About the part that art plays in a globalising society

Framer Framed

Zico Albaiquni, 'Ruwatan Tanah Air Beta, Reciting Rites in its Sites' (2019), oil and synthetic polymer on canvas, 600 x 200 cm. Commissioned by Framer Framed. Image courtesy of Framer Framed, photograph by Eva Broekema.

On the (de)coloniality of Kebun Raya Bogor, museum objects and contemporary Indonesian art

Sadiah Boonstra
27 januari 2022

On 10 March 2020, the first day of the state visit to Indonesia, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima were shown around the botanical gardens in Bogor (the former colonial building Buitenzorg), the Kebun Raya Bogor. On the veranda of the Presidential Palace, Willem-Alexander apologised for “excessive violence” by the Dutch government during the years of the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949). On that same occasion, the keris (ritual dagger) of the Indonesian resistance hero Prince Diponegoro (1785-1855) was handed over to President Joko Widodo, after having been untraceable for Dutch museum staff for almost two centuries in a Dutch museum collection. That the botanical gardens in Bogor, of all places, were chosen for the return of an important object of an Indonesian hero says much about the significance of Kebun Raya Bogor. The gardens are a place where history, knowledge and museum objects meet imperialist politics, economics and the aesthetics of plants.

The term ‘coloniality’ was introduced in the 1980s by South American sociologist Aníbal Quijano. It refers to ‘coloniality of power’, a power system based on racialisation and capitalist exploitation. This system of power originated in the sixteenth century in the Americas, spread to other parts of the world, and lives on to this day. Coloniality enabled imperial/colonial powers to create hierarchical colonial distinctions that would touch all dimensions of life, such as knowledge (epistemology), economics, politics, aesthetics, ethics, race, sex, and spirituality (religion). In other words, Eurocentric categories created unequal colonial power structures, which were normalised and then universalised. Colonial powers considered themselves superior to colonised people, their knowledge, way of life and art.[1]

The coloniality of botanical gardens, of which knowledge, nature and economics are an integral part, has already been written about at length.[2] In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, botanical knowledge was indispensable for building colonial empires: it formed the basis for the agricultural knowledge that enabled the economic exploitation of nature in colonies and the development of agriculture there. Botany existed as an academic discipline only because knowledge about the properties of plants was important to European states that wanted to use this knowledge for medicinal and economic purposes. Or as Zaheer Baber states, “Botanical gardens can be considered a key place in which colonial power was literally rooted.”[3]

Dutch historians Andreas Weber and Robert-Jan Wille show that the botanical garden in Bogor played this role for Dutch imperialism.[4] In 1744, the Dutch United East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) laid out a garden and built a villa on the site of the current botanical gardens in Bogor. Between 1811 and 1815 the British transformed the garden into a place for the public to linger. Two years later, Kebun Raya Bogor was officially established as ‘s Lands Plantentuin (literally: plant garden of the country) in 1817 by the German-born botanist C.G.C. Reinwardt (1773-1854), who was then the head of agriculture, art and science of the Dutch colony. From the moment the garden was created, the economic potential of plants and seeds from around the world drove their collection and cultivation.[5]

Underlying the idea of the botanical garden is the belief that man is separate from nature. South American decolonial thinkers Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh describe how after 1500 the distinction between ‘man’ (hereafter people) and nature came about under the influence of Christian theology, the Enlightenment, and the European Renaissance. Before that time, nature did not exist as a concept. Once (Western) European peoples became the centre of the universe during the Renaissance, they began to distance himself from nature. By the middle of the eighteenth century, nature had turned into something that people could control, dominate and exploit.[6] However, this distinction between nature and human beings is not universal. In Beyond Nature and Culture, Philippe Descola clearly demonstrates that the distinction between nature and culture lacks meaning, and does not even exist in Indigenous (written with a capital letter out of respect) cosmologies.[7]

Natural scientists in the colony of the Dutch East Indies used European classification and ordering practices to gain knowledge about the nature of the Indonesians and nature in the archipelago.[8] Botany emerged at the same time as disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, geology, history, and art history. These disciplines produced knowledge about the world according to an Eurocentric worldview. This view took shape and became embedded in institutions, such as the museum, the university, and the botanical garden.

