Unveiling Life Through A Lens

“Pengangkut Sawi” by Rainer Oktavianus (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

The two teenage girls in the photographs gaze intensely at their respective viewers. In the picture on the left, a girl in the turquoise headdress looks as if she’s gearing up to take on the world as she stares boldly into the camera. Her partner seems just as keen, the gun in her hand only adding to her confidence. However, her boldness seems more for show — the purple locks of her wig and the toy firearm are obviously accessories for a Japanese cartoon cosplay. As a whole, her look reflects a carefree spontaneity and sense of fun that is shared by her friends.

While these two photographs by Dutch photographer Marco van Duyvendijk have little in common at first glance, the bright costumes and headdresses worn by their subjects are the first signs of a connection.

Van Duyvendijk’s Indonesian counterpart Rainer Oktavianus took a more austere approach to his work, as typified by “Cemong” (“Smudge”) and “Deretan Kapal” (“Row of Ships”), his visual vignettes of Jakarta’s Sunda Kelapa harbor. A glance at the dockworker’s lined face and battered hat shows the physical effects of laboring under the sun. The smudge alluded in the photo’s title is probably as figurative as it is literal, as it physically shows how the laborer’s work has seared itself into his psyche. 

Similarly, the creaky, rundown vessels in “Deretan Kapal” seem to show the portrait of urban neglect or how the capital seemed to have turned its back on its past. On the other hand, the portraits are just as likely to show a sense of continuity, as the age old phinisi and other wooden vessels moored in Sunda Kelapa still transport goods from Jakarta to other parts of Indonesia, much as they have for hundreds of years. Similarly, the weatherbeaten laborer’s efforts in keeping Sunda Kelapa in business is an iconic symbol of how life at the historic harbor goes on, even it is dwarfed by its bigger counterpart, Tanjung Priok.

The photos are among the dozens of pictures by van Duyvendijk and Rainer in the photo exhibition  “Muda dan Tua, Tua dan Muda: Pemetaan Indonesia Modern Dalam Gambar” (“Old and Young, Young and Old: Mapping Out Modern Indonesia Through Pictures”). Showcased at the Erasmus Huis cultural center, the exhibit highlights the two photographers’ contrasting styles as they attempt to capture humanity with a lens. 

“Young people are my subject of choice as I am drawn to their dynamism. I’m also taken by their continuing development, which makes them a work in progress,” says van Duyvendijk of his photos, which were taken in Jakarta, Semarang and Solo since 2012. “Indonesia also has a [large] younger population compared to other countries. This can be an asset to the country.”

The element of youth permeates through the work of the 40-year-old, who had his start in photography by taking pictures of people and their daily lives in post communist Eastern Europe and Mongolia in the 1990’s. 

Among the images that typify van Duyvendijk’s approach are his photos depicting schoolgirls in Central Java’s provincial capital Semarang. Kept untitled to reflect his principle that photos should speak for itself, van Duyvendijk managed to balance the girls’ open and frank gaze with a smart, knowing look, a combination that seemed to bode well for their future as well as that of their peers. Van Duyvendijk’s photo of a little girl and her grandmother in a Jakarta slum also captured a moment of tenderness amid Jakarta’s daily grind and poverty. 

“For a big city, Jakarta isn’t as impersonal as Tokyo or Paris because communal feelings are still strong here,” he says. The photo’s striking colors also captured the older woman’s maternal feelings and concern for the girl’s wellbeing.

In contrast to van Duyvendijk’s focus on youth, Rainer’s black-and-white photos set out to capture the age-old rhythms of Indonesian daily life. He deftly captured the resilience of common people with a jaded eye. While the 31-year-old captured exuberance among the children in “Ceria” (“Cheerfulness”), the stark black-and-white imagery subtly show his concern for them.

“Indonesia’s nine-year compulsory education program is fully covered by the government. However, obstacles persist due to illegal charges imposed by schools,” he says in “Muda dan Tua: Tua dan Muda’s” catalogue. 

