The Great Indonesia Exhibition at Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam

In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) first set foot in the archipelago and began colonising the islands we now know as Indonesia. The wars fought to maintain authority by the violent colonial regime well into the 19th century is not widely known among the Dutch population and is not discussed often enough today.

De Grote Indonesië (The Great Indonesia) exhibition in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam recounts in depth the historic narrative of the country. Visitors are invited to not only immerse themselves in the multi-layered stories and rich history of Indonesia but also undertake a journey through time. From the Majapahit empire in the 15th and 16th century, to the colonial rule, the fight for Indonesian independence, World War II, the revolution and Sukarno’s proclamation of the republic, the Suharto era and today’s Indonesia, this exhibition sheds light on a part of the country’s history that “receives too little attention in Dutch school textbooks.”

On display are three hundred objects attained from several museums around the world which are accompanied with personal biographies and statements from both Dutch and Indonesian descendants, researchers and teachers. In this unique exhibition, visitors are physically transported to the other side of the world and are engaged in a deep discursive dialogue of history and experience.

Previously organised exhibitions on Indonesia in De Nieuwe Kerk, which took place in 1992 and 2006, were solely focused on archaeological or art historical perspectives. Nowadays, however, “we are able to make a broader exhibition that not only envisions the collections that were presented before but also opens up to the people and the artists of Indonesia” explains Annabelle Birnie, head curator of the exhibition. Composed of several video and audio installations, paintings, propaganda posters, digital art and archaeological findings, De Grote Indonesië, like never before exhibits Indonesia’s socio-historical rich culture in its totality. As visitors partake in a journey, from the beginnings to the present, a discussion into the future of Indonesia is also solicited. In particular, the inclusion of ten innovative contemporary artists from the country, as well as from the Netherlands, come together to present their works and discuss their wishes for the future. With almost all aspects of history covered and as well as wider themes, such as the environment, Birnire states that this exhibition also “allows us to celebrate the richness of the country and not only its traumatic past.”

When highlighting the country’s traumatic history, De Grote Indonesië additionally conjures a perfect balance of perspectives between the viewpoints of the Dutch colonisers and the oppressed indigenous people. From videographs and beautiful painted landscapes, we perceive an idealised and peaceful Dutch Indies, ignorant of the atrocities. On the other hand, the deafening, horrific and violent thematic artwork by the Indonesian people signify a lust for freedom and a corrosion of the picturesque ideal Dutch colony.

The exhibition is further determined to be open to teachers and children. With tours and interactive activities ranging from music to theatre, all ages will get a chance to understand the essential history of the country. “We know that by descent 2.7 million Dutch inhabitants have a connection with Indonesia through their bloodlines” explains Birnire. It is thus not only crucial to regard the beauty of the country but it is additionally “really important that they [Dutch-Indonesian] can celebrate their culture [and] that they can get more information.” Especially for the,  “2nd and 3rd generations who start asking questions about the colonial past and do not have the answers or [do not yet] have an overview. Here we try to provide that in the exhibition.

Where previous exhibitions and collections have only explored specific events or time periods or have provided a dialogue through biassed lenses, De grote Indonesië is eager to present a cohesive and neutral narrative of the country. With more than 100 people contributing to the this exhibition, the collection functions as a further retelling of the country’s history and as a propagator to encourage more discussion into the atrocities of the Dutch colonial power.   Anja Herrmann   21st October 2023

The Great Indonesia Exhibition can be seen from Saturday, 21st October until 1st April 2024 in De Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam.

Photo by Alfiah Rahdini