Amsterdam. "How should we remember Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the Dutch governor-general who founded Batavia [now Jakarta, Indonesia's capital] and also the colonist who is responsible for the mass killing of thousands of Banda Island natives in the 16th century?"
This dilemma was conveyed by Indonesian artist Iswanto Hartono in his art exhibition at the Oude Kerk Church in Amsterdam, starting from Sep. 28th to Nov. 15th. The art exhibition on the Dutch colonial history in Indonesia is a part of the Europalia Arts Festival, in which Indonesia is the guest of honor.
The answer to the question is not as important as the process of finding it. Iswanto's aim is to bring forth critical discussion on the Dutch colonial past and heritage in Indonesia to Indonesians and Dutch alike.
"The Dutch colonial history remains a hot topic in the Indonesia-Netherland relationship. For example, Coen. Some people considered him a hero and some think he is a mass murderer. This is a controversial part of our history because there are people who want to remember him and there are those who just want to forget," Iswanto told the Jakarta Globe via video call recently.
The half-Chinese, half-Purworejo artist interpreted his idea using a full scale wax figure of Coen. Like a candle, the sculpture is being burned slowly until the exhibit ends in mid November.
"I am using wax as a medium because it represents the tension between remembering and forgetting. In Western and some religious traditions, burning a candle is done to remember those who past away. In order to forget, we must first remember. This duality or ambiguity is opening new perspectives on how we see our past," Iswanto said.
Iswanto also used his art installation "Golden Coach (Kereta Kencana)" to challenge the narratives on Dutch colonial heritage in Indonesia.
"The Golden Coach that was used by Dutch aristocrats are still being used today by our royalties [the sultanate/keraton] as a symbol of prestige and honor without any sense of guilt," Iswanto said, adding that it was the Dutch colonists who tried to remove the feudal system in Indonesia.
In former President Soeharto's New Order era, many Dutch colonial heritage artifacts were destroyed, erased or "turned" into Indonesian. Names of streets and buildings were changed to Indonesian names, and many monuments and statues were destroyed, "but, our judicial and education system remained Dutch."
Among other installations that Iswanto displays include a wax replica of The Vlakkenhoek Lighthouse in Sumatera, Belgica Fort in Banda Aceh, Amsterdam Gate in Jakarta, The Newkerk Museum or Wayang Museum in Jakarta, Mohr Observatorium in Jakarta and a video on Banda Island in Maluku. Banda, the nutmeg island, was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005. Iswanto also displays animal hunting trophies made from wax, such as boar, Bengal Tiger and Java Rhinos.
"Hunting is human nature. The colonist hunts for trophies to express a sense of power. In contrast, Indonesian locals at that time hunted for food. Hunting animals also has a personal sentiment because it was an activity I enjoyed with my family when I was little," he said.
Indonesia is the main guest of honor at the biannual Europalia Arts Festival held across Europe, which will officially start on Oct. 10 and end in January 2018. The countries include the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, France and Austria, which will see hundreds of cultural events, dance and theater shows, music performances, literature events, screenings and exhibitions. Some of these exhibitions, such as wayang workshop and a culinary festival, had already started in Brussels.
The Mont des Arts in Brussels, Belgium, will be center stage throughout most of the show.
More than 300 Indonesian artists, from dancers to filmmakers, are participating in the event held to introduce Indonesia's rich culture and history to Europeans.