Socially Distanced, Culturally Connected

In September 2020, I was standing in front of social distancing signage by the Yarra River in Melbourne while making a phone call to Yoga Pratama, a young video and audio editor in Makassar, Indonesia. We were discussing the possibility of producing a virtual event to celebrate NAIDOC Week 2020 in Makassar. The distance between Makassar and Melbourne is 4,450 kilometres, but that afternoon I could vividly imagine that Yoga was standing in front of me pitching his ideas: “2020 is all about virtual experiences, so let’s create a virtual tour to connect Makassar and Yirrkala. In video editing there is a visual treatment called masking, where you put two pictures together in one frame and manipulate the audience’s experience so they see two objects or two people in one place. If we mask the footage from the art gallery in Rumata’ Makassar with footage from Buku-Larrnggay Mulka in one frame, we could create a memorable experience for the audience: they stay at home and visit two art galleries in two countries, while learning about the trepang industry in the past that connected Indonesia and Australia. How about that?”. His voice was full of enthusiasm.

The next day, I explained Yoga’s ideas to Siena Stubbs, a young Yolgnu artist working for The Mulka Project at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, East Arnhem Land. Both Siena and I could not help adding more ideas on top of Yoga’s original ideas to produce the virtual tour. We were thrilled to realise we could create two forms of digital content to celebrate NAIDOC Week 2020: first, the virtual tour and second, a video comic based on a Hetalia webcomic series titled MAAF, created by an Indonesian artist, Dania Sita. Hetalia is a genre of animated storytelling, first introduced by Hidekazu Himaruya in Japan, where characters are personifications of countries, and are used to explore both positive and negative cultural stereotyping. A few days before, I had explained to Siena that through the Global Encounters and First Nations Peoples project, we had found a webcomic depicting the friendship between a girl named Makassar and a young man named Yolngu. Every year, the girl sails to East Arnhem Land to catch trepang, and their cross-cultural friendship grows through these annual encounters. The artist, Dania Sita, loves history, and has created an ambitious webcomic titled MAAF about the Spice War in the seventeenth century, in which one chapter tells the story of the trepang industry in the northern part of Australia. MAAF (‘sorry’ in Bahasa Indonesian) has attracted more than 700,000 views since its 2010 launch on the online art platform DeviantArt.

Just like everyone who has been working from home, I could not avoid the subsequent boredom and confusion, while telling myself to stay positive and look for the silver linings in 2020. We are not okay, right? The world is not okay. Our health, physically and mentally, is our number one priority in a time of global pandemic. However, working from home while virtually connecting with Makassar and Yirrkala has taken me in an unexpected direction: in October I found myself leading a cross-cultural creative project with young artists based in three different cities in Indonesia (Makassar, Jakarta, and Sangatta in East Kalimantan) and in Yirrkala, NT. We found the initial information from a Google alert about the webcomic (thanks to our research officer David!), and with the help of Fikri Yathir, our research assistant in Makassar who worked tirelessly to contact the comic artists in Jakarta and East Kalimantan and then took on the role of project coordinator, we were able to run a series of workshops connecting Makassar and Yirrkala, to learn about their shared history and to produce digital content for NAIDOC Week 2020.

Dania Sita explains, “I am not a Makassan, and at the time when I produced MAAF, I didn’t have access to the Yolngu community. In 2011, when I developed the characters of Makassar and Yolngu and Australia, I relied heavily on the Internet. I read Campbell Macknight’s book The Voyage to Marege’ – just a few pages that I could access from Google Books for free – and I also read three other academic journals as my main references. When Fikri approached me to ask about remaking the chapter on Makassar, Yolngu and Australia as a comic video, and producing the comic with Yolngu artists… I was thinking it’s too good to be true, that I finally made an encounter with Makassan and Yolngu people!”

For six weeks, our small team in Jakarta, East Kalimantan, Makassar, Yirrkala and Melbourne worked to facilitate the cross-cultural workshops, asking questions like whether we should keep the koala in the comic or how Makassan people say thank you, learning everyday expressions in Yolngu Matha (Yolngu language), and agreeing to use Yolngu language instead of English for the Yolngu boy character.

Siena Stubbs and her team in Yirrkala are eager to continue working with the Indonesian artists on future projects communicating this shared but not well known history with the world. Siena says, “It was an amazing experience: over six weeks we came together via Zoom and learned about each others’ cultures. I was so grateful that we were able to be involved in this initial project, adding the Yolngu elements. Imagine, we recorded the audio here in Yirrkala, using our own language and recording skills, and sent the files over to Makassar where you guys put all the elements together – and we did this together amidst the pandemic!”

She continues, “Every year, I keep telling myself that as an Aboriginal artist, NAIDOC Week is a time for me to learn about other First Nations’ cultures in Australia. There are more than two hundred nations in this country, and my knowledge about other nations is still very limited. Who would have thought that in NAIDOC Week 2020, I would connect with you guys in Makassar and other parts of Indonesia to produce a digital storytelling project about Makassar-Yirrkala contacts?”

Roland Kelts is a visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo and an expert on Japanese pop culture. During the Comic Talk about MAAF hosted by Rumata’ Artspace in Makassar for NAIDOC Week 2020, Roland explained that, “the reason why manga or Japanese cartoon is so popular globally is because it is inexpensive to produce; it is a very effective medium in which to learn history. It was really fascinating to learn about contact between Makassar and Indigenous Australia through the comic video. I started to learn about Southeast Asian history, and a manga-inspired comic is a wonderful way to educate. It’s an ideal form to educate the young audience because of the visuals and use of humour. It allows us to enter the narrative with our imagination. It’s very appealing in digital format as well.”

Dr Lily Yulianti Farid


1.Comic Talk MAAF:

2.Makassar – Yirrkala Virtual Exhibition: