Indonesia’s creative economy, success and self-censorship

A thriving “creative economy” has developed over the past decade in Indonesia. Novelists, musicians and film-makers of all kinds have been able to take advantage of digital media to reach new audiences, particularly among the young.

A shining example of this is the hugely popular and critically acclaimed novelist, singer and songwriter, Dewi “Dee” Lestari. She has published nine novels, including the hugely successful Supernova series, Filosofi Kopi and Aroma Karsa, several of which have been made into popular films. Her fiction and songs blend spirituality, contemporary social issues ranging from sexuality to coffee culture and exquisite language. Interestingly, she has also successfully experimented with digital delivery of her work.

We were treated to a compelling musical story-telling performance of an extract from Aroma Karsa at Monash University last night. For a short taste, try this.

The rise of Indonesia’s creative economy is not just a story of an explosion of talented individuals and new technology, it also reflects the continued expansion of the middle class as well as the decline of government censorship that democracy brought to Indonesia.

In conversation Dee celebrated the dramatic rise of Indonesia’s creative economy, noting that it was now becoming possible for at least some fiction writers to make a reasonable full-time living. But a point that caught the attention of many in the audience was her reference to the rise of what she called self-censorship or civic censorship.

While creative artists may not have as much to fear from the government these days, harsh attacks on social media from groups in society opposed to the themes a singer or a film-maker or a writer might address are taking their toll. The same social media that is enabling creative artists to reach new audiences is also enabling those hostile to themes an artist airs to attack and vilify them.

Dee gave the illustration of responses to her engagement with LGBTIQ issues in Supernova, and went on to say that creative artists needed to resist the pressures for self-censorship. She hoped that by producing compelling and highly engaging work, creative artists would be able to get past those who sought to suppress them and still reach the audiences that clearly hungered for their work.

As the inspiring rise of Indonesia’s creative economy begins to gain international attention, we are also given another reminder of how digital technology and social media are at once enablers and inhibitors.

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