Local perspectives on sugar’s

Photographer unknown, Transport of harvested sugar cane by narrow-gauge railway to the Djatibarang sugar factory, Java, ca. 1925. (Courtesy Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam)
Photographer unknown, Transport of harvested sugar cane by narrow-gauge railway to the Djatibarang sugar factory, Java, ca. 1925. (Courtesy Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam)

Neo-colonialism is probably the key word for Akiq AW, the exhibition curator appointed by the Langgeng Art Foundation (LAF), to read and present a complete framework for the photography project “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar”.

The show itself was initiated by Noorderlicht, known to consistently hold photography exhibitions in the Netherlands. As the exhibition’s title implies, the project is a photographic investigation into globalization through the first commodity ever traded across continents: sugar.

The exhibition at LAF’s two main galleries in Yogyakarta that opened on Nov. 9 and runs to Jan. 20, 2013, comprises the works of six photographers commissioned by Noorderlicht to record the current condition of the sugar industry along with hundreds of colonial-era photographs compiled from various archives in Europe.

As the initiator, Noorderlicht provided artistic material for the exhibition and collaborated with local partners in Suriname, Indonesia and Brazil to exhibit the project in their respective countries.

What is interesting is that Noorderlicht treats the project as open source. That is, all local partners and curators are free to use all materials to create an exhibition, even to give the photographs new contexts and paradigms considered to be the most appropriate to the local situation.

For the exhibition in Yogyakarta, Akiq collaborated with colleagues Angki Purbandono and Wimo Ambala Bayang, both members of an artist’s collective that promotes contemporary photography known as MES56.

Keen observation and wide experience in organizing exhibitions are evident in their decision to divide the whole project into two big sections: the new photography assignments and the old, colonial photography. The division is considered a way to focus the audience and allow them to compare photographs and the ways they were taken. It also serves as a way to present the point that Western photographers nowadays have the tendency to perceive locals as mere objects, and in this sense, are no different than their colonial predecessors — which then becomes merely the neo-colonial gaze.

They frame the exhibition into an act of seeing and being seen, and how there will always be an unbalanced presentation between the two. It is about how in the colonial photographs, audiences can see a very distinct social structure between the colonizers and the colonized, or the West and the East.

“And a similar presentation was still felt in the photographs taken by these six photographers,” said Akiq. And so, he argued, “This is not just about photography, but also how Westerners perceive us.”

This idea does not come from thin air. Besides observing and studying the materials provided by Noorderlicht, they voiced their objections about the lack of local photographers commissioned to partake in the project to document the condition of the sugar industry from a local perspective. “There was a lack of proximity between the photographers and the issues they explored,” said Akiq.

On the second floor gallery, visitors were presented with newly commissioned works by James Whitlow Delano (Japan/US), Alejandro Chaskielberg (Argentina), Ed Kashi (US), Francesco Zizola (Italy), Carl de Keyzer (Belgium) and Tomasz Tomaszewski (Poland).

The photographers recorded social realities and various elements of the sugar industry in the present, including the current state of factories, the life of immigrants and workers with the market changing so much, and also the story of how the sugar industry has become a part of the cultural heritage in the form of consumption and rituals.

These photographs are then given four main contexts by the exhibition curators. One hundred and eighty of 300 photos are represented in the form of an index accompanied by text, allowing each photograph to tell a different and specific story.

The first context shows the legacy of the sugar industry in the colonial era. It consist of photographs by Chaskielberg showing the remaining sugar factories in Suriname, places that once thrived and generated a lot of income and are now overgrown with weeds. The living situation of the descendants of sugar factory workers was documented by Delano. His pictures show descendants from Java, India, Africa and China: the four major population groups in Suriname.
Photographer unknown, Mr. and Mrs. Pietermaat at dinner in the dining room of the manager’s residence of the Kalibagor sugar factory, Kalibagor, Java, ca. 1905. (Courtesy Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam)

Photographer unknown, Mr. and Mrs. Pietermaat at dinner in the dining room of the manager’s residence of the Kalibagor sugar factory, Kalibagor, Java, ca. 1905. (Courtesy Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam)

The second is about how sugar is handled. On one side, Tomaszewski shows how sugar materialized in rituals carried out by the Javanese before the production season. The annual festival has a parade and the sacrificing of bulls and cows for a good harvest.

From de Keyzer’s work, viewers can see that on the other side of the world, sugar is a mere commodity, discussed in numbers at EU parliament meetings.

Comparisons of sugar processing technology are the third context, with technological development affecting workers and depicted in photographs. For instance, the technology used in Indonesian factories is no different from 100 years ago and is almost similar to the conditions in southern Brazil.

The last issue addressed is the exploration of sugar usage and consumption in the form of various products such as candy, cakes and fast food.

The colonial photography section is in the basement gallery. After being carefully constructed, the section offers hundreds of photographs divided into countries of origin, but the section lacks the criticism first offered to the audience through the four main issues related to the modern photographs. The old photos are displayed merely according to subject matter or based on the similarities of visual character.

Despite all that, “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar” at LAF is captivating. Most of the audience engagement comes from the visual pleasure of looking at great artistic material and the way the exhibition curators frame the works. Also, for the first time exhibited in Indonesia, the colonial-era photographs offer fresh perspectives on our history. The contrast they offer and the story behind the images can inspire a viewer to think more deeply about the sugar industry and how it has stirred our social history.

The open source formula is one of the most interesting elements of the project. With that being said, it will be very exciting to also see how the same project will be seen and presented by Ruangrupa, an artist’s collective in Jakarta.

Will they consider the colonial gaze as well? Or will they be captivated by the nostalgia some of the photographs evoke? Or will the
experience something else entirely?

The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar

Langgeng Art Foundation
Nov. 9 – Jan. 20, 2013
Jl. Suryodiningratan 37
Open daily: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Mon.-Sat.)
ruangrupa at Kunstkring Art Gallery
Nov. 23 – Dec. 14, 2012
Jl. Teuku Umar No. 1
Open daily:
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.)
11 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Sat.-Sun.)

Discussion (in Indonesian and English)
“Sugar Stories in Indonesia”
Sun., Dec. 2, 2 p.m.
Kunstkring Gallery
Speakers Andi Achdian (historian and editor of Loka magazine), Martin Suryajaya (author on philosophy and editor indoprogress.com), Jompet Kuswidananto (artist)
Moderator: Leonhard Bartolomeus (author and art researcher)

Paper Edition | Page: 21

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