Art helps the youth of Timor Leste express their resistance to legal and political authority in the country.
“Quirky is one way of describing this art space” writes the Lonely Planet about Arte Moris. But Arte Moris (or Living Art) is much more than an art gallery or a fine art school.
Established in 2003, the centre offers a place for young Timorese to express themselves through art while helping them bond and share positive values about their country. World famous freedom fighters posters usually popular with the youth, such as those of Che Guevara and Bob Marley, surround teenagers who come to learn the practice of the arts – sculptures, murals, canvas print and much more.
Initially a project by Swiss artist Luca Gansser and his wife, Gabriela Gansser, with a group of young people, Arte Moris has slowly turned into a well-recognised – and the only – art centre in the country. In the year of its inception, Arte Moris was awarded the UN Human Rights prize for its advocacy of freedom of expression.
But Arte Moris’s aim is not just to promote the arts. It hopes to help East Timorese people rebuild their lives after the long bloody independence struggle of one of the world’s newest countries, which was founded on May 20, 2002.
Violence in Timor Leste
The Southeast Asian island was first colonised by the Portuguese in 1515. The country eventually gained independence from Portugal in November 1975 through the Revolutionary Front of an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). But that only lasted a brief nine days before it was invaded by the Indonesian military.
The country remained occupied until August 30, 1999, when an independence referendum saw 78.5% of the East Timorese people vote for separation from Indonesia. The result led to widespread violence by pro-Indonesian groups that required the intervention of UN peacekeepers.
That led to a UN Transitional Administration in East Timor in 1999 to 2002, when Timor Leste restored full independence.
The bloody struggle against Indonesian occupation brought the East Timorese together. But a political-military crisis erupted in 2006 after members of the army were dismissed.
The incident escalated into a set of clashes between the police, army, rebel soldiers and urban youth, with over 100 people killed in 2006 and over 150,000 displaced.
The crisis revealed a deep tension between the old and young generations of the country.
Youth in crisis
Timor Leste has one of the most youthful populations in the world. Its rapid population growth has drawn attention to the position and plight of the youth in the country.
According to a 2007 World Bank report titled ‘Timor Leste’s Youth in Crisis: Situational Analysis and Policy Options’, the involvement of youth in widespread violence was one of the most visible elements of the crisis. And the generation gap is now a key feature of the contemporary social discourse in Timor Leste.
Two generations witnessed the country’s long struggle for independence. The first is the “Generation of ‘99” or Geracão Foun born during the period of Indonesian occupation, some of who emerged as national leaders in the 1980s and 1990s. They are distinct from the “Generation of ’75” who are Portuguese-speaking older leaders and mostly dominate the government.
The groups find themselves in disagreement over certain matters. But their relations are crucial for the transmission of cultural values and for the country’s social cohesion.
Timor Leste’s youth suffer from a lack of job opportunities and the poverty rate remains high at 41.8%. The promises of independence seem far away as basic rights such as education, employment and political participation still lag behind.
Murals for peace
The youth of Timor Leste has been so scarred by this recent history that it has taken up the habit of venting on the walls. Parts of the nation’s capital Dili look like an open-air art gallery.
After 2006, recognising that murals and graffiti were one of the most inclusive means of communication in the country, Nobel prize-winning former president Jose Ramos-Horta and several NGOs commissioned artists to paint the walls across the country and to convey messages of national unity and peace.
Murals and graffiti are now distinct part of the landscape. Arts help the young ones express their resistance to the legal and political authority in the country.
Many of the artists come from the “Generation of ’99” and faced exclusion after the 2002 independence. They seek today to legitimise their role in the resistance movement against Indonesia but also to remind today’s generation of their history while engaging in debates on post-independence identity.
The Gembel Art Collective is another such initiative, established in 2003 like Arte Moris. Gembel Art offers free arts classes and also proposes to have theatre, music and traditional performances. Similarly to Arte Moris, its classes and spaces are open to all.
Artists such as those associated with Arte Moris or Gembel Art Collective are also actively involved in human rights issues. These include fighting for land and for finding the children “disappeared” during the Indonesian occupation; an estimated 4,000 children were secretly taken to Indonesia between 1975 and 1999.
The artists voice their dissatisfaction and discontent over government policies such as the lack of job opportunities for the youth. They may also support campaigns, such as the Hands Off Timor Oil initiative, with the government. Through the arts, they urge people to think about the issues affecting their country.
Music for human rights
In another attempt to bridge the generations that have parted ways because of various crisis Timor Leste has known, music bands have taken over public spaces as well.
One example is Galaxy Band, which was established in 1999 just after the referendum. The band received popular support among the younger generation as their lyrics criticised human rights shortfalls, as well as land, national and social issues and those related to nationalism.
According to its lead vocalist, Mely Fernandez, whom I met in Dili, the late 1990s were a new beginning for Timorese youth, but also foretold an uncertain future.
During the 2006 internal crisis, the band incorporated social and political messages into their songs and poems. Occasionally, they face government interference but for Mely, that’s a positive sign because it means the government is listening.
Issues and challenges
Despite achieving the highest democracy index in the Southeast Asia region in a 2016 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the artists’ use and enjoyment of public spaces is not without challenges.
While Ramos-Horta was a strong supporter of the arts in Timor Leste, today public spaces are not well looked after by the government.
In the Arte Moris gallery, broken ceilings are not repaired because maintenance is not a priority anymore. One of the possible reasons for this is the political messages the artists are sending to the people.
Facing the challenge of not receiving much support from the government, they have been actively advocating the arts. Now and then, Arte Moris and Gembel Art Collective receive assistance from international NGOs and not much is coming in from the national level.
Gembel Art Collective offers free arts courses to children as non-formal education. Students from both Arte Moris and Gembel Arts come from different districts. There are currently six districts that offer free art classes, set up by former students. They need government support for a long-term sustainability as they cannot rely on international assistance.
Another key issue that the artists advocate is the promotion of local languages and dialects. Tetum and Portuguese are both the official languages of Timor Leste. Bahasa Indonesia and English are defined as working languages, as stated in the constitution. For some Timorese, these latter are considered economic languages as they are not the mother tongues of the country.
For artists in Arte Moris, dialects are important but they are gradually being forgotten and are now only used in districts. Osme Gonsalves from Lospalos, a former guerilla fighter during the Indonesian occupation works today as an artist and a poet. He promotes the use of local languages such as his dialect, Fataluku. According to him, dialect has an important role in the construction of national and social identity.
Asked about what they wish for their future, the artists said, “We will never stop and we will keep doing what we do. Hopefully we can influence more of our people especially younger brothers and sisters to also appreciate arts for the future of Timor Leste.”
The author would like to thank Osme Gonsalves from Arte Moris, Gembel Art Collective and Mely Fernandez from the Galaxy Band for their willingness to share their thoughts.
Khoo Ying Hooi, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Malaya.