akumassa Ad hoc Project Darivisual Province: DKI Jakarta Regency/City: Central Jakarta Subdistrict: Senen

The Loss of Identity; Survival a la Jakarta

Written by Muhammad Sibawaihi
Not infrequently I heard a person cynically made a question and a statement at once to me, or maybe the same thing happened to you very often, when you found someone who felt that she or he knew about history of a certain place so well, or even our own place, more than we knew.

They usually said, “Why don’t you know the history about the place you live…?” or “Why don’t you know the history about your ancestors…?” And they asked various questions about the origin of our place or the history of our ancestors.

Or, we were often trapped in regional code. That code was a kind of charm or—did not mean to exaggerate—a disaster for us. For instance, as a Javanese, we preferred to eat in ‘Javanese stall’ or warteg, or because we are Minangs, so there was nothing tastier than Minangkabau cuisine. We often deliberately ate at a stall with another regional code just to find out whether the cuisine in that stall was as good as the cuisine at the stall with a regional code that we knew.

Osterhammel once revealed about behavior of a colony when it was and lived at other colony, that by resisting the cultural compromise with colonized residents, the imperialist was certain of their superiority and their mandate that they were ordained to reign.[1]

In the sentence above, I deliberately substituted the word ‘colonized’ with the word ‘was’. This would become a reference in this writing.

We are facing the all-relative life. Every single thing will be judged using the word ‘depend’: “It depends on where we see and judge an event or incident from”, or “what kind of depend-ence that makes us to judge something.”

Definitively, ‘colonize’ means to establish a colony in or on or of a place or to move into and live in a new place.

I was in one of many multi-ethnic areas in Jakarta. It was an area in Central Jakarta, in Keramat Sawah neighborhood, Paseban Administrative Village, Senen District. It was an area which had historical value and also had gloomy memory about colonialism. Jakarta had been known as Batavia, where Paseban region had been a society center for warriors from The Sultanate of Mataram in 1628 and 1629.

I was grateful to be a part of akumassa ad hoc team which was doing a study about Senen region for Jakarta Biennale 2013. Studying Senen from individual’s eyes from other colony was a very unique process. It was unique because imagining Jakarta as a metropolitan area – as a result of colonialism engineering – which made it a heart of the city, had to be studied by an individual who merged into the multi-ethnic residents of Paseban, Senen, Central Jakarta.

The judgment now more and more evolved, because Senen was not seen from one standpoint anymore, but from various ones which was obtained from other areas.

A morning interview with an elder at Keramat Sawah, Mr. Asmuni, gave me description about Paseban society. Even though he did not realize it, he was also participating in discussing and framing Jakarta from his point of view. He talked about the mentality of newcomers and local people. It was about the tendency of new colony which had more work ethic than local colony. His expression might be without reference from a famous literature but more from his experience from his life phase.

Senen was famous for many things. Even my friend who also joined akumassa ad hoc team wrote in online journal www.akumassa.org  about his paranoid feeling when he had been at Senen for the first time. The late H. Misbach Yusabiran had also written about Senen as a center of ‘the act of art activity and culture’ in Jakarta. There were also many literatures that explained how Senen became center of the mixture of culture.

When we visited Senen Project, at secondhand trade center to be exact (usually secondhand clothes – ed.), which by some friends and residents I knew was called Ayolah trader[2], we would feel that we were at subculture of other Indonesian people there. Audibly, we would hear typical Malay dialect (Sumatera) from merchants who generally came from Padang (West Sumatera and North Sumatera –  ed.). They offered the goods in a pantun way, calling back and forth to each other. Even, when we took the public transportation – or were willing to go by foot – these regional codes could also be seen obviously.

The more wonderful thing to enjoy as a culture study was the town villages in Senen, one of them was at Keramat Sawah area, Paseban. The colony of humans from various ethnicities and cultures, the mixture of dialects from various speakers which was already shifted into Betawi dialect, and the mixture of characters from various backgrounds, were like a colony of pigeons that lived side by side with different characteristics and colors. So in video frame, this multi-colony became a beautiful picture collection.

