Rijksmuseum to showcase Indonesia’s struggle for independence from Dutch Empire

The national museum of the Netherlands presents Revolusi! Indonesia Independent next month, a major exhibition focusing on the Indonesian revolution and the people who experienced it at close quarters.

By Adrian Murphy

The Rijksmuseum says this is the first major exhibition devoted to the subject in a major European museum and complements its landmark 2021 exhibition Slavery, which explored the cruelty of the trade and the Dutch connections to it.

Dutch and Indonesian curators

Kawan-kawan revolusi, Sudjojono, 1947. One of seven works on loan from the Collection of the Presidential Palace of the Republic of Indonesia displayed internationally for the first time.

Revolusi! Indonesia Independent is curated by Dutch and Indonesian curators and will offer an international perspective on the struggle for independence of Indonesia from the Dutch Colonial Empire during the 1945-1949 period.

The Dutch East Indies, as the geographical area of Indonesia was known from 1800, was one of the most valuable European colonies rich in spices. It was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War from 1942 until its surrender in 1945: at which point Indonesian nationalists declared independence and began a four-and-a-half year struggle to see it through.

Indonesia’s revolution also had an important part to play in 20th-century world history, with Indonesia being one of the trailblazers on the road to decolonisation and independence after the Second World War and many countries would follow in the next two decades.

200 objects on display

Proklamasi August 17 1945. Photo Soemarto Frans Mendur. Collection F.J. Goedhart_Dutch National Archives

“There will be more than 200 objects on display with loans from Australia, Belgium, United Kingdom, Indonesia and the Netherlands showing witness’s experience of this turbulent past,” the museum said.

“From privately-owned keepsakes to paintings loaned out for the first time by Indonesian art collections. The exhibition includes photographs and documents such as posters and pamphlets that were confiscated by Dutch military intelligence agencies in this period. We are able to exhibit this historical material for the first time through a partnership with the Dutch National Archive in The Hague.”

Revolusi! begins with the leader of the Indonesian struggle, Sukarno’s declaration of Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945 and closes with his triumphant return to the country on 28 December 1949, the day after the transfer of sovereignty by the Dutch.

20 individual’s stories

In the intervening period the exhibition explores subjects such as nationalism, youth, anti-colonialism, art, war and diplomacy, propaganda, renewal, the information war and refugees. The thread running through the exhibition is its focus on the experiences of 20 individuals, each at a different location, and each with their own background and political viewpoint.

“The revolution was a period of experimentation and creativity for Indonesian nationalists. Artists, in conjunction with politicians, formed a modern revolutionary vanguard,” says Harms Stevens, Curator of History.

“Paintings were hung in government buildings to represent the Indonesian revolution. The streets were alive with posters, graffiti and pamphlets. Art served as a political instrument to propagate Indonesian independence at home and abroad. Politically engaged Indonesian artists depicted subjects such as comradeship, leadership, armed combat, the fervour of youth, and militancy. This joint effort by the people of Indonesia established the defining image of the revolution.”

The exhibition will display works by Indonesian artists Trubus Soedarsono, Sudjojono, Otto Djaya, Basoeki Abdullah, Hendra Gunawan and Affandi en Henk Ngantung.

Java-based artist Timoteus Anggawan Kusno is also making an artwork especially for the exhibition consisting of objects in the Rijksmuseum collection whose origins can be traced to the colonial period, evoking and giving voice to the decades-long resistance that preceded the Indonesian revolution and the consequences of the colonial experience in today’s world.

Revolusi! Indonesia Independent opens on 11 February and runs to 5 June 2022.