IO – Astari Rasjid is not a career diplomat but an artist who was posted as Indonesian ambassador to Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia in 2016. From the start Astari said that she would be practicing cultural diplomacy. Not everyone was impressed by this. Another lady ambassador from a different country told her that as a political ambassador she would not be wasting her time on cultural activities. To which Astari responded that artists express their political and social views through their art. She said, “Cultural diplomacy is about applying the soft power of culture to strengthen the unity of humanity.”
And what are the results of her cultural diplomacy? Since she became ambassador trade between Indonesia and Bulgaria has risen 400 percent – with the balance in favour of Indonesia. That means her cultural diplomacy was also a successful economic diplomacy. This is in fact what President Jokowi wants from his diplomats. In 2018 the government launched its new cultural strategy for Indonesia which holds that although Indonesia may not be an economic or political super power, it is a cultural super power and the government determined to build on Indonesia’s strength has developed a cultural strategy which is meant to form the base for developments in all other fields – including diplomacy.
Although Astari is not a career diplomat she was born into a diplomat’s family. She remembers her childhood as being a very happy one. Her father Colonel Soegyanto served as Air Attaché both in India as well as Myanmar and Astari has fond childhood memories of both countries.
“When I was a child, I loved learning about other cultures abroad,” declared Astari. “I used to play with the children of the Indians who were Indonesian Embassy helpers. I was strictly forbidden to eat the food they brought for their lunch but I always did. They usually ate rice with a sort of fermented fish paste which was delicious. I also learnt about how they dressed and prayed and their festivals and stories. They had of course the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which I knew from wayang stories. The only thing that scared me was the festival of Holi when they threw coloured paint powder and water at passersby but my mother told me not to be afraid.”
And indeed, it was her mother who was the dominant force in the family. Astari’s mother Ning Suwasrih was a busy and creative woman with seven children who headed PIA Ardhya Garini, the organization of the wives of Indonesian members of the air force. She later became a member of parliament but she could also draw and she sewed all her children’s clothes. Both parents were very close to their children and engaged in many activities with them.
Later after Astari had become an artist she created a painting entitled To Our Most Respected Mothers. “I created it as a sign of respect to all women, to all mothers, grandmothers, to Mother Nature and the feminine force which is the creative force in all of us,” Astari explained.
Astari’s mother encouraged her children to work hard, finish school quickly and find work. She wanted them all to be independent as soon as possible because there were seven children and it was not easy to support them all. Astari studied fashion and design and her mother saw her talent and sent her to London to further her studies. At a young age she already worked with such well-known brand names such as Prayudi and Iwan Tirta. Nevertheless, whenever she was interviewed as a designer and asked if she loved being a fashion designer, her response was always, “No, it’s only a stepping stone to my becoming an artist!”
This may be why when eventually, she had to give up being a fashion designer and writer to became a corporate wife she was not heartbroken. In fact, as a corporate wife Astari found that she had the means and the time to begin to truly immerse herself in the art that is her true passion. When her children were grown up and went to the United States for their studies, she went along with them and enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study art.
Astari says, “I am a creative person and I need to express myself. I have found that the best way for me to do that is through art. For me it is better than any other medium but one cannot just be an artist out of the blue. I had to learn many aspects of life from psychology (understanding peoples’ minds and characters) to politics, culture and our traditional heritage. All of this became input for my artistic endeavors. In art a person needs to express their true feelings, beliefs and opinions.”
In Indonesia Astari gradually made a name for herself as an artist exhibiting in many exhibitions not only in Indonesia but also abroad and winning several international awards. She not only exhibited at the Venice Biennale but also helped organize Indonesia’s participation in it. Iaroslava Boubnova, the director of the National Gallery of Bulgaria first heard of Astari not as the Indonesian ambassador to Bulgaria but as an artist exhibiting at the Venice Biennale.
Astari is known as a feminist artist but says that she simply cares about women’s issues. She describes herself as a contemporary artist who expresses herself through multi mediums. “What is important is what an artist is trying to express rather than the medium they use,” says Astari. “I express myself through sculpture, painting and installation art but what is important is what are my thoughts in art.”
One of Astari’s favourite paintings is called Tension Between Reality and Illusion which she created at the end of the Soeharto regime in 1998. It depicts a Javanese aristocratic couple side by side surrounded by a Mooi Indies type of Indonesian landscape. If one looks carefully at it one can see that it depicts the end of an era. At the centre of the painting she placed a gunungan (a leather wayang in the form of a mountain which symbolizes a change of scene in a story). Here it symbolized the demise of the old era and the start of a new one. For this Astari won the Philip Morris Art Award.