Collections of dried plants and seeds from the colonies found their way to Europe, where they were displayed in museums alongside zoological and ethnographic collections. Natura Artis Magistra, better known today as the Artis Zoo, for example, housed an ethnographic collection. ‘As the most highly organised being known to zoology, a place ought to be set aside in a zoological garden for humankind,’ stated one director of Artis.[9] Frederik Willem van Eeden (1829-1901), the founder of the Colonial Museum in Haarlem (the predecessor of the current Tropenmuseum), was a botanist with a keen interest in colonial products. He collected natural products, which he subdivided into minerals, plant products and woods, as well as products that incorporated natural elements, such as textiles, batik and herbal medicines.[10]

The European collecting frenzy and the urge to map the colonised parts of the world by displaying a linear and hierarchical presentation of objects in museums resulted in a flow of objects from colonial Indonesia to Europe. Objects were thus taken away from their original context and the associated knowledge was lost. To give an example: the Batak people in North Sumatra had written down their knowledge of collecting plants and herbs, their application in daily life and healing methods in pustaha, a book of texts to be used in rituals, for a Batak priest. Many hundreds of pustaha ended up in European museum collections, taken by European collectors during the colonial period, thereby erasing the knowledge of the Batak.

Colonial history, and the fact that so many Indonesian cultural objects are held by Dutch museum collections, preoccupies many Indonesian artists. They use their work as a means to expose and criticise coloniality. At the same time, they try to undermine colonial structures by offering alternative visions rooted in local cosmologies. For example, the Yogyakarta-based artist collective Lifepatch has been working for years with philologist Manguji Nababan to transcribe and translate published pustaha, which are no longer owned by the Batak. Lifepatch is thus trying to re-appropriate the lost knowledge and to preserve it. In doing so, opposing the monopolisation of medical knowledge by the pharmaceutical industry.

Lifepatch created the two-channel video work Spectular Healing (2019) as a critique of epistemic violence. That is, the erasure or discrimination of Indigenous forms of knowledge, in this case, the violence perpetrated against the Batak by removing the pustaha. Lifepatch created the work for the exhibition On the Nature of Botanical Gardens: Indonesian Perspectives (2020), curated by the author and held at Framer Framed in Amsterdam. Lifepatch criticises commercial medicine in this video work and argues for a return and revaluation of Indigenous healing practices.

Lifepatch, Spectacular Healing (2019), two channel video. Commissioned by Framer Framed. Photo: Eva Broekema / Framer Framed

On its left video channel, Lifepatch shows how kunir asam is made, a jamu (medicinal herbal drink) for women who are menstruating. The video parodies commercial medicine advertisements with its look and feel. The video shows how the ingredients, such as spring onions, turmeric, ginger, palm sugar and tamarind, are gathered and prepared. The video on the right shows footage of Indigenous healing practices, such as cup placing, reflexology, acupuncture and kerokan, a mint rubbing therapy. The images are accompanied by decolonial commentary on epistemic violence.

The relationship between Indigenous knowledge, museum objects and the botanical garden in Bogor is also reflected in the painting Ruwatan Tanah Air Beta: Reciting Rites in Its Sites (2019) by Bandung-based artist Zico Albaiquni. In this colourful work, Albaiquni visualises places and objects in the Kebun Raya Bogor that were photographed during the colonial period. These objects and photographs are part of the collection of the National Museum of World Cultures, and throughout time, museum staff have assigned different meanings to the objects and photographs. Albaiquni inverts the Eurocentric perspectives embedded in these documented meanings of the museum and transforms them into Indonesian and sometimes specifically Sundanese (ethnic group in West Java) perspectives.[11]

Zico Albaiquni, Ruwatan Tanah Air Beta, Reciting Rites in its Sites (2019), oil and synthetic polymer on canvas, 600 x 200 cm. Commissioned by Framer Framed. Image courtesy of Framer Framed, photograph by Eva Broekema.

