A Report: Garden of the East: Photography in Indonesia 1850s-1940s
February 21 – June 22, 2014
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This exhibition, the last to be organized at the National Gallery of Australia before the retirement of its curator Gael Newton, is yet another sign of the rapidly expanding boundaries of the history of photography. In 2005, this same Gallery held only about 200 photographs from anywhere in Asia. In 2014, its collection of Asian photographs has grown to encompass 8,000 items, including 6,500 prints made in Indonesia. This last figure was facilitated by the acquisition in 2007 of a collection accumulated by Leo Haks of Amsterdam, who himself started buying Indonesian photographs in 1977. The Haks acquisition alone included some 2000 nineteenth and early twentieth-century albumen and gelatin silver photographs. In addition, the acquisition included 87 family albums, 146 collotypes, 556 gravures and photogravures, and 22 offset plate rare books, with formats varying from cartes-de-visite to large plate landscapes, along with several mammoth plate portraits and panoramas. Although it also incorporates several other acquisitions (even some from 2014), Garden of the East is a celebration of the NGA’s recent commitment to this area of collecting (encouraged by the Gallery’s director Ron Radford and made possible by Newton’s own enthusiasm for the task), and to its investment in the Haks Collection in particular.
A celebration, but this was nevertheless still just a tip of this iceberg of material, with the exhibition only able to display about two hundred and fifty photographs, albums and illustrated books. Items were shown in roughly chronological order, with nineteenth-century works on one level of the Gallery and twentieth on another. Even with this reduced number, the experience was a little overwhelming, and the order imposed by the curator in the form of general thematic groupings was soon lost in a haze of visual overload. Several aspects of the exhibition nevertheless remained striking. One was the presence of family albums bound in distinctive Japanese or Batik patterned cloth boards, often compiled as records of a privileged colonial lifestyle during the Dutch occupation of the East Indies. Another was the inclusion by Newton of a number of wood engravings or other prints after photographs, often the only remaining trace of otherwise missing early work. This in itself was a declaration that our field of study now encompasses the photographic image in all its various manifestations and not merely the photograph. And then there was the profusion of mostly unfamiliar photographer’s names throughout the display, a reminder of how much there is still to learn: Woodbury and Page, Tassilo Adam, H.M. Neeb, C.J. Kleingrothe, Kassian Cephas, Isidore Van Kinsbergen, Onnes Kurkdjian, H. Salzwedel, Thilly Weissenborn and more. Although many of these people were foreign born, Kassian Cephas is recognized as the first Indonesian photographer of note, with Thilly Weissenborn the first significant Indonesian-born woman photographer.
It was hard to discern a thesis in all this, other than an insistence that Indonesian photography is a subject area that deserves close attention. Indeed, the exhibition reiterates a geographic or nation-based historical model without too much critical reflection. This is in contrast to the other major representation of Indonesian photography in recent years, Karen Strassler’s 2010 book Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. Calling her own subject “that troubled collectivity known as ‘Indonesia’,” Strassler suggests that the photography found there registers “the ways that ‘Indonesia’ itself has been posed: as a problem, a proposition, a possibility, and a position from which to occupy that world.” All nation states are works in progress, but she makes the case that Indonesia is a particularly complex phenomenon, comprising hundreds of ethnic groups, languages and religions occupying over 17,000 islands in a vast archipelago in South East Asia. In the past century its history has been marked by a struggle for national liberation from a brutal Dutch colonial legacy, soon devolving after World War Two into an autocratic system of governance. The chronological account offered by Garden of the East finishes at the key moment of this shift from one identity to the other.
Elements of the complexity recounted by Strassler are certainly represented in Newton’s exhibition, but often in subtle ways. For example, a number of the albums in the exhibition feature mixed-race family photographs, showing Dutch administrators—always in crisp white uniform—along with their Indonesian wives and children, the living residues of this colonial history. Indeed, the exhibition as a whole is another of these residues, with many albums ending up in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s in estate sales of former Dutch colonial family members who had returned or immigrated after the establishment of the Republic of Indonesia. This is how they came to be in the Haks Collection and thus in this exhibition. Other albums show elite Javanese families enjoying a middle-class European lifestyle (of which formal studio portraits and the photo-album were primary manifestations). These signs of hybrid modernity contrast with the many pictures of Balinese culture, a Hindu enclave in a predominately Muslim country that, according to this exhibition’s catalogue, photographers like Gregor Krause were determined to present as “a serene place, heaven on earth, the Garden of Eden.” The invention of an exoticised Indonesia, as evidenced in its distinctive architecture, stone carvings and dance costumes, and in the beauty of its women, is a constant preoccupation of photographers, beginning with the earliest known images, some daguerreotypes made by the German visitor Adolph Schaefer in Jakarta in 1845. But this exhibition refused to privilege these kinds of images over the huge range of other kinds of material that it also showed, this lack of focus perhaps serving as a visual reiteration of Strassler’s point about the complexity of Indonesian history. In addition to the pictures already mentioned, for example, there were some extraordinarily large photogravures of Indonesian scenes intended to be shown in school rooms, but also examples of Pictorialist art photographs, using the local landscape to evoke what were regarded as universal aesthetic values; there was a series of photographs of gibbons but also an aerial shot of some Mustangs flying in formation; there were two montages showing a group of men posing in front of different landscape backgrounds but also an interior scene of an office with each worker carefully annotated in pen; and so on.
Newton’s catalogue sought to render some sense from this dizzying diversity by providing an introductory essay that surveys Indonesia’s photographic history in clear and measured terms, along with a plethora of high quality illustrations.1 It is striking, once again, that wood engravings, lithographs, photogravures, albums and books feature as prominently as single photographs, tracing the dissemination of the imaging of Indonesia as much as its production. Newton’s own contribution is joined by ten smaller commentaries from an array of writers, offering more focused looks at specific genres or bodies of work. These include, just to mention a couple of examples, a short essay by Susie Protschky about early twentieth-century personal albums, and another by Alexander Supartono about photographs of industry. The whole package offers the first comprehensive overview of Indonesian photography up to about 1940 that is available in English. When Garden of the East is combined with Strassler’s more academic examination of twentieth-century Indonesian visual culture, scholars will at last have a valuable foundation for future analysis of this hitherto little known but rich archive of photographic images and practices.
Geoffrey Batchen teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Gael Newton (with contributions by Matt Cox, Vigen Galstyan, Anneke Groeneveld, Annabelle Lacour, Anne Maxwell, Anne O’Hehir, Susie Protschky and Alexander Supartono), Garden of the East: Photography in Indonesia 1850s-1940s (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2014).