Longread — 8 Jun 2018 — Kerstin Winking
The Myth of the Twentieth Century still haunts many heads, in various forms and appearances.1
Willem Frederik Wertheim, the Dutch professor of sociology who uttered the above-mentioned words in his 1948 lecture series ‘Race Problems in Indonesia’—held the year before the Dutch state recognized Indonesia’s independence—would be alarmed to hear that race theories are arguably once again gaining territory in the West. In his lectures, Wertheim convincingly argued against theories that presupposed correlations between race and genetic predispositions, such as those advanced by Nazi party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg in his book The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930).
Wertheim held that the race myths that feed Nazi ideology equally inform the colonial mentality; he argued that they are both part of political strategies used to underscore the power of colonial elites. He had experienced the power relations in the Dutch Indies first-hand, having worked as a professor of law in Batavia between 1936 and 1942. In his critical analyses of early 20th-century writings of Dutch academics,2 Wertheim dismantles their supposed scientific reasoning by revealing how they rely on unfounded assumptions and age-old colonial stereotypes.
The Indonesian artists and brothers Agus (Agoes) Djaya and Otto Djaya arrived in Amsterdam in 1947.3 During their three-year stay in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, their work, as well as pieces they had collected, was shown in no less than three exhibitions in Amsterdam; in the Stedelijk Museum (1947), Indisch Museum (now Tropenmuseum, 1947-48) and Kunstzaal Van Lier (1948), respectively. Between 1948 and 1950 their work was also shown in The Hague, Dordrecht, Paris and Monaco. More than seventy years after their arrival in Amsterdam and their first exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, the exhibition The Djaya Brothers: Revolusi in the Stedelijk, once again offers the museum’s audience the opportunity to connect with the revolutionary, anti-colonial spirit expressed in the Djayas’ work. The presentation shows how they creatively counter the colonial stereotypes of Indonesian people, rebuked by Wertheim but prevalent in 1940s society, with Indonesian mythology—offering an ever-relevant strategy for how art can play a role in the geopolitical arena (ill. 1).
The Djaya Brothers
Agus Djaya (1913-1994) and Otto Djaya (1916-2002) belonged to an Indonesian artist movement that aimed to develop a style of art that reflected the spirit of a modern and independent Indonesian nation. Agus and Otto were born in the Banten province, West Java. Their father was a civil servant and worked as the district chief of Pandeglang. They both went to Dutch high schools, where they learnt Dutch and other European languages. Agus graduated in 1928 as a drawing teacher. He then worked as an artist and taught at the theosophical Arjuna School in the Jakarta region during the 1930s. In 1938, he and fellow artist Sindudarsono Sudjojono co-founded Persagi (‘Persatuan Ahli Gambar Indonesia’: the Union of Indonesian Painters, although literally, “of picture experts”)4, an artist union with the goal of creating distinctively Indonesian modern art.
Otto graduated from high school in 1936. He had learnt about art at school and from his brother, but he had no formal artistic training before joining the union. Persagi was dissolved in 1942 when the Japanese army occupied the Dutch East Indies—following The Netherlands’ capitulation of their territory to Germany and their ally Japan at the beginning of World World II in 1940. In 1943, Agus became the head of the fine arts section of Keimin Bunka Shidosho, a subdivision of Sendenbu, the Japanese military propaganda organization.5 Later, Agus would claim that the Japanese occupation sorely affected the development of young Indonesian painters.6 It is however likely that during this period several Indonesian artists with revolutionary sympathies learned how to deploy arts and culture as an effective tool for propagating their political, anti-colonial ideas.
