A mural at Jakarta Arts Council's 'Archival Theater' exhibition on Monday (07/05). (JG Photo/Diella Yasmine)

Archives Shed Light on Indonesian Art Under Japanese Occupation

MAY 14, 2018

Jakarta. A performance artist makes bioethanol on stage using what looks to be bundles of old newspapers. When you look closer, they're reproductions of Japanese newspapers published in Indonesia during Japan's occupation of the country in 1942-1945, including Soeara Asia, Asia Raya, Tjahaja and Djawa Shimbun.

That was the scene at Jakarta's Taman Ismail Marzuki on Monday (07/05) and the artist's name was Haryo Hutomo. His performance was part of an exhibition of plays, video installations and performance art based on an archival study of Japan's contribution to the local art scene during the Second World War.

The exhibition was called "Teater Arsip, 3½ Tahun Bekerja" ("Archival Theater: 3½ Years of Work"), organized by the Jakarta Arts Council and based on the work of independent researcher Antariksa, recently released as a paper titled "Japanese Artists and Art Policy in Japanese-occupied Indonesia and Singapore, 1942-1945."

Antariksa said although Japan's war efforts in Southeast Asia have been picked over meticulously, their artistic and educational endeavors in the region still remain largely unexplored.

Antariksa's study attempts to record Japanese influences on Indonesian artists and the country's art movements during the Second World War.

"The exhibition itself becomes a visual explanation of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, especially the wider historical context," he said.

Throughout its occupation, the Japanese authorities sought to mobilize Indonesian artists for its "Greater East Asian War" military campaign.

As a consequence, for the first time in history Indonesian artists were working under a centralized supervision.

Artists had attempted to unionize before, for example by forming the Indonesian Association of Painters (Persagi) in the late 1930s, but during the Japanese occupation similar organizations mushroomed.

They included Putera (Center for People’s Energy) and the Keimin Bunka Shidosho (Institute for People’s Education and Cultural Guidance).

Both advocated the development of a true Indonesian art by promoting Indonesian culture but also by educating and training Indonesian artists in the conventions of Japanese art.

Famous local artists, performers, writers and scholars such as Affandi, Emiria Soenasa, Basuki Abdullah, Hendra Gunawan and Armijn Pane were involved in the organizations, where they collaborated with hundreds of Japanese artists including graphic designer Takashi Kono, writer and journalist Soichi Oya, film director Eitaro Hinatsu and painter Miyamoto Saburo.

The new institutions also provided local artists with the more basic stuffs: art materials like canvases and oil paint, art galleries and performance spaces.

Antariksa said as a result more local artists and performers emerged in three and a half years of Japanese occupation than during the previous three centuries of Dutch rule.

"Under the Dutch, there were only 10 local artists that we know of. During the Japanese occupation, there were 985," Antariksa said.

The exhibition on Monday kicked off with a play by Teater Performatif titled "Membuka Kardus Arsip" ("Opening a Box of Archives"), a realist piece telling the story of the Japanese occupation and the empire's contributions to the local art scene.

After that, Timoteus Anggawan Kusno showed a video titled "Kotak Perjalanan" ("Journey in a Box"), an 8-minute interview with a Japanese woman who tells her experiences of living in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation.

Then came Haryo's aforementioned experimental performance art piece. The official title was "Purifikasi 19.42-19.45" ("Purification 19.42-19.45").

According to Antariksa, even though Japan had tried to mobilize Indonesian artists for its military campaign, the Indonesians seized the opportunity – and the free canvases and oil paint – to promote Indonesian nationalism and, ultimately, independence.

"Japan and Indonesia both wanted to fight off Western powers, and art played an important role in their struggle," Antariksa said.