oliver Eclipse/File)

Visiting Australia for the fourth time, this time for the Northern Territory Writers’ Festival (NTWF), writer and photographer Agustinus Wibowo was immediately charmed by the strong presence of indigenous culture there.

He was determined to find out more about it by visiting culturally significant places for indigenous Australians and asking them possibly hundreds of questions about their “dreaming” — an important concept covering, among other things, the knowledge, beliefs and stories belonging to indigenous Australians.

“When I went there, the weather was nice and I was amazed by the amount of ornaments related to the lives of Aborigines at the airport,” he recalled of his arrival in the desert town. So intrigued was he that he decided to extend his stay in the town by a few days by rescheduling his flight to Darwin, where he was slated to meet and engage in discussions with fellow writers.

Read also: 15 emerging writers selected for Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2017

The third reason behind his prolonged stay in Alice Springs was the theme of the festival itself: Iwerre-atherre, in Aboriginal Arrentre language, or “Crossings” in English.

“Two paths that meet but do not block or stop each other — I think that is a very deep contemplation about two identities,” Agustinus said.

“Identities within me that once clashed, but now have made peace with each other — and I consider them to be identities crossing with each other.”

Growing up in New Order Indonesia with a father with a strong affiliation with Chinese culture and the mainland, Agustinus experienced many contradictions, such as being forced to study Chinese covertly behind lock doors to avoid repercussions from the then discriminative government; and finding out that he in fact did not have Indonesian citizenship when he was trying to obtain an Indonesian passport.

Read also: Your struggle is ours too: Chinese-Indonesian community's role in Indonesian independence movement

“The conflict within me was immense, then, because these two nations were against each other,” he said, referring to Indonesia and China.

“I had to adopt an identity, but that identity rejected the other one. There was always a war between the two within me.”

But China ended up playing a huge role in his adult life, particularly in his choice to become a journalist.

The stories in Agustinus’ journey have been told in three books since: Selimut Debu (A Blanket of Dust), Garis Batas (Borderlines) and Titik Nol: Makna Sebuah Perjalanan (Ground Zero: When Journey Takes You Home).The stories in Agustinus’ journey have been told in three books since: Selimut Debu (A Blanket of Dust), Garis Batas (Borderlines) and Titik Nol: Makna Sebuah Perjalanan (Ground Zero: When Journey Takes You Home). (Kompas Gramedia/File)

Touched by the resilience of the survivors of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh and fueled by a hunger to see the world, more than 10 years ago Agustinus, who was studying computer technology in China, decided to undertake the hefty task of embarking on an overland trip from Beijing to South Africa, although at that time his journey ended with him staying in Afghanistan for three years.

The stories in Agustinus’ journey have been told in three books since: Selimut Debu (A Blanket of Dust), Garis Batas (Borderlines) and Titik Nol: Makna Sebuah Perjalanan (Ground Zero: When Journey Takes You Home).

Although he started out in journalism as a photographer, Agustinus, who is currently working on a book exploring the concept of borders, found that lately his role had been more of that of a travel writer.

In fact, it was mostly in this capacity that he was invited to Alice Springs as the first writer brought from overseas to attend the NT Writers’ Festival (NTWF) in that town.

The NTWF is held alternately between Alice Springs and Darwin, with the latter having seen a number of Indonesian guest speakers, including Eka Kurniawan, author of Beauty is a Wound.

Read also: Australia-Indonesia cultural relationship: Those who shaped our critical mind

Paired with Alice Springs journalist Glenn Morrison, Agustinus spoke at the Alice Springs Library about his physical and psychological journeys, his fascination with borders and the current political happenings in Indonesia.

Despite only having a few days to stay in Alice Springs, he used as much free time he had to find out as much as he could about Australia’s indigenous people.

He witnessed a smoking ceremony, visited the Akeyulerre Healing Centre, where he picked herbs with female elders, explored the Emily Gap landscape — famous for its Aboriginal rock art — with indigenous traditional owners and consulted a number of experts and elders about the meaning of “dreaming” and “songlines” — two important concepts in Aboriginal culture.

At first, Agustinus recalled, he was confused about the term “dreaming” when he was exposed to it during one of the sharing sessions at the festival. After all, he thought, what was so important about a dream someone had?

“I think Australians take for granted that people know what ‘dreaming’ means,” he said, “At first I did not understand what it meant, I thought it was just a dream, but here I discovered that dreaming has a meaning that is even deeper than an origin story.”

Agustinus said he had never experienced any other festival in Australia with so much involvement by Aborigines, or any other festival with a deeper indigenous perspective.

“We are not only guest speakers here. We can hear the spirit of the land — the voice of the land.”