One of the murals changing the face of Kampung Lukis in Indonesia. (Photo by Keith Loveard)
With 50 percent of its population of some 260 million often struggling to keep their heads above water financially, most housing in Indonesia consists of the simplest of buildings.
Often, they are wedged between houses of the better off in closely packed areas known as kampung. A word often translated as slum, kampung doesn't necessarily carry the same connotations as the English word.
Many kampung are bright and airy, although houses are squeezed onto plots of land sometimes no bigger than 50 square meters, and access is commonly only wide enough for motorcycles to use.
Residents are active participants in gotong royong, a fundamental of Indonesian society that means everyone helping everyone else. Community programs are voluntary affairs designed to keep the environment as clean as possible.
In the town of Banyuwangi on the eastern tip of the populous island of Java, the concept has been extended to transforming one kampung into a living art gallery.
Formerly known as Kaempuan, it's now more often known simply as Art Village or Kampung Lukis. It sits on the banks of a river that runs right through the center of the city and adds to the growing reputation of a place marketing itself to the domestic and regional tourism market as the "sunrise of the east."
Nothing to be scared of in this mural. (Photo by Keith Loveard)
According to Sukir Kadek, the idea to paint murals on the village walls arose spontaneously. "As recently as 2016, this was known as a slum area in the center of Banyuwangi. With elections for a new Youth Association, the idea developed to make our village a green and clean kampung.
"After that, the idea developed to paint murals on everybody's walls, with the result that now the area has become an alternative tourist destination as people recognize the unique work we are doing."
Kadek says the local government has been enthusiastic about backing the program and spreading word about it.
One of the young painters busy at work on a dinosaur mural adds: "It gives young people something to do and helps keep them off drugs."
Painting murals costs money, and Kadek says that initially the funds came out of residents' pockets. After a year, a local paint company, Indana, heard about the program. It had already backed a similar program in Malang, a neighboring city in East Java, and it added Kampung Lukis to its community social responsibility program.
Now with a presence on Google Maps, the village increasingly attracts visitors from far and wide. "Our aim has been to make it easier for tourists who are spending a few days in the city to find us and spend some time relaxing with us," says Kadek.
On Sundays, the village hosts a culinary gathering and other attractions, such as the local version of the Barong dance, better known as a Balinese cultural icon, and live acoustic music.
It recently scored a visit from officials of UNESCO's Geo Park movement, who provided a major morale boost for the good work being done and advice on how to proceed.
Adding color to Kampung Lukis. (Photo by Keith Loveard)
Kadek says local youth have demonstrated a high level of creativity in a number of artistic forms, from painting to sculpture and music. They needed no special mentors, but he agrees that good management is an important aspect of the program.
Inspiration for the Art Village was something that arose locally, says Kadek, but it certainly wasn't the first of its kind and won't be the last, demonstrating that not being rich doesn't mean you're starved of creativity.
Most recent to join the ranks of smart urban villages is Palembang in South Sumatra, where the local administration last year launched two new tourism sites: Tepian Sekanak Bersolek and Kampung Mural Gudang Bonjiet. The city's tourism agency head Isnaini Madani said that both spots, which feature colorfully painted embankments along a river, were part of 13 highlighted tourism destinations prepared by Palembang ahead of last year's Asian Games.
In their case, PT ICI Indonesia came to the party with plenty of paint but, rather than just leaving the beautification to residents, the program saw city employees and student volunteers get their paint brushes out.
Some believe the idea of beautifying urban villages goes back decades, when a Catholic priest, the late Father Y.B. Mangunwijaya, encouraged people in the slum area of Kali Code in royal city of Yogyakarta to spruce up their houses. The area is now a part of urban history in Yogyakarta and represents one of Father Mangunwijaya's many legacies.
Known as an architect, often working with bamboo, an author of books for both adults and children, the priest was also a cautious critic of the Suharto regime. His work in running a school for the children of the Kedung Ombo district, whose parents were shunned by the regime because of their opposition to the Kedung Ombo dam project, is recalled in the novel The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari.
With President Joko Widodo now pushing Indonesia to be more creative as he prepares to start his second term in office, these examples of grassroots initiatives should encourage some of his officials to think outside of the box. Often criticized for their reluctance to use their imaginations, efforts to improve the formal education system went nowhere during Widodo's first term.
Indonesia's myriad kampung might be a good place to start. They are home to millions who have flocked to the cities but don't represent typical real estate clientele. Rather than being places where youths are abandoned to drug trafficking and crime, many such communities have a pool of talent that is too often neglected by the nation's planners.
Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.