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By: Wildan Sena Utama


The date was 18–24 April 1955, and the place was Bandung. Twenty nine independent countries and proto-states in Asia and Africa were invited by Indonesia to join an intercontinental conference, which President Sukarno hailed as “the first international conference of colored peoples in the history of mankind”. The conference, known as the Asian-African Conference (KAA), or more popularly known as the Bandung Conference, was a monumental event, congregating the newly independent countries and proto-states in Asia and Africa in order to monopolize the world’s political scene in the mid-20th century. The scope of the attendees was so substantial given it was only ten years after the European empire had fallen. Asia was almost entirely represented: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Jordan, Cambodia, Laos, Lebanon, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, dan Yemen. Some independent countries and proto-states in Africa were present as well: Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Egypt, and the Gold Coast (Ghana). The number and status of the Asian-African countries attending the event were the representative of the current situation in the Third World: While Asia had slowly set themselves free from the colonialism’s grip, Africa was still struggling to defeat the lingering colonialism.

The conference had been the culmination of aspirations of Asian-African countries so far: anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, self-determination, respect for human rights, world peace, and relationship strengthening between countries. Roeslan Abdulgani, the KAA Secretary General, declared that the congregation of 29 Asian-African countries in Bandung in April 1955 was the realization of the seeds of ideas sown for decades by ours and other Asian leaders. According to him, the solidarity among Asian-African nations was not a new idea; it had been long realized since our national revolution took place. This idea thrived and flourished because of the fact that under imperialism and colonialism Asian-African nations had been facing and suffering from the same conditions and fate for centuries. For this reason, the conference was born out of the long history of resistance from Asian-African countries which had long been oppressed by the colonialism, racism, and supremacism. 

Having not been done with colonialism, the Third World countries had to face another intervention of new imperialism which was as terrifying as colonialism: The Cold War When the tide of decolonialization started to rise in the Third World ever since 1945, this enthusiasm for gaining independence had to confront the antagonism of the Cold War, between the Western Bloc (led by US) and the Eastern Bloc (led by Soviet Union), which spread and affected the regional political situation in Asia. Since 1948, the US had put in place a containment policy against communism in East Asia and Southeast Asia since the Chinese Communist Party became stronger, and other local Asian communist parties were no less concerning. In 1948, a series of violence occurred, in which groups of communists in Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines were involved. In 1949, the establishment of People’s Republic of China was proclaimed by Mao Zedong. In the early 1950s, two big wars between the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc broke out in Asia: Vietnam War and Korean War. Seeing this series of events, Odd Arne Westad, a historian, argued that the main element of the Cold War was “rivalry between superpowers through interventions in the Third World countries”. 

It is not an overstatement to say that this conference was a significant moment in the mid-20th century, which depicted the world comprised of colonialism and anti-colonialism resistance, new European imperialism, and the Cold War. It also represented how the Third World leaders actively contributed to the efforts to build upon legacy from the past and to face challenges that the future held. KAA was an alternative medium for Asian-African countries to voice their concerns over remaining colonialism and the dangers of wars due to the Cold War interventions. While these superpowers were competing for influence over the political scene and seemed blind to the oppression of the Third World countries, the newly independent countries and proto-states in Asia and Africa had the courage to act as international political actors in order to gain their sovereignty. 

The courage shown by the newly independent countries, which were having no power and often underestimated, to make their voices heard and to provide room for their aspirations was a meaningful Bandung legacy. KAA created “new possibilities” to bring up the argumentation and actions which so far had proven difficult to realize or had not been considered. There were some examples which can elaborate on that matter. Firstly, at the conference, Sudan came as a colonized country which had never had any national flag. However, Sudan delegates were brave enough to hoist a white flag with “Sudan” written in black. This shows that the participants had the courage to come up with national flags to indicate that they were part of nation-states, not colonies. 

Secondly, KAA served as room for dialog to connect Asian-African countries with various cultures, religions, traditions, ethnicities, ideologies, and political principles. It is a myth that KAA gathered Asian-African countries with the same vision and ideology, or non-bloc and socialist countries. KAA was in fact much more complex. The conference amassed countries with inclination toward the Western and Eastern ideologies and political orientations. Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, and South Vietnam together with the US formed SEATO to contain communism influence over Southeast Asia. Conversely, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey established CENTO with similar interest in the Middle-East. In addition, North Vietnam and China were countries with communism as their ideology. Only Indonesia, Egypt, India, and Burma that declared themselves to be non-bloc countries. 

