Before I left Indonesia to finish my degree abroad 13 years ago, I met an artist from Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi, during the Nur Gora Rupa art festival in Surakarta, Central Java. He invited me to his hometown.
I didn’t go simply because the place existed beyond my imagination. More than a decade ago, Sulawesi was not on the map of the Indonesian contemporary art scene.
Today, the situation is quite different.
Over the past several years, a few local artists have traveled outside the island to study or do internships at the studios of prominent artists such as Bagong Kussudiardjo in Yogyakarta and Nano Riantiarno in Jakarta.
Returning to their hometowns, they found positions in the local government or became independent artists. These artists have become the patrons or tutors of younger artists in Central Sulawesi.
One such artist is Suaib Djafar, a dancer-choreographer who works as an officer at the provincial culture and tourism office. Under his direction, Central Sulawesi has become one of the most vibrant cultural centers in Sulawesi today.
A few years ago, he organized a cultural festival at the regency level. Thirteen regencies in the province take turn in hosting an annual cultural festival. He also organized the province’s main festival, Pekan Budaya Sulteng, or the Central Sulawesi Cultural Festival.
This year, the festivals were held in Poso and Tojo Una-Una regencies. What made the festivals special was the choice of venues: beautiful Lake Poso and the Togean Islands.
Poso is known as the site of bloody sectarian conflict. I traveled from Palu to Poso by car with Ola, a well-informed local photojournalist, who covered the conflict for many months. Ola turned my trip to the Togean Islands into a dramatic experience.
On the way to Poso, we passed by sites where bloody clashes took place. Ola kept telling me what happened to him during those tragic days. The stories he told were overwhelming.
I could not digest how people could harm their friends, neighbors or even members of their families simply because they had different faiths. On my journey, I found mosques, churches and even Hindu temples next to each other; the people who were involved in the conflict had known each other for many years.
When we stopped for Friday prayers in the area, I ate at a small Manado restaurant and asked the owner how could conflict have broken out in such a peaceful neighborhood. Locals were provoked by outsiders, he answered.
The fact that the houses of worship were built next to each was proof that people of different faiths had lived in harmony before. Therefore, the instigators had to be outsiders.
A cultural festival was recently held in Tentena city. This year, it was titled the Peace Festival.
After spending a night in Tentena, we traveled another four hours by land through Ampana and another two hours by boat to the scenic Togean Islands.
I never dreamed I would see such a beautiful place. Many Indonesians know that the country has more than 17 thousand islands. But the knowledge means nothing until we see the beauty of those islands.
Togean is indeed a perfect miniature of the archipelago. It is comprised of about 400 small islands located within an enclosed area. Therefore, if you go to Togean you will be sailing between many small islands, as if you are in dream.
If you come and see the archipelago, you will be among a very few lucky Indonesians, indeed.
What makes the Togean Islands even more beautiful is, of course, the marine life. A few foreign tourists have already discovered Togean’s beauty as a diving spot. One island, Wakai, is home to the well-known Bajo sea-faring people.
The Bajo are considered to be the world’s best fishermen. Not only are they able to catch fish in the deep sea without diving equipment, they are also able to swim long distances from village to village.
In their villages, sharks are pets one that one can find in front-yard pools. In the legends of the Bajo, a fish shaman can catch any fish a person desires.
In one small restaurant I ate a delicious red fish that I had never seen before in my life. Locals called this very expensive fish sunu.
The Makasarese restaurant owner said only the Bajo people could catch sunu, because this particular fish always hide among beautiful corals in the deep sea. Yet the fish shaman could get them simply by whispering in the deep water.
Arriving at Kedidire Island, the site of the Togean Cultural Festival, we were warmly welcomed by another unique fish. This time, villagers created ornamental fish for the much-anticipated and colossal sea parade.
— Photos by JP/Zainuddin MN