Review: ‘Revolusi’, an exhibition – Inside Indonesia: The peoples and cultures of Indonesia

Kate McGregor

From 11 February to 6 June 2022, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam hosted the first ever exhibition on the Indonesian Revolution of 1945-1949. The exhibition, Revolusi!, was jointly curated by Rijksmuseum curators Harm Stevens and Marion Anker and two Indonesian guest curators, Bonnie Triyana and Amir Sidharta, with contributions from others. It drew on art and the material cultural collections of the Rijksmuseum to present a story of the revolution.

The Rijksmuseum is a national art and history museum established in 1800 to inspire ‘patriotic feeling’. It is world famous for its art collections. In recent years it has adopted a more critical approach to Dutch history and its collections. In 2021 an exhibition entitled ‘Slavery’ explored trans-Atlantic slavery from the 17th to 19th centuries focusing on the stories of people who participated in, and resisted, slavery. The process of curating that exhibition inspired the Rijksmuseum to cease using the term ‘Golden Age’ because it celebrates the wealth and luxury of this era, attained through the practice of slavery.

Despite the passage of almost 80 years the Indonesian Revolution remains sensitive because it was a failed attempt to reclaim part of the Dutch empire. For a long time in the Netherlands, Indonesians defending the newly proclaimed Republic of Indonesia were referred to as ‘rebels’ and Dutch efforts to reinstate ‘law and order’ were referred to as ‘police actions.’ From 2012 onwards, there was increased attention on Dutch violence during the revolution due to a series of successful court cases filed by the widows of Indonesian men shot by Dutch soldiers in massacres.

The court cases resulted in compensation payments and apologies and led the Dutch government to fund a major research project investigating violence ‘on all sides’ of the revolution. For the last ten years there has been a new emphasis on the structural nature of Dutch colonial violence alongside efforts to downplay it, or to point to Indonesian violence against Dutch people.

Creating and curating an exhibition on the Indonesian Revolution for Dutch audiences was an ambitious undertaking and necessarily involved making certain choices. Similar to the earlier ‘Slavery’ exhibition, the curators decided to focus on the individual stories of a small number of Indonesians. According to the Rijksmuseum’s General Director, Taco Dibbits, the exhibition centred around ‘fighters, artists, diplomats, children, politicians, journalists and others … through their experiences via objects and eyewitness reports.’ Who was featured in the exhibition and with what effects?


From an Indonesian perspective one of the most romanticised and mythologised figures of the Indonesian revolution is that of the pejuang, the revolutionary fighter who is generally coded male and as fierce in spirit. An opening display entitled ‘Faces of the Revolution’ draws visitors into the mythologised world of the pejuang through the creative use of the pocket photo book of S. Narudin, which was confiscated by Dutch intelligence forces upon his arrest. In one of the first rooms in the exhibition, studio-style photographs of Narudin and his comrades from the photo book were blown up and projected on a wall producing a particular aesthetic of the revolution.

One of the images in the exhibition reproduced from the photo book of S. Narudin / author

In most of these images the men are dressed in either loose white pants with light coloured t-shirts or shirts in reflective poses, or in full khakis with pecis (a cap symbolic of Indonesian nationalism). In one extraordinary studio-style image two men are shown posing on their knees whilst leaning forward towards the camera in full khakis. They are wearing round helmets with one arm back over their shoulders gripping a rifle as if they are about to charge.

The focus on the male pejuang is sustained throughout the exhibition together with documentation of the contributions of famous male writers, artists and journalists. One panel is devoted to the famous male journalist of the revolutionary period, Rosihan Anwar, and another to Indonesia’s most famous novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Across these panels, men are depicted as active agents who shaped the course of the revolution or were greatly inspired by it. In the exhibition as a whole, the stories of women are relatively marginalised, but this is particularly noticeable in representations of the pejuang.

The ‘hero’ image used on the exhibition’s website and publications depicts two women and a man walking down a busy street. The man and one of the women are dressed in military attire and carrying guns. The caption for this image in the exhibition’s official book states, ‘Three young Indonesians on the street in Yogyakarta, photo by Hugo Wilmar, December 1947. The armed young men belong to belong to the militia group Kebangkitan Rakyat Indonesia Sulawesi (KRIS, Service of Indonesian People from Sulawesi)’. There is no further information provided about the women in the picture. Elsewhere, a panel accompanying a photo of the famous male artist, Henk Ngantung, notes in passing that the women pictured alongside in the photo with him are ‘primarily in military dress’.

Why is so little attention paid to the female pejuang clearly present and depicted in the images on display? It may be because there are far fewer traces of the lives of individual women, but the overall message is that they were not important actors. We know that women acted as couriers, provided meals for pejuang in public kitchens and also engaged in fighting. In Indonesian depictions of the role of women, pejuang in revolution were highlighted, including in accounts by the revolutionary President Sukarno. During this period, he penned the famous text Sarinah: The Responsibilities of Women in the struggle of the Indonesian Republic emphasising the importance of women’s active contributions to the revolution.

Only one panel in the exhibition is devoted to the story of a woman who was an active agent in the revolution. Tanja Dezentje is an Indonesian woman born in the Netherlands who chose to become Indonesian. The panel features her portrait, painted in 1947 by Sudarso. She appears seated wearing military khakis. The caption to this image claims that she ‘embodies the image of a progressive and emancipated country that Indonesia is creating of itself.’ Elsewhere in the exhibition we learn that Dezentje served as diplomat representing the Indonesian Republic, visiting Bangkok, New Delhi, Singapore and Cairo to promote the independence cause.

