Friday, January 23, 2009

Cultural journey begins with a single step

Matheos Viktor Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Thu, 01/22/2009 1:49 PM | Lifestyle
A new exhibition of Chinese antiques is remarkable not only for the cultural, historical and aesthetic value of the items on display.
Equally remarkable is the exhibition's tribute to Chinese culture, given Indonesia's dark history of racial hatred, violence and state-driven oppression of the nation's ethnic Chinese.
This hio louw is used to hold incense sticks for offerings. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)This hio louw is used to hold incense sticks for offerings. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)
"Warisan Budaya Tionghoa Peranakan" (Cultural Heritage of Chinese Descendants), open at the elegant Bentara Budaya Jakarta complex in South Jakarta until Jan. 25, is an exhibition of antiques dated between 1850 and 1960, and is extraordinary for the tale it tells of Chinese acculturation in Indonesia.
"Because those [Chinese] who arrived had different backgrounds and those who visited also had various backgrounds, the result is a Chinese culture that varies from one part of the country to another," former minister and nationalist advocate Siswono Yudo Husodo said at the opening of the exhibition last Thursday night.
The exhibition has been expertly brought together by curators Gunawan Widjaya, Musa Jonatan and Rusdi Tjahyadi, who collected 300 items of furniture, china, textiles, musical instruments, works of art, magazines and newspapers from about 20 owners in Jakarta, Bogor, Bandung and Semarang.
"We only selected items before 1960 because we knew that after the 1960s the New Order regime didn't recognize Chinese culture," said exhibition director Irwan Julianto.
"People had to change their names, Chinese writing was not allowed and so on. One of the consequences of this was that the Chinese were afraid to produce things that had Chinese influences. Some inheritors even sold theirs."
From musical instruments to kitchen sets, from gambling equipment to items for worship, the exhibition shows not only the evolution of household items, but also the struggle of the ethnic Chinese to preserve their culture.
Curator Rusdi Tjahyadi said that although ethnic Chinese in Indonesia tried to keep the original style and size of their furniture, some styles had already changed as part of their assimilation into the local culture.
Inlaid table set with intricate carvings. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)Inlaid table set with intricate carvings. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)
You can view an impressive catalogue in a distinctly Chinese style: Cantonese furniture set for tea, perfume cupboards, medicine cabinets, opium beds, lounge chairs, incense burner, altars, writing tables, a wooden statue of the god Zhong Gui, a Qing dynasty vase.
Alongside these are pieces of Chinese furniture with Indonesian touches: a writing table, a mirror set made in Padang and a gamelan from Lasem in Central Java with European, Java and Chinese influences.
Also on display are non-Chinese items used by Chinese families, such a German-made Berkefeld water filter and beer keg with art nouveau design, a Japanese lead crystal jar, a European coffee grinder and an Art Nouveau coat hanger. These items were mostly used by the Chinese community after 1920.
Irwan Julianto said that after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the last ruling dynasty in China which ruled from 1644 to 1912 with a brief abortive restoration in 1917, the Chinese diaspora began, with many Chinese descendants in Indonesia feeling it was more of a free nation. They started to adapt to the dominant culture around them - at that time in Indonesia, the Dutch colonial culture.
"We don't want this exhibition to become a glorification of the past, but rather to show that Chinese descendants also had their cultural contribution to the Indonesian people and vice versa through their acculturation," Julianto said.
"We don't want re-Chinafication as happened to many old generations of Chinese descendants after the political reformation in 1998 when they forced many Chinese communities to speak only Chinese. That's why we came up with the cross-cultural community."
The exhibition is held by Komunitas Lintas Budaya Indonesia (The Indonesian Intercultural Community), an organization established in 2008 with the aim of nurturing interaction between the country's different ethnic and cultural groups to strengthen the building of the nation.
In conjunction with the exhibition, which took more than four months of preparations, was the launch of a book on Chinese culture in Indonesia titled Peranakan Tionghoa Indonesia - Sebuah Perjalanan Budaya (Indonesia's Chinese Descendants - A Cultural Journey).
The book, published by The Indonesian Intercultural Community in collaboration with Intisari magazine, was written by eight Chinese Indonesians who are experts in various aspects of Chinese culture including architecture, literature, journalism, fashion, art and furniture.
What makes this exhibition especially deserving of attention is that these antiques are all privately owned - meaning we might never again have the opportunity to see them gathered together in one single moment and place.

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