Mella Jaarsma, Nindityo Adipurnomo
‘Natural’ and ‘Forced’ Assimilation
Pluralism means not assimilating the population or citizens into a single new unified identity after the old one has been forgotten. (G.M.)
I have always been fascinated with culture within the greater framework of the history of human civilization. While art is only a small, but integral, part of this comprehensive discourse, I always want to position art as a way of understanding, exploring, contemplating, and embracing the vehicle of cultural history: civilization. History has become essential as a coordinate in mapping the future of my art! Political and economic history, and the social changes that accompany them are dominant factors that constantly inspire cultural development. At the same time, art becomes the commentary and never-ending testimony of culture.
My artwork is not often associated with, and perceived to be directly involved with, aims towards production and industry. In a more complex way, they emphasize more the aspects of study, searching and researching with the frequent use of rather harsh expressions, such as criticism, provocation, accusations, and not rarely, irony, tragedy, etc.
I was born and raised in Semarang by parents who claimed their Javanese-ness from Surakarta and Yogyakarta. I studied at the School of Fine Arts in Yogyakarta. The thickness of the architectural atmosphere of the old city of Semarang, which glories with its mixed Dutch-Javanese-Chinese-Peranakan concept and aesthetic sense, decorates and disseminates multiculturalism into Catholic circles through models of family and community interaction in the Gedangan Church parish. In 1967, we had to move to a new neighborhood that was an extension of the Bong (cemetery complex for Chinese Peranakan) that later became known as the Bongsari neighborhood, which was located one block away from the impressive Sam Poo Kong Simongan Stone Building, the most respected Chinese temple in Semarang that was built to commemorate the landing of Chinese explorer Cheng Ho. I fondly remember the sharing of big, white, round bakpao cakes that we were always given by the funeral committee who wore white uniforms at the Bong. It is said that the Bong was going to be moved to Singapore upon the request of the family.
Memories of multicultural experiences guided by a Catholic education during my childhood were unexpectedly shaken when a close friend of mine from the Bongsari church parish was shot by a soldier in 1979, when the army was enforcing a night curfew that lasted three days and three nights to control riots against Chinese residents in Semarang. It was said that the riots were incited by a minor incident in Surakarta. My father, who was interested in amateur photography, took photos of the burnings by hitching rides on the red fire trucks! He stopped his amateur photography hunt after the Catholic members of the Bongsari church asked him to negotiate with the army for permission for a procession around the cemetery complex during the funeral for my friend who was shot in front of Bulu Market in Semarang.
In May 1998, Chinese residents in Jakarta and Surakarta were again threatened, a climax of ethnic hostility in a nation rich in ethnic groups. Again I was shocked by the upheaval that was truly disturbing. Several homes of Chinese in Yogyakarta were closed up tightly and protected with a ‘wall’ in the form of the words written on a poster: ‘Indigenous Muslims’. The nobility from the Yogyakarta Kraton traveled to the city limits, closing the roads to potential rioters from outside the province. As a husband, I felt able to guarantee and guard the safety of my wife and two daughters. However, our discussion became strained when the staff of the Dutch Embassy in Jakarta issued a final ultimatum to all Dutch citizens who resided in Indonesia to immediately evacuate to Singapore using the facilities from the Netherlands embassy in Jakarta. No matter how sure I was that nothing would happen to my children and wife in the city of my mother’s ancestors, with a heavy heart, I had to let them leave for Singapore.
In July 1998, when the print media was busy reporting on the series of riots against the ethnic Chinese in almost all of the major cities in Java, including Jakarta, Surakarta, and Semarang, I assisted Mella Jaarsma, who had just returned after one week in Singapore. We began to prepare for an idea Mella had for a collective performance, entitled Pribumi –Pribumi [Indigenous]. Supported by seven ‘foreigners’ who resided in Yogyakarta, we erected a temporary food stall offering fried frog legs in front of the State House on Malioboro street, and gave out frog legs to whoever passed by who wanted to taste them. The fried frog legs were crunchy and wrapped in banana leaves with a piece of paper with the drawing of a frog body/leg minced over the frying pan, written on the top part of the paper was: Pribumi-Pribumi. Mella looked for a way to communicate and open up a dialogue about what happened with the Chinese, and decided to work with food to trigger questions from the public.. She used frog legs, because Chinese eat frog legs, and Muslim consider this delicacy to be unclean (haram), thus revealing different cultural perceptions.
These two ethnic riots from amongst many other ethnic riots that were aimed at the Chinese-Indonesians disturbed my thoughts, stirring me to constantly re-question the process of cultural assimilation in this multi-ethnic country. What was the significance of the difference between assimilation that was designed by a political regime (‘assimilation by design’, henceforth referred to as ‘forced assimilation’) — the policy of the Soeharto regime to ‘quicken’ the assimilation of the Chinese in Indonesia is an example of this — with the model of assimilation that takes place without political design of a given regime (referred to as ‘natural assimilation’)? Is it true that Chinese from the Fujian mainland spread throughout Southeast Asia, not directly influenced by political and economic chaos on the mainland? Was the involvement of the Dutch ships, who supplied the Dutch-run plantations with Chinese men as skilled and tenacious laborers to increase trade in the Dutch East Indies another example of forced assimilation?
The Dutch East Indies administration implemented a divisive policy, as exemplified in the forced reorganization of the Chinese quarters in Semarang, replacing a previous pattern of cultural integration with the local residents.
The old city of Semarang (to whom I dedicate this art project), is proof of the architectural history of ‘devide et empera’, that was followed by a continuous evolution of a diversity of new patterns and genres of cultural assimilation. Is it still easy to differentiate between the local residents, Arab, Chinese and Indian (Koja) descendents? It could be that people have stopped paying attention to the assimilation process. During my childhood, the old city of Semarang was prepared to mediate multicultural dialogue. This represented an ideal of the form of diversity for me as a citizen of this multi-ethnic republic. Although the history of forced assimilation was repeated in the models implemented by the governmental regime, I, while not conducting study/research on social-political history, am constantly compelled to explore and express, while celebrating, the wealth of inspiration that continue to flow as disordered reflective light, contributing contemporary ideas for cultural assimilation, in the midst of questions about the significant differences between natural and forced assimilation. It is here that my artworks in the Peranakan project, Toekar Tambah, which are exhibited at Semarang Gallery, is based — in the compound of this old historical city. Flow: come, let us cut through history!
Yogyakarta, December 7, 2011