Interview: Rani Pramesti

Born: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia; moved to Australia around 13 years old

Currently living in: Kulin country (Melbourne, Australia)

Find her: Website Instagram | www.thechinesewhispers.com

Quick things: Rani Pramesti is an artist based in Australia, and her work touches on intercultural storytelling and draws from her background as a Chinese-Javanese-Indonesian woman. Her debut performance installation, “Chinese Whispers,” based on her experience and work on the May 1998 riots, has since been adapted into a digital graphic novel that is accessible in English and Bahasa Indonesia. The first U.S. screening of “Chinese Whispers” (English version) takes place Sunday, July 28, at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in Oakland, California. 

(Photos courtesy of Rani/Headshot of Rani taken by Leah Jing McIntosh)


Editor’s note: You can watch “Chinese Whispers” here. Content warning for violence, particularly sexual violence. 

Q: What kind of stories did you grow up with?

It’s only in hindsight that I realized that my mother is a natural storyteller. She told stories as I was growing up and, back then — maybe this is a Virgo thing — but whenever she told stories, I’d be like, “That’s not true! That didn’t happen! Stop exaggerating!” But, in hindsight, now I realize she’s just a natural storyteller, so that she can entertain people. So, I grew up with stories from her about our family, my ancestors generations back. She also was a big part of growing a love of reading in me. I read a lot about different cultural mythologies. I had a lot of books about Chinese mythology, Indonesian mythologies, Greek mythology — all kinds of stories.

Q: From a young age, did your family talk about history/politics?

‘98 was a big turning point for our family because I remember, as a child, when my parents and their friends would come over to our house to get dinner, politics was something that was only very hush-hush talked about; it wasn’t very comfortably talked about because it was during the Suharto regime. So you had to be careful of what you said and when you said it, even if you were in your own homes.

But ‘98 was a big turning point because then, my mother was invited to join — it became an organization but at the time, it was a movement of women across different classes. They banded together to form Suara Ibu Peduli; they were a huge part of, some would say, starting the street protests in ‘98 and encouraging the students in demonstrating out of the campus and onto the streets. Then my house hosted some meetings with these women, these activists, and then it was a very different time.

I would sometimes go into the office with my mother and help with admin stuff, to type up some reports or whatever. At the time, I also remember there was a lot going on in East Timor, and I remember that the office had hosted a whole group of East Timorese refugees. So ‘98 was a big turning point in terms of talking openly about politics.

An excerpt from “Chinese Whispers.” (Courtesy of Rani)

Q: I read that you left around the time you were 12, and you saw smoke burning in the city during the ’98 riots. When did you start learning about what had happened?

I think there’s different phases of learning and different steps into being able to articulate my version of what the story was. Because of my mother’s work, I was quite immersed in what was happening while it was happening, and at the same time, of course, my mother and father tried to protect me from that as well. Because she had her ear to ground on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis, she would often be the one to tell my school to close and send people home, because things were so unstable.

I remember she would pick me up from school, and then we’d be home for days on end. It was on one of those days that I climbed up the water tower at home and there was a supermarket, that I had discovered later, that had been completely torched inside-out, close to where we were. As a child, when your mom picks you up from school and says it’s not safe to be there, and you’re home for days, I did understand that it was very unsafe at the time. And then my mom was still going to work at Suara Ibu Peduli, and she asked me…to listen to the radio and follow moment-by-moment what was happening, because she said it would help them with their work. So I remember listening to that, as a 12-year-old, and jotting it down, so I understood things were happening.

But getting the historical context was much later on. It was at university, it was doing everything to learn about the history of Chinese-Indonesians, but more like Chinese migration into Southeast Asia, and kind of connecting the dots that way. Because the riots weren’t just against Chinese-Indonesian people; there was definitely targeting, but the people who were victims were people who were considered expendable. So, yes, Chinese heritage people, but also poor people.

Q: Your work with “Chinese Whispers” first opened in Australia. What was that experience like? 

