Wounds of the Immigrants
Photos of Indo citizens arriving in the Netherlands were exhibited at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam. The problem is one of identity.
THE collection of portraits is mostly without names—except the name of the photographer and the year they were taken. There is not much information about who is shown in the pictures. The photographer is Leonard Freed (1929-2006), photographer for the news agency, Magnum. The calendar shows the years 1958-1964.
In 1962, Sukarno made an important announcement. As the People’s Referendum of 1963 approached, a poll to determine the status of West Irian, he requested that the remaining Dutch citizens leave Indonesia. Those who left were mostly people of mixed blood. They came from Ambon and various other regions. Freed preserved that migration from 1958.
As in many migrations, the immigrants brought with them an essential human problem: identity. A portion of them were Indo or mixed blood. “They didn’t know where to go in the Netherlands,” said Pim Westerkamp, the curator of the Tropenmuseum which exhibited the photos by Freed from last June until early October. In the colonized land, they were not acknowledged as “natives.” In this new place, their skin color was different from that of the local people.
Those who had no relatives were sent to shelters. Others died on the journey. Some were lucky: relatives who had migrated earlier opened their doors.
Freed captured the details of these people with two identities. In one photo, an old man can be seen leaving the deck of a ship with an anxious face. His clothing shows he was not a native of the 1960s. He is wearing a hat, sweater, and gloves. Another photo shows a woman wearing a traditional sarong with a warm coat crossing a street. A sarong and a coat: the combining of East and West and also the desire not to lose one’s own character. Perhaps a confusion of where one belongs. Or a kind of anxiety.
Another photo shows a group of Indo youths wearing “modern” Western shirts chatting with Dutch girls wearing traditional dress. Those who have come from the East are “modern” and dressed in Western style, while the native Westerners have not abandoned their traditional character. Freed mixes up the meaning of modern and traditional. He wants to say that change from “what is not modern to become modern” is not a one way journey with a one-stop ticket.
Pim related the story. Originally, in 2007, Freed’s collection was published as a book. Impressed by that volume, the Tropenmuseum decided to hold the exhibition. But the information about the photos was very limited. Because of that, prior to exhibiting them, the portraits were circulated on various social network sites, like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. Various Indo communities in the Netherlands were contacted. They were asked to identify the posted photos.
Miraculously: it only took a few days to gather the information. An old woman, for example, identified the old man on the deck of a ship as her father. She cried looking at that black-and-white photo. Pim gave a reproduction of the photo to the woman. “The portrait is now on display in her house,” said Pim. Not satisfied, she visited the exhibition several times. “Every time she came, she always cried.”
Several other photos centered on figures who are still living. “This boy is now an old man. Also his mother,” explained Pim pointing to a portrait. “They came to the opening of the exhibition.”
Half a century later, these memories of the past were lined up on the walls of the museum. In September 2010. Outside the museum, the wind blew. Autumn was just a few days old. The leaves had not begun to fall although their chlorophyll had dried up leaving shades of yellow. Amsterdam was not yet frozen. The city has not changed. The stone walls are hundreds of years old. The stones on the streets go back for centuries. At the Tropenmuseum, this old story was retold.
Arif Zulkifli (Amsterdam)