The Netherlands – Indonesia: A Hybrid of Cultures ?

By Siswa Santoso
Political scientist at the University of Amsterdam

The editor’s introductory remarks state that the aim of this bilingual publication (Dutch- Indonesian) is to trace the influence of the past Dutch endeavour upon the present work of younger generations. The book presents a collection of twenty-nine articles and interviews expressing both concern and expectations, as well as reflecting on the current scenes in terms of cultural transfer of language and literature; music, dance and theatre; photo- graphy and film; fine art; design and applied arts; architecture; and last but not least, trade and (government) administration.

The general mood of the writing is very positive and the atmosphere is a mixture of personal, political, critical, and cosmopolitan elements, with nationalist and sometimes colonial sentiments thrown in too. One important aspect of this work is the interviewee’s or writer’s strident voice indicating an intermingling of professional and national interests being inserted into family and personal backgrounds. This is not surprising since one prominent sponsor for the joint endeavour was W. Deetman, the former Minister of Education and Sciences, now chairman of the Dutch Parliament. He stated that the government wishes to emphasize the personal and individual dimension in educational and cultural cooperation (p. 16/17). Hence we find in this book three ethnological museum curators who expect the younger generation of Indonesians in Indonesia to undertake a systematic study of Dutch and other West European archaeological and ethnological museum collections. They believe this urgent task could serve to restore the fading traditional values induced by the sudden force of modernity and the rapid growth of today’s economy. This partly underlines the comment by Tuty Herati Nurhadi, the (only) Indonesian interviewee in this chapter on cultural transfer, on the problem faced by the younger generation of Indonesian artists: an insufficient depth of understanding both of traditional/ethnic values and modern ideas. Apart from such a stimulus in academic archaeological training, art history, and history in general, it is not made clear what values may be conveyed by modern Dutch culture. Probably this stems from the personal experiences of certain contributors whose stories reflect (much) regret about their pro-Dutch attitude during the era of Dutch military aggression in 1947-1949. In their new country of Holland, however, their Indonesian background makes it impossible to avoid the continuous recall of a past spent in the Netherlands-Indies which extends far beyond their eating habits, accent and so forth. Culturally speaking, they are still at the cross-roads. It seems that a serious study is needed to identify the problem: is it a matter of choice (within the Dutch- Indonesian relationship) or of acceptance (by the Dutch public at large) ? Is it a problem of (dis)integration or cultural politics ?

Crossroads in literature
Such an unremitting hesitation and uneasiness arises from the hybridization process. However, if we move to what is happening in the field of literature, some writers in the second chapter of the book would suggest differently, certainly in the case of language. Van Zonneveld, for example, after treating some prominent writers from the corpus of Indies belles lettres, such as Robinson/Maheu, Dermout, Haasse, and Springer, suggests that their stories reflect their bondage to Indonesia. They profess a deep empathy for the Indonesian people. Even the writer Du Perron expresses his sympathy with the nationalist movement and had close contact with prominent Indonesian nationalist leaders. As Indonesia became independent, somehow it produced a world-acknowledged writer such as Pramoedya Antana Toer, whose work is admired for its colourful imagery which moves readers to reflect upon Dutch colonialism in Indonesia. In his contribution Teeuw illustrates that, above all other writers, Toer has become familiar to the Dutch public as the representative of modern Indonesian literature. By contrast, the Indonesian public recognize the internationally-known Dutch writer Multatuli for his work in which he took a critical stance towards colonialism in Java. It seems that only Petjo can prove how Dutch/Indies and Indonesian could really get on well together in a language used by ordinary people (with Indies background) in the street. Research by Van Rheeden shows that Petjo is neither Dutch nor Indonesian, despite 83% of the vocabulary being derived or borrowed from Dutch. The moribund Petjo has already achieved linguistic variant in shaping its own form, a mixed-system of Dutch vocabulary and Malay/Indonesian morphology, sound, and structure. The use of Petjo indicated the social position of the speakers. Van Rheeden suggests that Petjo was a product of complex social relations in a (colonial) multi-racial society with its hierarchical structure based on skin colour.

Eclecticism in architecture
The world of architecture provides phenomenal examples of eclecticism. The Dutch architect Maclaine Pont, followed by Karsten, combined traditional and Western systems into a modern outlook with a strong local identity. The 1920 ITB complex in Bandung is a classic example of his work. He, as observed by both Akihary and Gill in their contributions, applied a schematic approach to the design of buildings. Here the local climate presented an important factor in the shaping of the roof, ventilation, and other structural and spatial facets of the construction. Such a design method, since adopted with success only by the American architect Rudolph, was also employed in a post-modern office complex in Jakarta. This is a noticeable contrast, as Gill suggests, to local authorities throughout Indonesia which have adopted a policy of accentuating local traditions in (government) office building projects.

