Darivisual Province: DKI Jakarta Regency/City: Central Jakarta Subdistrict: Gambir

The Modified Loveliness


This article is part of an anthology published by Forum Lenteng, entitled Diorama: Since History is Fiction (2016). We re-publish it on AKUMASSA’s website in the framework of “Darivisual”.

The loveliness and beauty of nature romanticism, or commonly known as mooi Indie, became one of the popular choice of aesthetics options which quite popular among European artists back then in the colonial period in Indonesia. Many European artists captured the beauty of nature of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) for they brought back home or even to be exhibited in their hometown. Ernts Haeckel for example, a German Biologist and also a naturalist painter who was very faithful to the philosophy of Darwinism, could capture some of the natural beauty of tropical Indonesia, aside from his main duty to collect data and species information of creatures. Some of his paintings had been printed into a book titled Wanderbilder or Travel Images, published by German publisher in 1905. In that book, there were paintings of a lot natural beauty scenes that himself witnessed and visited, including Indonesia.

With this style and approach, the painters often omitted the object of actual progressive element and reality that actually existed and by omitting certain objects, painters may intended to give something that the west spectators do not want to see. I don’t know for sure there was a specific political purpose, or merely the desire to preserve the exotic and another artistic reasons. This thing also done by Wakidi, a painter who lived in West Sumatra and was a pupil of Dutch Painter Van Dick learning painting in school Kweeckschool, Bukittinggi. Wakidi graduated in 1908 then continued to teach at school and also keep on painting the natural beauty of West Sumatra. In one of his paintings, titled Danau Singkarak (1942), for example, it removed the bridge that connect with the railway bridge in Singkarak, which actually was already existed in 1940. This reduction of objects was actually Wakidi did in many of his paintings (Putra, 2015), which leads us to a blur reference. But his paintings indeed looked beautiful with a nice technique, to the point that many of influential great figures, such as Adam Malik and Mohammad Hatta were interested in his paintings and collected them. It was sort of of informal legitimacy in acknowledging the greatness of his work.

In several visits to the National Museum in Monas (National Monument), Jakarta, I enjoyed the diorama which presented there just like any others visitors did. The dioramas was dominated by many illustration of collectivism spirit, patron-client relations, as well as the heroic acts. Many of them having a very beautiful backgrounds, which reminds me of the mooi Indie’s art practice mentioned above, the combination of beautiful nature: sea, mountains, palm trees and other exotic beauties particularly existing in tropical regions.

But there were some interesting differences between dioramas and mooi Indie. I want to take a specific look in the diorama of Imam Bonjol’s War. I actually felt it’s difficult to identify and acknowledge the specific location or region only based on the background, without the present of someone that I acknowledge which is Imam Bonjol himself, from what I used to learn back then at school. While in seeing mooi Indie paintings in general, which I think we can easily identify and acknowledge the location or region potrayed without actually have to look at the title. We can simply know and differ which is Ngarai Sianok painting, Toba Lake, also Slame Mount et cetera.

Mooi Indie also learned and developed by indigenous painters. Othen than Wakidi, there was also Raden Saleh, Basuki Abdullah, Pringadi and many more. Raden Saleh himself was known as one of moder art pioneers in Indonesia. He adopted the style of romanticism which was popular in Europe at that time, then applied and developed in Indonesia. This style then, was criticized by Sudjojono and considered as “soulless” paintings. Mooi Indie was highly presented and evolved in Indonesia, even until now, I still often find paintings with this style in tourism places in West Sumatra, especially in Bukittinggi.

These paintings are often bought by tourists. One of my parent’s friend has a collection of large paintings portraying these natural beauty, as mementos for the sake of reminiscing the travelling experience, he said. Sometimes, he was also moved by a sympathetic feeling towards the artist whom succeed in performative act to transform the natural beauty existed into canvas. I remind me of that one time I visited Ngarai Sianok, Bukittinggi, there was a painter around his 50’s, squatting in front of his souvenir and gallery shop. He was facing his canvas and his eyes directly looked at Ngarai Sianok’s, playfully stroke his brush while some tourists were surrounding and observing him. At that time I rarely witnessed a live-perform act of painting, so I also watched this man who was transforming the beauty of the Ngarai Sianok into canvas. Apparently, my friend’s parents were feeling the same way. As an officer himself, he thought that sometimes skillfully painters were not thoughtfully appreciated, which moved him to do the appreciation he could by buying the paintings. He had several collections that he bought from various cities. Back at his house, he often saw the paintings as an imaginary bridge to always feel connected with the beauty of nature that portrayed.

Other than being fancied by the tourists, I also found many of this beauty of West Sumatra nature in many of Padangnese restaurants in many cities, and the houses of wanderers who wanted to proudly show their hometown and melancholy yearn for it.

