Centre and Periphery

IMG_3161-centreperipheryBy Nuraini Juliastuti

The well-known Indonesianist, Benedict Anderson, offers an interesting term concerning the concept of “center”. For him, “center” is like an image of a cone of light, which beams from top to bottom, from the power that dominates, regulates and unifies the state as a model of relations between state-rural and territorial sovereignity. Anderson uses the term to analyze the notion of power in the Javanese culture. Furthermore, he said that the Javanese rulers relate their power to the center of power and supremacy in the past, and the traditional state was determined by the borders of the center, instead of the periphery.

Later on, Philip Kitley referred to Anderson’s idea of the cone of light to understand the launching of Palapa sattelite in Indonesia and the concept of national audience which was set up by early Indonesian TV broadcast initiators (Kitley, 2001: 86-87). Kitley said: “Satellite, which statistically orbits above the Indonesian territory, is easily connecting to the most remote corners of the archipellago. Satellite is a manifestation of government centralization and reaffirmation of Anderson’s idea of the cone of light. The islands that were dispersed and spread out, were then unified within an unlimited electronic network. Thus, it eliminates space and accelerates time, and embrace the vastness and the diversity of Indonesia to become a whole, which clearly defines the position of the rural toward the center.”

Palapa made TV stations capable to unify the Indonesian people from Sabang to Merauke–as the national audience of the television of the Indonesian Republic Television, just as the other national symbols–flag, anthem, language–becomes a collective national experience. As Kitley said: television is designed to become a channel of daily manifestation of dramatization of collective cultural identity (Kitley, 2002: 50-51). The sense of nationhood and national identity was then presented very clearly through the formulation of TVRI programs, how TVRI distinguished the Indonesian nation from the other. This process, for Kitley, is obvious from looking at two issues: firstly, there was a tendency to be critical toward foreign programs for being ‘too Western’, unsuitable with original values and traditions. Secondly, there was a tendency to idealize the values of the ‘national’ films and programs, which worshipped Indonesian national culture, and forced national program to be relayed through provincial TV stations, which was assumed to be liked by imagined national audience.

We still surely remember the programs of TVRI which were strongly intended to remind us of the noble Indonesian identity such as the drama series Keluarga Rahmat (The Rahmat Family), the puppet show Si Unyil, teen series ACI (Aku Cinta Indonesia – I Love Indonesia), and also the special screenings of national films (relayed once a week), which was always opened with a song intro that bore such lyrics: “I love, You Love, Everyone loves, Indonesian made…”.

* * *

This issue of center and periphery brings us to the question of where the center actually is? Is it located on a sure position, for us to point at it clearly? Or is it on the contrary?

The following is my attempt to recall an interesting study done by Stuart Hall (1997), on Diego Velasquez’s painting called Las Meninas. This painting was among the collection of the Spanish empire, and was placed in one of the royal palace rooms that were then destroyed by the fire. The painting was dated 1656, and bore other names, namely, The Empress with Her Ladies and a Dwarf ; when it was rediscovered in 1666, it was the named A Portrait of the Infanta of Spain with Her Ladies in Waiting and Servants by the Court Painter and Palace Chamberlain Diego Velasquez . This painting was later on called Las Meninas – The maids of Honour . Michel Foucault had also used this painting to analyze how a discourse operated – along with other issues – in his book, The Order of Things (1970).

Las Meninas shows a scene of a room, which was probably one of the rooms of the Spanish royal palace. On the left, there is a figure of a painter, most possibly Velasquez himself, painting a picture. His hand holds a brush, and he is staring at his model, who sits on the same positions as the beholder of the painting. We can not tell whose picture is being painted, since we can only see the back of the painter’s canvas. “We are seeing a painting in which the painter is staring at us”, said Foucault (1970, p.4). Next to Velasquez there was the royal princess, Infanta Margarita, surrounded by a group of chambermaids, royal members, dwarves and a dog. They all seem to lay their eyes on the painting that is being done by the painter.

Who is actually the figure everyone on the painting is staring at? Whose face is it on Velasquez’s canvas, which seems to be prohibited for us to see? Who is the center of the painting?

Infanta Margarita is posited in the middle, but she does not seem to be the center. Las Meninas itself then, somehow shows us indirectly what is most possibly being seen by the figure, which is not presented very clearly on the painting.

On the back on Infanta’s head, there is a wooden-framed mirror, which reflects faces of none other than King Philip IV and his wife, Queen Mariana, who are most likely sitting at the same position as the one we, the beholders, are taking.

