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Art biennale in Makassar, Indonesia, celebrates 40,000 years of creativity

South Sulawesi city’s first biennale is just one good reason to visit - along with islands, white beaches and some of Indonesia’s best seafood

Asia travel
Prehistoric art in the caves of Maros, near Makassar, includes the world's earliest human hand stencils.

The caves of Maros, a striking karst landscape in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, are home to some of the world’s most ancient art: not only the earliest-known human hand stencil, but startlingly lifelike animal paintings which may be humanity’s oldest figurative work. An hour or so down the road, at the first Makassar Biennale (until 31 October), artists are celebrating 40,000 years of artistic heritage, and seizing the chance to raise the profile of contemporary art in the region.

Although treated by foreigners mainly as a stepping stone to highland hikes and the animist communities of Tana Toraja, Makassar, a busy port and university city, is already a foodie destination and home to a growing cultural scene as the toxic legacy of dictatorship recedes.

“In the past five years, we’ve seen great progress in Makassar,”said Aan Mansyur, co-founder of the annual Makassar International Writers Festival which began in June 2011. “Besides literature, there’s music, art and film.”

A dance performance in Makassar during the city's International Writers Festival.

Cool coffee shops like Rotterdam Coffee and eZpresso Koffie, underground festivals like Musik Hutan, and arts centres such as Rumata, Katakerja and Kampung Buku are helping unite Makassar’s disparate creative community.

Nurabdiansyah is director of the Makassar Biennale and, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. He says: “So many local artists show and sell work to the outside world but don’t show in the city. We’ve invited all these artists to the biennale so the community can grow.”

Sunset in Makassar

Almost 100 Indonesian artists will take over the Rumata gallery, as well as Gedung Kesenian, a colonial-era performing arts space, and dedicated pop-up spots in the waterfront GTC Mall. These last will be called Pasar Seni ParaKita (An Art Market for All of Us) and will run for two years.

Masjid Amirul Mukminin, Makassar's "floating mosque".

Disciplines from typography and installation to textiles, photography and ceramics will be featured, with works by artists such as veteran painter Kahar Wahid. Education is also central. “Besides the exhibitions, we’ll have drawing classes, dance workshops, film workshops, ceramics workshops – even a freediving class from the beach near GTC,”says Nurabdiansyah.

In a city with no real gallery culture, the biennale should prove a landmark event, despite competition from next month’s Jakarta Biennale. “Many people in Makassar see art as decoration,”says Nurabdiansyah. “We hope they’ll recognise it as a specific study, and we want to inspire young artists to make more work.”

A souvenir stall sells preserved butterflies.
Fort Rotterdam.

But there’s more than art for visitors to Makassar. Datu Museng, the city’s “Eat Street”, is home to some of Indonesia’s best seafood as well as delicious soups. At Losari Beach is the city’s “floating mosque”; and further offshore, around the 115-odd Spermonde islands, whale sharks and turtles can be seen and there are white, sandy beaches close by.

Where to stay

For budget travellers, the Kayangan Hotel (+62 411 315752) by colonial Fort Rotterdam has modern rooms from about  HK$100. An overwater wooden bungalow with sunset ocean views costs from  HK$750 at Pantai Gapura Hotel. To stay longer, there’s a traditional stilt house for rent ( on the dinky islet of Samalona, a short boat ride away – more reason for tourists to linger as Makassar gets in touch with its creative side.

Getting there

Airlines including Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Hong Kong and Garuda Indonesia fly daily to Jakarta, from where Garuda Indonesia flies to Makassar. Singapore Airlines and Silk Air fly to Makassar via Singapore.

Guardian News Service