Friday, March 16, 2012


A mountain and a poet
January 14, 2012 //

I’ve touched very briefly on the turbulent and subjugated story of Timor Leste. Sometimes the history of a place can really be felt on the day-to-day; it wasn’t so obvious to me going through Dili (except for the massive UN presence) or through the districts on our weekend trip south to Mt. Ramelau, Timor’s tallest peak at 2,963 m (9,721 ft). Motorbiking through the district, Matt focused on driving, and I focused on waving and saying hello to people as we passed by.

Sandwiched in between the flat tire adventure on the way in and the flat tire adventure plus torrential downpour adventure on the way out, we were privileged to a fantastic hike on the last day of the year 2011 made amazing by the mountain and the people we were with. Everyone was supremely friendly and interesting (3 Australian ladies and a large group of UN Military Observers), but one person was able to put the experience in the perspective of Timor Leste.

Abe (pronounced Ah-bay), who was acting as translator for the UN Military Observers, is a Timorese musician, poet and community activist. I am not one to wax romantically, but thankfully Abe was.

Even though we all woke up to leave by 2:30AM to do a two hour hike in the dark that’s pretty much straight up, Abe brought his guitar. At the one-hour mark break, while we were all sitting seeing each other by torch, catching our breath and drinking water, Abe sang a song called, as far as I can tell, “Kolelemai – Foho Ramelau” written by fellow Timorese, Francisco Borja da Costa, sometime in the 1970s.

Francisco Borja da Costa was not only a musician and poet but also a leader of Fretilin, the Timorese Independence fighters, but in this instance he was helping fight for independence from the Portuguese colonizers. According to Wikipedia, “Borja da Costa died at December 7, 1975, the same day of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.” Quite a polite way to say that he was assassinated by the Indonesian military; almost incidental that the two events happened on the same day.

When we reached the top, we all huddled in the cold and night and listened as Abe said a Hail Mary in Tetum, one of the original languages of Timor Leste, to Timor Leste’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary. There is a statue of her at the top. As the sun broke over the horizon, we could start to see the layers of mountains and then finally the thatched roof huts and potato fields that the Timorese eke out their livelihoods carved on any possible mountain surface (but just to note, Timor Leste is apparently one of the leaders in permaculture implementation in Southeast Asia). This is a country of fractals.

At the top, Abe sang Borja da Costa’s song again in the original Tetum, and read us the English translation after. I wish I was able to find a recording of the song online, because it is rousing and beautiful. Some of the poetry is lost in the translation:

Why does your corn not grow? Why doesn’t your rice sprout? Who causes your empty stomachs? Who causes your never ending sweat? Who is responsible? Who is to blame? Some say it’s because your lazy and stupid. Some say it’s because your lazy and poor. What is the cause of it? Who is responsible?
Hey, Mount Ramelau! What is higher than your peak? What is greater than your majesty? Why, Timor, is your head forever bowed? Why, Timor, are your children enslaved? Why, Timor, do your children doze like chickens? Why, Timor, do your children doze like slaves? Open your eyes, a new sun is over your village. Open your eyes, a new sun is over your land. Awake! The foot of the mountain is wide. Awake! A new sun has risen. Awake! Take the reigns of your own horse, Awake! Take command of your own land!


The Archipelago's Outer Edge

When Grace arrived in East Timor, one of the first people she met up with was Abe Soares, an East Timorese poet with whom she has mutual friends in Jakarta. As soon as they met, they began a discussion on art in Indonesia, in East Timor and the world. Almost immediately they decided to hold an exhibition together and that February would be a good date. The exhibition was to be called Tais and Ulos � Bridge of Hearts. `Tais' and `Ulos' are the names of the respective Timorese and Batak traditional woven textiles. (Grace is Batak: the majority ethnic group in North Sumatra province). Initially they planned to hold the show in the East Timorese Cultural Centre. However the centre directors informed them that it would be closed for complete renovations until May, when it would be possible to hold an exhibition.

