Angie Bexley - "Gembel" is an Indonesian word meaning homeless person, bum or vagrant. A group of Timorese youth in Dili, Timor Leste, co-opted this derogatory term to use as their collective name for creative projects which include visual art, music and theatre. Gembel have no studio, no government support, no official structure and little by way of equipment and materials.
Their projects are managed autonomously, and decisions are made while hanging out in Borja de Costa Memorial Park in the middle of Dili. In early October 2008, artists from the Culture Kitchen, a collaborative art group based in Canberra, travelled to Dili to work with Gembel. The Culture Kitchen, established in 2007, consists of practising artists Bernie Slater, Julian Laffan, Jon Priadi (originally from Indonesia) and anthropologist and art worker, Angie Bexley.
They were joined in Dili by Indonesian artist Bayu Widodo who, along with Priadi, is a member of Yogyakarta-based art collective Taring Padi, which was established in Yogyakarta during the downfall of President Suharto in 1998.
These artists share a common interest in addressing social and political themes in their societies, as well as a history of working on cross-cultural art projects together. This was their third collaborative project and it was the first time the groups had met in Timor. The first project was a travelling collaboration (the work was variously completed in Canberra, Dili and Yogyakarta) and the second was a Canberra-based project.
Over the course of a couple of weeks, Taring Padi and Culture Kitchen worked with Gembel to discuss common issues to the neighbouring nations and produced a series of large collaborative relief prints that present Gembel's take on contemporary Timor titled, Let's Work Together, or in the Timorese lingua franca of Tetum, Mai Ita Servisu Hamutuk.
With exhibitions planned in Australia and Indonesia, the artists fully embraced this project as a rare opportunity to express their concerns to an outside audience. The visiting artists stimulated discussion among the Gembel artists about the issues that concerned them in contemporary Timor Leste and how these issues could be expressed through artwork.
All too often, young Timorese are labelled as trouble-makers. They are thought and spoken about (by international development organisations, the international media and the Timorese government itself) in terms of conflict and urban-centred lives.
The issues that the young Timorese expressed through the print work demonstrate that young Timorese can act and think for themselves in productive and socially connected ways. The themes of the artworks illustrate the ways in which youth are re-interpreting indigenous concepts such as"helping one another" (ajuda malu). Rather than focusing on conflict, the themes of discussions, expressed in the artworks, show how young Timorese can relate to each other, as youth, as easterners, as westerners, and as Timorese citizens prioritising people-to-people relationships with Australians and Indonesians.
The visual representations in the artwork illustrate how young Timorese are connected to both "traditional" cultural knowledge and the contemporary "modern" context of the nation- state. One of the four lino prints, titled Tebe-Tebe illustrates the traditional Timorese dance tebe- tebe of crushing rice, in which the dancers step in and out, encircling a mound of harvested rice plant. As the dancers sing and dance together, the constant stamping de-husks the rice.
This is still a common way for farmers to turn rice into food and an important cultural practice that reaffirms a Timorese identity of self-sufficiency (ukun rasik aan). The Gembel artists are critical of Timorese government priorities, pointing out that when the country was in the middle of a crucial rice shortage, the government was buying 60 luxury Toyota Prados for cabinet ministers and installing outdoor cinema screens on the government palace building.
The artists also expressed frustrated by the internal tensions within the nation such as regional and ethnic disputes, internally displaced people, widespread corruption and tokenistic government attempts to provide employment for the nation's youth. Printmaking is a relatively new art form in Timor Leste, and the power of the communicative possibilities of print definitely struck a chord with Gembel artists. Given the lack of resources available to the members of this group, they have a natural inclination for DIY a do-it-yourself philosophy that requires young Timorese to think creatively to meet their needs.
This way of life provides a firm base for printmaking which requires manual manipulation of materials using hand-held tools. The bold, graphic nature of relief prints perfectly suits the sense of urgency that the Gembel artists have in communicating their concerns, and of course the possibilities of multiplicity and widespread dissemination have always appealed to artists with a message.
Much of the contemporary art produced in Timor is only hung in a gallery space or behind the closed doors of embassies or non- governmental organisation offices, where only certain people have access. Print, however, can be produced with only minimal materials and can reach a wide audience including ordinary people. One message can be disseminated not only on paper, but on a dozen T-shirts, postcards and bags; the possibilities are endless. Many Gembel artists took the T-shirts off their backs to print their own images onto. It is not constrained to a gallery context but can be exhibited on the street and in other public places thus accessible to the general public. In the middle of the workshop, Gembel hosted an exhibition of their artwork and the work of the visiting artists at the KBH-APHEDA (Australian Union Aid Abroad) workshop space.
The Gembel band played their reggae-inspired beats, they served traditional Timorese snacks of cassava and yams, and the artworks provoked many discussions between viewers, many of whom left with a printed poster, postcard or patch. The Let's Work Together series of lino print works produced during the workshop will be exhibited at the International Human Rights Art and Film festival in Melbourne throughout November 2008, as well as at Megalo Print Studio, Canberra, in 2009 before returning to be exhibited in Timor Leste and Indonesia during 2009.
Angie Bexley is completing a PhD on histories of Timorese youth at the Department of Anthropology, Australian National University and is a co-ordinator for the cross-cultural printmaking exchanges. Contact her at Angie.Bexley@anu.edu.au for more information about the collectives and their project.