I think being in Melbourne gives me the illusion that I’m safer to make this work, because there’s a bit of distance. But, safety and security, I feel like both are illusions. But it gave me enough space to do the initial research and work, and then I realized I wanted to talk about May ‘98. It gave me the distance that it was probably safer for me to do the work here than to do it in Indonesia. But there are a lot of artists in Indonesia who have responded to May ‘98. There is work being done there, there are people doing that, but I think someone like me, of my particular experience and racial identity, it was important to do the work outside of Indonesia first.

And over here (in Australia), there’s quite a Chinese-Indonesian community, and some of them after ‘98, so I made sure to reach out to those communities. And I especially reached out to the younger generations, who might’ve been babies, or weren’t even born, or were toddlers when they came here. At the time, it was a performance installation of “Chinese Whispers,” and it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my recent life, when they came out from the “Chinese Whispers” labyrinth and thanked me — their parents never talked about what happened or gave a suppressed version — so they thanked me because they felt like now they had a story that they could pass on to the next generation. So it was quite necessary, for me personally, to do it in Australia first. And then, it ended up being a meaningful intergenerational conversation that happened.

And then, I got really frustrated with how few people could experience the work, because the performance installation was very intimate. You enter into a labyrinth one by one, and you’re guided through with a 40-minute audio composition, and it’s quite a solitary, meditative journey. So, by default, only a few people can experience it in any particular space and time. So that’s when we started working on the digital graphic novel adaptation.

An excerpt from “Chinese Whispers.” (Courtesy of Rani)

Q: What I really liked about the digital version was that I could finally experience it, and it felt like I wasn’t watching it alone. It felt community-oriented. What has been your experience so far of tapping into and building community? 

The reason why I started the research for “Chinese Whispers” was because I felt really lonely, and culturally and racially isolated. The formal training that I did when I moved to Melbourne was in dramatic arts and, you know, there were probably three people who were Indonesian who’ve done that training. There’s not that many. It’s a really predominantly white institution, and it’s a predominantly white arts and culture sector here. So some of my experiences were really isolating.

I had finished my training at the Victorian College of the Arts, and I just really, really needed to tell stories that had to do with my cultural heritage, and I really needed to connect with people who were of my cultural background. I was really hungry for that. So I met a Chinese-Indonesian man at a panel I was doing; we had a really nice conversation, and then I told him about a project — at the time, it wasn’t about ‘98 but about migration across Indonesia and Australia — with other Chinese-Indonesian women.

It was from there that he introduced me to other Chinese-Indonesians, mostly organized through Catholic groups, which was pretty funny because since moving to Australia, I hadn’t been that religious or practicing any religion. And then, suddenly, I was going to church a lot — it was like every week I was going to church. To be honest, I did really like that sense of community, that was really lovely. And then I really like singing, so I was like yes, church songs! And then I started meeting other Chinese-Indonesian women, and that’s when the work started.

And, as you see in the graphic novel, slowly over time, I realize oh, hang on, I don’t want to talk about this big, general topic of migration. I actually want to talk about May ‘98. And then, it was reconnecting with those women and asking for their permission, because the focus of the work had changed, and everyone generally said yes. So that process was interesting because I’m not this church-going person, and I did slowly stop going.

Q: What has your experience been like going back to Indonesia as an artist?

It’s an ongoing relationship that I have with Indonesia. I’m trying to meet it at how complex it is. A lot of my battles in Australia are very much shaped by the ongoing colonization of the countries here. Whereas when I go to Indonesia, because I’m immediately seen and labeled as “Chinese,” people always say to me like, “Oh, kirain mbak ni orang Cina.” That’s like a daily thing, the othering dynamic.

In 2017, I spent six months there, which is how the digital adaption really got its legs. I’m a big believer of that stretchy, expansive time that’s necessary for creativity to actually have the possibility of being activated. So I’m interested in continuing in that way, with relationships in Indonesia. I’m interested in spending more time in Toraja, which is where my stepfather is from. My mother is doing a lot of community-based work there, and in September, I’ll be bringing a group of Australian artists there, kind of as an artist residency. It all fell into place. We’re gonna spend two weeks in Toraja with the hopes that it becomes an ongoing relationship with the communities of dancers, musicians, carvers, poets. So, long-term relationships is where my head is at with Indonesia, which is where it’s always been anyway.

