Jean Couteau

A setting reminding us of the cargo hold of a Dutch sailing ship. Bags of spices stacked on top of one another, a few nutmegs. Drawing of people and of the atmosphere of the island of run. Plus a few paintings Let us see how history, in Hanafi’s exhibition at the Indonesian General Consulate of New York, is being made to talk, and what it does tell us, of itself, and of Indonesian artist Hanafi.


The modern world was born from ocean trade. It is a long story, so we have to make short. It was to be trade with the East; it created America. It was meant to bring wealth and prosperity; it produced slavery and death. It could have led to a North America of multiple nations, and to a divided East Indies archipelago; it invented instead both the United States and Indonesia.

This invites us, and artists among us, to ponder. Which is the purpose of Hanafi’s exhibition. By bringing back to mind the memory of these two nations’ painful births. His works reminds us of the lasting relevance of issues of the past, how trade and religion more often than not equate to land grabbing and violence, in the US, Indonesia, and beyond.

To better understand the issues raised by Hanafi’s exhibition, let’s take a quick look into the 17th century global historical sphere. By the middle of this century, the greatest trading nation was the Netherlands, which had displaced Portugal from most of its bastions in Africa and Asia. First trading with the kingdoms and sultanates of India and the East Indies, then opening one fortified trade-post after another, they eliminated all their European rivals, except the British.

Another area of Dutch control was the Caribbeans, where slavery-dependent sugar cane was growing into an important export commodity. The Dutch had also opened settlements in North America – called New Holland – but compared to their other undertakings, these settlements were of marginal importance.  If they sometimes provided good anchoring, like in New Amsterdam, they did not produce anything else really valuable, which could compete with the spices of the East and the sugar of the Caribbeans.

Furthermore, with whom could they trade? Apart from already sizable settlements in Spanish America, the continent had a very sparse European population, no more than 50,000 people in its northeastern fringe. Most we would now call religious lunatics; British sectarian Protestants fleeing persecution in their country of origin and convinced they had found the “New Jerusalem”. There were some French Catholics in the north along the Saint-Lawrence, but, like the Dutch in New Amsterdam, and a few other Europeans here and there on the coast, their number was far from matching the English. In any case, almost all were peasants, who produced goods of little commercial value. Their trade only consisted of beaver’s fur they exchanged against Bibles, guns and iron implements. North America was a backwater.

It was in the East that the geopolitical game of the days was being played. The trade in spices and luxury goods from India, China and the East Indies was infinitely more important than the fate of the few Dutch protestant land tillers who had settled along the estuaries of North America. It was in Kerala, Sri Lanka, and the Indies archipelago, not in New Amsterdam, that the prosperity of the Low Countries was being decided. There, in the all-out grab for spices, coastal forts, and factories between the great maritime powers, the Dutch, with better ships, had the upper hand.

To the native rulers they imposed a strict monopoly over the spice trade. Beware those who dared to infringe upon it. When it was the locals, the Dutch quickly annihilated their fleet, or worse. If the contenders were Europeans, their ships, when not destroyed, but were made to look for quieter seas. In any case, spice trade brought wealth to the Low Countries, which was by far the most dynamic, prosperous and, in its surge toward modernity, the most liberal nation in Europe. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy (Cartesianism), lived there for more than 20 years, breathing an air of intellectual liberty he could not find in his native France. The Netherlands were the country where the arts and philosophy could best be seen thriving.

This early Dutch blooming of modernity was enshrined, however, in violence and war. In the West, New Amsterdam, like nearby British settlements, could expand its population and territory only at the expense of the native Indians. New Jerusalem, like the ancient one of yore, was in an almost constant war with its pagan neighbors.  Whatever the Biblical garb they put on, the New Amsterdamers and New Englanders of the day were ordinary land grabbers in the name of God.

This translated in local demographics. As the European population grew with each new ship anchoring, the native population decreased, decimated by diseases and infringement wars. Perhaps to redeem themselves, European observers invented the myth of the “noble savage” (Pocahontas and others), but this “noble savage” was bound to disappear, either dead or Christianized. What was taking place was a relentless ethnocide.

In the East, though, violence took on a different shape. The natives could not be so easily disposed of. They endured diseases better, and had an ideology of resistance provided by Islam, which had strong local roots. So, the killings were of a milder kind than in the Americas; instead of leading to total annihilation, they led to political domination. This domination was initially limited to the territory nearest to the trade-posts and factories, then, little by little, with the rise of European nationalism it spread beyond, leading to the establishment of the colonial empires fully achieved in the 19th century.

How did the British end up controlling most of North America, which could in other circumstances have evolved into separate states? It was the result of a violent distribution of the colonial spoils between Britain and The Netherlands. In the middle of the 17th century, New Holland in the West had to face the greater demographic dynamism of New England. But in the East, where real wealth laid, it was the opposite; the British had to contend with the superior maritime power of the Dutch East Company. And the latter did not compromise.

