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For many, the first thing that crosses the mind upon hearing the name Makassar is the city’s famed culinary specialty, Coto Makassar. It is less likely that the name evokes thoughts of historical links to Aboriginal Australia, contemporary refugee and migration issues, art, and literature and yet, like Coto Makassar, these things too have their own place in the cultural, social and historical fabric of the city and the South Sulawesi region.
Febrianty Hasanah is one person of Makassan heritage possessed of both the initiative and good fortune to have experienced all of these aspects of her city and culture, through her involvement with Makassar International Writers’ Festival, Rumata Artspace and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The remarkable historical relationship between Makassans and Yolngu people in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia has attracted an increasing degree of discussion, study and celebration in recent times. Hundreds of years ago, Makassan traders sailed to Arnhem Land in search of trepang, beginning a relationship with Yolngu people not only based upon trade, but also other forms of exchange. A recent artists’ exchange between artists from Yirrkala (Arnhem Land) and Rumata Artspace (Makassar) celebrated these links, and provided Febri with the unique opportunity to travel to Arnhem Land as part of her role in administering the project. This trip, which she described as like going to meet a long-lost relative, gave her the opportunity to further explore the significant influence of this relationship on each of the parties involved.
“They shared culture and language; to the point there are around 1,000 words found in both languages. For example, ‘kaluru’ means smoking in both languages, and ‘bala’ means house,” revealed Febri.
“Beyond that, in the Yolngu welcoming ceremony there were a number of rituals similar to those performed by Makassans.”
Febri also learnt that Yolgnu people believe their land was protected by Bayini, the spirit of a Makassar woman who would accompany the Makassan sailors on their journeys. The works produced through the exchange were later exhibited at Rumata Artspace in Makassar in conjunction with Makassar International Writers’ Festival (MIWF), with which Febri has been involved for a number of years as a volunteer and committee member. These experiences have instilled in Febri a belief that literary and artistic collaboration can make a meaningful contribution to mutual understanding between Australia and Indonesia.
“Art is the most flexible medium when we talk about relationship, and it can package these discourses in a way which has the ability to move the various parties who engage with it,” Febri explained.
“There’s still so much to be explored in the relationship between Australia and Indonesia through their shared history. With the availability of residency opportunities, both artists and writers can obtain new perspectives about the links between the two countries.”
Yolngu people have been doing this for hundreds of years, maintaining a collective memory of their shared history with Makassans through song, painting and dance traditions passed down over generations.
Although she has finished up with Rumata Artspace and MIWF for now, Febri remains engaged in community work through volunteering and research. Febri’s community consists not only of fellow Indonesians but also asylum seekers, a large number of whom are from Afghanistan and have lived in Makassar for more than three years. However, beyond the government bodies, NGO staff and direct neighbours with whom they interact, the refugees are largely hidden to the eyes of the city and its residents. Among the many challenges these individuals face, they are unable to gain employment due to their limited legal status.
“In many of these issues I try to understand their position, but I also cannot do anything to help,” said Febri.
“I’m interested in how they face these issues develop resilience over and for an indeterminate period of time, especially given how interacting with a new culture is not an easy thing to do.”
In order to observe, participate in and improve this interaction, Febri recently helped conduct research and a related media project entitled Creative Placemaking undertaken by the Urban
Refugees team from the Resilience Development Initiative and funded by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. The project focused on the relationship between refugee youths and their local counterparts and, although its results are yet to be formally released, Febri suggested that providing a space and forum for these parties to come together fostered better relations and engagement.
For Febri, volunteering with IOM and participating in such research is also important in that it helps her form her own opinions on refugee issues.
“I want to be more objective regarding their presence and character as people, rather than merely as refugees. I believe treating people not based on labels provides us with a different view of them and their traits, free of whether they are free of statelessness or not.”
Translated by Iven Manning