In the early days of independence, Sudjojono sequentially wrote essays to criticize the practice of mooi Indie in terms of progressive growth of modern art in Indonesia. For him, mooi Indie was a westernized (colonial) perspective who wanted to amuse themselves by the natural beauty of Indonesia, with a tropical scenery that they did not find in their hometown (Siregar & Supriyanto, 2006). But in a conversation that I had with a friend who was inspired by Sudjojono’s perspective, he saw mooi Indie as “the art of deceiving”. This point of view may not be only about the practice of omitting particular objects as Wakidi did, but also about another mooi Indie paintings which Sudjojono thought as not presenting the real Indonesia.

Sudjojono in Seni Lukis Indonesia Sekarang dan yang Akan Datang / Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change (1946) wrote that Abdoelsalam once drew a girl, who was softly hit as a warning by a boy, because the girl said “Houd je smoel!” to the boy, which mean “Shut up!”. At that time, some people thought that this painting was not good and impolite, but that was the truth. For Sudjojono, the reality depicted by Abdoelsalam, was too bad to be publicly seen and known, “…to hide those situation (the real situation) may be good and polite, but we lie to our princess of truth which people called: art” (see Soedjojono, 1946, in Siregar & Supriyanto, comp., 2006, page. 5).

So then, Sudjojono offered a new suggestion which embedded a new ideology to the shoulders of young painters of PERSAGI (Union of Indonesian Fine Artists) to develop the ideal practice of painting, by deliberately living and doing the art of painting with self-determined and freedom, detached themselves from moral and traditions and left the aesthetic dogma of mooi Indie. Trisno Sumardjo, in his essay The Position of Our Art of Paintings, published in 1957 Art Almanac (pub. BMKN), saw that Sudjojono successfully produce several “modern arts” characteristics that allow individual power to exercise an artistic statement by detaching from any influence of coexisting traditions. Collectivism spirit that was spread and rose by philosophy, religion, the state governance whether from feudal and colonial regime, had killed the talents, skills and dreams of individual being. And this condition was the one that actually needed by the authorities over their clients. Meanwhile, Aminudin TH Siregar concluded in the introduction of Indonesian Modern Art: Selected Essay (2006), the “I” which mentioned by Sudjojono was no longer solely as modernity finding way out, or an escapism, but it was a self-diagnostic introspection and conscience examination.

Restricted. It was one of the first impression that made my friends and I –that involved in AKUMASSA-Diorama project in Monas– decided to drown ourselves more in what the State already presented in as the face of Indonesia. At the same, we realize that, this narrations were result from a series of selection in terms of deciding what to portray and what’s not, in the sea of many many important events that had happened. These selections obtained by doing interviews and exchanging stories with certain historical actors, and also what were captured by the camera at that period of time.

This diorama was made by Edhi Sunarso, one of artist from Yogyakarta who ordered by the State in between two early regime of Indonesia. In the transcript of Edhi’s video interview with Grace Samboh, he explained that he did some negotiations about his own research with historian and also “historical actors” that will be included in the diorama that he made. He often confused and hesitant, because when he had already made “this” version, he had to change it to “another version” based on the authorities order that had power to decide, and (this changes) often cost a lot of money” (look at Southeast of Now Journal, vol. I, 2016).

In each diorama glass box, there were activities that transform into inanimate objects. It presented to narrate certain historical periods. All of the diorama were arranged in the dimension that offer us a real sensation. Sensation that perhaps also provoked us to think, what was it like to see from another side of diorama? From the top? From the left or right side? But it’s all just a pseudo-offer, because actually diorama only allows us to see it from one direction. Not from above, not from the left or right sides and not from another sides. Approx. 50 cm, in front of the glass box there are border-line, fences made of iron, and that’s the closest stand that we can have to look at the diorama, then we will probably have to tiptoe and peep over that fence. Actually, we were invited to see what are inside the glass box only from particular point of view, as the landscape are fully presented in such way which is only in one side. Only from this angle, we can see the beautiful sky as the background on some diorama and the loveliness and beauty of nature scenery, making one narration along with tiny dots of human that we don’t even know their names, and fascinated with several body figures that’s very manly and bold, probably standing on the podium, the one that stood on the podium, the one that became the center of attention in the seas of another tiny human, inside the glass box, which we probably had heard from our teachers about their greatness without criticized. Our vision are restricted, even since in schools up to this day in diorama Monas.

Hikmat Budiman, a social scientist and book author, in a special discussion with the AKUMASSA-Diorama team at Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem, November 3, 2016, he saw the diorama as an European museum-tradition which were adopted in Indonesia. It is closely arranged as the representation of Indonesia’s history and as Indonesia’s face nowadays. Diorama presented sequentially, narrating every period that had been selected as the (historical) milestone of the development of our Nation. In National Museum in Monas, diorama consists of 51 glass boxes –or 52 if we also count the empty glass box– that sequentially forming a historical narration in which stopped in the year of 1995. Back to the discussion, that was a question: why this tradition didn’t happen anymore in the next period of reign? Does this medium still needed, or not?