Depicting violence

Even before the exhibition opened, there was significant controversy concerning how violence against Dutch persons and Indo-Europeans would be represented. In an opinion piece published in the Dutch press one of the Indonesian curators, historian Bonnie Triyana suggested that the term ‘bersiap’, which in Dutch society is primarily a reference to violence directed at the Dutch and Indo-Europeans in the early period of the revolution, would not be used. Triyana claimed this was because of its association with a racist view of Indonesians as inherently violent, and its historic use as a justification for the Dutch return to Indonesia. This resulted in protests from FIN, conservative representatives of the Indo-European community, who felt their suffering was being neglected and who wrongly suggested that Triyana was trying to cover up the violence.

Given the eventual curatorial decision to continue to use the term, it is interesting that the decision was then made to focus only on female victims of so-called ‘bersiap’ violence. A section of the exhibition entitled ‘Violence’ notes that, ‘Indo-European, Chinese and Moluccans’, were attacked by ‘Indonesian militant groups.’ A panel in this section is devoted to the story of the Indo-European woman, Anna-Sophia Uhlenbusch, who was killed along with her family in an attack on people associated with a sugar factory in Tegal. This account is accompanied by a photograph of Anna-Sophia and her sisters, alongside a list of those who were killed. Another panel in this room focuses on a woman of Chinese background, Letty Kwee, and uses the artefact of a baby book she kept for her daughter to reflect on how her family managed to ‘weather the menace and danger of revolutionary militant groups in Jakarta,’ before leaving for the Netherlands. In each of these accounts it is noticeable that the victims or people under threat are female, but also named, individualised and mourned.


In contrast, Dutch violence against Indonesians is mentioned in a far more abstract way. Violence against Indonesians is largely represented in works of art from the revolutionary period. In two 1948 paintings by Mohammad Toha, for example, he depicts a ground level view of threatening Dutch bombers flying over Jakarta and Indonesians participating in a funeral procession burying victims of a Dutch attack. It is noticeable that no individualised Indonesian testimonies of suffering accompany these art works.

There is no mention here or elsewhere in the exhibition of the Rawagede and Westerling Dutch massacres around which the successful contemporary court cases revolved. Projections of rolling footage from the British Army Film and Photographic Unit show European men patrolling the jungles and engaging in friendly interactions with Indonesians, with no reference to violence committed against Indonesians. The only mention of sexual violence during the revolution does not come until the final section of the exhibition. In video testimony from Kartika, daughter of the Indonesian artist Affandi, she recalls that her father told her to carry a knife and use it if anyone tried to rape her.


The exhibition devotes important space to the roles of Moluccan soldiers who served in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL, Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger) thereby offering a complex and nuanced view of this history. The KNIL service book of Moluccan man Petrus Akihary and his body tag were displayed alongside a panel detailing his service during the war. Alluding to fractures across Indonesian society in her video testimony his daughter states that, ‘for me the revolution was a scary period, you couldn’t trust anyone … then we had to leave Indonesia.’ She is referring to the precarious position of Moluccans at that time, leading to the Dutch-sponsored relocation of 3500 former soldiers and their families to the Netherlands in 1951.

Installation by Timoteus Anggawa Kusno titled, ‘Wounds and Venom I Carry as I am Running’ (Luka dan Bisa Kubawa Berlari) / author

One the most beautiful and reflective aspects of the exhibition was the complex art installation by Timoteus Anggawa Kusno titled, ‘Wounds and Venom I Carry as I am Running’ (Luka dan Bisa Kubawa Berlari). The title derives from the poem ‘Semangat’ (Spirit) by Chairil Anwar. The artwork features empty frames once used to display the portraits of the former governors-general of the Netherlands East Indies. The plaques detailing the names of the artists and the former governors-general are still visible. The frames were retrieved from the Rijksmuseum collection where they have been stored since 1949. Above the empty frames that lay flat on a raised platform, hang now decaying flags of former Indonesian military units featuring kris (daggers) and prayers. Some of the symbols featured in Republican posters on display in other parts of the exhibition are also represented here, including black crows, golden tigers and silver bugles.

By combining the frames and symbols with the flags – which the artist described as having been ‘looted’ – Kusno tries to evoke the dismantling of colonial power, the enduring spirit and inspiration for the revolution, and raises critical questions about who owns this heritage. To further call to mind the spirit of the revolution Kusno has created a soundscape featuring recitation of the prayers featured on the flags and sounds from various places in Indonesia that for the artist ‘hold memories of resistance, loss, betrayal, and struggle against the colonial power.’

With plans underway for the exhibition to travel to Indonesia in 2023, the curators will have some crucial decisions to make. How will the story of the revolution and particularly the violence be framed in the Indonesian context? Will, or should, the framing be changed? Will the under-representation of women be addressed given it was women’s participation in the revolution that secured them equal rights to men in independent Indonesia? And perhaps most importantly, what will happen to the cultural heritage items used in the exhibition – most of them seized by Dutch intelligence during the revolution – at the conclusion of the exhibition? Will they, as some are calling for, be left behind?

Kate McGregor ([email protected]is a historian of Indonesia at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 150: Oct-Dec 2022

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