When teaching an art course on de- and postcoloniality of the Dutch East Indies
Together with colleague Nina Willems I designed a new course for second year bachelor students at iArts. The course is about the on-going debates about de- and postcoloniality, with a specific case study: the former Dutch East Indies.
That we took that specific case is not a coincidence. Not only is there finally some more attention to this troubled past of the Netherlands and Indonesia, it is also a history that comes close to my own family history. My grandfather went to Indonesia as KNIL-soldier, and met and married a Magelang-girl, my grandmother. They survived Japanese camps, and came – together with some 300.000 other Indo-Europeans – to the Netherlands in the 1950s.
Personal stories are key for understanding what decoloniality and postcoloniality could mean. And more importantly, they can be an artistic means to create space in a debate that is at times so controversial, characterized by sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and issues such as shame, guilt, entitlement, privilege, power-relationships, and frankly an all-encompassing depth and breadth that can make you feel helpless: where to start, and what to say?
Somewhat unexpectedly (to me at first), many students in class appear to have a personal connection to the Dutch East Indies, either through their families or friends. This is actually not so striking: there are roughly some two million people in the Netherlands with some family-connection to Indonesia. That is some 10% of the Dutch population.
Still, it has been too quiet for too long about this part of Dutch (and Indonesian) history. Third (and even fourth!) generation of Indo’s are now emerging, and speaking out. The debate is no longer only about violence and atrocities (which the Dutch did engage in), but also about the social and cultural impact of this history for Dutch society. And how people who have some more distance to this past, like the third generation, relate to this history. Are shaped by it, and continue to shape it.
When teaching this course, even I – always skeptical of affirming my Indonesian heritage as I felt it was not such a constitutive part of my identity – felt confronted. Teaching this class urged me to rethink my own relation to my family’s history. Not in a Romantic or victimhood-kind of way, but as in questioning to what extent and how this complex past has touched me and left traces on me.
To put yourself in the shoes of someone else, to imagine how life must have been from a different perspective, can be a powerful and emotional experience. I am curious to the ways the projects of the students develop. Already, I am super proud of them, as they bravely engage with this sensitive topic, even though it hurts at times for some – including colleague-teachers who also share their Indo-roots and how that shaped their art practices. I hope that our students learn to engage with this history, also and foremost as makers and artists, who can have or give a different voice in this debate.