Grace was not keen to exhibit there in that month, as 20th May is the date when East Timor gains its independence. She felt it would be inappropriate for an Indonesian artist to be showing there during East Timor's "moment of glory". She didn't want to be involved in any controversy that would distract from the point of the exhibition: the art itself. So, due to the lack of other options, they eventually held it in a part of the Acait Building, right opposite the cultural centre, in the middle of Dili, close to the seafront and the government building. ACAIT used to be the home of the chamber of commerce in the Portuguese days and has spacious, warehouse-like spaces ideal for exhibitions.

The exhibition opened on 2nd February, ran for two weeks and included three Saturday evenings of poetry, dance, song and performance art. Grace showed a selection of small (A4) ink-on-paper pieces she had produced in Ainaro town and in Dili since her arrival in East Timor in October 2001. Due to the high local cost of labour and materials, she decided to have all the pieces laminated instead of using traditional frames. She then hung them with bulldog clips from a fishing line. The effect was rather like a washing line. Behind the `washing line' she hung as a backdrop a huge piece of white cotton cloth she had brought from Jakarta. She also showed two large (2m X 1m) oil-on-plywood paintings she made whilst in Dili. Grace's pieces were hung on the right as you entered the space, while Abe's poems in three languages (the original Indonesian, with Tetum and English translations) with illustrations by his younger brother, were hung on the left.

Grace's ink-on-paper pieces were very simple, some black and white and others using only red, purple, blue and black. Some were self- portraits, many showed figures of various kinds and others where entirely abstract explorations of colour.

On the three evenings, Grace performed acapella Batak traditional songs and the Batak ritual dance, the Tor-Tor. The Tor-tor she danced, (accompanied by a recording of `Gondang', the traditional Batak music form), was one that is used to bless journeys and ceremonies. Each time she sang and danced the audience was completely silent and engrossed in the atmosphere of a culture from the far end of the archipelago. When she sang, some of the audience weeped. Without understanding the lyrics, something in the music touched them: possibly that ancient melancholy that is the flip side of the famous Batak rough-and-readiness. Each evening, Abe read his poems -mainly themed around the Timorese struggle- with passion and dignity.

On the second and third of the three Saturday evening events, she also presented her first ever piece of performance art. Grace was inspired by the Jakarta Performing Arts Festival at Komunitas Utan Kayu in Jakarta, where she saw performance artists from all over the world.

The piece was extremely simple and direct and quite close to theatre in its form. A table and a bed were set up in front of the audience. Grace then gave them a glimpse into her creative process. First she came into the space and changed into her "at home" shorts under a towel. She continued by sitting at the table and working on an ink-on- paper drawing. After the first drawing was screwed up and thrown away in frustration, she turned on her tape player. The haunting sounds of Radiohead's Amnesiac CD blasted from the speakers. As she was drawing it became clear that emotion was overcoming her. Her hand movements got more and more frantic and the page started to shred as it became saturated with ink. A scream of despair leapt from her lungs and she slumped in the chair, sobbing. After a long while, she collected herself and moved over to the bed. After tossing and turning for a while, she fell asleep. The piece had ended.

The whole exhibition was well attended although mainly by foreigners, as well as a BBC Radio reporter. However, the most interesting part was that Grace's paintings and drawings were shown on TV Timor Lorosa'e, while her performance art piece was broadcast in its entirety. Now Grace is recognised (and interrogated!) on the street constantly. Some kids at the beach asked her why she was crying when she made a picture: "We don't cry when we make a picture!" So, eventually many more Timorese than foreigners saw the piece through the magical medium of television and many of them gave (and continue to give) their feedback directly to the artist. TV Timor Lorosa'e is therefore avant-garde in the extreme: not many national broadcasters show performance art on primetime TV!

To view more of Graces Installations visit her website at:

Alexander Tristan Davey