• Dedy Satya Amijaya from East Java (left) and Alfira dance on the shores at Yirrkala, northeast Arnhem Land (Facebook)
Indigenous Australians and Indonesians are reigniting past ties through traditional dance in Arnhem Land.
By
Andrea Booth

5 Nov 2015 - 1:48 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2015 - 8:41 PM

The relationship between Australia and Indonesia has been characterised by a certain caution in recent times.

From the hostility that spurt forth when the Australian Defence Force arrived in East Timor in 1999 as Indonesia's militia sought to prevent its effort towards independence, to the hurt Indonesia expressed after its southern neighbour was found to have spied on former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2013, it has not been unusual for tension to exacerbate.

Fast forward to 2015, Australians and Indonesians alike felt a fresh spate of anger when President Joko Widodo ordered the executions of drug convicts Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from Sydney who had long been on death row in Bali. 

However, Indonesia and Australia has experienced a more mutual history. From about 1700, the Macassan people from the southwest of the island of Sulawesi began traveling on boats to Arnhem Land to trade with the Yolngu people there.

Yolngu and Makassar trade pre dated colonisation

The main item of trade was the trepang (sea cucumber). Once Macassan fishermen collected and dried the trepang, which they did so every year, they departed on their boats to trade it with China. But they didn't leave without giving the Yolngu people metal, which they used for blades to hunt and practice art.

The trade, however, was not to last, and in 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia banned the exchange, citing "territorial integrity", says the Australian Government.

Now, Suara Indonesia Dance, an Australian-based Indonesian dance company, East Java performer Dedy Satya Amijaya and Yolngu artist Rosealee Pearson, who has Macassan heritage, are conducting Indonesian cultural dance workshops with children from communities Nhulunbuy and Yirrkala to reconnect the cultures.

Murtala (front) shares Indonesia's Randai dance from West Sumatra with Yolngu children

A Yolngu child and Alfira from Suara Indonesia Dance give each other a high five during a collaboration to build ties between Indonesia and Australia

Ms Pearson says the Reconnecting Our Connection project, backed by Yirrkala cultural preservation organisation The Mulka Project, the Australian Council for the Arts and Australia-Indonesia Institute, has been enriching. 

"It has been such a pleasure to work with Suara and Dedy, and the community has come alive with music and dance from [one of] our closest neighbours," Ms Pearson said.

Children from Yirrkala Community School, Nhulunbuy primary and high schools, and Anglicare Northern Territory Gove Peninsula After School Care have spent the past week embracing traditional Indonesian dance from Ratoh Duek, a sitting-body percussion dance from Aceh, to Randai, a martial art-based dance from West Sumatra.

The initiative culminated in a performance at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, on Thursday evening.

A Yolngu child and Alfira from Suara Indonesia Dance give each other a high five during a collaboration to build ties between Indonesia and Australia

Suara Indonesia Dance artistic director Alfira O'Sullivan, whose mother is Acehnese and father Australian, told NITV the project, which also includes choreographer Murtala from Aceh, had been a long time coming.

"I am very excited about the collaboration and connecting with the local community here in Yirrkala and Nhulunbuy," she said.

A Yolngu child and Alfira from Suara Indonesia Dance give each other a high five during a collaboration to build ties between Indonesia and Australia