Pengangkut Sawi” (“Mustard Collector”) unflinchingly shows the role laborers play in Indonesia’s spice trade for hundreds of years. Shot in East Jakarta’s Kramat Jati traditional market, the burden on the laborer’s shoulder is as figurative as it is literal.

“I took these pictures of common people as they are the most effective way to connect with them and tell their stories. I also want to capture them in their surroundings and capture them in their real moments” says Rainer. “This enables me to catch a glimpse of their strengths and weaknesses.”

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on August 20, 2014

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A&E Rolls Out TV Shows With Southeast Asia in Mind


‘Mom’s Time Out,’ above, and ‘Photo Face-Off’ are among the shows on A&E channels geared toward a Southeast Asian television audience. (Photos courtesy of A&E)

The trio of men found their kids a handful. Hailing from the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia, the three had to take care of their kids while their wives went on an all-expenses-paid vacation.

For Manila resident Kenneth, tasks that his wife Emerald made look mundane, like taking their 2-year-old daughter Briley to the dentist, proved a nightmare, while her 24-hour crying fits took a toll on him. His Singaporean and Malaysian counterparts, Christopher and Jason, fared no better. Christopher faced the daunting task of taking his three kids to business meetings and fine-dining restaurants, while Jason had to go through unfamiliar territory, namely a children’s playground.

The three are among the contestants on the Lifetime Channel’s new reality show, “Mom’s Time Out.” Set to premiere on Aug. 28, the show is nothing less than a social experiment that sets out to turn the Asian notion of nuclear families on its head.

“The show takes on a certain structure. The Singaporean contestant Christopher has three kids, Jason from Malaysia has two, while Kenneth has one child,” says Hazel Yap, the marketing and communications director for the Asia Pacific office of the Arts and Entertainment Networks, the parent company of the Lifetime Channel as well as other channels like History, Bio and Crime and Investigation.

“We also try to highlight their diversity by showing them to be from different walks of life. But overall, the show reflects the family values that remained at the core of our programs,” Yap says.

“Mom’s Time Out” is one of a number of new shows that A&E has rolled out for cable viewers throughout Southeast Asia. The History Channel is set to offer up a second season of “Ride and Seek,” an adventure reality show that sees American biker Jaime Dempsey explore Sarawak, the Malaysian side of Borneo, on her bike. Set to premiere on Aug. 18, the show sees Dempsey explore caves used by the Japanese Army in World War II, spar with Malaysian MMA fighter Ann “Athena” Osman, and pay homage to the dead at an Iban tribe longhouse.

“The show is in line with the History Channel’s vision of raising public awareness of their world through entertaining programs,” says A&E Asia Networks marketing and communications manager Geraldine Kong.

“There is a possibility that the show could extend to Indonesia, but we don’t know when just yet,” she adds.

“We will still reach out to Indonesian viewers through our Twitter account, @History_IDN. But for the most part, we are still sounding out the Indonesian market, trying out to find what appeals to the local market and understanding the local countries’ content. This is imperative as Indonesia is our biggest market in the region, as well as its most diverse and complex.”

One upcoming show that does cater specifically to the Indonesian audience is “Photo Face-Off.” Set to premiere on Sept. 23, the show features aspiring Indonesian photographer Willy Lesmana among a field of contestants from around Southeast Asia trying to land a lucrative job to photo celebrities in New York.

“‘Photo Face-Off’ is the biggest local production yet made by the History Channel,” Kong says.

“The photographers will have to face three challenges — speed, theme and extreme — before they can land the contract. They will be pushed to the limits of their resourcefulness and skills by their judge, photographer Justin Mott, just to see if they have what it takes to win.”

Other Southeast Asian-geared shows include “My Mosque,” which centers on a mosque in a Malaysian town and highlights local beliefs, culture and food.

