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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 71-73

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Toward Independence: A Century of Indonesia Photographed

Jane Levy Reed

The Indonesian archipelago is a vast complex of islands, languages, and cultures--all coexisting in a 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 expressions of belief and culture create a delicate and dynamic web of social forms and tensions, and are a daily part of the aesthetic and intellectual endeavors of the nation's citizens. No selection of photographs, no matter how ambitious, could hope to present a complete picture of Indonesia's enormous richness and diversity.

The photographs in this issue of M anoa chronicle a significant one-hundred-year era in the lengthy transformation of Indonesia from its Dutch colonial occupation, which began in the 1500s, to its emergence as an independent nation in 1945. The photographs were selected from an exhibition that I curated in 1991. While historical in nature, the exhibition was meant to carry forward and symbolize the strength and spirit of the Indonesian people, and inspire us all to better understand the complex social and cultural issues facing the country today.

Viewing these photographs now, fifty-five years after Indonesian independence, we can't help but speculate on the variety of meanings that these images have had over the years. Adventurers inspired by European expansion and the colonial, orientalist imagination must have used these early photographs to spin stories of fabulous, decadent kingdoms filled with gold and spices. While some Westerners found paradise in Indonesia's grand and variegated tropical landscape, others imagined that paradise lay in the formal beauty and ritual of the royal court. Both facets of this idealized nation were eroded by the colonial relationship. Four hundred years of Dutch occupation began the process that has resulted in some of the worst environmental disasters of this century. Under Dutch rule the courts turned inward, creating a world of gilded poet-kings, elegant courtiers, and resplendent dancers. But it was also a world of intrigue and deception, nostalgically evoking a classical past that was, in reality, long gone. [End Page 71]

Even those people familiar with Indonesian culture will find surprises in the work of the photographers presented here--surprises based on the revelation of unexpected details, the candor of the subjects, and the placement of the images in the context of this collection of essays, stories, interviews, and poems. Behind the obvious beauty of the subjects of these photographs lies the complexity of the theme under which they were originally gathered: toward independence.

The Photographers

The earliest photographer in this selection is Adolph Schaefer, who studied with Daguerre in France and quickly recognized the daguerreotype's potential. Schaefer did some of his finest work in the 1840s, when he convinced the Dutch government to commission him to photograph monuments and landscapes in what was then the Dutch East Indies.

The adventurers and photographers Walter Bentley Woodbury and James Page met while sailing from England to Australia. After some success in Melbourne, they continued on to Batavia, where they flourished from 1856 to 1861 as the photographic team Woodbury & Page, producing images of architecture, portraits of dignitaries, and views.

Formally trained as an artist, Isidore Van Kinsbergen was retained in 1862 as a photographer for the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences. The society commissioned him to photograph Javanese antiquities on the Dieng Plateau. From April 1873 to June 1874, he photographed the scriptures and reliefs of Borobudur.

Ignoring the tendencies of his contemporaries in the late 1880s to emphasize pictorialism and aestheticism, the German photographer Charles J. Kleingrothe documented tobacco factories, warehouses, and tea plantations in Sumatra, photographing indigenous laborers and Chinese field hands. His images of Indonesia's emerging commercial industries reveal the divisions among classes, races, and professions.

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 both a vastly popular medium and a profession. In the 1890s, Onnes...


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