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Standing in solidarity to save Arte Moris in Timor-Leste

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Conserving the cultural heritage of Timor-Leste is important, and the same goes for the preservation of the cultural value of historical buildings like Arte Moris, Khoo Ying Hooi writes.

I was disturbed and frustrated with the news on 6 July about Timor-Leste Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak’s decision to hand the Arte Moris building for the office of the Veterans’ Council.

In 2017, I wrote a public commentary on Arte Moris in 2017 titled “How arts heal and galvanise the youth of Timor-Leste”, which appeared initially in The Conversation.

The public commentary surprisingly was widely shared across different news portals including Asia Times, Huffington Post and Myanmar Times. This has shown the extent of interest in the politics and arts of Timor-Leste from different parts of the world and the significance of such discourse.

Established in 2003, just a year after the restoration of Timor-Leste in 2002, Arte Moris offers a place for young Timorese to express themselves through art while helping them bond and share positive values about their country.

Arte Moris started as a small project by a Swiss couple with a group of young people. It has slowly turned into a well-recognised public space especially, for young Timorese, including children, for free art classes.

In a country where the search for a state identity continues and where nationalism has been largely constructed on traditional local cultures, with the challenge of distancing itself from the influence of former colonial powers, the role of arts cannot be dismissed or ignored.

Young people and children search for their identity at a very young age by observing and recognising the environment around them in the search of who they are, and Arte Moris provides such a space for them.

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In the year of its inception, Arte Moris was awarded the UN Human Rights Prize for its advocacy of freedom of expression.

But Arte Moris’s aim is not just to promote the arts. It has a bigger vision, ie the hope of help Timorese to rebuild their lives after a long bloody independence struggle that killed a quarter of its population.

Anyone who has been to Timor-Leste will notice the significance of the murals and graffiti. It is one of the most inclusive means of communication in this small country.

How did I learn about politics and human rights in Timor-Leste? It is a country that has thus far remains isolated in the discourse of the South-East Asian region, and there are many misconceptions about this beautiful country too.

I must admit that I did not learn about it from books or famous figures; I learned it from the people I met during my trips for different purposes. In 2010, I wrote my first piece on human rights in Timor-Leste. In 2013, I visited the country for the first time while on an official assignment, and again in 2016.

Arte Moris, a free art school, must be credited as the turning point on how I learn politics and human rights. I now appreciate the bottom-up approach. It is the people on the streets and the communities I encounter who shape my views about the country, for which I will be forever indebted.

I sincerely hope the government of Timor-Leste can reconsider its decision and to allow Arte Moris to continue its existence as a public space for arts. The creativity and originality of the Timorese artists in Arte Moris and across the country is admirable. They represent the reality.

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Arte Moris has earned its recognition in the world; it would be a shame if it were not appreciated in its own land. Today, Arte Moris’s status is threatened.

Conserving cultural heritage in Timor-Leste is important, and the same goes for the preservation and promotion of the cultural value of historical buildings like Arte Moris.

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