So, what made an artist want to become an ambassador? “I wanted to be an ambassador,” explained Astari, “because it’s also a form of art namely the art of diplomacy. Really, you need to be very creative to make the relationship between two countries truly work well. And I wanted to do something for my country. President Jokowi is very good at briefings. He told us that Indonesia has a strong base with 270 million people and that by 2030 it is expected to have the 4th largest economy in the world. He said that we must stand out as a G20 member. We must be in the forefront. No more sitting around doing nothing! And I like that. It’s a challenge!”
Astari felt that the best way to promote Indonesia would be through its rich culture and civilization. This led Astari to embark on an ambitious series of cultural programs. She says that she felt Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia were Western countries but that a part of their soul was also Eastern. Thus, making her task far easier. Also, it has the same national motto as Indonesia. Their motto is United We Stand Stronger whereas Indonesia’s is Unity in Diversity. “Through cultural diplomacy I was determined to establish people to people contact. I wanted people to see, hear, taste and feel Indonesia through different events and festivals.”
Two important cultural events that she created and held every year were first the Wonders of Indonesia Festival and the other was the Asian Festival at Borisova Park which is attended by over 10,000 people, with 16 Asian countries participating. It was Astari who approached the other Asian embassies in Sofia to participate in the event which was attended by the President of Bulgaria. At these festivals she held exhibitions of Indonesian crafts, jewelry, textiles, art, food, performing groups, films and cultural activities. Many embassies have been inspired by the Indonesian Embassy’s activities. “Such events promote Indonesia and if you promote your country well then usually tourism, investment and trade with your country tends to increase– as we have seen in Bulgaria,” commented Astari.
The National Art Gallery of Bulgaria was once the former royal palace of Bulgaria, and the collection was moved there in 1946, after the abolition of the monarchy. The director of the Gallery, Iaroslava Boubnova says that it is the oldest museum for fine arts in Bulgaria and mostly houses paintings and sculptures, but also prints, drawings, textiles, jewelry, ceramics and other fine arts objects. Astari has very much enjoyed working together with this museum in the course of her cultural diplomacy. For one of their contemporary art exhibitions she brought over art work from 6 artists of the Eve Group of Indonesian women painters which had exhibited at Indonesia’s National Gallery.
Despite her busy schedule as an ambassador Astari still found time to paint on Sundays and she participated in three contemporary art exhibitions at the National Art Gallery of Bulgaria. One of her paintings is a collage which includes a photograph of former President Soekarno when he visited Bulgaria as well as a photograph of President Jokowi when he visited Bulgaria. “Their paths crossed in Bulgaria,” Astari commented, “and since Bulgaria is a Christian land I painted a crossed line with a Muslim inscription at its centre side by side with a miniature Buddhist Borobodur temple as a symbol of tolerance. I also found some old newspapers from the 1950s and used them in the painting”.
Iaroslava Boubnova believes that Astari Rasjid’s policy is absolutely right. She says, “We do not have a wide representation of culture from distant countries other than at the museum and so I was impressed that Ambassador Rasjid gave grants for young Bulgarians to study Indonesian culture both in Bulgaria as well as in Indonesia. This included Indonesian dance performances by young Bulgarians and they have performed already three times at our museum.”
However, Astari also wanted a way to permanently exhibit Indonesia’s rich and vibrant culture and civilization. At the National Gallery’s international section there are more than 12,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures and other items from all over the world. From Southeast Asia there are pieces of Buddhist art from Myanmar and Laos but nothing from Indonesia. So, Astari decided to personally donate nearly 30 Indonesian art objects to the museum. “Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi was scheduled to visit Sofia and I thought that a donation to the Gallery would be perfect as Indonesian heritage and civilization would then be on display all the time,” said Astari.
The event which was held last September was inaugurated by Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi together with Bulgarian Minister of Culture, Boil Banov who accepted the donation. The occasion was witnessed by Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister, Ekaterina Zakharieva and the Foreign Minister of Norway, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide who happened to be in Bulgaria at the time. A lot of women but as Astari says she enjoys working with women especially Ibu Retno who is very supportive but also tough and dynamic.
Iaroslava Boubnova says, “Bulgaria has been on the crossroads of culture between East and West since antiquity and because of this the National Gallery has been collecting items from all over the world. We have rich collections of sculptures from India and Japanese prints of Ykioe from the 18th and 19th centuries but never anything from Indonesia. So, when Ambassador Rasjid donated 30 antique objects including batiks, songkets, sculptures from Papua, masks, jewelry and musical instruments the Ministry of Culture was extremely grateful, especially for objects of such quality and diversity. The last time we received such a donation was nearly 30 years ago.”
Astari’s term as ambassador is coming to an end. What are her plans for the future? “I am an artist so I’ll start working again. I am happy to have done something for my country and hope it was meaningful and perhaps I shall write a book about my experiences as ambassador,” she says with a smile. And her advice to other women hoping to make something special of their lives: “Don’t worry about failing. You get their eventually and don’t be afraid to stumble because that is often where your treasure lies. Every moment is special…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)