Life

Comic strips shed light
on Indonesia's colonial
past

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Despite his Indonesian roots, Dutch artist Peter van Dongen, 39, never spent a great deal of his time in this country and his work of art, an award-winning comic strip, was based solely on secondary sources such as old photos, soldiers' diaries and novels.

Yet, his best-known comic books Rampokan Java and Rampokan Celebes, two fictional stories about life in post-Independence Indonesia, contain breathtaking detail about daily attributes of the period, including people's daily clothing and their motifs, means of transportation, buildings and roadside advertisements.

Should the cartoon characters be erased from each panel, what would be left would be a realistic postcard view of cities in Java and Sulawesi, circa the 1940s.

Van Dongen uses a style that often features strong colors and a combination of cartoonish characters against a realistic background, a method he adopted from Belgian comic writer and artist Georges Remi, better known as Herg, the creator of the renowned comic strip Adventures of Tintin.

In one panel from his comic Rampokan Java currently on display at the Dutch cultural center Erasmus Huis, which depicts Kota railway station, West Jakarta, viewers will be enraptured to find a true-to-life scene of a structure that still exists.

Van Dongen has meticulously used the sturdy, majestic dome-shaped construction as the perfect setting for bustling traffic comprising passing military trucks, a vintage sedan, becak (pedicabs), street hawkers and bystanders.

Another panel, showing busy life in Surabaya's Chinatown, is another example of Van Dongen's devotion to verit-style imaging.

Each detail, from the figure of an old Chinese man in a plain white suit, a small crowd that throngs a street vendor selling traditional drinks to the roadside advertisement, is given equal treatment, and none stands out above the others.

In doing so, Van Dongen adheres to another technique used by Herg, ligne claire, which uses clear, strong lines with the same thickness and importance, rather than using them to emphasize certain objects or as shading.

The method is sometimes also called the ""democracy of lines"".

Van Dongen's commitment to geographical and cultural accuracy was inspired by Herg's monumental work, The Blue Lotus, which tells the story of Tintin's adventure in China.

Herg meticulously researched his subjects prior to making the Blue Lotus, to a point where he befriended a Chinese student, Zhang Chongren, who introduced the Belgium artist to Chinese history, culture and the arts.

The plot of Rampokan Java and Rampokan Celebes revolves around protagonist Johan Knevel's struggle to confront his inner demons.

Knevel, an Indonesian-born Dutch soldier, was sent back to the country as part of a battalion that would once again occupy the newly liberated Indonesia.

Knevel deserted his company after killing his soldier friend and assumed a new identity before going on an odyssey to revisit his long-lost past.

Rampokan Java was copublished by Joost Swarte and earned both author and publisher the 1999 Dutch Prize for Best Book Design.

Van Dongen, whose mother was a Chinese-Indonesian who once lived in Makassar and Manado, visited a number of Indonesian museums to collect background material for Rampokan.

in box: Peter van Dongen and the new generation of Indonesian cartoonists exhibition runs through Sept. 30 Erasmus Huis Jl. H.R. Rasuna Said Kav. S-3. tel. 5250507 website www.erasmushuis.or.id

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