Indonesian Agency Tries to Flex Soft Power Through Art

Indonesia is rich in commodities such as oil, gas, gold and tin, but a handful of government officials think its most powerful resources are cultural. 

They belong to a dynamic young body called the Creative Economy Agency, or BEKRAF (an acronym derived from its Indonesian name) that was created in 2015 by President Joko Widodo to promote Indonesia’s cultural output both at home and abroad.

“Oil and gas are finite resources. The only thing that lasts forever is creativity,” said Boni Pudjianto, BEKRAF’s director for international markets. 

BEKRAF’s staff was appointed meritocratically through an open call to government officers, regardless of background. Boni, for instance, has a doctorate in engineering and was posted at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology before he joined BEKRAF. 

“It’s an experimental agency,” he said. “It’s a new model for a governmental body.” 

BEKRAF wants to promote the arts of the world’s fourth largest country more effectively to a global audience.

The agency was behind Indonesia’s acclaimed pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, called “Sunyata: The Poetics of Emptiness.” It was Indonesia’s second time at the biennale, following a debut effort in 2014. This entry was overseen from start to finish by BEKRAF, from the selection of six curators to the opening ceremony on May 25. 

“Indonesia is trying to put our architecture at the same level as [that of] other countries,” said Boni, in Venice last month. “And we want to leverage this exposure on the international stage to promote the field back home.”

Key industries

BEKRAF is a “quasi-governmental institution,” according to Boni, that combines representatives of the private sector with competitively chosen government officials. 

It supports Indonesian exhibits at international fairs like Venice’s art and architecture biennales, as well as sundry fashion weeks, expos and film festivals. BEKRAF also backs small businesses and enterprises in creative sectors, like the upstart batik (traditional wax-resist dyed cloth) brand called Rajasamas Batik. 

“Any major festival in the world, we want to participate in it and show the best contemporary art in Indonesia,” said Triawan Munuf, BEKRAF’s chairman. So far, he said, what people know of Indonesian culture, if anything, is Bali (the Hindu-majority island that is popular with tourists) and traditional arts like wayang kulit, or shadow-puppet drama. “But we also have to show our state of the art projects, although it’s not something we can change overnight.”

For example, the late Nelson Mandela famously wore batik, said Triawan. “But we weren’t able to catalyze that into more interest in the batik industry.”

It’s a cautionary tale about relying on any silver bullet to raise an industry’s profile. His vision runs on a longer time frame of years and decades, and on backing many horses across all the creative industries: food, fashion, architecture, art, film, video games and so on.

BEKRAF’s current slate of supported programs includes startup funding workshops in seven cities, a performance by the Jakarta City Philharmonic, an installation of an “Indonesia Music Market” in Cannes, and a booth at the world’s largest technology exhibition in Taiwan.

One early success that Triawan cites is that BEKRAF has helped increase the number of Indonesian films that are seen by Indonesians themselves.

“We went from about 5 percent [of films shown in Indonesian theaters that are made in Indonesia] three years ago to 20 percent today,” he said. BEKRAF deployed incentives like removing films from the “negative investments” list in 2016, and opening the movie industry for foreign investment. “By next year, I hope that number is 50 percent,” Triawan said.

Plans to expand

Arts and culture once fell under the purview of Indonesia’s tourism ministry, but Widodo created BEKRAF as a stand-alone body to further his greater goal of economic growth. 

Indonesia’s creative industries contributed 990.4 trillion Indonesian rupiah, or $71 billion, to the country’s GDP in 2017, about 7.6 percent of the total, and provided jobs for 16.2 million people.

But almost 98 percent of creative industry businesses only market their products locally, according to BEKRAF, due in part to funding and intellectual property constraints. Dealing with those issues on a granular level is BEKRAF’s next big task, beyond big-ticket events like the biennale. 

BEKRAF reportedly got off to a rough start in 2015, taking six months to fill its senior leadership and facing a budget that barely covered its daily operations. But within three years, it has grown into its identity as a unique body within Indonesia’s governing apparatus. 

In Venice, Triawan concluded the inauguration of the Indonesia pavilion, which took the form of an expansive, white, Tvyek-paper parabola, by strolling through some of the neighboring exhibits. He passed the Italian pavilion, which unfolded through several chambers of a warehouse in the Arsenale complex and included dioramas, screens, hanging mobiles, rolling film clips and oblong tables of sculptural objects. Its cerebral and eclectic approach contrasted with Indonesia’s, which primed simplicity and striking visuals. 

Triawan was impressed.

“In 10 years,” he said, gesturing around the warehouse, “We must be like this, too.” Boni agreed.

“We love Italy,” he said. “They are not the most industralized country in Europe. But their products have a special touch of craftsmanship, just like in Indonesia. Everyone knows what ‘Made in Italy’ means. We want them to know what ‘Made in Indonesia’ means, too.”