A&E will also feature the original miniseries “Houdini” on the History Channel. Starring Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody, the show takes on the legendary magician’s life and times. Lifetime will also have a film adaptation of the V.C. Andrews classic “Flowers in the Attic” and “Petals in the Wind,” which will premiere on Aug. 12 and Aug. 19 respectively. But regardless of whichever show you opt to watch, it’s not too much to say that you will be spoilt for choice.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 22, 2014

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Modern Art Takes Center Stage in New Exhibition


An exhibition at the Pacific Place mall in Jakarta hopes to emphasize to collectors and the public that there is so much more to Indonesian contemporary art than paintings and sculptures. (JG Photos/Tunggul Wirajuda)

As images of Sukarno hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries or celebrities go, this one was nothing out of the ordinary, considering his iconic status as Indonesia’s founding father and a leading figure in the Non-Aligned Movement.

He was also something of a ladies’ man, so it made sense that he appeared at ease in the company of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, seemingly holding them in thrall with his wit and charm.

But the photo has more up its sleeve than meets the eye.

“The work depicting Sukarno and the celebrities isn’t really a photograph, its actually a photomontage,” says art collector Wiyu Wahono of the work “Sejarah X 6” by Indonesian contemporary artist Agan Harahap, which is part of his collection.

“While Sukarno was known to have been acquainted with Kennedy, Monroe and Taylor, he never actually met all of them at the same time. ‘Sejarah X 6’ is Agan’s way of touching on our collective memory and challenging our notions of reality, as well as the idea that photographs can’t lie. The work shows how this perception still persists, despite advances in technology that saw the development of Photoshop and other photo editing applications.”

Wiyu notes that Agan’s challenges of perceptions don’t end there. “At first glance, Agan’s ‘Deus Ex Machina’ series is not art, it’s nothing more than a set of X-rays. But take a closer look, and you will see that he will put in cogs in the skeleton’s heart, a gun among their brains, and other mechanical contraptions,” he says of the work, which is in the collection of fellow aficionado Indra Leonardi. “The X-rays are maybe Agan’s apt commentary on the increased dependence of people on items like cars and smartphones today, a development made possible by strides in technology.”

Curator Carla Bianpoen agrees as she highlights the juxtaposition between the fineness of the human body and the roughness of the workman’s tools, in what is perhaps also an allusion to industrialization.

Agan is one of 13 contemporary Indonesian artists whose works are featured in the exhibition “No Painting Today,” which is on show from July 14-20 at the Pacific Place mall in Jakarta. The 21 works come from the collection of Wiyu, Indra and other collectors like Arif Suhirman, Nicholas Tan and Tom Tandio.

“The exhibition title ‘No Painting’ is a form of protest against the excessively major standing of painting among Indonesian art collectors, and how a fixation on the artform, as well as sculptures, has kept the true message of contemporary art from being disseminated,” Wiyu says.

“Though I’m not averse to painting, provided it has a strong context, contemporary art is more than just painting and sculpture, as it’s not specific to any medium, in line with the artists’ efforts to attain more artistic freedom and make works that are more in the round.”

This determination not to be pigeonholed and to find something new in art can be seen in the anonymous gallery, that is only identified as “Pacific Place Level 1 Unit 67.”

Getting a start in art collecting

“I started collecting art in 1999, a year after I got back to Indonesia after living for 20 years in Berlin. When I started out, I collected paintings like any other art aficionado,” says Wiyu, a mechanical engineer specializing in plastic ware who previously lectured at the Technical University of Berlin.

“I only started collecting contemporary art seven or eight years ago, though I was familiar with the genre after seeing it in Berlin’s New National Gallery. I also refined my taste over time and by reading art books to get a better perspective of contemporary art,” he says.

“I started off by collecting the works of contemporary artists from Yogyakarta, though in recent years I expanded to collecting the works of contemporary artists from Bandung as well. As home to Indonesia’s two art centers, the Bandung Institute of Technology [ITB] and the Yogyakarta Indonesian Fine Arts Institute, they’ve really brought out the elements that make the contemporary artworks distinctive.”

Wiyu adds that as an institution founded by the Dutch, ITB is noted for its by-the-book, analytical approach, while the Fine Arts Institute is more spontaneous, as Sukarno charged it to establish art without formal foundations or art theory.

