The Art of Bilateral Engagement

By Jane Ahlstrand


When we talk about the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Australia, some of the usual suspects in our conversation include politics, security, trade and development.

Regrettably, these topics tend to be placed on a pedestal above all others and in doing so, we end up valorising government-to-government engagement (which I might add does not always occur on an equal playing field).


One very important area that is often overlooked in the pursuit of our neighbourly relationship is the Arts and the rich rewards that can be reaped through the people-to-people engagement taking place in this area now and into the future.


All encompassing

Let me first start by emphasising that the arts encompasses a very broad category of people, genres and traditions. It should not be either revered or reviled as an inaccessible world filled with pretentious people who spend their days creating deliberately incomprehensible and mystifying works for the pleasure of a select few.

On the contrary, artists are adaptable, experimental, and most of all, extremely humble people who view art as a vessel for communication.


I’d like to add that I apply this rather sweeping generalisation to both Indonesian and Australian artists. Through this shared purpose and natural flexibility, I strongly believe that Indonesian and Australian artists can together weave a far more colourful and collaborative relationship between our two countries.




Being an enthusiastic participant in the arts myself, performing and teaching Balinese dance in Australia and Indonesia, I have found that my activities have become extremely fertile grounds for relationship-building.


As a dancer and teacher, I have taught and performed with a wide range of delightful people, many of whom are young Indonesians who find themselves unexpectedly rediscovering their roots in Australia. It brings me great joy to help facilitate this empowering process as we learn and perform together for diverse audiences at a broad range of settings including but not limited to, schools, shopping malls, universities, galleries, temples and churches.


The process of learning, developing and performing together provides us with a common ground through which we forge strong bonds. Performing is no easy feat and we rely on each other’s support to get through tough challenges both onstage and offstage. The rush of performing is also something that we can experience together. While many of my students return home after graduating from university, I am sure that the memories we create together will last well into the future.


Breaking barriers

Art not only builds friendships but also breaks down barriers. Allow me to speak from personal experience once again. When I perform, I try my best to convey to the audience the beauty of the dance as well as the passion I feel in my heart. After a successful performance, I feel a certain buzz from the crowd and enjoy stepping out and mingling with audience members. Children as well as adults approach me asking questions about the dance, the costume and the makeup. It brings me great pleasure to divulge these previously mysterious details and also tell my story of how I came to fall in love with Balinese dance.


Public figures are not immune to curiosity either and when I perform at major events, I often have the chance to meet and greet them. I must mention that wearing my costume and makeup becomes almost armour-like in these situations, instilling me with the extra confidence needed to engage with these people. With the fantastic benefits that flow on from creative community engagement, it often saddens me that this world filled with beauty and good-will remains under-funded and under-explored in terms of our bilateral relationship.

While bilateral agreements focus heavily on trade, investment and security, a relationship devoid of exquisite beauty and inclusive rapport, to me, seems quite sterile. In this regard, I have two major hopes. Firstly, I dream that we can cultivate a more inclusive and respectful attitude towards the arts and artists. This means continued commitment to valuing, and showcasing their contributions. Secondly, my hope lies with the artists themselves. Being humble and idealistic, artists sometimes shy away from the spotlight and are often reluctant to engage in self-promotion.


I sincerely hope that artists can be empowered to realise their own agency as perpetual participants in public and political life, rather as producers of objects fleeting public consumption. This means a strengthening the voice of artists in public and political discourse.


Jane Ahlstrand is a Balinese dancer who teaches dancing. She’s also a PHD candidate at the University of Queensland working on her thesis about women in politics in Indonesia. Jane is a 2016 CAUSINDY delegate.