Group of dancers dressed in Indonesian traditional dress pose on cliffs with ocean in background
Case study /
Promoting Australia

Alfira: cultural diplomacy

Astrid Jayengsari

Alfira O'Sullivan takes pride in her Indonesian-Australian heritage, which is reflected in her arts practice—in the unique style of her dance, as well as her company's celebration of both cultures and multiculturalism.  

Alfira was born in Perth and grew up in Sydney, with an Irish-Australian father and Indonesian mother. Her mother had a community radio program, Suara Indonesia, and Alfira connected with the young Indonesian people involved with the program. ‘I became friends with them, we liked dancing and we started a community dance group’, Alfira says.

Alfira went on to do international studies at the University of New South Wales, spending a year studying traditional dance in Yogyakarta as part of her degree. This led to Indonesian Government scholarships to continue her education in Indonesia, which in turn led to time in Aceh—her grandfather's birthplace—where Alfira wanted to ‘learn more about my own heritage and Acehnese dance’. In Banda Aceh, the stars aligned when she met her future husband Murtala, who ran a local NGO that taught dance as trauma relief. This was 2006, post-tsunami, and Alfira joined Murtala working with victims of conflict and the tsunami.

Multicultural Australia is very important to show overseas. It’s part of celebrating what Australia is.

Alfira O'Sullivan next to her husband Murtala

Alfira with her husband, Murtala.  Image credit: Joshua O'Sullivan

Returning to Australia in 2008, Alfira has continued to use the power of dance to bolster communities. She completed an Honours degree at the University of Sydney on the history and significance of Acehnese body percussion and reunited with her old dance friends to perform and teach at her own dance company, Suara Indonesia Dance. ‘We’ve all kind of grown up together. At our rehearsals now, all our babies are running around', Alfira says.

Suara Indonesia performs Indonesian traditional and contemporary dance, focusing on Acehnese body percussion and Randai, a form of traditional theatre from West Sumatra. They conduct workshops, run dance classes and perform at multicultural festivals around Australia. ‘We’re a unique group because we’ve got an Australian upbringing but we have Indonesian heritage. It’s all about finding our identity, what it’s like for us to be in Australia with that multicultural heritage.’

Suara Indonesia has also travelled internationally, performing at festivals and conducting workshops in Europe and teaching body percussion in refugee camps in Palestine. Going abroad, Alfira notes that the multiculturalism we take for granted in Australia, is not always so obvious to the rest of the world, ‘We arrive, they think I’m Australian, but I’m teaching Acehnese body percussion and they’re surprised’.

A recent project is closer to home, honouring the long history between the Macassans in Indonesia and East Arnhem Land’s Yolngu people. With funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia–Indonesia Institute as well as the Australia Council for the Arts, ‘Reconnecting Our Connections’ is a project ‘that honours a shared history between our two nations and cultures which predates the moden world', says Alfira. 'We honour all cultures—Indigenous and other.'

Wherever her group is performing, Alfira says, ‘A lot of misconceptions can be broken down through performance, through the arts’. And Alfira sees herself as an ambassador for multicultural Australia. ‘It’s not just about white Australia or people that have European heritage. Australia is part of Asia and given that Indonesia is one of Australia's closest neighbours, it is important for Australia to act on opportunities that build our relationship', she says. 'Multicultural Australia is very important to show overseas. It’s part of celebrating what Australia is.’

Indonesian dancers in the middle of a large number of students at an indoor basketball court

Alfira and members of Suara Indonesia giving a school workshop at a school in Prague, Czech Republic.  Image credit: Guntur