May 08, 2019
Fashion, Theatrical Performance and Activism in Fashion ForWords

Fashion ForWord combines fashion and theatrical performance to reveal injustice and raises social consciousness.

by Shafira Amalia, Reporter
Culture
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Caesar Abrisam stood proud on stage, modeling a sober white tunic and a sarong in the pastel colors of trans flag.

"Racism is a sin that came from the demons,” he recited. “Demons act like they are above humans because they are made of fire, while humans are made of soil. But Allah has said that all of his creatures are made equal," Abrisam said.

This was not your typical fashion show and Sam is not your typical model. A transgender activist (disclaimer: he is also a staff member of Magdalene), he is one of about 17 activists, factory workers, students, performance artists and members of the sexual and gender minority groups as well as more than half a dozen designers who took part in the opening of Fashion ForWords, a two-week long exhibition that combines fashion, literature, and social activism.

Sam and the five other people sharing the stage with him wore attires traditionally associated with Muslims but with a little twist such as the trans-colored sarong. They were designed by As-Salam Collective, a community that focuses on sharing the teachings of Islam through the perspectives of inclusivity and equality.

Sam took off his sarong to show a pair of pants beneath. Folding the sarong and placing it over one of his arms, he continued: "I am a transman. And I am a Muslim."

Caesar Abrisam, a transgender activist and staff member of Magdalene. Photo by Magdalene's team

When this performance was over, audience rose from their seats to give a standing ovation, many of them with teary eyes .

Fashion ForWords is organized by InterSastra and is part of the 2018-2019 Creative Freedom Festival. It is also supported by the Indonesian Art Coalition and the Royal Norwegian Embassy.

The festival is an initiative of author Eliza Vitri Handayani, who was concerned about rising conservatism that has led to the stifling of artistic and political expressions in Indonesia.

“I was at the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and was told that many sessions were cancelled due to objections from the police, including the launch of my novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different,” Eliza said, adding they found the novel too political.

As a protest, Eliza printed excerpts from her book onto the T-shirt that she wore throughout the rest of the festival. It was then that she realized the power in expressing herself through her clothing, and she decided to explore this further with other artists.

The idea of the show was to reveal injustice and express social consciousness through a fashion and theatrical performance. The performance and exhibition were curated by artist Ika Vantiani.

Eliza Vitri Handayani, a writer and initiator of Fashion forWords. Photo by Fashion forWords' team
 
Ika Vantiani, a self-made artist and art curator. Photo by Fashion forWords' team

Sharing the same stage with Abrisam was F.S Putri Cantika, a member of As-Salam Collective. She was wrapped in colorful tulle fabrics written with remarks like: “must protect her honor”, “can be in a poligamous marriage”, “must not work”, and “must obey her husband.”

Under the spotlight, she ripped out the tulle a piece at a time while shouting theatrically: “Women deserve to be cheated on! Women deserve to be harassed! Women deserve to be abused! Women have to cover up! Women have to stay quiet!”

When she has ripped the last piece of the written tulle, her black shirt revealed the writing: “Everybody is equal in the eyes of God.”

As-Salam Collective's models on stage. Photo by Fashion forWords' team
F.S Putri Cantika, a member of As-Salam Collective. Photo by Fashion forWords' team

Designer Aisyah Andamari focused on the politicization, monitoring and harassment of women’s bodies in the event.

“We keep being objectified – how can we feel safe or freely express ourselves? That’s the issue I want to raise,” said A. Andamari. The costumes she designed represented among others insecurity, self-reflection and self-love.

“You’re too fat! You have so much acne! You look disgusting with your skin color,” one of her models shouted at members of the audience to make her points.

Aisyah Andamari's models on stage. Photo by Fashion forWords' team

Another colorful performance showcased costumes designed by Wangsit Firmantika, a creative director in one of Indonesia’s retail fashion labels. His design is determined to break down the boundaries of masculinity in clothing.

“I bought clothes that were traditionally very masculine from popular stores like Pull&Bear or H&M, and then I added elements that were considered not ‘manly’ like faux fur and tutu skirts,” Wangsit said. “The idea is to deconstruct the rigid and over-glorified idea of masculinity and that men could be feminine too.”

A white tutu skirt wraps around a simple hoodie, for example. Another model wears a basic white shirt with the head of a teddy bear attached, matched with faux fur coat and shorts in bright purple and blue. The male models paraded their outfits while dribbling and passing a basketball between them.

Wangsit Firmantika's models on stage. Photo by Fashion forWords' team

No cheeks were dry as the lights came back on at the end of the show, as audience moved by the powerful performances and their messages. 

“This shows that we need more platforms that are as inclusive and free as this. No matter who you are, no matter what size, no matter what gender, what sexuality or what religion you are, you have the right to express yourself,” said Jodie Maran, one of the performers.

The exhibition takes place at Cemara 6 Gallery Museum in Central Jakarta until May 18.

Photo by Fashion forWords' team

Photo by Fashion forWords' team

Photo by Fashion forWords' team

Photo by Fashion forWords' team

After Women’s March what next?

Photo by Fashion forWords and Magdalene's team

Shafira Amalia is an International Relations graduate from Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung. Too tempted by her passion for writing, she declined the dreams of her young self to become a diplomat to be a reporter. Her dreams is to meet Billie Eilish but destroying patriarchy would be cool too.

Follow her on Instagram at @sapphire.dust where she's normally active.