Did Agnez Mo pull a Scarlett Johansson?

Screenshot : Agnez Mo / Instagram

If you’re Indonesian and you’re on Twitter or Instagram, you’ve probably come across a post or two talking about Agnez Mo’s new hairstyle. I don’t think it’s too far off to even say that it’s become a national topic this week.

It’s probably worth pointing out right from the beginning that Agnez Mo’s international career has always been a bit of a divisive topic in Indonesian pop culture. When she launched the music video for “Long As I Get Paid” (a track in her debut international album, X) in 2017; some were quick to praise her use of batik to showcase Indonesian culture to an international audience, while others couldn’t help but notice blatant elements of orientalism in the same video.

Fast forward to the present, almost two years later, and Agnez has recently been teasing her fans with sneak peeks from her upcoming single, “Diamonds,” via Instagram, through photos of herself posing with Papuans and with cornrow-braided hair. On one such post, she wrote on the caption:

“These amazing people next to me are Indonesians. Particularly from Papua. We are wearing some Indonesian traditional attire. It’s amazing how diverse yet similar we are. This is what my culture taught me. #unityindiversity #bhinnekatunggalika.”

Now, you can’t blame me for thinking of Scarlett Johansson almost immediately after seeing Agnez with cornrow-braided hair, can you? As I dive deeper into this discussion, you’ll find that it’s not exactly the same thing, but there’s a similar sentiment here. It’s not at all difficult to assume that Agnez was heading toward some kind of cultural appropriation, and I’ve become more convinced the more I looked into her recent posts. I just wish she could’ve attempted, just a little bit, to highlight the Papuan struggle.

Let us use this opportunity to acknowledge that Agnez has some serious die-hard fans, who would support her and every one of her project. She’s an Indonesian sweetheart who have graced our screens since she was very young. Agnez might be living in the United States now, but that doesn’t mean she’s lost her loyal fanbase in her home country.

In this day and age, however, it baffles me that many people would support anyone without question. We are all humans and capable of making mistakes at any given second, and this doesn’t exclude Agnez. One of the things that bothered me the most from the discussion that entailed her new hairstyle was the fact that so many of her fans didn’t seem to notice that there was something questionable about it, even just a little bit. They were ready to defend her at all cost without considering the impact of her decision to “borrow” Papuan culture for her next big thing.

The hardcore fan defense usually comes in the form of a question: “aren’t we all Indonesians?” It implies that because Agnez is Indonesian and Papua is a part of Indonesia — therefore she cannot be accused of cultural appropriation. She claimed, after all, that cornrows were something distinct to the Papuan culture.

Uh, first of all, there are at least 300 recognized ethnic groups in Indonesia. While many share cultural similarities, a lot of us also carry very distinct languages and traditions, which is exactly where that national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika originated from. When we refrain from clustering the many unique cultures in Indonesia into a single narrative, we are not dismissing the strength of our unity, but rather presenting the complexity and magnificence of the feat that is Indonesia. In practice, I think this means both acknowledging and respecting that there are indeed differences.

Second of all, cornrows are definitely NOT distinct to the Papuan culture. It’s recognized as an ancient traditional style of hair braiding from Africa, the origins of which can be traced as far back as the 19th century to Ethiopia, and continues to remain popular throughout the African continent to this day. In the United States, cornrows and dreadlocks have been the subject of numerous controversy, which mainly involve a white person appropriating this traditionally black hairstyle and why that is a big NO-NO. (I think this is something worth noting, even though I can’t speak for the black community and yes, I know that Agnez is not white, which brings us back to the rest of this essay).

Lastly, let me briefly explain what cultural appropriation is. Basically, it is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own, though specifically in reference of a power dynamic. This is when the adoption is done by someone belonging to a dominant culture, and taking elements of a culture belonging to a marginalized group.

