Natasha Tontey, Garden Amidst the Flame, installation view at Auto Italia (London, UK). Photo by Henry Mills

Thinking about ancestral history - talking to Natasha Tontey about her Indigenous roots

Issue no4
Aug- Sep 2023
inkomen & eindexamens 2023

Based on her ongoing investigation into the Indigenous culture of the Minahasa in Northern Indonesia, Natasha Tontey (Indonesia) proposes to engage with manifested beliefs and power structures through a queering approach and playful imagination. Her most recent video work Garden Amidst the Flame (2022) is currently on view at Stroom in Den Haag as part of the group exhibition From the Sea to the Clouds to the Soil.

—Nele Brökelmann I read that you describe yourself as a diasporic Minahasan, why?

—Natasha Tontey "Both of my parents are from Minahasa, but I was born and raised in Jakarta. The political situation, religious dogma and job opportunities at the time made my parents migrate from Minahasa to the capital. That somehow also wiped out the Minahasan culture, rituals and spiritualism, myth and ancestral knowledge in their upbringing. North Sulawesi, where the Minahasan live, is in the Northern part of Indonesia, near the Philippines. Now, I am based in Yogyakarta, which is, as Jakarta, situated in the Southern part of Indonesia. All the economic activities and opportunities are here, on the Java island. The notion of ethnicity in Indonesia, as an archipelago state, is very complex. So even when you live in Indonesia you are considered as member of the Minahasan diaspora, because there are so many ethnicities in Indonesia. For the Minahasan people, there even is a word for those of them who live outside the Minahasa land: Kawanua."

—Nele Brökelmann You know some of the Minahasan rituals, symbolisms and stories from your childhood, how did you experience them as a child?

—Natasha Tontey "To be honest, my parents are part of the generation that distanced itself from what is considered as ‘primitive culture’. There are many stories that I heard from my parents and relatives that sound magical and transcendental, though. For example, the stone economy: in the story nine ancestors are described who are gathered in the life-giving stone and these ancestors were practising land-commoning with stones. Also, there was the story of Watu Pinawetengan: where back in the deep time ancestors gathered, made a pact, and paying respect to the Earth through rituals. These stories were told to me as some kind of a deviant taboo, because they did not fit in the Christian narrative. They narrated the stories in ways that were supposed to make me afraid of the ‘primitive culture’ and thus follow the rules of Christianity. However, as a kid, I found these stories and myths really fascinating. In a way they actually made me less-Christian and the more they forbade me to go to the ancestral site, the more curious I became. I found that it’s about more than just a human–non-human relation: the stone determines their practice of commoning land."

Natasha Tontey, The Epoch of Mapalucene, installation view at transmediale 2021 (Berlin, DE), Photo by Luca Girardini

—Nele Brökelmann In your video work Garden Amidst the Flame, there is a very intriguing line: “How am I to tell you a story, if you don’t have a history?” - Is that related to your use of non-linear storytelling and the mixing of mediums?

—Natasha Tontey "This sentence is inspired by the Coelacanth as a species, portrayed as the fish-monster riding the motorcycle in the film. This kind of fish is very mysterious to scientists, because they cannot figure out how they are still alive today. So ‘history’ in that sense relates to this unwritten historiography of that living fossil, and even if it has not been written yet, you can always speculate. That is also what I am interested in in storytelling: a myriad of possibilities that are not constrained by a linear narrative or timeline. I am more drawn to circularity, and that goes well with all the different elements from my research that I want to work into the story. I am interested in so many things: music, cinema, storytelling, animation and performance. Most of the time, the work asks for a certain mix of mediums, like a potion with various ingredients of which each has a different function."

—Nele Brökelmann In your works, you also combine different layers of culture as the Indigenous, Christian and pop-culture elements. Is this mirroring what your daily environment in Indonesia looks like?

—Natasha Tontey "Yes, I am trying to compile what is popular and enjoyed by many Minahasan people throughout different times. The intro song of Garden Amidst the Flame (2022), for example, is Minahasan Christian music: a Disco Tanah (an Indigenous dance music style in Minahasa) that is remixed in the style of a Sunday school song. It is something with a very ordinary origin and that specific song went viral on TikTok. I find Minahasan Christian music very intriguing, especially because many Christians in Indonesia do not want to be associated with Minahasan ancestral culture. Through using this music in my work, I’m trying to explore dynamics as such in daily life."

