Thilly Weissenborn

Balinese Legong dancer in front of the ornate frame of a gamelan gong, c.1920




Jane Levy Reed

From its very inception, photography has been an invaluable tool for representing and understanding the world's diverse and complex cultures. In the mid-nineteenth century, the adventuresome photographer had to take a wagon load of equipment into the field and might have spent an entire day making one successful photograph. Today, through ongoing technological advances, that wagon has been reduced to a backpack, and the contemporary photographer is likely to take hundreds of exposures for each one he or she ultimately uses.

In the century-and-a-half of photography's aesthetic and technological development, photographers have directed their lenses at every facet of the world, and their photographs range from intimate family portraits and sweeping historical panoramas to illuminating ethnographic details hidden in the lives of remote indigenous peoples. In the process, this enormous enterprise has created a worldwide visual language that has augmented our historical memory. Photography has reconfigured our aesthetic perceptions and has brought the planet's diverse societies together through a perpetually circulating matrix of photographic images, signs and icons.

Toward Independence: A Century of lndonesia Photographed chronicles the development of this kind of matrix — a significant one hundred year era within the longer transformation of Indonesia, from its colonial occupation by the Dutch, which began in the 1500s, to its emergence as an independent nation in 1945. It is hoped that this collection of work by twelve photographers will convey and symbolize the strength and spirit of the Indonesian people and inspire us all to become more deeply aware of the complex social and cultural issues facing them today. Although the collection features photographers whose work spans ten decades, it tries to avoid a fixed sense of periodization while at the same time it recognizes the subtle ambience of historical narrative that permeates many of these images. This book and the exhibition that it accompanies reveal the broad range of perspectives that have contributed to the evolution of Indonesia's dynamic, diversified visual culture.

The Indonesian archipelago is a vast yet heterogeneous complex of islands, languages, cultures and religions, with Hinduism, Buddhism, Animism, Islam and Christianity coexisting in a bewildering variety of expressions and overlays. Moreover, the nation's social structures are inextricably bound to religious beliefs and practices, a milieu unfamiliar to modern, secular, Western sensibilities. These religions and belief systems create a delicate and dynamic web of social forms, customs and tensions that is constantly mediated by the nation's people in their aesthetic and intellectual endeavors as well as in their daily lives.

No single photographic exhibition, no matter how ambitious, could hope to present a complete historical picture of Indonesia's enormous cultural richness and diversity. In determining the conceptual focus for Toward Independence, hundreds of daguerreotypes and photographs of Indonesia were reviewed, from collections both in the United States and in Europe. Of the several thousand images considered, some of the finest were found in forgotten country attics, family albums and dusty Dutch drawers. Still others came perfectly preserved from metropolitan archives. As the selection process progressed, patterns gradually emerged and ideas began to crystallize. While the majority of the photographs viewed commanded interest from an historical, anthropological or ethnographic point of view, many of them sorely lacked the compositional and aesthetic qualities of overpowering, memorable images.

To be included, each photograph had to be powerful enough to address the viewer on its own merits, perhaps as a unique articulation of its historical moment or as an icon alluding to the splendors of Indonesia's pre-colonial and colonial past. Images were selected that would convey some deeper essence of Indonesia that was ambient and persistent in spite of the thin overlay of colonialism. Most important though, each photograph had to have something of that often ambiguous, compelling quality that captures the spectator's imagination.

Correspondingly, a photographer was chosen from each decade who was best able to render the country's considerable visual beauty and cultural diversity and to enhance our understanding of that period of time.

While the majority of these pre-Independence image-makers were European born and came to Indonesia out of their own commercial interests, or on commission in the service of some colonial enterprise, Toward Independences graced by one of the first indigenous Indonesian photographers as well as one of the first women to photograph in colonial Asia.