We cannot see what is actually being painted on the canvas, neither what is being seen by the figures on the painting, although it is clear that this is the main point of Las Meninas. It is present as well as absent. We can not see it since its presence is not represented directly. On the contrary, it is the absence that is being represented, reflected through the mirror image behind Infanta’s head. Here, the position of the center depends on how the beholder sees it. As Foucault said, the meaning of this painting is determined by the complexity between the presence (what is seen) and the absence (what is not seen).

Furthermore, Hall shows that the center position can also change. For instance, we can just say that the center of this painting is Infanta, since it is a fact that Infanta is indeed the figure on the middle of the painting, surrounded by figures of her chambermaids. But we can also claim that the center of the painting is King Philip and Queen Mariana. The mirror reflecting their faces indicates so; and also the fact that every figure on the painting is looking at them, at King Philip and Queen Mariana, who might be regarded more important than Infanta. So if we buy Foucault’s argument about there is never any singular nor final meaning, so in the case of this painting, there are two subjects, two centers, i.e Infanta and King Philip/Queen Mariana. Those two can switch positions as the center, depending on where we set our direction and position in seeing the painting.

If the mirror on the painting was real, so it supposed to reflect our faces, since we are standing at the position where every figure on the painting can see us. We can also take the position of the center. But the mirror does not reflect us at all. And at this point we realize that the figure that Velasquez picked as the center is the viewer who has total sovereignty (the Sovereign), who has the power to determine and choose who or what the subject of the painting is, and in whom pr what the painting is centralized.

* * *

A circumcision celebration party in a small town in East Java. A stage for dangdut performance was built at the backyard of a house. It was a crowded festivity, packed with audiences who were flocking around the edges of the stage. Inul Daratista sang and danced energetically. Began with reciting the Koranic verse: “Bismillahirohmanirrohim” (in the name of Allah the merciful and the compassionate), Inul sang and kept on shaking, while at times talking to the audience, or inviting two little boys–to whom the dangdut was dedicated–who were sitting on a chair behind the guitarist, to dance along. Next scene, a performance in a wedding party. This time, Inul sang in front of guests who were enjoying the served dishes, neighbors and audiences who came from nearby villages. From this kind of background, Inul emerges and kicks the ass of the Indonesian music scene. Her name springs out like a rocket. The video cd’s of her performances are distributed everywhere, despite the fact that she has not even produced a single record album yet.

And all of the sudden Inul’s name overthrows others of the formerly established and popular dangdut singers, those who might as well have been regarding themselves more sophisticated and elegant than her. Yes, Inul, a dangdut singer who made her way through performing on small stages of wedding or circumcision parties in small villages. Those are truly far from glamorous shows with posh perfume-scented audiences. For many people, she might be considered as a mediocre singer with a corny background. For the Indonesian board of moslem leaders, Inul is not just merely corny, but her style of dancing is considered perversely erotic, and that makes it haram (religiously forbidden). And due to to that reason as well, the Yogyakarta municipal government prohibits Inul to perform in the city.

But like it or not, from such peripheral shows Inul shot through and replace the position of her previously-established fellow dangdut singers, a fact that was hardly imagined to happen. And Inul has proven that she is loved by many. The frequency of Inul performing with small time dangdut bands such as Orkes melayu Bianglala, Orkes Melayu Multi Dangdut and others would possibly be decreasing, or probably obsolete. Now Inul has explored other realms, becoming a star of TV commercials and performing on private TV stations. The families in rural areas, who are longing to have Inul singing in their children wedding parties or other rituals, will surely face difficulties today. Suddenly, Inul is detached from them. Becoming higher and unreachable.

Center and periphery turns out not to be static and absolute positions, but positions that ceaselessly demands to be contested, to be switched from one to another. Just as the position of King Philip, Queen Mariana, Infanta Margarita and our own. Just like when the era of vide came, and then satellite dish, followed by cable TV that gave chances to the Indonesian public to see foreign programs, all of these invasion from the peripheries forced TVRI to accept its incapability in being the single ruler of Indonesian broadcast. Just as the situation between Inul Daratista and Iis Dahlia, or other major label dangdut divas, who feel rivaled by her presence. Center turns out to be corroded, or in other words, vulnerable.


  • Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things, 1970, London: Tavistock.
  • Hall, Stuart, 1997, “The Work of Representation” in Stuart Hall (ed.), Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices, Stuart Hall (ed.). London: Sage Publications.
  • Kitley, Phillip, 2001, Konstruksi Budaya Bangsa Di Layar Kaca, Jakarta: ISAI.
  • ” Inul Daratista: Dilarang ‘Ngebor’ di Kota Gudeg”, Kompas Cyber Media, 18 Februari 2003, 12.23 WIB.

This essay has published in four monthly art journal KARBON No 5, Mei 2003, published by RUANG RUPA, Jakarta, Indonesia.

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