Jakarta. The woman stands on the sun washed terrace, her infant boy within reach. Toy animals neatly lined up in a row sit on top of the wall, ready to be played by the baby.
In another picture, the same young mother cradles her child in front of their house in Tanjung Selor, Borneo, in the present day Indonesian province of North Kalimantan.
The wide, fast flowing waters of the Kayan River flowed nearby, while a valley meanders its way on the opposite shore.
The scene is framed by the delicate leaves of a couple of trees overhanging the due. It’s not hard to imagine the vibrant, sunwashed trees with their lush green foliage, while the call of animals in the far distance occasionally break the still air.
The mother and child are Erika and Urs Leupold, the wife and child of Wolfgang Leupold, a Swiss geologist sent by the Dutch colonial government to explore for oil deposits in Borneo.
The pictures, which are among the dozens Leupold took to recount his time in the area between the years of 1921 and 1927, are part of the 50 photos that make up the “Memories from Borneo” exhibition at the Dutch cultural center Erasmus Huis in South Jakarta.
Jointly held by the Dutch and Swiss embassies in Jakarta, Leupold’s work typified the allure that Indonesia held for many in those distant days — but it is also a spell that the country continues to hold until today.
“Indonesia was a draw for many Europeans with a sense of adventure like Leupold, as they were driven to ‘fill in’ parts of the globe that were unknown and isolated during the early 20th century.
“He might have gone to Borneo as part of his job, but as we can see from his photos, he was drawn to its pristine natural wildlife and people, of which the Dayak tribes were the most ubiquitous,” says Dutch ambassador to Indonesia, Tjeerd De Zwaan. “However, some of the photos show the vulnerability of the Dayak and other tribes to the encroachment of the outside world on their environment that would later take the form of illegal logging and widespread destruction of peatland.”
De Zwaan’s Swiss counterpart Heinz Walker-Nederkoorn agreed.
“Leupold’s photos are among the most authentic portrayals of life in Borneo in the early 20th century, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. His pictures managed to capture Borneo’s tribes and their characteristics, whether it be Dayak or nomadic, lesser known peoples like the Punan and Basap tribes,” says Walker-Nederkoorn of Leupold’s work, which was previously shown at the University of Zurich’s Museum of Ethnography in 2012 to mark 60 years of Swiss-Indonesian relations.
“Leupold’s pictorial observations, whether they are of Borneo or Java, are noted for their comprehensiveness, as they extensively used artifacts and notes to give a total experience. However, he balanced this with a contemplative eye and sensitive, tactful approach to Borneo’s indigenous people. But most of all, Leupold shows that Swiss-Indonesian ties go back longer than anyone realizes,” Walker-Nederkoorn says.
This eye for character is most evident in Leupold’s take of Dayak tribesmen who visited his house. One shot of a Dayak man with a pipe seems to show how accommodating he is to Leupold’s family, despite their obvious status as outsiders in his ancestral lands. Other photos convey a more nonchalant, yet unobtrusive image of local people around Leupold.
One of his more dramatic shots entails a youthful player of the sape, a traditional Dayak instrument against the backdrop of the broad, fastflowing Kayan river. The youth’s gaze onto the unseen horizon was balanced by the instrument and the river, both of which seem to form his sense of belonging to the land and how it forged his identity.
Other shots show the rough and tumble world of oil drilling in Borneo and the challenges it posed. No sense of drudgery is seen in these pictures. Instead, the western geologists and oil experts, as well as their train of indigenous porters and guides seem keen to strike into the interior.
“Much of the Borneo that Leupold managed to capture on camera doesn’t exist anymore. Over 70 percent of the land that he caught on camera is now palm oil and banana plantations, while other parts are barren wastelands,” says Mike Nichols of the Indonesian Heritage Society.
“The 30 percent that remains isn’t quite as authentic as those lands that have gone. But there’s still reason to hope, as much of Indonesian Borneo, or Kalimantan, is as remote and inaccessible as it was in Leupold’s time.”
The exhibition also includes a screening of the German language ethnographic documentary “Kopfjaeger von Borneo” (The Headhunters of Borneo). Directed by Baron Victor von Plessen, the 1936 movie features Dayak tribesmen reenacting the age old tale of forbidden love between Anyi, a chieftain’s son, and the slave girl Iring.
But regardless whether the film or the pictures will leave a deeper impression, what’s for certain is that the exhibition can make one see Borneo in a new light.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on April 28, 2014