YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — Tamara Pertamina watched with a smirk from a bench beside me as I looked around ViaVia, a traveler’s cafe and gallery in the trendy part of Jogja, searching for her. I had been working on a photo essay about the waria, the Muslim transgender community in Indonesia, when I had the chance to meet the inimitable Tamara. A former sex worker, she’s now enrolled at university in Jogja, where she is researching gender identity in pre-colonial Indonesia with the plan to incorporate this scholarly work into her art and the advancement of trans rights globally.
Once she’d had enough fun watching me look for the long-haired Tamara I’d seen in pictures, she got up and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to face someone with short hair dressed in casual shorts and a loose-fitting tee. “Hello darling! I’m right here.” She fingered my hair. “I used to have hair like yours. Well, nicer than yours. But I cut it all off.”
A tightly wound ball of manic energy, Tamara alternated between pensive and effusive in between swigs of beer and drags of cigarettes, as she told me how she landed in the art world. “Most of my daily life is a performance,” she said. “Especially when I was busking. I didn’t realize that it could be viewed as art, so that was a natural place to start.” Through her theatrical performances in Indonesia and Australia, she has protested social justice issues such as illegal logging and the toxic effects of skin whitening creams. While she has informally been making music since 2013, she plans to reach a broader audience with AMUBA, an all transgirl band she formed earlier this year.
“I view music as a very complete medium for ‘voicing,’ because we can convey complex issues through lyrics that are easy to understand and can interact directly with listeners through our shows,” she said. “It’s also just more fun.” With that, she began to hum and then sing, “I don’t care if you can’t accept it, don’t care if you always disturb me… I just want to enjoy my life.”
Her throaty laugh punctuates most of her sentences, cueing that you, too, should join in laughter, even when she’s discussing her painful past. Tamara was born in 1989 in Taskimalaya, a city in western Java known for its abundance of pesantrens, or Islamic boarding schools. She was dropped off at one of these schools as a young boy at the age of 7. His father had often beaten him and his mother during alcoholic rages, so the school was a respite of sorts, but as he struggled with his transgender identity, the religious teachings became alienating and tiresome. He grew restless there, running away to begin a tumultuous life on the streets.
Starting as a busker in Jakarta and then taking on sex work by age 15, Tamara experienced firsthand the marginalization and economic hardships that the transgender community faces in Indonesia. She began to organize fellow sex workers and get involved in activist efforts to defend transgender rights. While her own family now accepts her, and the transgender community has historically been accepted as part of Indonesian society, rising Islamic extremism in recent years has begun to threaten the transgender people’s way of life there. When Tamara moved to Yogyakarta, the arts capital of Indonesia, in 2008, her work as an activist engaged her with local artists. Tamara began to see the power of art as a means of protest and vehicle for change.
“What I want to achieve for the transgender community through my works is to restore the idea that we are human beings who have opportunities and abilities that can be the same as other human beings,” she said. While some issues are urgent enough to require direct protest, art allows room for deeper reflection and provides a softer approach.”
Much of Tamara’s work expands upon issues of identity. Through Tamara, a photography project in 2016, she wanted to show how she uses masculinity and femininity with flexibility despite the pressures of heteronormative society. “Tamara was my most controversial exhibit. Several police came and asked me [to] cancel my exhibition because they viewed my work as pornography.”
Tamara’s fluid views of her own gender left her feeling isolated, even among many transgender women and men. Her search for a personal history that resonated with her inner reality led her to South Sulawesi, home to the Bugis ethnic group. The Bugis have historically maintained and still support the notion that there are five genders, adding transmen and transwomen to cisgenders, along with a sacred fifth metagender that embodies both masculine and feminine elements called bissu.
“Indonesians, before so many outside religious influences, did not view transgenders as unnatural or persecute those who were transgender,” Tamara said. “I want to reference that history as artistic capital in the struggle for our rights now.”
With the help of her patron, Prisia Nasution, a martial artist, model and actress, Tamara enrolled in Sanata Dharma University earlier this year to study history. She plans to incorporate her scholarly work into her art in hopes of dismantling colonial gender constructs and reviving indigenous cultural values to create more opportunities for transgender people in Indonesia and beyond.
Tamara’s studio is in HONF Fab Lab, the first makerspace of its kind in Indonesia, one that seeks to bridge art, science and technology to tackle pressing social justice issues. When I visited, Tamara was just starting on her latest installation, Pla-e-s-te-tic, for exhibition at the cultural center Taman Budaya Yogyakarta. She dumped heaps of neon plastic netting in various colors onto her work table before lighting a cigarette and staring deeply out beyond her supplies. She’d interviewed some transgender friends about dream outfits they had wanted but would never be able to buy or make for themselves. She was attempting to realize these clothes of their dreams, using only plastic, to drive home the illusions of the fashion industry and global capitalism. Within two days, she turned the cheap plastic netting into runway-ready confections behind which she posted up a large collage of photographs featuring transgender people who’d injected silicone into their faces, a practice popular throughout the Indonesian transgender community for softening masculine features.
Tamara is fascinated with the natural and relishes exposing the synthetic masks that are put upon us by society. “If my whole body can be made from ‘plastic’ now, what is organic? Only my heart,” she said. Her 2015 exhibition, Powder Room, at Jakarta’s Space Gallery, featured an extravagant gown made of raffia rope and plastic bags in front of a mirror to show how clothing, as representative of identity, can be a lie used to show others what they would like to see rather than reflect what we ourselves see. She’s also exploring the meaning of gender, identity, and its expression — when all of those can be so easily manipulated — in her June 2018 project, “The CRISPR Sperm Bank: Experience Trans-species Possibilities.” It’s meant to foster dialogue about the ramifications of synthetic biology and the consumer choices that might present themselves in the not-so-distant future.
Tamara Pertamina aims to become as ubiquitous as her namesake oil and gas company. “In Indonesia, almost everyone needs Pertamina, so I hope, as a human, I can also meet the needs of many people through my work,” she said. “Pertamina is a fuel, so on the one hand I can use it to keep the fire of my life alive, but on the other, that fire, my ego, can also burn me easily. I took on that name as a reminder to seek balance in addressing the social issues I confront through my work as an activist and artist.”