Just a few days after the Japanese capitulation in 1945, the new government of Indonesia led by Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed the independence of Indonesia. With the Dutch government unwilling to let go of its former colony, named the Dutch East Indies, a war ensued that continued until they acknowledged Indonesia’s sovereignty in December 1949. Right after the proclamation, Agus and Otto joined the Third Division of the Sukabumi Regiment, which was part of the new Indonesian military organization called the People’s Security Army (Tentara Keamanan Rakyat), which later became the Army of the Republic of Indonesia (Tentara Republik Indonesia).7 As Sandberg writes, in 1946 Agus organized a congress to reconnect with the other Indonesian revolutionary artists in Sukabumi.8 Their engagement with the revolutionary army meant that the Djayas (like other artists) attracted the attention of the Netherlands Indies Government Information Service, whose staff photographed the young Djayas in their studios (ills. 2 and 3). Convinced of the importance of culture for the people of Indonesia, Agus started gathering his fellow artists’ work for the collection of a new national museum commissioned by Sukarno in 1946,9 From February to March 1947, the brothers exhibited their art in a Jakarta museum before starting what Agus’s biographer described as a ‘cultural diplomacy’ and ‘psy-war’ mission to bring the Indonesian modern art collection that he had assembled to Amsterdam.10
The Djayas took the steamboat Nieuw Holland from Jakarta to Amsterdam in early 1947. Their luggage contained over a hundred paintings and other objects, such as calendars and divination books. Soon after the Djaya brothers arrived, they got in touch with people who supported Indonesia’s independence struggle, among whom Wertheim, who had been a professor of law in Batavia between 1936 and 1942. During the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, he was detained in a Japanese camp and left the archipelago after the occupation ended in 1945.11 Wertheim was sympathetic to the Indonesian independence movement and continued to support the Indonesian National Revolution (1945-49) after his return to the Netherlands in 1945. It is not certain whether Wertheim encountered the Djayas in Indonesia, he could have, but he was certainly one of their companions in Amsterdam, where the Djayas stayed until 1950. They enrolled at the Rijksakademie art school and at the Gemeente Universiteit (now the University of Amsterdam) to study journalism.12 Wertheim was one of their professors, as was Theodoor Galestin, professor of East Asian art history.
The Communing Power of Indonesian Myths
The starting point for the The Djaya Brothers: Revolusi in the Stedelijk exhibition was a group of paintings and drawings by Agus and Otto that are in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum. Their contact with Willem Sandberg, who was the director of the museum between 1945 and 1963, resulted in the exhibition Agoes Djaya en Otto Djaya in the Stedelijk in 1947. Throughout their stay in the Netherlands, the artists kept in touch with Sandberg and before returning to Indonesia, they made a remarkable donation to the Stedelijk (ill. 4): Agus’s paintings The Fight (1944) and Fall of Bhisma (1945) (ill. 5), Otto’s Revolution (1947) and The Battle (Fight Against Monsters) (1950), as well as two of his watercolors (ill. 6).
Combat is a central theme in these pieces. All four paintings depict warriors, either taking or primed for action. Yet, other Djaya paintings I saw in collections in Indonesia, the Tropenmuseum, and in a private collection in the Netherlands show that calm, cheerful or contemplative Indonesian scenes are equally—if not more—important motifs in the Djayas’ oeuvre. See for instance Agus’s Maya’s Dream (1941), part of the exhibition (ill. 7).13 At the heart of the exhibition is the artists’ firm belief that the traditional Hindu-Javanese cultural expressions, and its mythology in particular, are a communing and empowering factor in the art of the independence struggle in the 1940s.
To better understand what Malayan-Polynesian culture (of which Hindu-Javanese traditions are part) has to do with the revolutionary spirit of the time, modernist writer and thinker Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s theories about art can be consulted. In addition to paintings by the Djayas, the Linoleographs (1946), a portfolio with texts by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, and linocuts by the artists Mochtar Apin and Baharudin are included in the exhibition (ill. 8). In the preface to the Linoleographs, Alisjahbana proclaims the ‘revolutionary spirit of the Indonesian youth’.14 According to him, this spirit expressed itself not merely through the violence of the battle towards independence, but more importantly, by taking pride in the culture that infuses the everyday lives of the Indonesian archipelago people. It was Alisjahbana who, in the 1930s, argued that contact with the West had changed the lives of the archipelago people, and that it was high time for these diverse groups to unite as one nation.15
Years after his contribution to the pre-revolutionary debate on modern Indonesian culture, Alisjahbana further theorized his views on the arts in Indonesia in the essay ‘Profusion of the Arts’ (1965). Here, he counters colonial stereotypes that claim South East Asian people are ‘lazy, indolent, living from day to day, gay, nonchalant, and gentle’ by explaining the principles of Balinese and Javanese art and its relationship to Indian, other Asian, and Western cultures.16 He writes that ‘the Malay-Polynesian people, the Indonesians enjoy art to such [an] extent that it has become part of every aspect of their life’.17 He goes on to note that this artistic attitude to life in the region indeed stands in stark contrast to the colonial, capitalist—supposedly more rational—mentality focused on time management and productivity, explaining that in the archipelago:
