Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack Obama and Indonesian Performing Arts

It is well known that the US's first mixed race president Barack Obama spent 4 of his childhood years in Jakarta and had an Indonesian step-father. Less well known is that his mother was a cultural anthropologist, with a PhD from the University of Hawai'i.

Ann Dunham Soetoro's dissertation was titled Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds (Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Hawai'i, 1992). Her dissertation advisor was Alice Dewey, who was a member of the 1950s Harvard/MIT team that worked in Pare, East Java. (The most famous member of this team, being of course, Clifford Geertz.) Ann Dunham Soetoro's dissertation came out at a wopping xxiv + 1043 pages!

The profession of the blacksmith (pande) in Indonesia of course has a long cultural history. Pande have the title Empu or Ki - the same sorts of titles given to dhalang - as they are considered to possess magical powers, particularly important when creating spear heads, keris and the like. I have yet to read Ann Dunham Soetoro's thesis - but I can imagine that as a student of Alice Dewey she was well aware of the cultural dimensions of the trade.

Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half sister, lived in Indonesia until she was 14. She describes in an interview with the magazine Kabari that her level of Indonesian competence in an interview as 'oke-oke saja' (just okay) but that she is raising her daughter Suaila with cultural awareness of Indonesia.

Saya ingin sekali untuk Suhaila mengetahui keaneka-ragaman budaya Indonesia. Saya berbicara bahasa Indonesia kepadanya tiap malam sebelum tidur. Saya bacakan buku cerita anak-anak Indonesia dan sering sekali menyanyikan lagu contohnya “Burung Kakak Tua”, “Naik-naik ke Puncak Gunung” dan banyak lagi. Kamarnya penuh dengan pajangan Indonesia seperti wayang kulit dan wayang golek, patung-patung Hanoman dan Garuda, lukisan Bali, seperangkat gamelan mini, topeng Jogja dan Solo, dan lain-lain. Ia mengerti dan bangga sekali bahwa ia adalah bagian orang Indonesia.

(I really want Suhaila to know about the variety of Indonesian culture. I speak Indonesian to her every night before she goes to sleep. I read her children's books from Indonesia and I often sing her songs like Burung Kakak Tua and Naik-Naik ke Puncak Gunung and many others. Her room is filled with Indonesian decorations like wayang kulit and wayang golek, statues of Hanoman and Garuda, Balinese paintings, a miniature gamelan set, masks from Jogja and Solo and so on. She knows and is very proud that she is part Indonesian.)

Maya herself studied and performed Javanese dance in Hawai'i, and according to my colleague Nancy Cooper, she also studied Javanese dance briefly with Rama Sasminto Mardowo.

Maya has a PhD too in education -- her dissertation is titled: Border pictures: Hybrid narratives for the humanities classroom (University of Hawai'i at Manoa, 2006, 336 pages; AAT 3251072) -- and is married to an Assistant Professor in media studies at the University of Hawaii, Dr. Konrad Gar-YeuNg, who articles include Policing Cultural Traffic: Charlie Chan and Hawai'i Detective Fiction Cultural Values, 6, no. 3 (2002): 309-316; Nuovo Cinema 'Politico', Theory & Event, 4, no. 2 (2000).

Obama has a very strong pro-arts policy statement on his website ( that includes using the arts to fight Islamic extremism. We hope that Obama will do more for the Indonesian performing arts than pose near a gamelan for a photo op as W. did in Singapore in the picture! Who knows... maybe he'll sponsor a wayang in the White House?

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