IS­LANDS OF PAST MYS­TER­IES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

AUS­TRALIANS chron­i­cally un­der­es­ti­mate the in­ter­est of In­done­sia, even though it is our clos­est neigh­bour and rep­re­sents, his­tor­i­cally speak­ing, the most im­por­tant cen­tre of civil­i­sa­tion to emerge in our re­gion. Or per­haps we un­der­es­ti­mate this na­tion pre­cisely be­cause of its prox­im­ity. Euro­peans dream of In­done­sia as a dis­tant and ex­otic des­ti­na­tion. Aus­tralians all too of­ten see it merely as a cheap des­ti­na­tion where they can get drunk and be­have like oafs.

At times we have been wor­ried about In­done­sia as a se­cu­rity threat and have been through some dif­fi­cult episodes, from the Con­fronta­tion of 1963-66 to the lib­er­a­tion of East Ti­mor (1999-2002) and, more re­cently, ter­ror­ism episodes. Nu­mer­ous mi­nor in­ci­dents, such as the Schapelle Corby case, loom large in the pop­u­lar press.

Our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the present of In­done­sia thus tends to ob­scure an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its his­tor­i­cal and pre­his­tor­i­cal past. Early man was present in the ar­chi­pel­ago more than 700,000 years ago, al­though the present pop­u­la­tion prob­a­bly mi­grated from the north about 2000BC. Early in the first mil­len­nium BC they had mas­tered wet-field rice cul­ti­va­tion, which al­lowed the de­vel­op­ment of larger com­mu­ni­ties and fur­ther crafts, in­clud­ing ikat weav­ing and bronze cast­ing. Re­li­gious life re­mained at the level of an­imism and magic.

Higher civil­i­sa­tion came to In­done­sia from In­dia, whose in­flu­ence was pre­pon­der­ant for more than 1000 years, from about the sec­ond to the 12th cen­turies. Java had a flour­ish­ing Hindu king­dom cen­turies be­fore the adop­tion of In­dian civil­i­sa­tion in Cam­bo­dia led to the rise of Kh­mer civil­i­sa­tion in the eighth century AD.

It was these In­di­anised Ja­vanese king­doms that built great mon­u­ments such as the Hindu tem­ple com­plex of Pram­banan near Jog­jakarta, and the mon­u­men­tal tem­ple-moun­tain of Borobudur, the great­est Bud­dhist con­struc­tion in the world.

Is­lam be­gan to im­plant it­self in In­done­sia in the 13th century and be­came the dom­i­nant re- li­gion by the 16th century, by which time Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies were also ac­tive in the is­lands. But In­done­sian artis­tic ex­pres­sion re­mained es­sen­tially Hindu. It’s re­mark­able that even in a mostly Is­lamic com­mu­nity the tra­di­tional mask dance and theatre and the leather shadow-pup­pets, wayang kulit, are all based on sto­ries drawn from the an­cient San­skrit epics.

What had brought first the Mus­lims and then the Chris­tians to In­done­sia was the lure of the spice trade. For the ar­chi­pel­ago used to be known as the Spice Is­lands — the source, for thou­sands of years, of rare and pre­cious com­modi­ties that could make the for­tune of ad­ven­tur­ous traders, suc­ces­sive groups of whom car­ried them by sea, by camel car­a­van, then by ship again to great en­tre­pots such as Venice from which they were fur­ther dis­trib­uted through­out north­ern Europe.

This great East-West trade route, like a south­ern and mar­itime ver­sion of the Silk Road far to the north, was per­ma­nently dis­rupted by the Euro­pean sea­far­ing revo­lu­tion. The Span­ish and the Por­tuguese were the pi­o­neers of the new sea­far­ing, soon fol­lowed by the Dutch and the English, but it was in the end the Dutch who came to dom­i­nate. First Java, then even­tu­ally the whole of what is now In­done­sia, came to be dom­i­nated by the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany, un­til its pos­ses­sions were taken over by the Dutch govern­ment in 1800. The Ja­panese in­va­sion brought Dutch rule to an end, and at the con­clu­sion of World War II the present na­tion of In­done­sia was formed.

The last century of the Dutch East Indies is com­mem­o­rated in a beau­ti­ful and un­usual ex­hi­bi­tion of his­tor­i­cal pho­to­graphs at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia. It is ap­par­ently the first art mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion of this ma­te­rial and rep­re­sents a tiny se­lec­tion from the more than 6500 items held by the NGA, many of which were ac­quired as part of a pri­vate collection pur­chased in Am­s­ter­dam in 2007. The ex­hi­bi­tion is ac­com­pa­nied by a par­tic­u­larly el­e­gant and in­for­ma­tive cat­a­logue by Gael New­ton.

Pho­tog­ra­phy came to In­done­sia very early — as in­deed to many other parts of the world,

Ru­ins of the Tem­ple at Boro-Budur, Java (1913), by Frank Hur­ley

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