Philosophy and religion have never been separated from myth, which combines creative fantasy with an awareness of the conflicts and unity of cosmic forces. In the myths of the Indonesian people, gods, men, animals, plants and things are inter-changeable and are able to act freely, without being subjected to the laws of causality.18
As examples for the great achievements of the Malay-Polynesian people, Alisjahbana names the Prambanan and Borobudur temples as representative of the creative ways that people not only adopted the mythological, but also (to a lesser extent) the religious or philosophical content of the 9th-century Javanese adaptations of the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana into their everyday culture, one he views as ultimately characterized by ‘the oscillation of conflict and harmony in aesthetic feelings’.19
It is precisely this understanding of Malay-Polynesian culture that informs the artistic practice of the Djaya brothers, who wanted to integrate this specific mythological and spiritual sensibility, as well as its visual language and aesthetics, into their version of Indonesian modern art, as a form of artistic resistance in a time of political upheaval. They painted the mythological subjects in an expressive style that conveys sympathy with, in Agus’s words, ‘the urge for emancipation’ of the ‘European expressionists and French modernists’.20
A Revolution in Style
In 1948, Theodoor Galestin, an expert on Balinese and Hindu-Javanese culture and curator of ethnography at the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute (1938-1945), who was well aware of the intellectual and artistic aspirations for developing a modern Indonesian culture, wrote an essay for the catalogue of the exhibition Indonesische veertien dagen (Indonesian Fortnight) in Kunstzaal Van Lier in Amsterdam (May 1948). The exhibition includes paintings by the Djayas as well as some other objects, such as calendars, scripts and fortune-telling books, that the artists brought with them from Indonesia. Galestin positions the work of the Djayas as part of the debate about modern Indonesian culture; and importantly, he cites the artists as the source of his information about their work. He states that despite being enrolled at the Rijksakademie, they were not interested in learning more about the (Dutch) classical, academic artistic school, but instead admired the French expressionists.21 “They did not want the [Indonesian] art to be considered from the perspective of ethnography or archaeology (as craft objects or historical artefacts),” Galestin writes.22 He continues that Agus is attracted by Hindu-Javanese art and its “spiritual values”, but that he and his brother aspire to innovate on a technical level as painters and searched for a synthesis between their own cultural background in the East and the perspectives they encountered in the West (read Galestin’s introduction here).
I have been able to identify one painting from the Indonesische veertien dagen exhibition: Nymphs by Agus Djaya.23 The painting was photographed for the catalog and featured on the cover. It shows a masked male figure on a horse mock-up as used for Jaranan, the traditional horse dance performed in Java.24 In the sky above the rider, a charming female head appears. With one hand, the rider offers her a rose. The horse is painted in a loud yellow, which contrasts sharply with the dark background evoking a sparkling night sky. Colored silhouettes of leaves and bushes are recognizable in the background. In this mysterious setting, the steed pants nervously, but the rider keeps his cool as he carries an axe with his other hand, just in case he needs to fight some yet unseen force.
A horse also appears in Fight (1944), a painting by Agus Djaya (ill. 10). This work dates back to the Japanese occupation period, which the inscribed dating on the painting confirms: Agus painted the year 1944 as ’04, which is customary in the imperial year system (kōki) used in Japan until the end of World War II.25 As the title suggests, the painting depicts a battle. The red horse with white dots pulls a carriage with a noble warrior and other warriors on horseback are arriving as reinforcements in the fight against what appears to be a blood-thirsty monster. To enhance the dramatic expression of the fighting scene, Agus used fast and loose brushstrokes. From nearby, some lines appear to have been scratched onto the painting, perhaps with a knife or other sharp utensil, as if to enhance the aggression of the image. The red and white horse wears the colors of the Japanese and Indonesian flags and pulls the chariot of the heroes who slaughter the monster in a brutal fight.
The fighters depicted in Otto Djaya’s painting Revolution (1947) are all dressed and equipped for revolutionary action (ill. 11). The figures’ various styles of dress represent the great variety of local costumes worn in the different regions of the archipelago. Their makeshift equipment references the ragtag make-up of the Indonesian revolutionary army, which Otto depicted with a sense of humor that often marks his artwork. Otto clearly aimed to break with the Dutch concept of ‘volkstypen’, meaning ‘ethnic types’, used for instance by the Dutch art historian Jeanne de Loos-Haaxman to describe Indonesian people portrayed on prints and drawings.26 Her use of the term is in line with the colonial order, in which people are categorized according to ethnic group and the associated social status.27 According to this order, volkstypen can for instance be a koelie (coolie), an ambtenaar (civil servant), a priester (priest), or a regent (regent), but a koelie is always an indigenous Javanese or Chinese person, whereas an ambtenaar, a priester, and certainly a regent is always of Dutch descent. The term is thus arguably rooted in the same race myths critiqued by Wertheim in the introduction to this essay. With his piece Revolution, Otto Djaya visually continues this intellectual critique by depicting the revolutionaries as caricatures of volkstypen united for revolutionary action.