Each photographer was ultimately selected for his or her aesthetic vision. Some of them were trained as painters, while others took up photography as businessmen or hobbyists. They came from such varied places as Armenia, the Netherlands, Germany, England, the United States and Indonesia itself. While some fell under the spell of the archipelago's exotic charm, others found inspiration in the ordinary moments of cultural expression played out in practices of everyday life. All, however, developed a deep sense of place and devotion to the magic, mystery and interplay of human and cultural forces that they came to know in Indonesia.

The earliest photographer in the collection is Adolph Schaefer, who studied with Daguerre in France and quickly recognized the daguerreotype's potential to bring the most remote corners of the world into the living rooms of the rising, industrial European nations. In the 1840s, Schaefer had the opportunity to do some of his finest work when he convinced the Dutch government to commission him to photogtaph monuments and landscapes in what was then the Dutch East Indies.

The adventurers Walter Bentley Woodbury and James Page owned a commercial photography house that dealt in views, postcards and stock pictures. In the process of gathering picturesque images, they traveled the globe and spent an extensive period of time in Indonesia. Their aesthetic sense was expressed in a stylized topographic vision of the world and in vignetted portraits of Indonesian and Dutch royalty.

Isidore Van Kinsbergen was formally trained as an artist and was retained as a photographer for the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences. He is best known for a creative manipulation of light that evoked a sense of mythic imagery residing in the statues and architecture he photographed. This ability to render form as myth and metaphor lends a dramatic touch to Van Kinsbergen's precise descriptions.

Van Kinsbergen is followed by the pioneer Indonesian photographer Kassian Cephas, who worked extensively at the grand Buddhist temple complex of Borobudur and is best known for his work in the keratons, the royal palaces of Yogyakarta and Solo. One of the first photographers to be employed by and admitted to the sequestered world of the royal courts, his portraits of Javanese courtiers, dignitaries and royal dancers brought an indigenous Indonesian sensibility to what was then a European-dominated medium.

In almost total contrast to these tendencies of pictorialism and aestheticism, the photographer Charles J. Kleingrothe, working in the 1880s, surveyed Indonesia's emerging commercial culture. He documented tobacco plantations, factories and warehouses peopled with indigenous laborers and Chinese field hands, and his pictures make us aware of the role of class, race and labor in the mercantile economy.

By the final decade of the nineteenth century, the photographic process had become cheaper and more convenient, and photography had begun to establish itself as a vastly popular medium and as a means of making a professional living. This resulted in a flurry of photographic activity throughout the world, and Indonesia was no exception.

In the 1890s, Onnes Kurkdjian, an Armenian with an ornate sensibility, traveled through Indonesia making elaborate still lifes, lavish portraits and pastoral landscapes. One can see the diversity of Kurkdjian's subject matter in photographs that range from the primordial Bromo volcano caught in the act of erupting to the sterile, confined spaces of colonial Dutch waiting rooms and a stiff, royal reception for Queen Wilhelmina. Kurkdjian's motivation was primarily commercial, and he produced volumes of images for sale to foreign and local dignitaries.

One of the most notable photographers also working during this period was C. W. Nieuwenhuis, a painter who received an extensive art education in Germany. Nieuwenhuis brought a painter's sense of construction, perception and grandeur to his photographic landscapes, imbuing them with a richness and intensity often overlooked by those of more commercial predilection. He also demonstrated a disciplined sense of ethnographic detail wrought with a fine aesthetic edge when he made some of the first images of Nias warriors of Sumatra and their elaborate tribal culture. Ultimately, his can be described as an orderly vision marked by painterly imagination and clarity of description that took as its focus works ranging from distant views to genre studies.

Meanwhile, the violent resistance to Dutch domination by the Acehnese in northern Sumatra had begun (1873-1914), and Dr. H. M. Neeb, a Dutch physician and photographer living and working in Indonesia, found himself caught up in the human drama of that conflict. With the detached eye of a clinician, he was able to document the casualties of war and portray the attitudes of its survivors. His stark, provocative images of war dead remind us of the immense cost of empire to indigenous populations as the colonials met resistance to their quest for territory and power.

