It’s not easy being a nationalist these days. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool. Despite the daily barrage of news about corruption, poverty and religious intolerance, many young people in Indonesia are proud to wear nationalist symbols on their sleeve — or on the front of their T-shirt, as the case may be.
The use of nationalist symbols in pop culture has grown over recent years, making it hip to be a patriot on the streets of Jakarta. Symbols like the Garuda coat of arms, the red and white flag, and the faces of former presidents are now commonly found in urban streetwear, alongside textiles like batik.
The question is, is this nationalist resurgence just another urban trend, or does it hold the promise of change in the next generation?
Muhammad Faisal, executive director of research and consultancy group Youth Laboratory Indonesia, says that young Indonesians are more aware than ever that their country gets a bad rap overseas.
“The youth are well connected to the global community through social media,” he says. “They know that their ‘global’ friends see them as coming from a poor, conflicted, highly corrupted and hazardous country that also has dangerous extremists.”
On a national level, young Indonesians are also aware of flaws in the political system, something that they believe “has a ‘New Order’ signature all over it,” Faisal says.
But on the level of their everyday experience, young Indonesians view their homeland as a beautiful, diverse and resource-rich country with enormous potential.
Instead of denying their roots, the trend among the youth in recent years has been to abandon formal symbols of nationalism and create their own, rebranding the country’s image at home and abroad.
This was the thought process behind the fashion brand Damn! I Love Indonesia, established by former MTV Indonesia VJ Daniel Mananta in 2008.
Daniel’s nationalist awakening came when he studied abroad in Perth, Australia.
“I was homesick,” he says. “I missed everything about the country. I guess because I was overseas for quite a long time, my sense of nationalism grew.”
Inspired to share his pride for his homeland, Daniel established a fashion brand that combined urban streetwear with symbols from Indonesia’s traditional cultures and political history.
“I want to make sure that the youth are still able to look good and fashionable [while expressing] Indonesia’s traditional culture,” he says. “I still want to be able to hang out in malls, lounges or even clubs while wearing batik.”
The brand’s bold designs, featuring pop art takes on national icons and textile patterns, proved a hit. The newest branch of the store opened this year in Pondok Indah Mall in South Jakarta, along with the launch of the latest product: A vinyl bust of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.
Daniel is positive that his rebranded nationalism will catch on.
“If it’s not the young generation who continues to preserve our traditions, then who will?” he says.
For visual artist Wahyu Aditya, changing Indonesia’s image starts with good design.
Looking at the logos used by state departments, Wahyu saw that Indonesia could do with some help. So in 2006 he founded Kementerian Desain Republik Indonesia, or KDRI: The Indonesian Ministry of Design.
What goes on KDRI’s T-shirts is open to the public. Contributors are invited to create a pop nationalist design, and are given royalties every time one of their T-shirts is sold.
He calls his version of activism “fashionalism,” combining his love of design with his love for Indonesia.
But KDRI is involved in more than just T-shirts. Last year, Wahyu noticed that the official logo used to celebrate Independence Day had barely changed since 2005, when Indonesia celebrated 60 years of statehood. He noticed that the only difference made to the simple numerical design each year was that another flag was added, bringing the total last year to six flags crowded around the logo.
Wahyu saw that not only was this design unsustainable, as eventually the space for flags would run out, but it was boring to look at, too.
“The logo is OK,” Wahyu said. “But it’s not OK when our government uses it every year. It expresses that our government is lazy, not creative.”
So Wahyu put his mind to creating his own logo. He came up with a striking design of the number 66 represented by the wings of an eagle and put the image on the KDRI website for anyone to use. The response was overwhelming.
Some people took up the logo to make T-shirts to supplement their own income. A foundation in Yogyakarta used it to decorate the cover of school books given away to street children. Street artists in West Sumatra turned it into a stencil. And thousands of young Indonesians attached it to their profile pictures on social networks to celebrate Independence Day.
“Even some of the government offices used my logo instead of the official one,” Wahyu said.
But this year, he was disappointed to see that the official logo still had not changed, except to add another flag to the already crowded design.
Again, Wahyu designed an alternative logo, this time using clean, stylized numerals containing the head of an eagle in negative space.
KDRI signed up with online portal Kaskus to stage a competition for creative uses of the logo, which has already made it onto T-shirts, smartphone covers and banners.
“The government did not ask me to help,” Wahyu said. “I want to contribute to my country. And this is how I express it.”
Daniel and Wahyu both remember attending compulsory nationalist courses and ceremonies at school under Suharto’s New Order.
“I was not keen to go to class, learning about [the national ideology] Pancasila, the history of Indonesia and nationalism,” Daniel recalls. “It was definitely not my favorite subject.”
But unlike the previous era when nationalism was something pushed from the top down, these days it is organically emerging from the grassroots. Faisal from Youth Laboratory Indonesia predicts that this process is more than just a passing trend.
“Those who really care and try to do something for the country in their own creative way will have long-lasting youth followers, whether in the music, sport or fashion industries,” he says.
Wahyu also has hopes for the trend to continue, as a source of national pride, but also as an alternative form of protest.
“I visually inspire other people to take action,” Wahyu says. “My position is to educate the next generation in a creative way. If we can do something in a creative way, we can also change our country.”