More serious is another fighting scene by Otto in his Fight Against Monsters (1950) (ill. 12). It depicts a mythological war scene that he might have observed in the shadow puppet theater, as the figures in this painting look like real wayang puppets lying flat on the canvas. The warriors fight against the three-headed monster Trishira, a demon that appears in a verse in the Ramayana epic. In this verse, Trishira wants to kill Rama, the protagonist, with arrows. Rama, however, is immune to the arrows and says that they are touching him like flowers. He counter attacks Trishira with his extremely precise and sharp arrows and hits the three-headed monster, which then starts belching bloody smoke. All the other monsters that accompanied Trishira back off, too. Otto must have painted this scene in the early months of 1950, shortly after the Dutch government finally accepted the sovereignty of Indonesia in December 1949. By the end of April 1950, the Djaya brothers returned to Jakarta.28 Otto donated this painting to the Stedelijk shortly before their departure.
A Note for the Future
The Djayas certainly envisioned the creation of Indonesian modern art as an imagined ‘common project for the future’, to quote Benedict Anderson’s definition of nationalism.29 In the anthropologist and political scientist Anderson’s writing, he asks us to remember that nationalism is a 19th century phenomenon and that the concept of the state existed long before its ‘invention’.30 Fuelled by a wave of nationalism, and supported by pressure from the international political community, the Indonesians expelled the Dutch army. The colonial spectre however continues to haunt, because the structure of the colonial state system became the basis for the political system that came to rule Indonesia after the revolution.
The Djaya brothers took the energy with which the warriors in the old epics fought as a metaphor for the energy with which the Indonesian revolutionaries—successfully—labored in a common project against a future dictated by the Dutch, for a future of their own making. The vibrant mythology of verses from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics gave expression to their experience of life. Through the language of these myths they were able to convey social commentary. The monsters depicted in the Djayas’ paintings appear defeated, but the old epics teach that new monsters keep coming. In that sense, the Djayas’ work hasn’t lost its brilliance, nor its communing and emancipating inspirational power, in today’s challenging world.
About the author
Kerstin Winking is an independent curator and researcher based in Amsterdam. Kerstin’s work focuses on artistic practices that critically explore geopolitical relationships; her work is informed by critical theory and postcolonial discourse. She is particularly interested in the potential of art as an emancipatory strategy. Her areas of research include primitivism in modern and contemporary art and colonial power structures in relation to institutional exhibitions. She also researches and experiments with the ways in which exhibitions convey knowledge. Kerstin holds a BA in Art History and a Cultural Analysis research MA from the University of Amsterdam. Her work at the Stedelijk Museum includes research and exhibition projects such as Africa Reflected (2010), Project 1975 (2011-2012), and Global Collaborations (2013-2015).
1. Wertheim, W. (1949). Het rassenprobleem. De ondergang van een mythe. The Hague: Albani, p. 9: “Adolf Hitler heeft zijn strijd verloren. De Mythus des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts spookt echter nog in veler hoofden, in velerlei vorm en gedaante.”
2. Such as Johan Christiaan van Eerde and Johan Winsemius.
3. In the exhibition the contemporary Indonesian spelling is used. Although Agus initially signed his works with ‘Agoes’, he later used ‘Agus’. Oe was changed to u in the official spelling in 1947, which was part of a broader effort to disconnect the Indonesian language from the Dutch.
4. Holt, C. (1967). Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, p. 197.
5. Kurasawa, A. (1987). “Propaganda Media on Java under the Japanese 1942-1945”. Indonesia (44), pp. 59-116: https://cip.cornell.edu/DPubS?service=Repository&version=1.0&verb=Disseminate&view=body&content-type=pdf_1&handle=seap.indo/1107009796#, last accessed 12 May 2018.
6. Djaya, A. (1947). “Voorwoord”. Tentoonstelling met Werken van enige Indonesische schilders. Amsterdam: Indisch Museum.