The “Chinese Whispers” grand launch in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 2018. (Courtesy of Rani)

Q: So “Chinese Whispers” is coming to the U.S….

It’s the first time we’re doing an event in the U.S.!

Q: Tell me more about it! 

I’m a bit nervous. I met Inno (Innosanto Nagara) at the Ubud Writers Festival last year, and he was like, if you’re ever in San Francisco, Oakland, let’s do something together. And then, suddenly, there was an airfare sale, so I bought tickets and said, um, Inno, you know that thing you said? Let’s do it.

Then we got support from the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. We got this 300-seat auditorium, and I was like, are you sure? That’s going to be a lot of people. So, I’m a bit nervous about it, but we’ve got a lovely set of volunteers who are really getting the word out there. After the screening, my aunt, Nina Jusuf, who co-founded the National Organization of Asian Pacific Islanders Ending Sexual Violence (NAPIESV) will facilitate a conversation with myself and the audience.

[Editor’s Note: The U.S. screening is co-sponsored by NAPIESV, Banteay Srei, Center for Asian American Media, AAPI Women Lead, Kearny Street Workshop, APEX Express, and Design Action Collective.]

Q: What advice can you give to people interested in delving deeper into their histories?

Informed consent is a big part of my processes — as much as I’m able to secure informed consent, I will always touch base with that conversation with anyone who’s involved with my work. So, as I mentioned before, as the lead artist, when the intention for my work had changed, I had to go back to my sources to get their consent, because they had consented to one version of the work, about migration, but they hadn’t consented to the new work about May ‘98. So that’s a big part of taking care during the process, especially if you’re looking at a historical event that is so traumatic and continues to be an open wound.

This whole process has made me question the actual possibility for healing, especially when a wound has been inflicted and there was complete impunity. I think it’s unkind to expect healing can happen when there’s been limited recourse for justice. I think the individuals, the collectives who are acknowledging May ‘98 and the sexual violence every year, doing that work, they are part of how justice can look. But, in terms of there being a judicial process, an investigation, that hasn’t been there so by and large there has been impunity.

So, in terms of taking care, you know, to be honest, six years on, I don’t know that I would’ve concluded the work in the way that I concluded it in the current version, which feels a bit too neat, because actually, it’s not neat. So, maybe, that’s another way to take care in the process, like it’s OK for things to not be resolved, and that’s maybe more authentic and honest.

“Chinese Whispers” teaser trailer in Bahasa Indonesia. 

Q: What advice do you have for young people who are interested in creative work?

I think the first thing that I need to own up to is how I’ve been able to do the work as an artist for the last 12 or so years now. A huge part of it has been my class privilege — and that’s really prevalent in the creative industries, in my experience and also from what I’ve read. There’s an article I’d read where someone in the States was really transparent and outlined all the financial support they had gotten from their parents for their arts career, and it was almost half a million dollars. But I really appreciated their transparency because they outlined, “in college, my parents gave me this much every week; when I got my first job, they gave me this much” — it was so transparent, and I think in Australia, we’re so far from doing that.

So, I just want to be really clear that yes, I’ve been really focused, yes I’ve worked really hard, yes, yes, all of that, yes, but I have been able to do that, a huge part of that, is my class privilege. So, in terms of advice I could give to young people, I don’t feel like I can do that — I’ll share some thoughts, but I don’t feel like I can give advice because everyone’s context is so different.

In terms of sharing what I’ve learned, I think there’s different models and practices with how to make work and how to create, and that it’s OK to try to find the one that works for you.

Q: Any future projects and plans you can share about?

If people want to come to Oakland, 28 July, that would be awesome to meet everyone there. And then, we’ll be screening “Chinese Whispers” at Singapore Writers Festival in November, and then a festival in Melbourne, also in November.

I’m working on something at the moment, it’s not quite ready, but a resource, a survival toolkit for creatives of colour. So, be on the look out for that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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