Thilly Weissenborn, a Dutch woman who learned her craft at Kurkdjian's studio, struck out on her own in the second decade of the twentieth century. She brought a new sensibility to photography with her insightful portraits of Balinese women and dancers, her dramatic landscapes and her fascination with the archipelago's many cultural rituals and religious expressions. Her ability to interact with and feature women as special subjects for her camera was important to the construction of her images. In Weissenborn's portrait of a Balinese dancer, seated in her elaborate costume and framed in the arch of a gong-stand, one can sense her appreciation of the innate dignity and power of young nascent womanhood articulated as a delicate ambiguity registered in the dancer's facial expression and bodily posture.

In the 1920s, Tassilo Adam began working in Indonesia as the official ethnographic photographer for the Netherlands Indies Government. He spent fourteen years living among the Batak people of north Sumatra. So great was his identification with the cultural life of the indigenous people that he renounced Christianity and submerged himself totally in their beliefs and practices. Adam is best known for his films and stills of the dancers and performers in the royal courts of central Java. He imparted a considerable amount of dignity and respect to his subjects because of his commitment and sensitivity to their culture, and his multi-panel panoramas of Java added much to the photographic legacy of Indonesia.

Walter Spies, a well known German artist living in Indonesia in the 1930s, took dramatic photographs of the performing arts, the practice of everyday life and the archipelago's many cultural rituals. He was a powerful painter, and his photographs echo the shadows and multiple perspectives so finely articulated in his work on canvas. His images of barong spirits dancing in the mists of cultural antiquity evoke a haunting sensibility that draws upon the intersection of myth, dream and ceremonial reality. One can feel the universal unconscious in these photographs, the "return of the repressed" dancing in twilight.

Finally, Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs bring Toward Independences the middle decade of the twentieth century. With the arrival of nationhood for Indonesia, Cartier-Bresson photographed the evacuation of the Dutch, the elevation of the nationalist leaders, the spirit of the independence movement and the explosive drama of the Balinese trance dance. His dynamic vision and his modern instinct for photographing telling moments rather than poses or constructed tableaux is profoundly evident in his Indonesian work.

Viewing the photographs of Toward Independence from a contemporary standpoint, one is led to speculate on the parade of meanings that they have held over the years. Surely, adventurers inspired by European expansion and the colonial, orientalist imagination used early photographs to spin stories of fabulous, decadent kingdoms filled with gold and spices.

Indonesia certainly evokes thoughts of a stereotypical tropical paradise in even the most casual observer, yet while some westerners found paradise in Indonesia's grand array of cultures and aesthetic expressions, others thought they found it in the beauty and ritual of the royal courts. This was a cruel deception, however, for during the three hundred years of contact with, and then occupation by the Dutch, the real political power of Indonesia's kings and sultans gradually eroded. In response, these courtly figures turned inward, and behind the palace walls they created a world of incredible beauty and perfection, a world of gilded poet kings, elegant courtiers and royal dancers. But it was also a world of intrigue and deception, fixed by colonial relations in a static moment that nostalgically evoked a classical past that was long gone.

Our own perspectives and perceptions of a given photograph shift constantly under the pressure of political and aesthetic hindsight. Thus in Cartier-Bresson's image of Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia and the leader of its independence movement, shown with a determined smile and clenched fists in front of a painting of young freedom fighters who had sacrificed much for their cause, looks different today than it did during the Cold War, or to an Indonesian nationalist. Meaning thus resides both in the photograph and the viewer and is the sum of their interaction.

Even those familiar with Indonesian culture will find surprises in the work of the twelve photographers presented here, surprises based on the revelation of unexpected details and the candor of the subjects. The modern audience so accustomed to the plethora of visual images in culture should take the time to challenge the obvious beauty of the subjects of these photographs. Toward Independence, A Century of Indonesia Photographed examines this culture in all of its historical complexity.



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