“Though the former seems colorless compared to the latter, the context behind their art carries it through, while the latter’s sporadic outbursts of creativity are erratic and make them one of a kind,” Wiyu says.

Wiyu and his fellow collectors continue to explore the potential of the artists. He says that doing so will maintain their livelihood and keep their visions alive.

A microcosm of diversity

Wiyu says that much of Indonesia’s contemporary art derives its strength and character from the nation’s diversity, a trend that art critic Jim Supangkat calls pluralist modernity.

“Many great artists make masterpieces when they move from their homeland and get transplanted to another culture, like Willem de Koening from the Netherlands to New York City, or Paul Gauguin from France to Tahiti,” he says.

“Artists in Indonesia don’t need to go such long distances to get inspired. For instance, an aspiring artist from Bali can make great art if he moves to Bandung, as Sundanese culture might add another perspective to his craft that can complete it. An artist from Bandung can move to Jakarta and make great work after getting inspired by its hustle and bustle. Even foreign artists aren’t oblivious to this, as they keep coming to Indonesia to be inspired.”

But Wiyu says challenges still remain.

“The narrow perceptions of what constitute art held by many Indonesian collectors keeps them from seeing this potential wealth and hampering many Indonesian contemporary artists from realizing their full potential, as they only emphasize decorative arts and form over function, which makes them seek the works of past masters like Raden Saleh or Affandi. On the other hand, much of contemporary art is all about context, especially with the times or zeitgeist, which runs counter to their notion of using aesthetics in art to move emotions,” he says.

However, Wiyu says these challenges have not stopped artists like Angki Purbandono, whose work “The Secrets of Honor” is in his collection.

“It’s is a scan of a pendant on a square of butter. The texture of the butter gradually melting is captured in detail that’s rare to catch” Wiyu says of the work, which perhaps alludes to how nothing lasts. “His other work, ‘Sunflower Snack,’ which is in Nicholas Tan’s collection might just be a generic scan. But it’s a poignant reminder of the time he did behind bars for drug use, as he noted that the other inmates were also snacking on it.”

Wiyu is optimistic that contemporary art will thrive and evolve in Indonesia.

“Perhaps contemporary art will turn into what I call post-contemporary art, which is deep in context, aesthetics and mass appeal. This might just happen due to the pluralism of Indonesian society and the growing interest the Indonesian people take in the arts,” he says.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 23, 2014

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The Kenyah Dayak’s ‘Journey Home’ to Their Tribal Roots


A scene from “The Journey Home”. (Photo courtesy of David Metcalf)

To foreign observers, the 800 inhabitants of the village of Setulang live in a rustic idyll at the edge of a pristine forest. But these members of the Kenyah Dayak that live in the North Kalimantan district of Malinau yearn for a paradise steeped in the traditions of their tribe.

“I left our original homelands when I was a small boy. But I have happy memories of my time growing up in the forests and playing in the rivers,” says Pilius, a village elder, who last saw his ancestral lands in 1969.

The land that Pilius remembers is an area of forests which they call Tala Olen , or “the forbidden forest.”

The tribesmen, particularly the elders, feel a spiritual connection to Tala Olen’s forests, rivers and land, located in an area called Long Saan, which is an eight-day journey by canoe up the Kayan River.

There are strict cultural rules about cutting down the trees in the forest or damaging it in any way, a reverence that has not changed despite their move to Setulang for economic reasons. The draw of Tala Olen is also felt by their descendants who are charmed by the elders’ stories of paradise.

“My grandfather told me many stories of growing up [in Tala Olen ] and how they lived back then. His description of it made it look like paradise,” says Herman, a young villager. “I would love to visit and pay my respects to him.”

But the Kenyah Dayak’s ancient way of life and their culture of preserving the forest is under threat. Here in Kalimantan, logging and dam projects are destroying huge swathes of the forest.

Environmentalists estimate that over 52 percent of Kalimantan’s forests has already been lost.

“We don’t exactly know what will happen in the future. Will the next generation keep our agreement [to conserve the land], or will they damage it, and open new land to loggers to serve their self interest?” Kenyah Dayak elder Kole Adjang asks.