7. Cribb, R. (1991). Gangsters and Revolutionaries. The Jakarta People’s Militia and the Indonesian Revolution 1945-1949. North Sydney: Asian Studies Association of Australia and elsewhere.
8. Sandberg, W. (1947) “Voorwoord”. Agoes Djaya en Otto Djaya. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum.
9. Salam, S. (1994). Agus Djaya dan sejarah seni lukis Indonesia. Jakarta: Pusat Studi dan Penelitian Islam, p. 84.
10. Idem, p. 20.
11. Fennema, M. (1998). “W.F. Wertheim”. De Groene Amsterdammer, no. 46: https://www.groene.nl/artikel/w-f-wertheim last consulted May 10 2018.
12. Salam, S. (1994), see note 9, p. 23.
13. Shortly after the exhibition opened in the Stedelijk, a second one organized by the Djayas themselves opened in the Indisch Museum (now Tropenmuseum). The introductory essay for the exhibition catalogue was written by Agus Djaya, who states that the works were his private collection of Indonesian modernist paintings by himself, his brother, and a selection of works by other Indonesian artists.
14. Alisjahbana, S.T., Apin, M. and Baharoedin (1946). “Preface”. Linoleographs. Jakarta: Indonesian Bureau of Youth Affairs.
15. Holt, C. (1967), see note 3. Another resource about the influence of Takdir Alishabana on the Persagi artists is: Sudarmaji (1990) “PERSAGI”, in Perjalanan Seni Rupa Indonesia – Dari Zaman Prasejarah Hingga Masa Kini [Streams of Indonesian Art – From Pre-Historic to Contemporary] exh. cat. Bandung: Panitia Pameran KIAS (1990-91).
16. Alisjahbana, S.T. and Anderson, B. (2008), Indonesia: Social and Cultural Revolution. Jakarta: Dian Rakyat, p. 79.
17. Idem, p. 80.
18. Idem, p. 82.
20. Djaya, A. (1947) “Voorwoord”. Tentoonstelling van Werken van enige Indonesische schilders. Amsterdam: Indisch Museum.
21. It is not clear what Galestin meant by French Expressionists, but he probably refers to what Agus Djaya has earlier summarized as the ‘European expressionists and French modernists’.
22. Galestin, Th.P. (1948), “Woord Vooraf.” Agoes Djaya Otto Djaya. Amsterdam: Kunstzaal Van Lier. “Men wil die kunst niet meer beschouwd zien vanuit het standpunt der ethnografie of archaeologie (dus als voorwerp van kunstnijverheid of oudheid), … .”
23. Dewas (Nymphs) was bought directly from Agus Djaya by Michael Maximiliaan Lechinsky when they met in Port Said in 1950. Agus was on his way home from Amsterdam to Jakarta, while the Russian-Dutch Lechinsky family was emigrating to the Netherlands from Indonesia. The painting was sent to Lechinsky along with more paintings, which he used to decorate his new hotel in Oisterwijk. In 1957 the hotel went up in flames, but Dewas was among the objects saved. In 2018, during the research period preceding the present exhibition, Lechinsky’s daughters contacted the Stedelijk about the Djaya paintings they had inherited from their father. When the author visited, the work was brought down from the attic, where it had been stored because of the damage it had sustained during a fire in 1957. By 2018, the oil paint was cracking and flaking. In order to preserve the painting for future generations, the owners generously donated it to the Stedelijk and the restoration process was immediately started.
24. Groenendael, V.M.C. van. Jaranan the Horse Dance and Trance in East Java. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2008.
25. This system starts with the founding of Japan by emperor Jimmu 660 BC according to the Gregorian Calendar. ‘04 stands for 2604 (= 1944 + 660). Cultural researcher Antariksa first mentioned this in a conversation with the author about the painting.
26. See the Dictionary of Art Historians: http://arthistorians.info/looshaaxmanj, last accessed 10 May 2018. Particularly in her analysis of works by the painter Ernest Hardouin, De Loos-Haaxman regularly uses the term volkstypen.
27. For instance: Loos-Haaxman, J. (1982). De Franse schilder Ernest Hardouin in Batavia. Leiden: Brill.
28. “Otto en Agoes Djaya gaan terug.” Bredasche Courant, 28.04.1950.
29. Anderson, B. “Indonesian Nationalism Today and in the Future.” New Left Review, no. 235 (1999): p. 3.
30. Idem, p. 1.