Just like Agnez, I am often amazed by the diversity in Indonesia, especially the more I learn about communities living beyond Java. In recent years, I have had various opportunities (mostly through my work as a journalist) to learn about marginalized groups in the archipelago — many of whom do not enjoy the privileges that sometimes come from simply residing in the main island. For Papuans specifically, the situation is even more dire and worsening still.

Agnez braided her hair, adorned herself with traditional attributes from Papua, showed it to the world, then labeled it as embracing Indonesia and the country’s diversity.

Screenshot: Agnez Mo / Instagram

Agnez, however, did not have to live the many stigma that come from simply being from Papua, which today still translate to difficulties for young students from the region to find housing on other islands in Indonesia because they are perceived as troublemakers; and that’s just one example.

Did you know that Papua is Indonesia’s poorest province, where more than a quarter of its people live below the poverty line? Did you know there is an ongoing armed conflict in Papua’s Nduga district, and that 182 people have died while seeking refuge?

As reported by BBC Indonesia, the refugees died because they suffered from the cold or hunger due to poor living conditions in their shelters, and more than half of them were children. (The Indonesian government said that the death toll presented was a hoax, and puts the figure at 59, instead of 182).

“This is a terrible humanitarian crisis. It is a huge disaster for Indonesia actually, but in Jakarta they are taking it easy,” John Jonga, a member of a humanitarian team formed by Nduga district government, told BBC Indonesia.

Nduga has been ridden by conflict since December of last year, which forced the district’s residents to flee their homes to escape the Indonesian military’s security operation against armed rebels linked to the Free Papua Movement (OPM). Earlier this month, BBC Indonesia also ran a story on a baby who had been born in the forest in April while his mother sought refuge. The baby, named Pengungsi, has reportedly never worn proper clothing.

This week, leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum resolved that the United Nations high commissioner for human rights should investigate deteriorating human rights situation in Papua within a year, as allegations of torture, extrajudicial killings and systemic police and military violence continue to be reported year after year, The Guardian reports.

Those are merely a small glimpse of what is going on in Papua. It’s quite literally what’s happening right now in the region, and yet I did not see even a small mention of it from Agnez in any of her recent posts.

She speaks of beautiful Papuan culture, diversity and that so-called Indonesian pride, but is she using her platform to speak on the plight of the Papuans? Will she? When she says, “we are Indonesia” by standing next to Papuans, using attributes from their culture, with cornrows on her head WITHOUT highlighting the challenging situation in Papua, is she not perpetuating injustice?

Perhaps you think it is unfair to have this expectation for Agnez, an individual, to try and advocate for a whole community, which in this case is Papua. But I’d argue that it is a responsibility she should have been ready to bear when she decided to borrow their culture. It is even more of a responsibility because she happens to be an international public figure; a product of her own, very deliberate efforts.

If she’s going to pay tribute to Indonesia as she makes her name known globally, then she should at least speak up in solidarity of Indonesians who need it the most. But hey, that’s just my opinion. I know there are some comments floating around out there, suggesting that there are Papuans who don’t mind her borrowing their culture at all and in fact appreciates Agnez for making Papuan culture more famous; and to that I say — to each their own.

It doesn’t lessen the fact that I strongly believe in what Toni Morrison once said, that “if you are free, you need to free somebody else.” So as I continue to see reports of injustice and discrimination experienced by those in Papua, I’d like to do what I can to make sure their voices are heard, especially amid all the chaotic noise that is our world today.

Just yesterday, Indonesian authorities detained over 40 Papuan students at a university dormitory in Surabaya, over allegations of throwing an Indonesian flag into a sewer. The students have been released after questioning. However, it should be noted that there are reports of the police having acted disproportionately, including firing teargas into the building, and crowds intimidating the students by allegedly shouting anti-Papuan slogans and threats. There is a growing body of evidence that Papuans have been on the receiving end of harassment and intimidation, if not outright human rights violations.

Aren’t we all Indonesians? If you truly believe that, it is exactly why we should be standing up for one another.

Further reading:

Indonesian journalist, currently based in Bali.

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