Albaiquni painted five scenes against a colourful background of tall trees with thick foliage in Kebun Raya Bogor. These scenes are depictions of colonial photographs from the collection of the National Museum of World Cultures; almost all of them places that can still be found in the botanical gardens. Colonial rulers and Dutch museum staff have ascribed meanings to these places in the descriptions of the photographs that sometimes differ from the Sundanese perspective. Albaiquni visualises the Indonesian and sometimes specifically Sundanese meanings of these scenes in this painting. For example, in the centre of the painting we see a pavilion from the colonial period. Sukarno (1901-1970), the first president of Indonesia, is depicted sitting on the ground in the pavilion. Right in front of the pavilion is a small obelisk, named ‘Paniisan Soekarno’, in which are engraved the Pancasila, the five fundamental principles of the Indonesian state. Today, local spiritual communities meet regularly in the pavilion.

In the lower left corner we see a group of stones, also found in the gardens of Bogor and dating from the Hindu-Buddhist period (between the fourth and fifteenth centuries). The National Museum of World Cultures has a large number of photographs of the stone group in its collection, taken by the photographer Isidore van Kinsbergen (1821-1905) in 1863. One of the stones is a sculpture in the shape of a cow, described in the museum documentation as the Hindu god Nandi.[12] However, Albaiquni explains that according to the Sunda Wiwitan, the Sundanese faith, the statue represents the legendary crown prince Mundinglaya, son of Prince Prabu Siliwangi. The artist also states that rituals take place at the site of this group of stones.

At the bottom centre of the painting, a number of baskets are depicted, filled with rice in different colours: a reference to the exhibition basic values by Dutch artist herman de vries. This exhibition was shown at the Erasmus House in Jakarta in 2015, as part of the Jakarta Biennale, and at Framer Framed in 2016. In basic values, de vries, trained as a biologist and natural scientist, showed natural materials that he believes are among the basic needs of Indonesians. The exhibition displayed several types of bamboo, as bamboo is used in house construction, among other things. The different types of rice were meant to illustrate the biological richness of Indonesia. Remarkably, herman de vries, like Dutch armchair scholars during the colonial period, had never been to Indonesia, but obtained the knowledge on which he based his exhibition mainly from books.[13] In doing so, de vries, perhaps unintentionally, continued a colonial practice.

Foto's Michiel Landeweerd

herman de vries – basic values (2016). Photo: Michiel Landeweerd / Framer Framed

Albaiquni visited the exhibition in Jakarta and with his reference responds to de vries’ romanticised image of Indonesians living in harmony with nature. With the rice baskets, Albaiquni wants to show that for Sundanese, rice can have different meanings and in some cases even a sacred and ritual connotation. Yellow rice, for example, is used in ruwatan (a cleansing ritual that purifies the world of bad energy and facilitates a reunion with nature, ancestral spirits and God). A ritual referred to in the title of the painting.

On the right side of the painting is a picture of the Dutch cemetery in Kebun Raya Bogor. This refers to the painting The Cemetery in the Park at Bogor with Graves (Het kerkhof in het park te Bogor met graven 1871).[14] Originally, this scene was painted by the famous Indonesian painter Raden Saleh (1811-1880), who depicted six tombstones in the botanical gardens that were already surrounded by bamboo in his time. Today, the cemetery also serves as a children’s playground and is bordered by hedges of decorated bamboo. For example, hearts have been carved from the fences of bamboo. Albaiquni explains that the Sundanese use bamboo for the spiritual protection of both the living and the dead. So the bamboo in the Dutch cemetery is meant to appease the Dutch spirits.

Albaiquni chose to depict different places in the botanical gardens in Ruwatan Tanah Air Beta. In doing so, he shows the different historical layers present in the botanical gardens. All the places he depicts were assigned meanings by the colonial rulers, while these places, including the stone group, were already significant in Sundanese cosmology and have continued to hold that significance. Other places, such as the pavilion, have taken on Indonesian nationalist significance, but are also significant for spiritual rituals in the botanical garden. In his painting, Albaiquni emphasises the significance of Sundanese cosmology for the place where Kebun Raya Bogor is located.

Raden Saleh, Het kerkhof in het park te Bogor met graven (1871), oil painting 102 x 183 cm. Collection Tropenmuseum, inventory number: TM-0-432

This spiritual layer becomes even clearer from the creation process. Before beginning the work, Albaiquni made contact with the spiritual community that meets in the pavilion in the botanical garden. He attended a ruwatan. Albaiquni’s wanted to show the local spiritual community that he had good intentions, start conversations with them about memory, history, and exchange ideas with them about different spiritual practices, cultures, and histories contained in Kebun Raya Bogor. This conceptual and spiritual approach creates an additional layer of meaning for the painting.

