Standing in solidarity to save Timor-Leste’s Arte Moris 

I AM disturbed and frustrated by the news report just released yesterday about the decision of the Timor-Leste Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak to hand the Arte Moris building for the office of the Veteran Council. 

I wrote a commentary on Arte Moris in 2017, with the title, “How Arts Heal and Galvanise the Youth of Timor-Leste” that first appeared in The Conversation. The commentary was surprisingly widely shared across the news portals including Asia Times, Huffington Post and Myanmar Times. This showed the extent of the interest from different parts of the world in the politics and arts of Timor-Leste as well  as the significance of such discourse. 

Established in 2003, just a year after the restoration of Timor-Leste in 2002, Arte Moris offers a place for young Timorese to express themselves through art while helping them bond and share positive values about their country. Arte Moris started as a small project by a Swiss couple with a group of young people, Arte Moris has slowly turned into a well-recognised public space especially for young Timorese, including the children, for free art classes.  

In a country where the search for a state identity continues, and where nationalism has been largely constructed on traditional local cultures with the challenge to distance itself from the influence of former colonial powers, the role of arts cannot be dismissed or ignored. Young people and children search for their identity at a very young age by observing and recognising the environment around them in the search of who they are and Arte Moris provides such a space for them. 

In the year of its inception, Arte Moris was awarded the UN Human Rights Prize for its advocacy of freedom of expression. But Arte Moris’ aim is not just to promote the arts. It has a bigger vision that is the hope to help Timorese to rebuild their lives after the long bloody independence struggle that has killed a quarter of its population. 

Anyone who has been in Timor-Leste will notice the significance of the murals and graffiti. They are one of the most inclusive means of communication in this small country.

People often ask, how did I learn about politics and human rights in Timor-Leste? It is a country that has remained rather isolated amid the discourse in the Southeast Asian region, and there are many misconceptions about this beautiful country too. 

I must admit that I did not learn about Timor-Leste from the books or famous figures; I learnt it from the people whom I met during my trips for different purposes. In 2010, I wrote my first piece on human rights in Timor-Leste. In 2013, I visited the country for the first time under an official assignment, then again in 2016 and I continue to visit it today.

Arte Moris, a free art school, must be credited for being the turning point on how I learn politics and human rights – from a bottom-up approach. It is the people on the streets and in the communities that continue to shape my view of the country, to whom I will be forever indebted. 

I sincerely hope the government of Timor-Leste can reconsider its decision and allow Arte Moris to continue its existence as a public space for arts. The creativity and originality of the Timorese artists in Arte Moris and also across the country is admiring. They represent the reality. Arte Moris has earned recognition in the world; it would be a shame if it were not appreciated in its own land. Today, Arte Moris’s status is threatened. Conserving cultural heritage in Timor-Leste is important, and that goes the same for the preservation and promotion concerning cultural value of historical buildings like Arte Moris. – July 7, 2020.

* Dr Khoo Ying Hooi is deputy head of Universiti Malaya’s International and Strategic Studies Department. 

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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