“ We hope that by example [sic], our great grandchildren will also take care of our land and Tala Olen.”

Taking the Dayak’s home

In the face of these threats to Borneo’s cultural history, photographer David “Dayak Dave” Metcalf is seeking to help reunite the Dayak with their ancestral homelands.

As with many indigenous peoples throughout Indonesia, such as the Asmat and Kamoro tribes of Papua or the Badui in Java, the Kenyah are hampered by poverty. As such, they can’t afford the cost of the journey to Tala Olen .

Metcalf seeks to provide the means for the villagers to revisit their homelands, a journey that he intends to chronicle in a film he will title “ The Journey Home .”

“I came up with the idea of granting the tribe their dream of visiting their ancestors’ burial grounds deep in the heart of the forest,” says the Bali-based New Zealander, adding that the journey entails more than the just the nostalgia of homecoming.

“We need to raise funds to make the film. As things currently stand, the logistics are only sufficient to take six elders to Long Saan,” says Metcalf, who is also the author of “Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage: Cultural Journeys of Discovery”, a chronicle of his travels through Indonesia.

Metcalf is putting on a fundraiser at the opening of an exhibition on indigenous photography in Jakarta’s Kunstkring Paleis cultural exhibition hall on Aug. 12.

The evening, which will feature eminent Indonesian designer Harry Darsono and New Zealand Ambassador David Taylor, will include performances of traditional Dayak dances.

“We hope that through raising funds to bring the elders back to their ancestral village and making a multimedia documentary about the journey, we can raise awareness of the threats to their unique way of life,” Metcalf says.

He adds that similar events will also be held at the American Club. To date, Metcalf has raised about $2,000 of the estimated $25,000 that he needs for the project.


A scene from “The Journey Home”. (Photo courtesy of David Metcalf)

Collective effort

“The Journey Home” will be shot by a film crew from seven nations; among them New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. They include American documentary filmmaker Jason Houston, who was known for his work with the Dayak in the Malaysian side of Borneo, Robby, a member of the Indonesian world music group Navicula, and Bali-based artist Wolfgang Widmoser, whose work inspired much of the look for the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.”

Native American Kevin Locke, an elder from the Lakota Sioux tribe, will also be taking part. While the cultural connection between the Dayak and native Americans is very strong, Locke’s participation marks the first time that a connection between these two cultures has been undertaken.

“One of the primary purposes of [“The Journey Home”] is to raise awareness in Indonesia and other countries about the importance and wisdom of indigenous cultures around the world. This journey is about connecting cultures through art, dance, song and ancient wisdom,” Metcalf says.

“By creating a wider expression and voice for indigenous cultures globally, we can find common ground through music and dance and ancestral prayers.”

Most of all, the film will showcase Kalimantan and its place in the world.

“Kalimantan is Asia’s Amazon, representing 1 percent of the earth’s surface but 5 percent of its flora and fauna, including untold numbers of trees and plants still undiscovered by mankind. As one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes on the planet, we want to raise awareness about the Dayak people that live in Kalimantan’s forests and rivers,” Metcalf says.

“This is all the more imperative, as Kalimantan is also facing the fallout from coal and gold mining, the latter which is poisoning its streams, aside from better known problems like illegal logging and deforestation.”

Metcalf and his team of filmmakers plan to release “The Journey Home” in Indonesia and abroad by the end of this year. He also plans to pitch the film to Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 14, 2014

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Tracing the Roots of An Iconic Indonesian Beverage


“The Road to Java Coffee” Exhibition (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The sight and smell of well-roasted coffee beans hold the promise of a new day, both in the literal and figurative sense of the word.

Whether brewed in a coffee machine or doused with hot water in the residual form or kopi tubruk in Indonesian, the savory goodness in every cup has a way of making one’s day, whether its drunk to start off the morning or as a leisurely drink in the evening.

