Dutch and Indonesian artists in Kota Tua, Jakarta, Indonesia.

Photo: Adrian Mulja

Writer and LIFEs director Ayu Utami: “My aim is to create an inclusive history”

Six artists from The Netherlands with an Indo-Dutch background cooperate with six Indonesian artists to create several productions on their shared history.
By Lara Nuberg


This year DutchCulture, Indisch Herinneringscentrum, the Netherlands' Embassy in Jakarta and Komunitas Salihara work together on a project called My story, shared history. Within this project, six artists from The Netherlands with an Indo-Dutch background cooperate with six Indonesian artists to create several productions on their shared history, to be presented at LIFEs, the Literature and Ideas Festival, in Komunitas Salihara Jakarta in October 2019. This project is part of Indonesia Now: Jakarta edition, a thematic programme taking place in 2019 which focuses on the historical, current and future relationship between the Netherlands and the city of Jakarta, initiated by DutchCulture, the Netherlands’ Embassy in Jakarta and several partner organisations.  

Award-winning writer Ayu Utami is the festival director of LIFEs. Blogger, historian and participant of the project Lara Nuberg spoke with her after the first week of artists workshops, in which the participants from both countries met each other and followed classes on colonial history and the importance of personal stories within national narratives.

How did the idea of connecting Indo-Dutch and Indonesian artists to dig into their personal side of history together come about?

“Actually the idea of adding the Indo-Dutch perspective into this project was added later - after I met the Indo-Dutch performer Robin Block in Jakarta in 2018 and curator Ardjuna Candotti from the Indisch Herinneringscentrum. In the first place, my idea was to bring Dutch and Indonesians together for a program at LIFEs. That idea was in my mind for a very long time, since I have my own concerns about the historiography of Indonesia. The history lessons we get here in school are full of nationalism and patriotism. It is black and white. The histories we learn are always stories of good Indonesians against an abstract cruel enemy, as if no human being was involved. With this project, I hope to bring back the personal agency of common people within the bigger narratives of national histories. My aim is to create an inclusive history.”

If you know your own personal story and the ones of others, it is easier to connect
The history that I was taught in school was also mostly black and white. For example, in the Netherlands J.P. Coen is still present in street names or statues, although his policy meant a human disaster for people in the Indonesian archipelago.

“Yes, I am aware of this discussion. I travel to the Netherlands quite often and with my friends over there like writer Marion Bloem and historian Nancy Jouwe I talk about this dilemma a lot. In general, I think we should be careful with heroism and dualism. Histories based on heroes and dualism are often embodied to oppress others. In the Netherlands, you might have J.P. Coen [Dutch seafarer and Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in the early 17th century, ed.] as a symbol to create feelings of nationalism. In Indonesia we have for example Imam Bonjol. He was the winner of the Padri Wars on Sumatra around 1800 and is considered to be a national hero. But that passes the fact that he killed thousands of Batak-people – a story that we never hear about. It is the same for important events in our more recent history. The massacre of the Chinese community in 1965-66 is erased out of our history books; the same goes for the important role leftist intellectuals played in gaining our independence.”

How can personal stories influence the way we perceive history?

“The way we look at history in Indonesia now creates limitations on peoples’ identities. It divides people in boxes: left, right, Chinese, Javanese, Muslim, Christian and so on. By focussing on personal stories we can challenge these kinds of structures. If you know your own personal story and the ones of others, it is easier to connect. It makes history more human and thus easier to relate to each other.”

Dutch and Indonesian artists at a mosque in Central Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Esmay Usmany
Why is the Literature and Ideas Festival in Salihara the perfect place to have this conversation?

“Since LIFEs is a literature festival and not a history festival; it gives us a certain freedom. Maybe in an academic context, you have to be more rigid, but through literature, art and performances you can add emotions, doubt, different perspectives. I think it is a good way of researching shared aspects between each other and to show the complexity of history.”

How do you look back on last week’s programme?

“I am very happy about last week. I see this project as a personal quest and passion. I really loved to see how all of you enriched each other. The Indo-Dutch perspective is new for most of the Indonesian participants, but there were also a lot of events out of Indonesian history that the participants from the Netherlands never heard of. I think the combination of the participants was really good. I am touched.” 

Personal experiences make history more human. It is something we need to challenge dogmatic ways of nationalistic history-telling
Is there a moment in particular that you will remember?

“Well, I know that the Dutch correspondent in Indonesia, Michel Maas, who recently quit his job here, is bitter about Indonesia for becoming too religious. Dogmatism is indeed on the rise. But during the last session of this week, in which all participants presented their projects, I felt sparks that remind me of a mixed, diverse Indonesia that can work; that there is hope that we can look further than segregation. I am really thankful for that.” 

Novelist and LIFEs director Ayu Utami at Kommunitas Salihara, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Armando Ello

The final projects of the participants, consisting of performances, books and photo exhibitions, will be presented at the Literature and Ideas Festival in Salihara in Jakarta from 12 to 20 October 2019 and on 12 November at the event Indonesia Now 2019 in Amsterdam. 

Do you want to know more about working in Indonesia? Find more info here.