Interview #82 — Rani Pramesti
Interview by Leah Jing
Rani Pramesti is a performance maker, intercultural producer and advocate for the arts. She revels in the interface between social justice and the arts.
Throughout 2017-18, Rani has been leading an Indonesian-Australian team to create a bilingual, digital graphic novel, TheChineseWhispers.com. Chinese Whispers was recently launched in English at the 2018 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia.
Hi Rani! You’ve just come back from Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2018, where you launched Chinese Whispers, a bilingual, digital graphic novel. Can you tell us how this iteration of Chinese Whispers came to be?
TheChineseWhispers.com has been a 5-year creative journey and a 20-year personal journey for me. The story of ‘Chinese Whispers’ is inspired by the racial and sexual violence which exploded across several major cities in Indonesia in May of 1998. It recounts these series of events (significant parts of which were targeted towards Indonesians of Chinese descent) through the voices of women, including myself as well as a Chinese-Indonesian journalist/ historian, a human rights activist and other community members.
Our digital graphic novel was initially seeded as part of Footscray Community Arts Centre’s Emerging Cultural Leaders program in 2013. In terms of its ‘public birth’, so to speak, it premiered as a performance installation called Chinese Whispers, at the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival in Footscray, Narrm (Melbourne). We won two awards for Chinese Whispers: Best Live Art and Innovation in Culturally Diverse Practice Awards.
Since then, I was quite frustrated by the limited audience reach of the performance installation, so I have been dreaming, planning and then leading a team to create the digital graphic novel version of Chinese Whispers.
Who is involved in creating Chinese Whispers? How have they joined your team?
Different people have been involved for different iterations of the work. However, two that I would like to thank profusely are our composer, Ria Soemardjo and our illustrator, Cindy Saja.
Ria is a Melbourne-based Indonesian-Australian composer/ vocalist/ musician/ teacher (she wears many hats!) I introduced myself to Ria after seeing quite a few of her ethereal and hauntingly beautiful live performances. I was really drawn to how her work bridges many musical/ cultural/ visual influences, beginning with Indonesia and Australia- which is a huge passion of mine, too! (She actually has a show coming up at the 2018 Mapping Melbourne Festival called The Seafarers Welcome that I encourage everyone to book for!)
I found Cindy Saja through both social media and personal connections. These days I recruit people by doing a Facebook/ Instagram callout. I tag people that I know who have relevant networks linked to the skillsets I am looking for. They then tag their friends and this lets me look up their online portfolios- that’s how I found Cindy’s Instagram profile. I liked one of her ink-based drawings as I thought it had the aesthetic that I was after for Chinese Whispers. The rest is creativity!
The story of ‘Chinese Whispers’ is inspired by the racial and sexual violence which exploded across several major cities in Indonesia in May of 1998.
The form of a digital graphic novel is very interesting. Taking something that is already a hybrid of text and imagery, and pushing it into a multimedia format – what drove this choice? Available in two languages, free to view - it seems the bar of access has been made specifically very low.
Yes. We had a series of conversations internally about what we wanted to prioritise and access was one of the key principles. Our whole team are (in Indonesian) sehati (or ‘of one heart’) with wanting to spread the knowledge and awareness of the lessons we can learn from May 98, mainly that “We cannot heal what we will not face”. In order to do this, we wanted to remove any cost barriers and we wanted to design an online tool that was easily playable. For example, one of our team members lives rurally in Indonesia and so they were the one to test that the site was accessible using ‘kampung wifi’ to make sure that even slow internet speeds could access the work. There have been technical glitches (too many!) but access continues to be a commitment that we have. If you have any issues accessing the work, please let me know and we will try to address it!
In Chinese Whispers, you query, ‘why is there still so much fear?’ What can we do as citizens to deal with this fear of the Other? What can we do to ease it?
I think one of the things we can all do is to know our own stories, our individual and collective stories. One of the ‘macro’ stories of TheChineseWhispers.com is about how the colonial stories of ‘the past’ continue to shape the stories of ‘the present’. In actual fact, they are not separate and the sooner we come to terms with this, the more likely we are to see how ‘the Other’ is a politically, economically and socially motivated construction. Do we want to buy into this constructed idea or do we want (as Ibu Dewi Anggraeni in The Chinese Whispers says), to ‘dismantle the frame’?
One of my favourite moments is when you realise that you can’t speak about your identity without speaking about the May Riots of 1998. History is something we often are taught to hold away and apart from ourselves, as an object we can choose to consider or be impacted by, or conversely, ignore. What do the May riots mean to you now, after creating Chinese Whispers?
