In a year when Jakarta prepared for competition, it instead found collaboration, inclusivity and unity. As hosts of the Asian and Para Asian Games the city was geared up for sporting gold. However, it ended up being rewarded by much more. It was a year of firsts for the city, championed by the disabled community who, through showcasing a spectrum of talents and inviting us into their worlds, have opened Jakarta’s mind and introduced the city to a whole new trophy chest of ideas.
The Asian Para Games was a prodigious event for exposure and education. It was the first time in Indonesia that millions and millions of people were engaged in stories of disability. Daily, driving around the city, you could see images of disability that were also depicting strength; a woman in her wheelchair holds up a bridge, and a three foot tennis ball is being hit into an overpass by a Paralympic tennis player. The stadiums were stacked with supporters and millions watched the broadcasted events. It was interesting to see the hashtag, “parainspirasi” being plastered across social media, attached to images of sporting champions. Uploaded by excited fans, it often offended members of the community who felt it was patronising and belittling of the sportsmen. It is common in discussions of disability, that a social model of thinking isn’t fully adopted. That rather than an equal and normalised view of disabled sportspeople, it is a glorified one. However, a change in attitude takes time and these events and the debates that they ignite are all necessary steps at the beginning of that journey.
Running in tandem with the Paralympic Games was an arts festival, the first of its kind in Indonesia. Festival Bebas Batas, a collaboration between the National Gallery of Indonesia, the Ministry of Education and Culture, Art Brut Collective, and the British Council, was a celebration of all forms of art with the intention to showcase a freedom from boundaries. The festival, which primarily took place at the National Gallery, exhibited over 50 artists, linking Indonesia and the UK through film, photography, dance, visual arts, debate and activism.
The opening night presented a spectacular display of collaborative dance performances. BalletID opened the show with a company of Indonesian dancers. They combined traditional dance with contemporary styles and narrated their experiences of invisibility. However, the dance intensified and the message became stronger. Finishing with a moment where a woman was carried on the shoulders of a man who danced with the support of a crutch like sons carry a hearse;, its symbolism seemingly mimicking the idea of sending any perception of inability to its grave. The closing act, performed by two dancers from CanDoCo, was choreographed by Arlene Philips, previously a judge on Strictly Come Dancing. It portrayed the story of a couple in the throes of passion. The movement was skilful and exact, yet fluid and evocative and transported the audience away from focusing on who the dancers were and enveloped them in the feeling of what they were creating.
Amongst the visual art, there were two installations which explored identity and introspection, one through the medium of video and the other with photography. The range of represented disabilities, physical and mental, offered perspective into how we are all imperfect in some way, that we are all different from one another and, that, oddly, makes us all the same. Hanna Madness, a champion of the festival, exhibited her video project, In Chains with artist, the Vacuum Cleaner. They exposed the darker realities of what it may mean to be disabled in Indonesia.
There were many musical performances during the festival, a highlight being the outdoor club nights curated by Deaf Rave from the UK and Dipha Barus from Indonesia. These transformed audience’s’ ideas of what a “night out” could mean. Loud bassy music was felt and heard, whilst hip-hop lyrics were signed on stage. Senses which normally get forgotten in your average club were engaged and the experience, therefore, heightened. One member of Deaf Rave spoke with Adam Pushkin, British Council Indonesia’s Director of Arts and illuminated the advantage of being deaf in a club. We’ve all experienced trying to ask someone a question on the dance floor, screaming directly at them and they still can’t understand you. With sign language, your communication can be smoothly included into your dance moves with no fear that your surroundings are going to interrupt your flow. It was these alternate advantages and new angles that Bebas Batas was really about for Adam Pushkin. The performances really emphasised the idea that “by ignoring people whose bodies are different, we are cutting ourselves off from an opportunity for the greatest diversity in ability and creative possibility.”
One of the most poignant parts of Festival Bebas Batas was an event that wasn’t actually a performance of any kind; it was a Zombie Walk on Jalan Sudirman car free day. Led by the festival organisers and the British Council, performers and supporters of all abilities disguised themselves as zombies and walked united through Jakarta. It was a powerful point that was being made through a very obvious parody, an idea that was developed by members of the disabled community themselves. A zombie: someone who isn’t wholly human, a person who is without life. Disabled people are often made to feel as though this is how they are commonly viewed and this walk was a direct objection to that, a reclaiming of this perception to exhibit how very wrong it is. With this message emblazoned into our minds, watching, for the first ever time in Indonesia, disabled models walk the runway at the Sean Sheila x Teatum Jones fashion show offered an apt parallel. On Sunday people walked the highway to make their point and seven days later, (dis)abled models walked the runway to affirm it.
What these events and exhibitions have showcased more than anything, is the paradox that exists within our own definition of disability. The term “disabled” becomes entirely redundant as we watch champions win their races, as we become moved by the motions of a dancer with his crutch, and as we admire walls of paintings created without the use of a single hand. Any need for a “dis” to prefix ability is dismantled and instead we are exposed to a totally unique interpretation of capability. Yes, it is different but that is its strength. We, as a society, must begin to alter our outlook and let our perceptions be free of limits.