Plural influences
A different pattern of East-West relationships exists when we talk about performing arts in colonial and post-colonial Indonesia. In a survey of the subject, Ernst Heins and Marleen Indro Nugroho-Heins generally put the influence from the West to the fore. They detect some influence from Portuguese Tandjidor theatre, also Portuguese, Dutch and other influences are found in Kerontjong music. Some of today’s theatre scripts are adaptations of classical works (Oedipus Rex, Hamlet), whereas the modern classics such as Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot and works by Ibsen and Ionesco have already become common themes among today’s Indonesian dramatists. This development was initiated partly by the introduction of the proscenium during the Netherlands-Indies era. As Ernst Heins and Marleen Nugroho-Heins state, the use of the separated stage made an important change to the traditional relationship between players and audience on the one hand and between the players (dancers, musicians etc.) on the other hand. Nevertheless, the development of the modern stage goes hand in hand with the commercialization of both traditional and modern performances, which has led to the opening up of classical/court dance-drama to a broader audience. As shown by Helena Spanjaard, such a plural influence also applies to fine art. Despite the pioneering work in establishing a Western-orientated art academy in Indonesia, the Dutch had only a limited influence on the first generation of post-war Indonesian artists. During the first part of its development, the academy in Bandung was labelled a colonial and Western laboratory. Spanjaard mentions some prominent figures from the Bandung Western art academy such as Pirous, Sudjoko, Srihadi, Sadali, and Sidharta, who have become more aware of their Indonesian origins and traditions after pursuing further studies of Western art in France and USA. In their later, mature works we find sophisticated calligraphic paintings by Pirous and Sadali. Traditional motifs and rituals became the dominant representations in Sidharta’s sculptures. These results were quite unexpected from the new themes of art academies which had been established on the initiative of the government. The ASRI of Yogyakarta or a similar art academy in Bali were supposed to be anti-colonial and devote themselves to serving the traditional arts. The difference between the Bandung academy and the Yogyakarta and Bali academies was not to be found in their educational programmes or in the traditional sources utilized, in fact the contrary was the case as far as Yogyakarta and Bali were concerned. Spanjaard suggests that the principal difference lies in the attitude taken towards their work. Unlike the art students in Yogyakarta and Bali, Bandung students were instructed more as artists than artisans. The latter reflected the typical colonial attitude to traditionalism in art, but Yogya was able to define its own course towards traditionalism owing to its extremely nationalist and anti-Western origins. This remained so until 1965. Later, in line with the political orientation of the country no longer being hostile towards the West, Yogya’s contribution to modern art in Indonesia also became, as Spanjaard states, technically speaking, international. Like those who are concerned about the identity of today’s Indonesian modern art, after presenting some of the joint Dutch-Indonesian project Cultural Transmission Spanjaard too suggests a return to their own roots. She says: “Dutch artists who have spent some time in Indonesia attempt to deal with their environment by harking back to traditional values and norms. But what about the Indonesian artists? The ones who have spent time abroad (Holland, USA, Japan, Australi- a), attempt to shed their traditions which their Western counterparts seek so desperately.” (p. 150)

Yet such Dutch-Indonesian activities in the field of culture were and are driven by strong economic interests. In his contribution, Meijer describes Haakma, a diplomat who, at present, is very active in business affairs, as a disciple of Jan Pieterszoon Coen in the most positive sense. Haakma is also active in the introduction and facilitating of cultural activities within Indonesia. A combination of trade and cultural activities implies, Haakma argues, an increase of trade and export quotas. On the subject of cultural and student exchanges, he says: “In the future they will tend to place orders with the country in which they studied, since they know the country well and have personal empathy for it. in this case the Ne- therlands is threatened with being left behind.” (p. 210/213)

A Broken Mirror?
I find many narratives in this book akin to testaments by those who think about the long road of progress towards the finding of their origin and cultural identity. Certainly such a contribution may be taken as a reflection upon their identity, which is being consumed by a major process under the impending impact of globalization. It is also important to make a link between these historical accounts, today’s crises, and strategy for the future. Yet between the Netherlands and Indonesia, owing to past relationships, an association of intercourse between these two countries seems to persist which is more complex than is justified by today’s trans-national setting. It stems partly from the undigested past (from the Dutch point of view) but also from the capability of manipulation and exploitation of the same past by the Indonesians. It follows that Indonesia has not been able to distinguish its real inherited weakness and strengths. With regards to the cultural aspect, this book can be a good point of departure for such a topic of discussion. The intermingling of refinements begins with exchanges between two or more cultural variants. When the exchange process is initiated from below, one might expect only a minimal identity crisis if, and only if, the participants in the process have the opportunity to define their own role. Descriptions and discussions on the matters found in this book express complex identity crises: a dual cultural world of the Dutch? Indonesian and the diminishing traditional values in a plastic global environment are now experienced by the younger generation of Indonesians. In this context, there is no better illustration of ambivalence than the tension between the conservative and dynamic way of regarding traditionalism.

Without profound studies of the social significance of the traditional values, the adoption of the suggestions found in either ethos will not provide much help, especially for those at the cross-roads, since being accepted in international art has more allure than embarking upon an endless discussion about the authenticity of one’s work in terms of cultural roots. Secondly, the positions of both the dynamic and conservative approaches towards raditionalism share a similar tendency to welcome the newcomers in the world culture provided, of course, that they observe normative and instructive constraints. This leads to the third aspect of my remarks. The discourse on colonialism does not really help one to understand the actual form and mechanism of colonial practices. The contemporary use of nationalist discourse on colonialism and vice versa suggests a practice in which economic power plays an instrumental role. Thus I cannot isolate these contested appro- aches from their discursive context and the real process to which this refers, namely that cultural factors are instrumental in maintaining politico-economic dominance. This, together with the approach adopted and expressed in this book, reminds me that Ashis Nandy said that colonialism is not merely a politico-economic process, but also a psychological one which treats culture as a state of affairs.

Ashis Nandy: The Intimate Enemy, New Delhi, Oxford University Press. 1983
Pramoedya Antana Toer: Maaf, Atas Nama Pengalaman, in Arena vol 7, 1990-1992 (p.4- 29).

Hester Wolters ed.
Nederland/Indonesia. 1945 – 1995. Een culturele vervlechting. Suatu Pertalian Budaya. Den Haag: Zoo Produkties 239 pp.


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