Natasha Tontey, Garden Amidst the Flame, installation view at GHOST;2565 (Bangkok, Thailand). Photo by Op Sudasna

—Nele Brökelmann For a big part, Garden Amidst the Flame takes place in the room of the protagonist: a teenage girl. There are posters, as for example of the Spice Girls, who back in the nineties represented girl power, and a movie poster of the film Daisies (1966, Czechoslovakia) by Věra Chytilová, in which the two female protagonists are playing with how they are supposed to behave. I am assuming that these references are placed intentionally?

—Natasha Tontey "Indeed, that is intentional, and Daisies is one of my favourite films, so it is a bit of an homage to it. There are a lot of East-Asian and Western figures in the room, and a Minahasan beauty pageant who later turns into a problematic political figure in Indonesia. Divine, an American actor, singer and drag queen, is on the girl’s phone case, they are shaving their eyebrows, are playing with makeup and are taking selfies. This is all part of the character building in the film. The film itself portrays a coming-of-age story that is based on my experience of performing Karai, a Minahasan coming-of-age ritual. It was important for me that the protagonists in this film are children, because children often appear powerless, especially in societies that see adults as the rulers. Children also have a young spirit and I think their imagination is limitless."

—Nele Brökelmann Is the long-term research into Minahasan culture for you a way to connect with your own roots?

—Natasha Tontey "Yes and no at the same time. Growing up in a metropolitan city like Jakarta most of the knowledge and culture that I know is rooted in the hegemonic Western system of the Indonesian state. At first, I was really fascinated by the gift economy of the Minahasan, but then I shifted my attention to the ancient practice of kinship with stones. In the Minahasan origin story, the first person to live was Karema, a woman who gave birth to her daughter Lumimuut through a stone. The stone itself is a symbol for eternity, and is the home of the moss and other small entities, like micro-organisms. Stone is the most important inorganic material in this world and it is made by minerals, those minerals we humans also contain. After participating in many ritual ceremonies, I found myself thinking about such ancestral (hi)story and not so much about my own roots or identity as Minahasan. So I met, talked, and engaged with the Minahasan community to come to understand the connection between the contemporary world, the ancestral knowledge and ceremonies. I found that most of the Minahasan practices are being marginalised because of institutionalised religion and the rules of the state. This was the moment I started to also question my own roots."

Natasha Tontey, Ancestral Ghosting, video still

—Nele Brökelmann For your field-research and the making of the works you immerse yourself in the Minahasan community. It seems to be a real long-term investment of yours. What does that process look like and has the community ever rejected an idea or work of yours?

—Natasha Tontey "Using the word ‘investment’, to me, makes it seem that I expect reciprocity, while this is part of my own journey in understanding ancestral knowledge. Most of my friends in the Minahasan community who are serious about ancestral practices see me as a perpetual student. Some of them think what I am doing is funny, some of them see it as another poetic way of meeting the ancestors, and some think it is wild, but most of them are quite supportive. Out of respect for the Minahasan, every time I want to make a work based on their practices, I ask the ancestors for permission through a ritual. Since I cannot lay out every detail in such a ritual and my question has to be answerable with “yes” or “no”, I have to ask questions like: “Can I make a fiction out of it?” Speaking about rejection, that often comes from my family who really practices Christianity and Catholicism. They believe that I am practising blasphemy, am connected to the witchcraft of Minahasa and therefore will rot in hell. This is upsetting, for sure, but it triggers me to research even more on the ancestral knowledge."

—Nele Brökelmann Is that one of the reasons why you are employing a ‘queering approach’ in your practice?

—Natasha Tontey "The notion comes from the thought or question from my field-research: “If the first human person of Minahasa is a woman named Karema, why do the rituals in the 21st century still heavily rely on heteronormativity?” The Karai ritual, for example, promises invincibility as it is usually performed by warriors before going into battle. Afterwards, the Waraney or warrior eats an ancient porridge dish, Tinutuan – just as the girls in Garden Amidst the Flame after returning from the ceremony. The act of eating this soft comfort food instead of something meaty or greasy before engaging in a very masculine-framed activity like war is fascinating to me. I want to investigate this turn in the rituals and create counter-narratives that first and foremost explore and clearly sketch other and more trusting futures. This queer vision of a future may not hold invincibility, as the Karai ritual promises, but it offers other means of storytelling, new accesses to ancestral knowledge and transformative powers throughout time."