Thirdly, KAA created “possibilities” to open the first room for dialog between the communist China and the Asian-African countries, the majority of which were non-communist. From the perspective of pro-Western Asian countries, China was considered an aggressive communist country, and it would threaten less powerful Asian countries. When the US realized that China would be invited, it lobbied pro-American Asian countries to confront China at the conference. 

The Bandung legacy in showing the courage to intervene in the international political scene, which was dominated by the superpowers’ hegemony, and was able to provide alternative solutions to raising the possibilities of ideas and actions is what Equator project by Biennale Jogja wants to build upon. Equator project is a ten-year (2011–2021) cultural initiative created by Indonesian artists in order to link up artists from the South who are connected by the equator. The equator concept was chosen because it represents the similar long history of colonialism happened on the continents (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) which lie on that line, and it symbolizes a collaboration in order to weave the decolonization networks started in the early 1960s. Not only are these countries connected by the similar history, they also share common future challenge in that period and even to this day, which is building democracy and fair economy.

The Equator project is aware that the constellation of the contemporary visual art scene is still nested in a hierarchical structure, between the metropolitan and the peripheral. The center is still dominating and defining the discourses on culture and visual arts globally. On the other hand, to comprehend the cultural and visual art discourses globally, we need to understand the variety of discourses from around the world, not only on a single matter or discourse. Indeed, in the obsolete orientalist historiography framework, what is considered to be the history of world civilizations is the one revolving only around the West while what has happened outside of it is regarded as “the rest”, making it a supplementary element. However, that argumentation has faced opposition from academics and activists since 1970s, who asserted that the world civilizations are woven from the interconnected global networks around the world. Thus, still in the same way of thinking, the Equator project aims to intervene in the hierarchical cultural and visual art scenes through building a shared vehicle for expressing the marginalized voices and conceiving alternative opinions which the center does not express. 

The Equator project is expected to provide a way to “re-read” the world by rejecting the existence of the center through multifarious or uncentered perspectives from regions connected by the equator. In that regard, what the Equator project does shows a decolonization initiative in the cultural realm. It was a misperception to state that decolonization was an era in the past in the mid-20th century promoted by anti-colonialists from postcolonial countries. Decolonization is not a period to start and to end at certain times in the history of mankind. As a process, to date, decolonization is perpetual. Parrenas’ analysis of decolonizing extinction in Sarawak confirms this. She states that decolonization should be focused on the process and experimentation, not conclusion. It is inevitable that the process and experimentation to counter colonial ideas, narration, and acts in a variety of creative ways still continue even to this day in the economic, political, and cultural sectors.

To evoke alternative opinions and ideas about culture and art, the Equator project aims to create “new possibilities” by inviting artists from countries around the equator to meet, engage in dialogs, collaborate, and hold an exhibition by partnering with arts and cultural organizations in Indonesia. It is expected that the meeting and collective exhibition will encourage participants both from Asia and Africa to learn each other’s cultures, accept differences and similarities between them, and foster partnerships enabled by the dialogs. Without any means, it is impossible for narratives from the South to show up and become part of global cultural discourses. The question that remains as asked by Alia Swastika, the Director of Biennale Jogja, “Will biennale, a manifestation of agora concept, be able to create possibilities of an alternative learning environment, and thus it can encourage and challenge the public to get out of the taken-for-granted way of thinking?”

The plan was indeed started by inviting only a small number of Asian-African countries. However, the relationship has been gradually developing by inviting more and more countries in Asia, Middle-East, Africa, and Latin America. For one thing, the purpose is clear: The gradual development of network of countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America later will create a wider global network between Indonesia and the South. Ten years is a long time, but it is in fact relatively short in comparison with the development of network of Asian-African solidarity forming the basis of KAA, or the Asian-African-Latin American network as the foundation of non-bloc. KAA and non-bloc at least took almost half a century to realize the dreams of Asian-African (and Latin American) countries, in which they could meet, network, and voice their opinions. For this reason, ten years to form relationships between Indonesia and the other South World countries is a big challenge, but still reasonable to make the first step toward realizing a big dream.

