The Story

Project Tobong began with an unorthodox and chance meeting of two photographic artists in a relatively remote area of Indonesia. What followed was a collaboration with unprecedented interest from the community, institutional support and international arts development on a scale neither artist could have anticipated. The three year project has enabled a new significance to be reflected upon an otherwise marginalised small traditional community in Java, eclipsed by the nation’s rapid growth. By bringing a global audience to their intangible heritage in a different country and city far away the story becomes somehow more dynamic and relevant again to the local community.

The Collaboration

Helen Marshall first met Risang Yuwono in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia where both had travelled to take photographs relating to the region’s funeral rites and rituals. Risang invited Helen to visit the Ketoprak Tobong Kelana Bakti Budaya in Yogyakarta. The plan for the project was conceived, and later she returned to Yogyakarta to work with Risang and the theatre troupe to create an exhibitions and events programme, website and publication.

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Image credit: Horniman Museum

Javanese Traditional Theatre

The present classical forms of drama and dance were created by the Islamic courts of Central Java over the centuries. They combined old indigenous traditions with mythical story material and classical dance technique from India. Yogyakarta and Surakarta in Central Java and the capital, Jakarta, in the western part of the island are the main centres of Javanese dance and theatre today.

For over a thousand years wayang kulit shadow theatre has been the core of Javanese theatre, influencing the development of other genres. Over the centuries the various sultanates with their kraton have developed their own art forms by adapting and combining ancient Hindu-Buddhist traditions in the spirit of Islam.

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The Ketoprak Tobong

Prak! Prak! Ke-tho-prak! A Javanese form of costume drama named onomatopoeically after a percussion pattern played on a hollow wooden box or keprak by a wooden mallet. It emerged suddenly in Yogyakarta in the mid-1920s in a time of political confrontation and involved the adaptation of cosmopolitan culture (Hollywood toga dramas, Chinese operas, Malay musical theatre) into local idioms.

The Ketoprak Tobong Kelana Bakti Budaya is one of the last remaining theatre troupes in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. The Tobong is a temporary building with no walls, constructed from bamboo, that can moved from place to place. It frequently combines stage, group of dwellings and auditorium. Ketoprak Tobong today can no longer live independently; globalisation, technological development and modernisation has made it too economically difficult.

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Social Enterprise

As part of Helen Marshall’s residency the artists worked with Via Via, an eco-tourist initiative that facilitated a tour for independent travellers interested in experiencing the art form as part of authentic visits to the site. Each tour ticket purchased was ten times the cost of a local audience ticket and proceeds were distributed amongst the community.

Arkom, a local community architecture organisation was invited to improve some of the living conditions on site, such as a toilet that visiting audiences could use. Since 2012 Arkom have worked further on site to rebuild and improve the theatre and living conditions, enabling larger audiences to attend performances.

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Photography Shoots

The artists documented the lives of this community and where they live on the outskirts of the city of Yogyakarta, spending a period of intensive residency with them over two months, and devised a series of constructed photographs or tableau vivant (living pictures), whereby each player was removed from his or her original context. They travelled into the city and beyond, finding the locations along the way. Each player developed a symbiotic relationship to the camera and responded to the environment using found props and often inviting passers by to be part of the improvised scene.

The artists took the photographs together alongside each other, directing or facilitating in turn the construction of a new photograph.

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Javanese Street Art

Jogja is one of the centers of street art in Indonesia. Over Christmas day and night the artists collaborated to make a representation of Project Tobong on the streets. Artists Digie Sigit, Adit HereHere, Wimbo Praharso Geurrilas, and Anti Tank created their own take on Project Tobong for a younger audience.

Prolific street art in Yogyakarta brings social issues to the foreground, Ketoprak Tobong theatre is also rooted in the community but set within tradition and is very much in the background. This collaboration enabled the art forms to come together, bridging a gap between generations and understanding. The artists were also invited to participate in the final exhibition and many young people attended to witness the theatrical performance.

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 iCAN Residency Yogyakarta

Helen Marshall chose iCAN based in Yogyakarta close to the site of the Tobong to host the project and develop her ideas for Project Tobong. Indonesia Contemporary Art Network (iCAN) promotes multidisciplinary dialogues between the visual arts and other divisions of the arts and sciences through art projects, research, and education. Helen was one of the first recipients of The Artists’ International development fund. The fund is jointly funded by the British Council and Arts Council England. The fund enabled her to germinate and nurture her collaborative work with key support.

The Artists’ international development fund offers early stage development opportunities for individual freelance and self-employed artists (including creative producers, publishers, curators and editors) based in England to spend time building links with artists, organisations and/or creative producers in another country.

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Gasworks Residency London

Gasworks’ Residencies Programme was established in 1994 to provide non UK-based artists with the opportunity to live and work in London for a period of up to 3 months. His first time outside Asia, Risang Yuwono was invited to spend his residency in the UK from November to December 2013. During his residency Helen co-hosted him by organising a series of networking events, meetings and participative activities with arts organisations, curators and galleries in order to develop the project and introduce it to new audiences. It was the first Indonesian artist residency of it’s kind in the UK. Risang was given a studio and accommodation and he returned to Indonesia with many new experiences.

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Exhibitions and Events

Project Tobong was first presented as a talk at SOAS University of London, co-hosted with ARTi UK as part of Indonesia Kontemporer 2012. The first photographs were presented at iCAN in Indonesia January 2013. The second stage of the project was hosted in London at Gasworks. Since then the project has been represented at Rich Mix, Photovoice PICS Festival, Delhi Photo Festival 2013 and the Kuala Lumpur Photo Awards and SEA Arts 2014. For the final stage of the project two exhibitions are launched here in the UK, at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool (16 May 2015 – 26th August), and the Horniman Museum in London in Autumn 2015.

A talks program, this website and a publication are being distributed for free. To find out more about the previous exhibitions, events and to attend a current or future exhibition or event or to get a copy of the publication: Read More

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