Natasha Tontey, The Epoch of Mapalucene, installation view at transmediale 2021 (Berlin, DE). Photo by Luca Girardini

—Nele Brökelmann I read that the group of children that we see in Garden Amidst the Flame is already a dance group performing Minahasan rituals. How did you find them?

—Natasha Tontey "Their group name is Kawasaran Wulan Lengkoan. I met them through a friend who lives in Sonder, a town in Minahasa, who introduced me to them just a few moments after my first Karai procession. That particular friend is one of the spiritualists in Minahasa. He is working as a translator of the medium during rituals and they thought that I would be interested in sharing my experience with the children. When I met them, I felt so lucky, because I had the sudden idea to make a film and I always wanted to make a film with an all-girls cast, especially in Minahasa. Between the 6th and 7th century, before the colonisation, the power shifted from the female-centred storytelling to a male-centred one. After that, the rituals became more and more mainly performed by men and it is still developing in that direction nowadays. Garden Amidst the Flame is an attempt to approach this (hi)story critically, from a childlike-imaginative perspective. To enhance this perspective I play with recurring elements as stretched-out tongues and shimmering effects that can be perceived as scary, magical, dreamlike and soft. It is surely not a polished film, it has old-fashioned practical effects, like the drawn fire attached to bamboo-sticks. So it is wacky and whimsical, but also serious."

—Nele Brökelmann How much of your personal experience flows into your work?

—Natasha Tontey "The script is inspired by multiple things. One of the Kawasaran dancers, Chelsie Singon, repeatedly mentioned that she is afraid that her mum looks like Herod the Great when she is angry. In Minahasa, most of the daily jokes are related to biblical figures or stories. It is ironic, but that is how it is. The sword with the engraved double-headed serpent called Rembet mi Wailan is the one I got after my Karai procession. There is also a rooster in the film. For the ritual I had to accomplish some tasks, one of them was to do fasting and bring a dark-feathered rooster. It was intense, solemn, magical, and sublime at the same time because the spiritual leader, called the Walian, hit the rooster’s neck with the sword. The Walian also hit me and everyone else who participated with the sword on the neck, arms and stomach. Another thing is the dialogue in the car, when they are driving to the ritual site in the forest, the journey of going into Karai is being described. Women are banned from the ritual, especially when they are on their period. On the day of my Karai ritual I had my period, so the text really is based on my field diary. I was really afraid that something bad would happen to me because of that. Afterwards, I was sure that it does not matter, because I experienced myself and I was ok."

Natasha Tontey, Garden Amidst the Flame, installation view at Auto Italia (London, UK). Photo by Henry Mills

—Nele Brökelmann There was another name, Opo Empung, and line, “Alienation on a Western scale is not possible,” in Garden Amidst the Flame, that stuck with me. What are you aiming to convey with such elements?

—Natasha Tontey "Opo Empung is what we call (and could be translated as) the Supreme Cosmic Being. In the film I am actually making my own new translation, because literature translations from Minahasan ancient language to Indonesian language mostly happened through Dutch and later through English. What the missionaries do when they go to the Indigenous communities to teach religion is that they make a dictionary. In my imagination and fictionalising thinking, it would be really great if the Indigenous community would have a communication method that is impossible to transcribe. I even feel this tension myself when I am making subtitles for my films. That specific line, “alienation on a Western scale is not possible,” is from Marianne Katoppo, a Minahasan radical feminist theologian, philosopher, and novelist. In terms of context, I thought it was really fitting to use this quote from her as a reflection toward myself: I am a product of Western and Indigenous culture, a hybrid creature, that sometimes cannot be comprehended by Western scales or measurements based on rationality."

—Nele Brökelmann Did taking part in the Karai ritual change something for you?

—Natasha Tontey "That is a very hard question. After the Karai ritual I had to follow a lot of rules, as for example not hating others. I realised that not hating others really means that you need to put yourself and care about yourself first. In the end that is how I see the Karai ritual now: it brings about a different kind of compassion and speculative care. The ritual with the swords and the fasting seems very scary at first, but it has this meaning that touched me deeply."

From the Sea to the Clouds to the Soil is on view until December 18th in Stroom, Den Haag. 

Nele Brökelmann
is a visual artist

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2023