But coffee expert Prawoto Indarto is all too aware that there’s much more to a cup of coffee than the public realized, a fact he highlighted during the recent launch of his book “The Road to Java Coffee” at the Bentara Budaya cultural center in Jakarta, and an exhibition of photos from tome.

The bilingual English and Indonesian coffee table book traces Java’s major role in the global coffee trade, a phenomenon which started when the Dutch East India Company or VOC exported Arabica coffee grown on the island to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Coffee from Java was so lucrative [for the VOC], that its name became synonymous with high-quality coffee throughout the world. One of the reasons the VOC made tremendous profits from the drink was because of the coffeehouse boom throughout Europe” explains Indarto, who also highlighted coffee’s stimulant properties in shaping history.

“Coffeehouses were renowned as intellectual centers during the Enlightenment, as their regulars included figures such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire and Napoleon Bonaparte. Java coffee’s popularity soon spread to the United States, to the extent that it became one of three coffee strains, along with Mocha and Bourbon, that was allowed to be imported to the country in the beginning of the 20th century.”

He also pointed out that the Arabica coffee grown in Java played an equally important role in developing the beverage from Sumatra to Papua.

“Coffee strains such as Mandheling and Gajo of North Sumatra, as well as the Wamena coffee grown in the Papuan district of the same name, can trace their development to Java coffee, This originates from the development of coffee as a cash crop during the 18th and 19th centuries” Indarto says. “Java coffee is also noted for its resilience. The crop was hit by a blight in the second half of the 19th century, yet managed to bounce back to reclaim its preeminent position in the global coffee market.”

“The Road to Java Coffee” took an unflinching look at the human cost of the blight, which caused a famine in Java that killed thousands of people.

Indarto points out that the book is as much about getting Indonesian people back to their roots as it is a history lesson.

“Indonesians are still largely ignorant about the history of coffee in this country, though ironically, Java has become a byword for high-quality coffee elsewhere in the world. I guess it has much to do with depriving them of the nation’s best coffee, which are bound for export in Europe, the United States and other developed countries” he laments.

“As a global brand, Java coffee predates Starbucks by nearly 300 years. But many Indonesians are still unaware of this fact, in contrast to the coffee’s fame overseas,” he says.

“The Road to Java Coffee” was published to raise the public’s awareness and pride in Java coffee. Its time they are made aware of the beverage, as brisk domestic sales will provide the sector with a solid, stable market that is just as viable as any export markets.”

Lehman “Agam” Pahlevi Suleiman, chief of the Specialty Coffee Association of Indonesia, agrees. “One way to spread public awareness about Indonesian coffee is to hold coffee tours in areas where the crop is grown in Java, Sumatra and East Nusa Tenggara. The outings are also a viable form of ecotourism and good firsthand knowledge about harvesting coffees” he says.

“Efforts to this end are already held in West Java by Taiwanese coffee buffs, as well as coffee exporters in North Sumatra along with their Singaporean and Malaysian partners. There is much that Indonesian coffee has to offer for the country’s coffee buffs, among them a greater range and variety of flavors, whether they be bitter, sweet, sour and chocolatey, for its coffees.”

He encouraged the use of baristas to raise public awareness about the finer points of coffee.

The Indonesian Association for Coffee Export and Industries estimates that the country’s coffee exports stand at $1.24 billion dollars to Australia, Japan and Taiwan and as well as other markets.

Going through the pages of “The Road to Java Coffee” is a path worth taken.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 13, 2014

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Images of Borneo’s Lost Idyll

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.


“Memories From Borneo” exhibit at Erasmus Huis (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

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

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Photos Capture Jakarta’s Moods and Aspirations


Then Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo looks at “Jakarta Wasting Electricity” (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The figure on the park bench seemed surreal, as he seemed to emerge out of space and time. Clad in a plastic poncho and helmet, its all too easy to assume that he’s taking part in a cosplay at some Japanese anime convention. But in Jakarta, such figures are ubiquitous during the rainy season, which is exactly the point that Jakarta Globe photographer Safir Makki tried to make. Titled “Kumbang Jalanan” or “The Street Beetle,” the photo of a motorist taking a breather in Central Jakarta’s MH Thamrin district touches on the role of motorcycles for millions of Jakartans. “The number of motorcyclists in Jakarta continues to rise. Motorcycles in the capital’s streets are estimated to be between 30,000 and 35,000,” Safir said in the photo’s caption.