Ruwatan Tanah Air Beta presents collective memories from the colonial, Sundanese and Indonesian perspectives. The work critiques the coloniality of the botanical garden and then reverses the perspective. But above all, it reappropriates Sundanese knowledge embedded in the spiritual practices that are practiced at Kebun Raya Bogor, but were ignored, denigrated or erased by colonialism. In doing so, Albaiquni demonstrates a decolonial attitude towards the various historical layers in the botanical gardens. Thus, Ruwatan Tanah Air Beta can be seen as a ruwatan, a ritual that aims to bring balance to the Sundanese cosmology, as well as an attempt to bring Sundanese spirituality, knowledge and memories into the limelight. Albaiquni creates new relationships with and revalues Sundanese knowledge and practices, not only of nature, but of Sundanese cosmology in general.

Lifepatch and Zico Albaiquni try to draw attention to the expropriation of objects and the knowledge that is lost or assumed with it. At the same time, they create new meanings for colonial objects in Dutch museum collections. Lifepatch resists the epistemic violence committed by the musealisation of knowledge objects of the Batak, while Albaiquni shows that places and objects in Kebun Raya Bogor also carry other meanings and values than those ascribed to them by colonial rulers or Dutch museum staff. Thus, paradoxically, in the botanical garden, a place where colonialism is pre-eminently deeply rooted, decolonial meanings are created.

[1] Aníbal Quijano, ‘Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’, Cultural Studies 21.2-3 (2007) 168-178; María Lugones, ‘Toward a Decolonial Feminism’, Hypatia 25.4 (2010) 742-759; Walter D. Mignolo en Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (Durham en Londen 2018).

[2] Andrew Goss, The Floracrats: State-Sponsored Science and the Failure of the Enlightenment in Indonesia (Wisconsin 2011); Zaheer Baber, ‘The Plants of Empire: Botanic Gardens, Colonial Power and Botanical Knowledge’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 46.4 (2016) 659-679; Andreas Weber, ‘A Garden as a Niche: Botany and Imperial Politics in the Early Nineteenth Century Dutch Empire’, Studium. Tijdschrift voor Wetenschaps- en Universiteitsgeschiedenis 11.3 (2018) 178-190.

[3] Baber, ‘The Plants’, 676.

[4] Andreas Weber en Robert-Jan Wille, ‘Laborious Transformations: Plants and Politics at the Bogor Botanical Gardens’, Studium. Tijdschrift voor Wetenschaps- en Universiteitsgeschiedenis 11.3 (2018) 169-177.

[5] Weber, ‘A Garden’, 179-180.

[6] Mignolo en Walsh, On Decoloniality, 155-164.

[7] Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, translated by Janet Lloyd (Londen: Chicago University Press, 2013).

[8] Goss, The Floracrats, 19.

[9] David van Duuren, 125 jaar verzamelen. Het Tropenmuseum pakt uit (Amsterdam 1990) 23.

[10] Janneke van Dijk en Susan Legêne, eds., The Netherlands East Indies at the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam 2010) 137.

[11] Ruwatan Tanah Air Beta: Reciting Rites in Its Sites, now part of the collection of the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, met inventarisnummer 7224-1.

[12] Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, inventory number RV-1403-3790-1.

[13] ‘herman de vries over de expositie basic values’, https://vimeo.com/158149448, visited on August  7, 2021.

[14] Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, inventory number TM-0-432.

About the Author
Historian and curator Dr. Sadiah Boonstra lives and works in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she is founder and director of PT Culture Lab Consultancy. She combines her specialisation in Indonesian colonial history with both curating and producing contemporary visual art and performing arts, and audience programming. As of 2022, Sadiah is a part-time postdoctoral researcher at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, in the research project ‘Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums.’ Previously, Sadiah was Asia Scholar at Melbourne University/Curator Public Programs Asia TOPA and Senior Programmer at National Gallery Singapore. For more information, visit www.sadiahcurates.com.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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