In my opinion, the development of transnational network introduced by the Equator project is a big task worthy of appreciation as the first step to connect different kinds of opinions and thoughts from the South in the cultural context. The step taken in this project is reminiscent of a big collective cultural work of the Third World, the Bandung legacy, which was inevitably defunct as a result of political change in 1960s and 1970s. One of the KAA’s legacies was the Bandung Spirit, which triggered imaginations, ideas, and projects in the Third World. Bandung Spirit, according to Roeslan Abdulgani, the one who first coined the term, had one of its manifestations in the solidarity between Asian-African countries to live in harmony, to overcome our problems peacefully, and to realize that using force and violence will be in vain.

However, I think the most important legacy that the Bandung Spirit has left is a number of initiatives to build upon ideas raised at the KAA such as anti-colonialism, anti-racism, world peace, and human rights which materialized in different solidarity projects. As reported by Lee, after KAA’s success, there have been numerous meetings and conferences organized to continue the Bandung Spirit by emphasizing professional exchange, cultural connections, women’s coalitions, and youth participation. Within the period of ten year after KAA, there had been at least more than ten conferences held to carry on the solidarity of Asian-African countries: Asian-African Students Conference in Bandung (1956), Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organization (AAPSO) in Cairo (1957), Asian-African Writers Conference in Tashkent (1958) and in Cairo (1963), Asian-African Women Conference in Colombo (1958), Asian-African Federation for Women in Cairo (1961), Asian-African Law Master Conference in Conakry (1962), Asian-African Journalist Conference in Jakarta (1963), Asian-African Labor Conference in Jakarta (1964), Asian-African Film Festivals in Jakarta (1964), and Asian-African Islamic Conference in Bandung (1965). Vijay Prashad went on to say, “From Belgrade to Tokyo, from Cairo to Dar es Salaam, politicians and intellectuals have been talking about Bandung Spirit.” From those meetings, many different organizations and projects were established in the Third World.

One of which was the Association of Asian-African Writers that continued the Bandung legacy in the cultural domain. At the Asian-African Writers Conference in Tashkent in 1958, many different prominent Asian-African writers met, including Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia), Mao Dun (China), Jacques Rabemananjara (Madagascar), Abu Salma (Palestine), Sharaf Rashidov (Uzbekistan), Nazim Hikmet (Turkey), Faiz Ahmad Faiz (Pakistan), Mulk Raj Anand (India), dan Ousmane Sembene (Senegal). The conference agreed to establish the Bureau of Asian-African Writers in Colombo as a cultural vehicle, whose one of the missions was to promote Asian and African literatures. This program was significant because many Asian-African countries had not known about important literatures from fellow Asian-African countries. Additionally, the mission was to introduce the Third World’s literatures, which had different characteristics and topics than those of the West dominating the world’s literature discourse.

I believe that when it comes to the type of work, the Equator project picks up the works in the cultural sector in the form of transnational network, which once flourished in the 1950s to 1960s. The Equator project forges the network between artists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This attempt first can be seen as a way to reach a consensus on how visual art ideas or practices develop in the South countries, which are connected by the equator. Even though one of the manifestos in the KAA’s cultural communique was cultural exchange between countries in Asia and Africa through artist exchange and cultural festivals, this attempt however has never been realized consistently. Now, it seems that a glimmer of hope to resume that postponed Bandung dream, at least in the form of a work model, can be realized gradually. Both Equator project and Bandung project promote cultural exchange in the South through collective exhibitions, festivals, and artist exchange (residency program). 

Despite that, it is obvious that the idea, vision, and aspiration of each project is different. Each has its own time, era, and idealism according to the contexts. The Equator project has successfully serves as a cultural room for dialogs between the South countries to learn about each other’s development in cultures and visual arts, reaching better understanding between them. The thing of similar importance is the idea that through this project, it is expected that discussions between artists and participants in cultural sector can happen in order to look back on and to reformulate the cultural works (including ideas, approaches, vision, and goals) of the South. It is hoped that this collective and creative process can evoke multifarious concerns, which can intervene in the discourse of the world’s visual art scene. This is not an easy task, and it takes time—at least this project will be completed in two years. But, at a minimum, this collective cultural reflections from the ten years of the Equator project can pave the way for the future endeavor to decide on the direction to which the arts and cultures of the South are heading or what the art and culture practitioners in the South can contribute to their community or even the world’s community.