But Safir doesn’t merely focus on the daily grind. His photo “Super Hero,” which shows Spiderman, Superman and Captain America at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout, shows he’s just as adept at capturing the quirks of Jakarta’s people. Toting traffic signs, the “superheroes” marked the 58th anniversary of the traffic police by raising awareness of traffic laws.

Makki’s works are among the 120 photos on display at the 2014 Photojournalist Fest, which is currently held at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center. Curated by Media Indonesia newspaper photojournalists Enny Nuraheni and Gino Franky Hadi, as well as Mast Irham of the European Pressphoto Agency, the 79 photojournalists in the exhibition sought to capture Jakarta’s moods and its people’s aspirations, in line with its theme of “Jakarta Berharap” or “Jakarta’s Hopes.”

“The photos brought up social issues in Jakarta in 2013. Many of the photos show how its people retain hope, whether it be for a better life or improved living conditions, even in the face of adversity” exhibition organizer Dede Kurniawan said. “The photos also chronicle current Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s progress during his first year in charge of the capital.”

Joko opened the event last Tuesday and took a close look at Jakarta’s progress under his administration. “Kembang Api Tahun Baru” [New Year’s Fireworks] by Rakyat Merdeka newspaper photojournalist Tedy Kroen perhaps epitomizes the new spirit of hope fostered by Joko. The occasion and the fireworks are an apt symbol for the hopes generated by the governor, while the rain that fell during the evening was an apt metaphor for the challenges faced by the city and its people.

Dewi Nurchahyani of Paras magazine also highlighted the pervasive mood of hope through her photo “Pembangunan Infrastruktur” or “Developing Infrastructure,” which shows Jakarta eager to stride into a future as a budding global metropolis. Other photojournalists, such as Bisnis Magazine’s Dwi Prasetya and Nurul Hidayat depict the unbroken spirits of people who seek space to play and exercise, in his photo “Minimnya Saran Olahraga” (“Minimum Space to Exercise”) and “Lahan Bermain” (“Room to Play”).


The subjects seem unbowed, though their efforts to make the most of space that was taken up by malls, high-rises and other buildings seem futile. The pictures also challenge the Jakarta administration’s claim that it allocated over 500 billion rupiah ($41 million dollars) to build parks and recreational facilities throughout the city.

Tedy still cast a jaded eye on the capital’s consumerism and ostentation through his photo “Jakarta Boros Listrik” or “Jakarta’s Wasteful Electricity Consumption.”

“The Energy and Minerals Ministry estimates that an average mall in Jakarta uses as much electricity as half a district elsewhere in Indonesia” Tedy said in photo’s caption. “So its small wonder that many environmental activists are urging for less electricity consumption, which also helps to mitigate global warming.”

The fallout from unsustainable practices — in this case uncontrolled traffic and the lack of a functioning public transportation service — is one that Panca Syurkani of Media Indonesia tackled with “Jakarta Macet Total” (“Totally Gridlocked Jakarta”). Panca cited Jakarta Transportation Board director Azas Tigor Nainggolan’s warning that the capital will grind to a standstill, if the Jakarta administration failed to implement measures to reduce tr affic, or provide viable public transport.

The photojournalists also took an unflinching look at the brutalizing effect of life in Jakarta, whether they be panhandlers in “Diajak Mengemis” (“Taken to Beg”) by Republika newspaper’s Agung Supriyanto, or “Ditangkap” (“Captured”) by Republika’s Tahta Aidilla and “Maling” or “Thief” by Tempo Magazine’s Dasril Roszandi.

The pictures not only show that Joko still has his work cut out for him, it also reminds one of the urgency to address the issues. The photos also include other topics, among them the plight of disabled people or those who were rendered homeless after their homes were demolished to make way for public works projects.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on February 8, 2014

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