The Erasmus Huis exhibition complements the show at the National Gallery. Though smaller, it displays the legacy of Diponegoro in the Netherlands. (JG Photos/Jaime Adams)

A Different View of Java’s ‘Rebel Prince’ Diponegoro

BY :JAIME ADAMS

FEBRUARY 25, 2015

Held parallel to the massive “Aku Diponegoro” exhibition, currently showing at the National Gallery in Central Jakarta, the Dutch cultural center Erasmus Huis features another exhibition on the same subject, revealing another side to the Indonesian national hero — “Prince Diponegoro in Dutch Perspectives From 1800 Until Now.”

“While it is well known that the prince, as a key historical figure, developed into a national Indonesian hero, the story of his influence on Dutch politics and society in the 19th and 20th century is scarcely told,” curator Sadiah Boonstra explains. 

“The exhibition at Erasmus Huis aims to fill this gap and show how Diponegoro impacted Dutch politics and society after the Java War. The views of various prominent and less prominent Dutch politicians on the prince are given a voice through letters, manuscripts, and articles in Dutch press.”

The exhibition tells the largely unknown story of how sacred objects once belonging to Diponegoro became meaningful to Dutch society. It also explains how the relation between Diponegoro and the Netherlands continues to exist in and inspire works of art.

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“It was a great pleasure to curate this exhibition; it is a lot smaller than the one at the National Gallery but we hope nevertheless still interesting. It does focus on a Dutch perspective because I really wanted to add something to what the other exhibition has to offer,” Boonstra says.

While the exhibition “Aku Diponegoro” at the National Gallery mainly focuses on Diponegoro in Indonesia, in art history and the reception of the Javanese freedom fighter within Indonesia itself, Boonstra finds it also very important to understand that Diponegoro and his legacy travels a lot further than Indonesia, especially in the Netherlands, given the long shared history and the ties that the two countries share.

“There is still a lot of documentary and objects related to Diponegoro in the Netherlands, in Dutch libraries, archives and museums as well,” she adds.

The exhibition at Erasmus Huis is divided into four sections; the first serves as an introduction to Diponegoro and the Java War (1825-1830), explained through a short animated film.

Diponegoro led a rebellion against the colonial rulers and was later betrayed: In 1830, despite negotiations under a flag of truce. The Dutch then took him as a prisoner and exiled him to Makassar, where he died in 1855.

“What I wanted to also show was how Diponegoro was seen in the Netherlands, and not only during the Java War but also afterwards — his legacy,” Boonstra explains. 

“There is a small corner dedicated to that; some Dutch personalities gave their perspective on Diponegoro, and it might not surprise you he was mainly seen as a rebel against the Dutch, but there were also dissident voices, which I selected in one of the showcases here.”

Both the Dutch and the Javanese ascribed mystical powers to some of Diponegoro’s artefacts. 

His heirlooms and other objects related to him, such as his ring and kris (traditional dagger), became much sought-after not only within the Javanese society but also in Dutch circles after the arrest. Many were taken to the Netherlands.

“Because of the very short time frame we had [to prepare this exhibition] it was not possible to get original objects, so I had them photographed from both front and back,” Boonstra explains. 

“That way, you can still walk around them and see what they look like,” Boonstra explains.”

“These objects show basically that Diponegoro was so important that even his objects that had traveled to the Netherlands were valuable to the Dutch, and they actually used them to claim social and cultural positions within Dutch society. That’s the story that is being told here.”

The final section of the exhibition highlights the lasting legacy of Diponegoro, including an art installation from artist Luthfi Hasan representing the Indonesian perspective that draws on several different artistic disciplines such as interior design, pop art and decorative art.

Luthfi seeks to show that something has once existed or has been used in the past does not simply vanish over time. 

In his view, this also applies to Diponegoro and his convictions, his bravery and determination, as these are all values that continue to be relevant today.

An original poster of the theater play “Schaken met Diponegoro” (Playing chess with Diponegoro), written by “the Grand Old Lady” of Dutch literature Hella Haasse, represents the lasting legacy of Diponegoro in the Netherlands. 

Haasse, who was born and raised in the Netherlands East Indies, wrote the piece in 1970 centering around Diponegoro, even though he doesn’t actually make an appearance in the play. Rather, it tells the story of a Dutch soldier guarding Diponegoro, but he identifies with the prince to such an extent that in the end, he goes mad. 

Even upon the soldier’s return to the Netherlands, he can’t shake off what he experienced, and he and his household fall under the spell of Diponegoro’s ghost.

“I think one of the most recent examples of the shared heritage between the Netherlands and Indonesia is the incorporation of the Babad Diponegoro [Autobiographical Chronicle of Prince Diponegoro] on the Unesco Memory of the World register, explained here in a short movie,” Boonstra says.

The autobiographical chronicle of Diponegoro, which he wrote in 1831 and 1832 while in exile, is the personal record of a key figure in modern Indonesian history. 

It also marks the first autobiography in modern Javanese literature and was entered in the Unesco Memory of the World register.

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