Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Decolonising memory

Published: Mar 25, 2024

Kate McGregor and Ana Dragojlovic

Versi Bh. Indonesia

The last decade has witnessed an unprecedented rise in interest in colonial history across the world and efforts by grassroots organisations to address the enduring legacies of colonialism. One of the most visible aspects of this shift has been the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which began in South Africa in 2015 and critiqued the continued celebration of colonial era officials who participated in the violent oppression of colonial subjects and enslaved people. Supporters of this movement, like the #BlackLivesMatter movement initiated two years earlier, argue that allowing such commemoration not only implied an endorsement of the past, but also acceptance of the continuing operation of a racial hierarchy according to which some lives matter more than others.

These global movements have been accompanied by new research into histories of colonialism and slavery and new questioning by museum experts, artists, and public intellectuals as to how institutions as well as nation states can more critically engage with the colonial past and slavery as their legacies. One way to characterise these efforts is decolonial memory work. The term ‘decolonial’ refers to the criticism of the present-day effects of colonialism, especially on peoples once subjected to colonialism, and broader efforts to address long and less visible aspects of domination that are connected to colonialism.

A key premise of decolonial theory is the concept of ‘the coloniality of power’, a term coined by Peruvian theorist Anibal Quijano (2007) which refers to ‘the most general form of domination in the world today, once colonialism as an explicitly political order was destroyed.’ He argues that the structures of economic, racial, and knowledge-based power and control that emerged during the colonial era still persist today. Argentinian feminist philosopher María Lugones (2010) combines Quijano’s theory with a feminist intersectional framework to argue that coloniality needs to be understood as shaped simultaneously by specific understandings of race, gender, and sexuality.

As the contributions to this edition demonstrate, decolonial memory work in Indonesia and the Netherlands takes many forms. They include interventions within former colonial museums, the establishment of new museums and the production of new films, novels, and photographic projects, as well as new research. In some cases, this work has prompted new forms of commemoration and even apologies for colonial injustices. Decolonial projects critically seek to disrupt the coloniality of power. At the same time, alongside this work are more ambiguous forms of engagement, in which colonial memory leans towards colonial nostalgia or a replication of colonial narratives and sometimes includes a backlash against decolonial work.

Pangeran Diponegoro statue at Monas, Jakarta / Azwari Nugraha CC Flickr

In Indonesia’s case, memory work relating to the history of colonialism is complex. There is a long history and commemoration of anti-colonial resistance, beginning with the emergence of the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century. Across Indonesia, for example, national heroes who resisted colonialism such as Diponegoro, are celebrated.

In nationalist versions of history, the emphasis on Indonesian anti-colonialism and armed struggles against the Dutch reinforces a view that coloniality ended in 1949 with the final defeat of the Dutch at the conclusion of the revolution. An assumption persists that a national perspective which emphasises a totalising Indonesian identity, necessarily means a decolonised or decolonial perspective. Such a position overlooks the many ways in which coloniality continues to infuse ways of thinking, institutions and practices, ranging from the replication of colonial discourses in museums or forms of commemoration through to the reproduction of colonial patterns of labour and resource exploitation. It is only by paying attention to these complex aftermaths of colonialism and the replication of coloniality that we can understand the diverse and sometimes contradictory patterns that characterise recent Indonesian memory work in relation to colonial history.

The upsurge in decolonial memory work in the Netherlands has been led by numerous grassroots initiatives and followed by major institutions such as former colonial museums the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, among others. Migrants from the former Dutch colonies and their descendants, in particular those of Surinamese and Indo-Dutch descent, have played a major role in various forms of public protest. These protests target the Dutch nation’s longstanding silencing of colonial atrocities and exploitation and draw attention to their connection to present day racialisation and marginalisation of people from the former colonies. As a result of this local activism and the influence of international social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, decolonial memory work in the Netherlands has resulted in various state apologies for colonialism and slavery.

As several essays in this collection show, however, decolonial voices and approaches in the Netherlands are highly divergent, often accompanied by bitter disputes over colonial histories among those who lived through them and their descendants. Following the recent Dutch elections that saw far right political leader Geert Wilders victorious, there are rising concerns not only about revisionist history, but also about safety for migrants, refugees, and their descendants.

Decolonising former colonial museums

The first two essays in the edition focus on museums, which have frequently been described as agents of colonialism because of the historical practices of framing colonised cultures as static, and colonial conquest as heroic. In her article Susie Protschky examines the newly established permanent exhibition at the Wereldmuseum Amsterdam (formerly Tropenmuseum) entitled ‘Our Colonial Inheritance’. She praises the exhibition’s attention to postcolonial communities and for asking audiences to reflect on how the country, as a whole should deal with its ‘colonial inheritance’. The exhibition is decolonial in the sense it does not frame colonialism as something which is finished, but instead reflects on the continuing legacies of colonial trade, slavery, and environmental destruction in contemporary Indonesia.

