by Rio Helmi 

First of all, if you haven’t been to see this exhibition at the “Rumah Topeng dan Wayang Setiadharma” in Tengkulak near Mas, hurry. It’s over on the 26th of this month. Yes, I apologize profusely, it opened nearly a month ago and I couldn’t make it til now. But it would be worse for me to simply omit any mention of it whatsoever!!!

This is an exhibition of the published work of Jean Demmeni, a French Indonesian photographer (1866-1939) who was one of the first photographers of Indonesian descent to document Indonesia, evidently during the colonial days. The first was a Javanese photographer by the name of Kassian Cephas, 1845-1911.

Where Cephas was the first ‘fully indigenous’ photographer, and trained at the Yogyakarta court by order of the Sultan Hamengkubuwono, Demmeni was an “Indo” mixed blood who learnt his trade in the colonial army.  Demmeni ended up covering the entire archipelago and by some accounts Suriname in South America as well (another Dutch colony), and his works appeared in many cultural journals, and even many of the famous photos in the classic Niewuenhuis book on Kalimantan, “Door Central Borneo”, were his work.

DSCF6856Sadly for us, this series of prints, not original prints by Demmeni but reproductions (school plates published in Holland by Kleyn Berg&Co), is about all that remains intact of his work. To be honest, for most of us in Indonesia who have had any interest in old images of the archipelago, this really is nothing new, and there are no breakthrough revelations or unknown images here. I purposefully chose the lead feature shot from one of the more well known pictures of this series, a group of gamblers in Java. But I would wager that most of us who have seen these images have not seen more than 30% of the whole collection.

So it is worth seeing the whole collection on Indonesia together (or at least nearly all of what is still extant, some of the original 170 prints were of Suriname, though it is not entirely clear whether Demmeni shot those too). As such it gives one a fairly comprehensive, albeit surface level, overview of what much of the Dutch East Indies was like. Well-lit and cleanly arranged, set in the magnificent restored wooden tobacco building in the wonderfully tranquil and sprawling grounds of the Rumah Topeng dan Awayng Setidharma center, the exhibition really is a worthwhile experience for anyone interested in Indonesian history. Just get there before Thursday!

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Early expats….

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West Sumatra, before the days of Green Village

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On the way to pay a visit to the Palace, somewhere in Bali, before the days of shiny black Hummers

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The seaside ‘esplanade’ in the good old days in Kupang, W Timor

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Well done, Rumah Topeng dan Wayang Setiadharma!