East Timor: Investing in Creativity and Culture

East Timor is known for its material, musical and dance traditions. Celebration of “culture” was a crucial part of its resistance to Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999, and East Timorese independence has seen a number of emergent cultural projects. But something that goes overlooked is a strong culture of craft and “making” with locally available materials.

Enter a new project called “Tatoli ba Kultura“, meaning “Passing on Culture”. The objective of the project, after extensive research and preparation, will be to support the development of a school of creative industries:

The project aims to create an institution to conserve and protect indigenous culture but also to bring creativity to an educational level in order to create innovation.

The coordinator of the project, David Palazón, is an artist who hails from Barcelona, Spain. He says:

Passing on culture

Passing on culture

By chance I came here [to East Timor] to have a break with my career, do some volunteering in my field, one thing led to another.

He has been crisscrossing the country with his team researching Timorese material and performance culture, and posting fascinating videos, images and audio on the Tatoli ba Kultura “media map”, which is fast becoming a great reference.

Some of the most compelling videos are of musical instruments which are region-specific. Take for example this video of a musical instrument called Rama from Ataúro Island:

The Timorese context is quite specific, argues Palazón:

Kultura is not quite the same as we understand culture in the western world. For Timorese, culture is all those things that comes from the past, it's a reference point to understanding where they come from. My most common question when I do fieldwork is: Why do you do this like this? And the reply is always the same: ‘Because it is the way our ancestors used to do it, and it has been passed on from generations.’ Obviously they have many influences from Indonesia, China, Portugal, etc … which are also rooted in the inside of the culture and are in practice totally embedded.

He says, in relation to innovation:

Traditionally speaking, Timor is still very much a country dependent on subsistence agriculture, the economy outside the capital is very much dependent on the family, their goods, what they can exchange, their family members and their incomes, and how these are distributed among who they choose in relation to their own traditions and beliefs. So in a way it is very conservative – not politically speaking – but because changing things implies a serious risk that many people cannot afford […] Nevertheless inside the traditional system there are people who are more progressive.

Ultimately, Palazón hopes that a school of creative industries would among other things generate employment through the rise of a “creative class”, increase small business development, and boost tourism.

Tatoli ba Kultura has the support of Griffiths University in Queensland, Australia and a number of institutional donors. Palazón paraphrases Griffiths Professor Tony Fry, who says, “Timor has two national resources: oil and culture. Oil will not last forever, on the contrary, culture will last forever.”

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