In the Soekarno era, or the early time after the independence of Indonesia, The State made us “gigantic monuments” in which always propagated to remind us that we shall never forget the history: National Monument, Statue A, Statue B, and many other. The megaproject to build up nationalism, monuments as the identity of a new nation and formed as a full of national spirit aspirations. After that, under the Soeharto regime, the act monumentalize history had done in a different way. Many of dioramas were made in his era. One of it was an attempt to continue the the diorama Monas project that’s not finished yet, that we can see today, and also several other museums, which one of the biggest diorama that was made is the scaled-down version of Indonesia in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah. A grand design, that wanted to be seen, showed glorification, and a promise of a better future. Then, as also mentioned by Hikmat Budiman, diorama had impacted the simplification of narration. Simplify, also referred to not include things “that considered as not so important”, which meant to be easily remembered and accepted without appearance of any counter-narration in the next generation in learning history. Simplify, in the case of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, as illustrated by Hikmat, made us simply called North Sumatra as Batak, South Sulawesi as Bugis, and so on, as if we ignored any other ethnic groups that also coexist there.

Inside glass box, there were figures of fingers scratching elbows or nose and also scratching their heads. There were people sitting with leg crossed on the chair in a meeting. There was mouth closely located very near to the ear covered by fingers in the middle of the crowd. There were people pointing with their fingers. Some of the people were sleeping in a meeting. Several were peeking from the outside of the window in meeting. All of those gestures were almost seen in every diorama, on a disconnect narration of history that disconnect and full of distortion, that eventually come to us, the generation of 2000s. Those gestures were identified as ourselves after the enlargements that we did with a technology which was camera, jumping over the fence of the glass boxes.

Enlargement from the already established mainstream narrative became the target of our framing, AKUMASSA-Diorama team, along with technology that we used which was camera and the possibility of zooming that allowed us to see things that are trapped inside glass box.

We grew as the generation that did not experience the historical event in person. We were treated as if we experienced the historical situation, –with the presence of infrastructures that put history–, as the formal objects, only to be able to answer the test at schools. And it made me feel pretty detached from the narration that were presented in the diorama. Yes, even though diorama were actually presented for us that were not experience the history itself.

Our thoughts were messed up by the academics act that trying to show us the historical evidence, refused the others; decided the blacksheep, pointed the heroes, and so on; building the imagination of “sophisticated conspiracy”, and we unconsciously spoke about it as something exotic.

Monas diorama visitors were quite crowded and diverse. Some of them were came with friends, partners, family, school group, or only by themselves. There are also some of them randomly viewed diorama, unchronological; and they were made up of several groups that were not guided, just choose what they wanted to see. Some of them understood the text which written in front of the glass box. Some others only saw and heard the words from guides and mentors, some just enjoyed the beauty of visual potrayals. Some other visitors brought out their cameras and took pictures in front of it.

A group of young people started to stand with their backs facing the diorama glass box, raising their digital cameras or smartphones and taking pictures of themselves who were outside the diorama; looking the results for a while, then repeating this action many times and then continuing to the other visual narratives that again were interesting for them. Then they did the selection, and the publication. These activities were seen a very performative act. The visitors deliberately decided the narration, connecting themselves to the history which then became their pose backgrounds, independently.

Not long ago, AKUMASSA-Diorama team, with the help of a tele-lens camera, found strange things in the diorama. There were three pairs of feet lying in the corner. Later, we also realized that many diorama figures stood strangely. Asymmetrically. Some of them were taking to themselves. Some held the broken swords. Maybe the maker were careless….? But…. who cares!

Then, when I was with AKUMASSA-Diorama team, we saw a vending machine was exchanged in the middle of transaction at the port. Or, a digital light that used as a guide to the mortar of Monas, also found in the pendopo in the middle of building Borobudur. Or the magical lights that came out from the grip of a person in Chinese attire. All of those were actually the real-time reflections of the reality that located outside dioramas that then united with everything inside the glass boxes –which previously seems too distant– and were linked in certain perspective. Technology apparently did not only produce a very distant interpretation but could also made a very horizontally linked interpretation.

“When people are reading the history, in certain awareness, they are also actually in the historical situation itself,” I suddenly remember the discussion that I had with a friend last week.


Putra, A. R. (2015, June 8th). Ancient Paintings: Pretty News in Singkarak. Retrieved November 11th, 2016, from akumassa: https://akumassa.org/id/lukisan-lampau- kabar-indah- di-singkarak/

Siregar, A. T., & Supriyanto, E. (Eds.). (2006). Indonesian Modern Art: Selected Essay. Jakarta: Nalar

About the author


Albert Rahman Putra

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