‘For Many Decades, Most Dutch Have Heard Only Limited Stories About the Former Dutch East Indies’
Indonesia proclaimed its independence 75 years ago. This week Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima are visiting this former colony of the Netherlands. Ahead of the state visit, DutchCulture organised a seminar on key themes that both countries closely cooperate on, such as art and culture. Viktorien van Hulst, director of Theatre Festival Boulevard, emphasised the importance of listening to stories and experiences of different communities. This is her speech.
Every year in August, Theaterfestival Boulevard is held in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. I am proud to be its director.
Boulevard has its roots in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, attracts audiences from the Netherlands and Flanders, and reverberates far beyond the Dutch borders. For eleven days each summer we present contemporary performing arts from different countries. But it’s not just our artistic programme that makes the festival so special. Boulevard’s defining element is the successful and lasting connection we forge between our audiences and the art works. Boulevard brings avant-garde art to a wide range of audience groups, from professionals to people with little theatre-going experience.
Boulevard’s defining element is the lasting connection we forge between our audiences and the art works
A year ago, the municipality asked us to help plan the commemorations for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in May. Within our organisation there was awareness that the liberation on the 5th of May 1945 applied only to the parts of the Netherlands that were fortified with dykes. Also, for our summer festival, a more logical occasion to commemorate would be the 15th of August, the date of the Japanese surrender.
The request became the starting point for an ongoing conversation with representatives of the Indies and Moluccan communities in and around the city. We asked them: can Boulevard play a part in the commemorations? Should we? Is it our place? The answers differed vastly.
First up for discussion was the date. Because, while the 15th of August does have significance for the communities with roots in the former Dutch East Indies, the 17th of August carries even greater weight. And to the Moluccan community, the 25th of April is relevant for independence. Next, there was commotion around the fact that we were to speak. Instead of speaking, we should listen! Some people felt these questions from a ‘Dutch’ festival were ‘too little too late’, while others considered it a valuable step. But the Indies and Moluccan communities coming together, through Boulevard: this was seen as a unique opportunity. One Moluccan woman said she had never spoken to Indies people so extensively: ‘My mother always said they were arrogant’. Another woman, with Indies roots, admitted she had been told to stay away from Moluccans: ‘They are always aggressive.’ Talking to each other now, within the context of a theatre festival, brought emotional release. And allowed for connection.
Instead of speaking, we should listen!
A resounding ‘yes’ was heard in answer to our question if art can play a role in sharing past experiences. All sides confirmed: art has the power to evoke that which is difficult to talk about. To share complex stories. To get to know one another.
‘Yes, art can play a role.’
However. This ‘yes’ was immediately followed by a number of conditions. We were to present work for mixed audiences, for people with roots anywhere: the Moluccas, the former Dutch East Indies, and people from Dutch descent, who were born behind the dykes.
More importantly still: for people from across generations.
Strikingly, it was young people with roots in the former Dutch East Indies who were most critical: they wanted their roots to be acknowledged, they wanted to see themselves reflected, and they wanted to address the colonial nature of Dutch society and the issues involved.
The central focus of the festival would have to be on facilitating exchange between people from different backgrounds and different age groups.
We listened to the stories of the communities. We learnt about the cold reception many hundreds of thousands of people from the Dutch East Indies were met with when they came to the Netherlands after the war, and how it still lingers in later generations. We spoke about the difficulties the parents and grandparents had, building their lives here. About the pain it caused their children.
And soon we were addressing the alarming parallels we saw with the experiences of newcomers to our society today.
Art can be an engine, a force to get to know yourself and the other
This led to a call to action: to accept responsibility and take stock of your own archive, of the events that have shaped you. Look them straight in the eye, so that we, welcoming all these different histories, can live together.
There’s an intrinsic power to art. But art can also be an engine, a force to get to know yourself and the other. Experiencing art is a form of time travel; you go to a different place, a different time. From Brabant to a ship near Tanjong Priok. From today to the seventeenth century, or to the nineteen fifties.
What I knew of Indonesia, of the history of the former Dutch East Indies, is what I learnt from the novels I had read, the films and plays I had seen. It wasn’t until much later that I realised these largely represented the white perspective – that of the totok.
The current growing attention to different perspectives on our history is a positive development. Today, stage plays, exhibitions and books allow us to gain a more complete understanding than I was able to years ago, based on my reading list at school. Think of the exhibition Dossier Indië at the Wereldmuseum, the Indië Monologen that came to the theatres last season, or the storytelling stage work by the Timisela brothers.
Another example is the project recently organised by DutchCulture, Indisch Herinneringscentrum and Komunitas Salihara. Dutch artists with Indies roots and artists from Indonesia worked in duos. The collaborations were based on the artists’ personal stories, which resulted in a highlighting of thus far overlooked stories and perspectives in the Dutch and Indonesian national historiographies, and an exploration of what links the two today and in the future.
The results were presented in Jakarta last October. And I am pleased to announce that some of the work will be coming to Boulevard.
For many decades, most Dutch have heard only limited stories about the former Dutch East Indies
Our programme will include more work by Dutch performing artists with Indies or Moluccan roots and work by Indonesian artists. Besides presenting shows and concerts, we will invite visitors to engage in conversations, with each other and the artists. This exchange of experiences, thoughts and emotions is a fundamental part of our programme.
We will be practising the art of listening. The question that keeps cropping up around our gnarly, fraught past is: who gets to speak, who is silent, and most importantly: who listens? For many decades, most Dutch have heard only limited stories about the former Dutch East Indies. We have been poor listeners. It is why I struggled to find the logic in my addressing you today.
Our intention is to listen to stories and to see different perspectives. And to show how the past reverberates with the present. As the Indonesian writer Ayu Utami put it so eloquently: it’s not about ‘Shared History’. It’s about ‘Sharing Histories’.
Art is an excellent medium for sharing histories. And for showing us the way towards building a Shared Future. A future we get to shape together, across the dividing lines.
This speech was held on 18 February in De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam, and was previously published by DutchCulture.