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BaliFest a mess?: Organizer defends Australian Bali-themed festival

Kevin Ng The Jakarta Post  Thu, May 6, 2021  

Hungry for authenticity: BaliFest promised to showcase Balinese cuisine, but attendees complained about the lack of authentic Balinese food. (Bali Fest Australia’s official Facebook page/Courtesy of BaliFest Australia)

PERTH – “BIG name Australian Acts, Themed Bar, Bali Markets, Chill Beach, Carnival Rides & Cultural performances . . . and of course $7.50 BINTANGS”. This was how BaliFest, held in Mandurah, Western Australia, was promoted. Taking place from April 2 to 6 – during the Easter long weekend – tickets cost AUS$30 per day, with 10 percent of sales slated for charitable causes. 

Bali has long been a favorite travel destination for international tourists, including Australians. But with Australia’s pandemic travel restrictions still in place, some in the country have sought ways to experience the island without leaving the country. BaliFest was about “bringing Bali and its culture, food, entertainment, shopping and leisure lifestyle to Australia”, its tagline promised. 

Leigh Rose, the organizer of BaliFest, said Australians traveled to Bali to escape from work and relax “without breaking the bank”.

“When we [Australians] spend money in Bali, the Balinese people are so grateful and do so much for us,” he said 

He wanted BaliFest to give Australians the “Bali atmosphere” at a lower price and to raise money for Bali-targeted charities, such as Let’s Help Bali, Bali Life, Bali Peace Park and the Bali Dog Association.

However, after the event took place, critics wrote on BaliFest’s Facebook page that it had not delivered what was promised, particularly in terms of representing Balinese culture and traditions.

Some attendees who posted on the page complained about the lack of Balinese influence at the event, including a lack of authentic Balinese food. One attendee commented on BaliFest’s page that “the market stalls were average, with half of them not even Bali-related, and the food choices were limited – especially if you wanted Balinese-style cuisine.” The event was criticized as being overpriced for what it offered. A number of posters asked for refunds. 

“The advertising of it made it sound awesome – a complete waste of time and money, never again. False advertising, I don’t care if it’s to raise money for people in need, I would have rather donated money than pay for that rubbish last night,” wrote one commenter.

The organizer apologized on the event’s Facebook page on April 4 and has issued refunds for attendees who requested them.

BaliFest, held from April 2 to 6 in Mandurah, Western Australia, has faced criticism from attendees. Some say they saw it coming. 

Alice McDonald, 42, an Australian who studies the Indonesian language, felt the event would not be “authentic” and said this was one of the reasons she had not attended BaliFest.

“I didn’t see a lot of my Indonesian friends involved,” she said.

Bjorn Medernach from the Bali Dog Association and Amanda Rialdi from Let’s Help Bali said that they have not received the promised donation. The Jakarta Post tried to contact the other charities and was not able to verify the status of their donations. Rose told the Post that the donations would be finalized by the second week of May.

A Balinese festival without any Balinese

The Balinese community in Australia questioned the absence of members of the Balinese community in the event. Putu Hayhow, a representative of Bali Dewata and Warung Bali, Balinese communities in Western Australia, said she was first contacted by the organizers on March 22, one week prior to the event, to participate. The community felt the sudden notice would leave them unprepared.

“We had to decline. We didn’t know the details. We really needed to be prepared,” Putu said.

Rose said he had contacted Balinese Community Perth WA by Facebook on Jan. 17 to ask for help getting dancers and caterers. However, according to Rose, the page’s administrator declined, citing time constraints, and suggested that BaliFest contact Bali Dewata or Warung Bali. 

Rose also said he had contacted the Perth Indonesian Community (PIC) on Jan. 14. PIC describes itself as a “nonprofit, nonpolitical, nonreligious organization that aims to help all newcomers to Australia, especially Indonesians, and to provide a friendly place to socialize and reach services and opportunities”. Some members of the community were traditional Indonesian dancers whom the organizer felt would be fitting performers for the event. 

 “They were great support and enjoyed themselves greatly as they were paid to perform on stage and around the festival,” he said. 

Miska Suryanita from PIC, who declined to be interviewed for this article, spoke with Australian network SBS News and said the community was contacted on Mar. 4 but had declined as they had other commitments. They were contacted again on Mar. 7, she said, to shoot a promotional video the next day and had tried to accommodate the offer, considering BaliFest a client. Miska told Rose that her organization could not accommodate all of BaliFest’s requests and could provide traditional Indonesian dances but not specifically Balinese dances.

Cultural appropriation or appreciation?

On Apr. 3, BaliFest posted a video on its official Facebook page of a Balinese dance performance mixed with Zumba choreography that took place during the festival. Putu said, “After looking at the Zumba dance, we [the Balinese community] felt scorned.” Hundreds of comments criticized the performance as cultural appropriation. The post was deleted the next day.

Putu said that to perform Balinese dances, the attributes and choreography needed to follow Balinese tradition and culture. 

“We felt beaten and embarrassed and humiliated and also angry,” Putu said.

Rose said he expected the backlash and was aiming to create something new that was “unique and respective to both Australian and Bali culture”. He contended that the allegation of cultural appropriation was incorrect and that he had not wanted to replicate Balinese culture too much without assistance because it could be offensive.

“The Perth Indonesian Community provided dancers and costumes to perform. Those performers are expressing themselves through [their] interpretation for passionate display. I can understand someone saying, ‘Hey, that’s not Bali enough’, but I think to criticize someone’s hard work and interpretation in a negative way is bullying.”

The Indonesian Consulate General in Perth published an open letter regarding BaliFest in The West Australian newspaper on April 7.

Dewi Gustina Tobing, Indonesian consul-general in Western Australia, wrote, “Sometimes a well-meaning but misconceived effort can actually harm the perception of Indonesia, and in particular, the island many Western Australians call their second home, a place where we soon will be saying, ‘Welcome back.’”

SOURCE – The Jakarta Post, Indonesia Thu, May 6, 2021  

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