Performers dissect Indonesian American identity in the arts

Performers dissect Indonesian American identity in the arts

Mother-daughter duo Emiko Susilo and Ayu Larassanti, who are Indonesian American musicians and dancers, discuss the role of identity and heritage in their artistry.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)

Indonesian American Identity Today

For Ayu Larassanti, a third-year student in world arts and culture at UCLA, Bali has always been home, even though she grew up spending half her time in California. "As difficult as it is, I am a part of two worlds, but that’s why being Indonesian American is a privilege. We have a rich culture in Indonesia, but we also have access to opportunities and resources in the United States," said Larassanti.

The Association of Indonesian Americans, in collaboration with the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, held its first event of a summer speaker series on July 6, 2020. Over Zoom, the mother-daughter team, Emiko Susilo and Ayu Larassanti, spoke about their experiences navigating their Indonesian American identities and the role of Indonesian arts in the U.S.

When Larassanti mentioned the concept of privilege, Susilo, currently the Associate Director of Gamelan Çudamani, brought up the current Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism. She called for the Indonesian American community to come together to support the need for change and reform, but also to confront colorism within their own communities. "We have to come up with our own words to stop that," she said, referencing beauty standards and comments that encourage racist beauty ideals, "We can be loving and gentle, but we still have to stop that discrimination we have against one another."

Larassanti’s experiences echo her mother’s call to action. She is proud to be Indonesian American. But she talked about the importance of pursuing difficult conversations with her family and her struggles facing false assumptions about her ethnicity and homeland. 

"Bali to me is my home. It’s where my family is. It’s where I studied dance and music and go to temple. I speak the languages. The culture is a big part of my life. These are the things that are really important about Bali, rather than the beaches and Instagram photos. It’s about family and culture," she stated. 

Marrying Gamelan

Growing up, Larassanti connected with the artistic aspects of her heritage. She trained at Gamelan Çudamani in Bali and Gamelan Sekar Jaya in Berkeley. At UCLA, she took classes on Javanese dance.

Susilo also has extensive experience with Indonesian performing arts, which she admitted can be intimidating for someone to approach at first. "What’s really beautiful and powerful about the arts is about us coming together and learning," she added. "Don’t ever tell yourself you can’t play music or that you can’t dance."

She said there are numerous opportunities to engage with gamelan, from university gamelan groups to community organizations and artist group tours. As long as people also learn about the cultural context and history of the art form, she welcomes everyone. "Gamelan instruments are not just objects. They are spiritual beings in and of themselves." She laughed, "My partner always says I’m his fifth wife."

While rehearsals have been cancelled in Bali because of the coronavirus pandemic, especially since many live in multi-generational homes, musicians and artists are still finding creative outlets online. Susilo smiled, "Love and support the people that keep these traditions alive. That contributes to a healthy ecosystem that the arts can survive in."

Exploring More Representation

"How are we going to put people who look like me on screens?" Larassanti asked. "How do we share culture in a way that’s respectful and gets other people to respect us?"

In navigating these questions, Larassanti and Susilo excitedly announced that they have been collaborating with Ember Lab, a video game developer, on a new game, "Kena: Bridge of Spirits." The final music recording for the game includes several musicians from Gamelan Çudamani and incorporates many Indonesian instruments.

"Especially as young Indonesian Americans are seeing more representation of their culture in popular media, I feel that a lot of them will be excited to hear the music that they grew up with when they play this video game," reflected Larassanti. "I think it will be really special."