Bridging a Cultural Divide Between Indonesia and the US
To the uninitiated, Rachel Cooper may seem like any other New Yorker, with her cropped blonde coif and slew of artistic comrades. In reality, Cooper is a performing arts presenter who has been deeply immersed in Indonesia’s art and culture for the last 30 years.
It is a love affair that stems far beyond her role as director of cultural programs and performing arts at the Asia Society — a New York-based nonprofit organization that encourages understanding between Asia and the United States by creating a dialogue through arts, culture, business and education.
Her breadth of knowledge and deep affinity for the country is highly regarded by her peers and collaborators. Rebecca Blunk, executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts, dubs Cooper an “Indonesianist” and credits her for helping put Indonesia “on the map for the US arts presenter community.” Fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, Cooper spent a good part of the 1980s in Jakarta and followed up her sojourn by coordinating the acclaimed Festival of Indonesia in the United States.
Cooper first had the opportunity to visit Indonesia at the age of 19, when she spent a semester at sea with World Campus Afloat, a study abroad program now operated by the nonprofit Institute for Shipboard Education. But it was at the University of California, Los Angeles, that her love for the country blossomed. She had enrolled in the university’s World Arts and Cultures program, which included the study of Indonesian dance, music and folklore.
“In my program at UCLA, we had extraordinary Indonesian teachers. And it really deeply affected me. I was able to go deeper [into the arts] through meeting them,” Cooper said.
Her studies led her to immerse herself in Indonesian performing arts, especially Balinese music and dance.
“[Balinese dance] is a really beautiful art form,” said Cooper, who has been a dancer since she was 5 years old. “There was something about the physicality and the action that really inspired me, moved me. I related to it and wanted to understand it better.”
But it was Bali’s gamelan music that remained with Cooper. In 1979, she established the Gamelan Sekar Jaya music company with Balinese performer I Wayan Suweca and musician Michael Tenzer. Based in San Francisco, the ground-breaking 60-member ensemble of dancers and musicians is still active to this day.
In the 1980s, Cooper relocated to Jakarta to study Indonesian and steep herself in the cultural scene. For five years, she collaborated with theater, dance and music groups and forged relationships with the country’s leading artistic talents.
“These are partnerships that go back decades,” said Cooper. “And I think that’s very meaningful. What’s really important to me about my friends in Indonesia, or my colleagues in Indonesia, is that we’ve been able to create lifelong friendships. You know you are connected for life.”
Cooper recalls the 1980s as a vibrant time for the arts in Indonesia. It was a period filled with cultural festivals and marked by an active theater community who made a home for themselves at Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta’s cultural hub.
“I really see the work done in Jakarta in the 1980s as being so ahead of its time. So few people realize what kind of artistic renaissance and defining contemporary work was going on there,” Cooper said.
“There were people like Putu Wijaya, Rendra and Teguh Karya and Arifin C. Noer doing theater work. People were really wanting to be involved with their roots and to create contemporary work that was authentically Indonesian.”
She is a great believer and advocate that “you have to be local in order to be global.” She proved her point by bringing in artists such as the Jogja Hip Hop Foundation to perform at the Asia Society’s New York headquarters in May. The foundation, a community of hip-hop artists, addresses the issues of blurred boundaries and globalization in a unique fashion — they rap primarily in Javanese.
“I know it’s something they’ve struggled with,” said Cooper. “In their generation, they feel like they want to be part of the global youth community, but they also want young people in Java to respect their language and appreciate the capacity of their language to be a part of popular culture,” she said.
“What’s so great in Indonesia is that you feel there’s a space that can embrace the old and the new, the very traditional and the rebellious. In Yogyakarta, you can go to the kraton [sultan’s palace] and see a bedoyo [a sacred court dance], which has so much of the values of the kraton culture. At the same time, you can go see the Jogja Hip Hop Foundation or Eko Nugroho’s project Wayang Bocor, a unique contemporary puppet performance work by a collective of Jogja artists.”
Last year, Cooper conducted a USA Presenter Indonesia trip, bringing nine American performing arts presenters for a tour of Jakarta, Solo, Yogyakarta and Bali. The group met with cultural figures and local talents, making connections that Cooper hopes will lead to future cultural exchanges within art institutions and collaborations. NEFA’s Blunk was one of those invited by Cooper to join the tour.
“It was simply not possible for me to pass up this opportunity — to be guided through Indonesia by Rachel Cooper who is so deeply knowledgeable and whose values and professional interests align with my own,” said Blunk.
“There was understanding that engagement through the arts with Muslim majority societies, like in Indonesia, could go a long way toward building positive relationships for the US.”
Upon her return to the US, Cooper was approached to coordinate the Festival of Indonesia, a project started by former foreign minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja. Taking place in the early 1990s, the festival presented 320 Indonesian artists in the United States, representing the country’s largest single performing arts touring initiative.
“The work that Rachel did with the Festival of Indonesia is a microcosm of her entire career,” said Jim Hogan, executive director of the California Youth Symphony, who had worked with Cooper on the festival. “Her real love for Indonesia and its people, coupled with her deep understanding of the culture, history and language has informed all that she has accomplished. She has done as much to promote real understanding between the peoples of Indonesia and America as anyone I can think of.”
Entering the folds of the Asia Society to produce and collaborate cultural programs with artists from all over Asia seemed a natural progression for Cooper. Since 1993, she has been a driving force at the organization, introducing and delivering Asian artists and performers to the US. One of the projects she is heading is the “Creative Voices of Islam in Asia,” a program that uses the arts to bring a deeper understanding of Islamic societies.
“The arts provide a lens, a way in to understand people, to feel people, and I really want to share something that I think imbibes deep value and great craft and the deepest capacity of human beings to create art,” Cooper said.
“And if you can share that and then use that as a way to talk about culture, differences and similarities — in some ways, I think it’s more memorable than reading a book or seeing a movie. There is something that hits you in your body memory, in your heart.”