Review: “Garden of the East – a look at how we look at Indonesia” by Susie Protschky


Say “Indonesia” today and what visual associations does the word prompt? For many Australians, an ambivalent mix of pleasant and troubled images, no doubt.

But a new photography exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) – of photography from Indonesia between the 1850s and 1940s – will add a layer of complexity to those associations.

When we mention Indonesia today some people will think of landscapes of leisure on Bali: tropical beach and mountain resorts, ancient Hindu temples, exotic markets. The same island evokes nightmare memories of recent events the news media transformed into national tragedies: scenes of beachside tourist haunts wrecked by the terrorist bombings of 2002 and 2005, and the human drama of the trial and incarceration of Australians caught trafficking drugs through Denpasar airport.

Add to that images of natural disaster (tsunami victims on devastated Acehnese coastlines in 2004, volcanic ash covering towns and airports in Java just recently), and political catastrophes (Acehnese, Papuan, and Timorese freedom fighters brutalised by central government forces in rebel provinces).

The list of tense and tragic images we’ve seen in the Australian media is endless, and seems to link Indonesia to all the trouble in the world, an association heightened under the present Coalition government by diplomatic spats over espionage in Indonesia and Australia’s conduct in handling asylum seekers travelling via Indonesia on leaky boats.

On Wednesday February 26 the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has a break from the recent treadmill of fraught diplomacy with Indonesia to open a show that encourages a fresh look at the archipelago, past and present.

The NGA’s Garden of the East exhibition showcases the largest collection of studio and amateur photographs from pre-independence Indonesia in the southern hemisphere, acquired in 2007 and on display for the first time.

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