One of the values I hold dearly as an artist is to take trauma as a source of inspiration, rather than as a source of silence and secrecy. Chinese Whispers is one example of me trying to practice this value through my art. The May riots, or more accurately, the politically motivated racial violence of May 1998, continues to be both an individual and collective wound. However, in some respects, I am grateful for this wound, as over the past twenty years or so, it has become a place for inspiration, for conversations, for self-reflection and from there (my hope is) for social change.
We cannot heal what we will not face.
Something which struck me whilst watching the novel unfold, was the similarity between Indonesia’s erasure of history and Australia’s erasure and unwillingness to face the genocide that this country is built upon. Early into the novel you note, ‘We cannot heal. What we will not face.’ and at the end, you ask, ‘What else do we need to face and begin the healing for?’ Was this similarity something you were thinking of?
I’m so glad you picked up on this! I owe a great debt to my former Emerging Cultural Leader mentor, Chi Vu. Chi worked in great detail with me on the original script of Chinese Whispers. One of the things we decided was to link Chinese Whispers to universal themes of, e.g. historical violence, legacies of colonialism and so on. We didn’t want people to experience the work as ‘something-horrible-that-happened-in-that-third-world-country, thank-goodness-we-don’t-have-that-here’ (wherever ‘here’ was).
And so, yes, TheChineseWhispers.com is peppered with questions that encourage the audience to reflect on ways in which they may need to face and begin the healing for situations that are relevant in their contexts. In ‘Australia’, of course, the genocide of First Nations people is one such obvious and glaring example.
As a social worker, you have worked in homeless shelters and with asylum seekers. Your practice has such a deep focus on community; in Chinese Whispers you comfort the reader, ‘Don’t worry, if we get lost, at least we’ll be together.’ Why do you think it is so important for your art practice and community to be interwoven?
I think that it is once again a ‘construct’ for art and community to be seen as separate. ‘Art’ can be part and parcel of how people connect to one another. When it comes to a work like Chinese Whispers, it is a work that invites people to set aside time, space and energy to reflect on the painful parts of one’s history and I believe that it is necessary for people to feel held and supported in that journey. There is a reason why the character Rani invites you in a gentle and friendly way to enter the Chinese Whispers labyrinth with her. I think that trauma has the tendency to fragment people-to-people relationships and to divide communities, especially if we let the damaging effects of trauma to thrive in secrecy and shame. It can be scary to embrace the painful parts of one’s history and I believe that as fellow human beings, we need to hold one another in that journey, so that we can grow together, into a stronger community because of our willingness to face our pain.
I think that it is once again a ‘construct’ for art and community to be seen as separate. ‘Art’ can be part and parcel of how people connect to one another.
On this note, collaboration seems to be very important to you—the tagline of your own website is ‘Rani P Collaborations’. Can you speak to this?
I need to thank my former mentors Jade Lillie (former CEO of Footscray Community Arts Centre) and John Paul Fischbach in the clarifying and articulation of what I do as an artist, including in the articulation of ‘Rani P Collaborations’. Throughout 2015 they mentored me in drafting a strategic plan for my practice and it was through this 6-month process that I realised that I lead collaborative projects. Hence why I make everything as Rani P Collaborations: Rani P leads collaborations with others.
For example, for TheChineseWhispers.com, our team members have skills that I certainly do not have, such as illustration, music composition, front end and back end web development. However, it is my creative vision that leads and cohesively weaves together everyone’s separate skill-sets to create a work like TheChineseWhispers.com
You’ve lived in Australia since you were twelve; what defines ‘home’ for you now?
Home is people that I can be my full, uncompromising, flawed and wonderful self with.
Home is people that I can be my full, uncompromising, flawed and wonderful self with.
What are you listening to?
Who inspires you?
My grandmother. Since 2010, I have been obsessed with creating a trilogy of works inspired by 3 generations of women in my family. Chinese Whispers was actually the first of the trilogy (inspired by one part of my story), then Sedih // Sunno (inspired by one part of my mother’s story) and since 2017 I have been working on Surat-surat (Letters), which is inspired by my grandmother’s love stories.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
Be kind to yourselves. Surviving as artists in capitalist, patriarchal, White Supremacy is made deliberately hard. Sometimes, the fact that you have lived another day is an achievement in itself.
What are you reading?
I read a few too many things at once. It makes for slow reading (which maybe is alright). At the moment, I am reading The body keeps the score by Bessel Van der Kolk, Asian American sexual politics by Rosalind S. Chou, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Peranakan Idealis by H. Junus Jahja, Devotions by Mary Oliver and Unfuck your finances by Melissa Browne.
How do you practice self-care?
One of the things I have been thinking about is how financial empowerment is actually a huge part of self-care. I practice self-care by asking as much as possible to be remunerated for what I do. My skills, knowledge and experiences are valuable and one way to show that you value it is by paying for it. I am trying to be more consistent in applying this principle when it comes to my contribution as a storyteller/ artist/ producer/ advocate.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?