In her contribution Sadiah Boonstra discusses the work of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology to decolonise the National Museum of Indonesia. She draws attention to highly colonial narratives which once characterised displays and a recent shift, which mirrors patterns in the Tropenmuseum/Wereldmuseum, of reframing existing collections by posing more critical questions about them and incorporating local knowledge into the accompanying narratives. This includes attention to how recently returned looted objects will be incorporated into the museum. Boonstra suggests that Indonesian museums still have some way to go in terms of decolonial approaches, but there is a strong demand for such work especially from young and more critical Indonesians. 

Ambiguities and challenges

The work of revitalising Indonesian museums is also connected to engagement with trends in international heritage conservation. In her essay Kate McGregor reflects on how colonial industrial heritage related to coal production has been preserved in a key museum in West Sumatra, which forms part of the UNESCO listed Ombilin Coal Mining Heritage of Sawahlunto. She observes the replication of colonial narratives within the well-presented Rations Warehouse Museum, including an emphasis on Dutch technological progress and modernity. At the same time, there is also a focus on the exploitation of mine workers and the use of oral history to complexify and decolonise narratives told across the museum to reflect both local and non-elite perspectives.

In her piece, adapted from an article in Historia magazine, Grace Leksana explores the theme of colonial nostalgia in an Indonesian night market. Leksana traces the origins of the Tong-Tong night market in Malang, East Java, its sponsorship by an opulent hotel and its similarities to festivals held in the Netherlands. She examines how colonial material heritage is invoked in the market and how the commercialisation of the past obscures less savoury hidden histories of colonial exploitation in, for example, the nearby sugar plantations.

The marginalisation of particular histories is also a central concern of Nancy Jouwe. In her essay she highlights the important work that communities and academics in the Netherlands have undertaken to write and commemorate histories of slavery, leading to national and local level apologies from Dutch politicians. Nonetheless, Jouwe argues that the history of slavery related to Indonesia remains marginalised in these accounts and reflects on the backlash against these new histories and apologies following the the November 2023 election.

Visual arts and literature

Despite the changing political context in both Indonesia and the Netherlands, culture is one of the most dynamic realms of decolonial memory work and a significant number of artists and writers have been engaging with themes related to colonialism and its legacies in an effort to challenge and dismantle colonial structures and narratives.

Indonesian artist Timoteus Anggawan Rangga reflects on his journey creating an installation for the 2022 Revolusi! exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. He describes his decision to dismantle symbols of colonial pride such as the portraits of former Governor Generals as well as to highlight the more spiritual and sacred dimensions of the Indonesian revolutionary spirit. Reflecting on Indonesian patterns of coloniality, as a Javanese, Rangga, alerts readers to what he believes are often-partial Java-centric representation of Indonesia and other patterns of domination replicated in his country.

This awareness of ongoing forms of coloniality in Indonesia was replicated in Kate McGregor’s interview with Muhammad Fadli, who reflects on his recent prize winning photodocumentary, The Banda Journal. Muhammad Fadli explains how he and his co-author Fatris MF sought to provide a new narrative of the Banda Islands and of the lasting legacies or repeated patterns of the colonial era exploitation of labour and natural resources. They pay close attention to local knowledge and ways of preserving the history of the islands and colonial violence, and carefully consider how to ethically document this story with photographs, given histories of orientalism and colonialism in photographic practices.

Pamela Pattyanama analyses the Dutch novel Lighter than Me (2019), which represents an important shift in representations of the subaltern figures of the ‘njai’ (housekeeper/concubine) and ‘babu’ (nanny) in the Netherlands. Breaking from long established patterns of orientalising njai, in this novel the central protagonist has agency. The author Dido Michielsen, who is of Indo background and a descendent of a njai, uses family archives as a source base for the fictional story and places the personal lives of njais and babus in a political and historical context.

Following the decolonial work evident in Michielsen’s novel, Ana Dragojlovic and Astrid Kerchman write about a renewed engagement with silenced memories in the documentary film Indisch Zwijgen (Indo’s silence) by Sven Peetoom and Juliette Dominicus. The filmmakers deploy experimental filmmaking techniques to follow three artists, all descendants of people who endured unspeakable violence due to armed conflict, racialisation, and gendered segregation. They depict silences through various forms of visual and sound techniques to highlight intergenerational inheritance of sadness, grief, and shame, as they search for healing for intergenerational trauma. While firmly rooted in the recent decolonial movement in the Netherlands, the filmmakers’ intervention resonates with many other contexts where prolonged histories of heteropatriarchal structural oppression have engendered intergenerational trauma.  

This edition of Inside Indonesia was inspired by the work we have been undertaking for the last three years researching the topic Submerged History: Memory Activism in Indonesia and the Netherlands, with funding from the Australian Research Council’s Discovery scheme (DP210102445). We are also research leads for the collective: History, Memory and Decolonial Futures sponsored by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. We are most grateful to all the contributors and the editor of Inside Indonesia Jemma Purdey, for their work on this volume.

Kate McGregor (k.mcgregor@unimelb.edu.au) is a Professor of Southeast Asian history in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Ana Dragojlovic (ana.dragojlovic@unimelb.edu.au) is an Associate Professor in Gender Studies in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 155: Jan-Mar 2024

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