A high density village, by enabling its vacant land into a settlement of diversity, optimizing its existing space into business area, and using its square as a gathering and playing space, turned into a very interesting area. Women could sit down for hours, chatting intimately without thinking of origin. Men could play badminton together and made a solid team without considering background and history of ancestor. Children gathered in a futsal team even though their parents came from different colonies. Minorities felt free to choose their entertainment and did not need to worry about regional or authority problem. They who were subordinated from their colony because of ideological differences could join others who were subordinated from their group. They formed a minority place which was accepted in a bigger place.

After VOC had moved its power from Ambon to Batavia (Jakarta), The Dutch had changed Batavia into an area with culture formed by the Dutch. Various colonies that had entered and lived at Batavia had felt as though they had lost their identities. Then long after that event, around 19th century, Husni Thamrin, when Volksraad event had been happening, had formed an ethnic group to unite various colonies in Batavia, i.e. Betawi.

Today, it feels as though ‘the loss of identity’ becomes a new solution for a problem about how difficult it is to unite the various identities in Indonesia. It seems that it’s good to imagine that all of people do not call their colony as a statement, because we are often trapped in that ethnical and regional code. For example, this problem also happens in my place in Lombok. ‘Colonizable’ mentality descends on this colony and becomes a boomerang to the colony, such as fear which actually an awareness of deficiency. Land dispute incident in Trawangan, for instance, happened because local residents had fear of the presence of immigrants. Or in art and culture activity domain, for instance, appears a kind of sentiment or social jealousy between local and newcomer artist: fight for influence and fame, accuse and point at each other.

Let’s take a look at Jakarta! Like we know, in Jakarta, when there is a colony that able to survive by selling expensive new clothes to the rich people, other colony will also able to survive, even counter it, by selling cheap secondhand clothes to the middle to low class people (not infrequently, the rich people finally become their customers too).

Or for example, the increasing domination of Studio XXI, which today gets more and more digitize, that becomes a trend of watching movie habit for residents, decreases the amount of meeting places for subaltern residents (the homosexuals and other communities), who need specific public space for their circle, who does not make a cinema as a certain place to watch movie only, but also a place for a kind of specific club. Grand Senen Theater—that still hold out with its analog playing system, because of its stubbornness to not change into a digital cinema, so is not bought by distribution line of XXI (and then is dying in the situation of movie distribution monopoly)—is one of the movie theaters that still survives as a theater which provides a space for some people who do not have access to have watching experience at Studio XXI.

We realize that there is a kind of economical advantage of this ‘the loss of identity’ symptom, or this ignorance to be exact. The ignorance of what and where to eat today, whom to interact with, who to help, whom to work for and many more, precisely brings out the desire to survive and the requirement to merge with the differences.

At Keramat Sawah, Paseban, exactly in the middle of mass circulation around Perintis Square, we (akumassa ad hoc team) merged with different colonies. This diversity was wonderful like a row of colorful cakes with different pattern and shape. It was like color composition on a frame which turned into a beautiful painting.  Exploring Senen was the same as exploring a pile of cakes. It was not only lovely in appearance, but it also had lovely contents.

The houses order which looked dirty with narrow streets and the drains full of garbage held prosperous colonies or wanted to be prosperous colonies which had not been trapped in social, economical and cultural identity codes.



[1]. Retrieved November 21, 2013, from http://www.slideshare.net/pargawati/imperalisme-kolonialisme

[2]. This phrase was taken from the sound of the voice which was spoken by the trader, i.e. “Ayolah! Ayolah!”

This article has been published in the Art on Senen Border journal (Forum Lenteng, 2013). The journal is one of the results of collaborative work of the authors of some of the communities who were involved in the Project of Akumassa Ad Hoc initiated by the Forum Lenteng AKUMASSA Program, in order to participate in the Jakarta Biennale 2013 – SIASAT (Tactic).

About the author


Muhammad Sibawaihi

Born in Pemenang Village, North Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, on May 20, 1988. He got Bachelor degree at IKIP Mataram, majoring in English. He is the Program Director at Pasirputih Foundation. He is also active as an independent writer and curator.

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