When they undertook to dislodge the British from the island of Run in the Moluccas, from which they had long disputed the Dutch monopoly over the nutmeg trade, the scuffle ended in a British slaughter. The British had to give in, but they retained their claim. All the more so as, on the other side of the world, another battle had soon broken out and there the winners were the British, whose fleet had taken New Amsterdam (1664).

This did not settle the score, but by then the Dutch were embroiled in a conflict with the powerful French King Louis XIV whose troops threatened their narrow territory. So, although they had just gained control of the sea and raided London itself, the Dutch decided to sue for peace, enshrined in the Treaty of Breda (1667). It now looks incredible, but, even though they were the winners, they opted to give up their claim over New Amsterdam, swapping it against the island of Run and its nutmegs. Thus the spice traders had won, and poor New Amsterdam became New York. The political consequences were momentous.

From that time onward, the territory of today’s’ Eastern United States constituted a single political unit. A few years later, in a no less incredible repeat of the same, the Dutch retook New York/New Amsterdam but, when offered to keep it if they surrendered Suriname, they chose the latter– and its sugar plantations. The tussle was only to stop in 1688, when religious conflict in England led to a reversal of alliances. Entering in revolt against its Catholic king, James II, the English Parliament invited the then Dutch stathouder William of Orange to land in Britain and become the next king, William III.

This so-called Glorious Revolution made allies of here-to-fore fierce maritime rivals. New York thereafter remained British and Run remained Dutch. London then, little by little took over Amsterdam’s role in international trade. The 13 New England colonies could now expand westward, whereas in the Indies the Dutch could continue weaving their spices networks into a colonial empire. This eventually led to the birth of the United States in the first case (1776), and of Indonesia in the second (1945). Should we add that the two countries, both born out of the spice trade, share virtually the same motto, Unity in Diversity, in different languages –Pluribus Unum for the US, and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika for Indonesia. Born from ethnocide in the first case, and colonial exploitation in the second. What lesson can we draw from all this? That History, always violent, can head toward the most improbable directions?



It is this historical background that Hanafi’s works are meant to express. Originally, his exhibition was conceived in an Indonesian nationalist spirit, focused on what is now a small island of no strategic value. But, as our writing above demonstrates, it goes well beyond. It was trade of rare goods that built the modern world. This trade brought about ethnocide in parts of the world and colonial domination in other ones, but it also set forth the body of comparative experience and knowledge that rendered possible the 18th century Enlightenment, and the birth of modern nations. First in Europe, as capitalism crystallized into nationalism, then in the America, through the ethnocide mentioned above, and eventually in the colonized world, including Indonesia.

All this evolution is encapsulated by Hanafi in nutmegs, its trade, and violence. Such is his conceptual message. A message with its warning. If we are invited to look into the past, and ponder about its violence, whatever its associated creative power, we are also invited to ponder about the present and the future, where the contention around limited resources may become more acute and violent than it ever was in the past.

Such is the message. But there is more to Hanafi’s creativity than a simple conceptual message. Hanafi is mainly a painter, with a sophisticated brush, but he nevertheless likes, now and again, to make purposely “elementary” conceptual statements, to bring back to our consciousness, what are to him essential issues. It can be a plow, a peasant’s kitchen implements, “the migration of water” or whatever. But it has to be primary and set in a raw, directly accessible visual language, that of the “ordinary” people’s environment in which Hanafi spent his youth.

This sets Hanafi apart from other conceptual Indonesian artists, who mostly deal, both in their message and their techniques, often overly complex, with the changes and confrontations inherent to modernity. Hanafi’s approach is different. Instead of delving in modern complexities, he extols the simplicity of the world “before”, denuding the implements he exhibits down to their most elementary form. Hence the nutmegs, the bags and the ship hold. The message is direct and there is no mistaking its meaning.

It is, however, in his abstract works that Hanafi has unmistakably gained his reputation. On the one side, there is also, in his paintings, something down to earth and very simple –similar in that respect to his installations. The forms featured are elementary, even looking at first sight amorphous. As for color, when not white, it hovers between all the nuances of grey, brown and black. This is not the kind of palette one normally expects from an abstract painter.

If Hanafi is no colorist, and if his world of form is so elementary, then what is so outstanding in his paintings? Isn’t abstract painting mainly based on systematic exploration of form and color? Yes, but not Hanafi’s. He doesn’t research anything, he is not exploring any means of expression, and there is nothing systematic in his art. He is instead, very simply, talking about “himself”. The quality of his work is indeed beyond explanation. It offers very little to talk about –except to note that an extraordinary “intuitive” spirit inhabits the tip of his brush. We literally “sense” it advancing creating a world of form that does not exist, or is merely suggested, and amounts to a pure, simple outpouring of sensitivity.

A simple and clear message, hence intelligence, plus an unexplainable touch of sensitivity, isn’t it what one can expect, and only gets from the very best artists?

Jean Couteau is multi-lingual art writer and cultural columnist who lives in Bali



/ Ulasan


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