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A Malangnese artist Nova Ruth, still remembers the challenge of getting a visa to attend an international art event. In 2013, Nova failed to get a Schengen visa from the German Embassy when they were scheduled to perform in a festival in Europe. 

“There was a suspicion of human trafficking, [I was] 30 years old and a woman,” she said when speaking in Sanur, Bali, at the end of December 2020. “Some people might get a Schengen visa easily because they have a permanent job and a stable economy. However, it is difficult for Indonesian artists to get a visa.”

The same thing happened to Papermoon Puppet Theater’s co-founders, Maria Tri Sulistyani. Maria, who is familiarly called Ria, has faced difficulty when applying for a United States visa. She must provide many documents, ranging from letters of guarantee, insurance, to proof of high-nominal savings balances. In the end, Ria failed to participate in the show. The Papermoon Puppet only participated in the exhibition, because of the high cost of guaranteeing art performers in the US.

“This complexity is not experienced by foreign artists. They didn’t face many difficulties when they performed in Indonesia. This is unfair,” she said. “Taking a trip for the artist is important so we can get out of our comfort zone and meet each other.”

An ease of moving from place to place is one of the rights of artistic freedom for all artists. As stated in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), artists have the right to freedom to move domestically and internationally. However, there is a political gap between so-called developed countries and other countries, such as Indonesia.

So far, only 25 countries have granted visa exemption for Indonesian green passports. Because of the weakness of our passport, Indonesia only ranks 51 on the 199 country list by the Passport Index, along with Namibia, Tunisia, and Papua New Guinea.

Art and culture can be ways of diplomacy for some developed countries. According to Ria, Indonesia is still focused on intergovernmental diplomacy, and has not optimised person-to-person diplomacy, such as cultural exchange through artworks discussion, culinary, music, contemporary culture, and even residencies. She believes the cultural exchange will have stronger roots and more impact.

Both Nova and Ria have experienced the lack of Indonesian diplomats’ concern for art. When Nova and the Arka Kinari cultural ship team docked in Rabat, Morocco, she tried to contact the Indonesian Embassy to inform them of their arrival, but there was no response.

As for Ria, she once got an invitation to attend the International Puppet Festival in Pakistan. She also planned to perform at the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore. Both did not happen because there was no support from the embassy. She also had to throw away the performance invitation from Montenegro due to the absence of the Indonesian embassy.

Nova and Filastine’s struggle on national borders became the inspiration for the song “Borders” in their album “Drapetomania.” The song sparked their experience of performing in the Calais immigrant camp in France, and it was recorded in the detention cell of a former deportation centre. Sailing the Arka Kinari ship is also one of their strategies to defy national borders, because there are no clear boundaries in the ocean. Everyone is supposedly free to sail in international waters.

To mitigate the challenge, Nova hopes Indonesia could increase its diplomatic efforts to enhance cooperation between countries. The government, she said, should facilitate and provide recommendations for artists to go on international trips.

Furthermore, Ria also suggested the Indonesian embassy provide a proper space for promoting and exchanging ideas on contemporary culture and traditional arts. She also urged the government to simplify visa applications via online platforms, so the artists do not have to come to Jakarta or other big cities just to send applications and interviews.

We need to address the challenge so more Indonesian artists can exchange their insight about work and culture with foreign art activists. In the end, the access to knowledge could contribute to the development of the Indonesian art ecosystem.

Written by Trianingsih, translation by Moyang

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