Notes on The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar exhibition, on Cephas Photo Forum website

Last week I posted an essay about Noorderlicht‘s The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar exhition in Yogyakarta, on Cephas Photo Forum website (read it here). I wrote it in Bahasa Indonesia, titled Jejak gula di bekas Kerajaan Belanda: Melihat kembali kolonialisme dan membayangkan globalisasi melalui fotografi (roughly translates: Traces of sugar in the former Kingdom of Holland: Looking back at colonialism and imagining globalisation through photography). The essay is basically some notes I made after several times I came to the exhibition (as a visitor and as a guide).

In November 2012, I have posted my notes (first part here and second part here) from Colonial Photography workshop with Alexander Supartono, held in conjunction with the Sugar exhibition. In the workshop we discussed the concept of colonial photography and practices of photography during the colonial period. It then helped me gaining understanding in making sense of the colonial photographs that were included in the Sugar exhibition: How those archival photographs relate to the newly assigned photographs, sugar industry then and now, colonialism, and a bit of history of photography practices in Indonesia (then known as Dutch East-Indies or Dutch Indies).

The workshop ended as the Sugar exhibition opened on 9 November 2012. Around that time, Aisyah Hilal of Langgeng Art Foundation, who hosted the workshop and the exhibition in Yogyakarta, approached me and proposed to do a guided tour throughout the exhibition until January 2013, in which she wanted me to be a guide. I instantly agreed on that idea, since I had found myself how we could learn a lot from the exhibition. But the exhibition is quite specific, we could only learn if we had the tools needed to learn; therefore we planned this guided tour as a tool to help the visitors to better understand the exhibition in whole.

Antariksa at the first tour of The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar exhibition at Langgeng Art Foundation, Yogyakarta, 28 Nov 2012. Photo: Budi N.D. Dharmawan

Antariksa at the first tour of The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar exhibition at Langgeng Art Foundation, Yogyakarta, 28 Nov 2012. Photo: Budi N.D. Dharmawan

I have been interested in the Sugar project since the beginning. I remember I saw it when Noorderlicht first announced the project on its website. Noorderlicht had planned to visit the countries of the former Kingdom of Holland: Indonesia, Brazil, Suriname, and Holland itself to document what remains of the sugar industry there. As far as I remember it (I may be wrong though), at that time Noorderlicht planned to assign a number of world-class photographers also local photographers from aforementioned countries to do the task. But then Noorderlicht had funding problem that might have led it to close down—it survived though.

The funding problem however did lead to the cancellation of the assignment of local photographers. Noorderlicht decided to only assign six foreign photographers to go to those countries, considering that these photographers (Francesco Zizola, Alejandro Chaskielberg, James Whitlow Delano, Carl de Keyzer, Tomasz Tomaszewski, and Ed Kashi) have world-class reputation of going to foreign regions and making strong stories there within limited time, thus ensuring Noorderlicht to deliver great exhibition in the end. A good decision, I think, since the six photographers are among the top photojournalists working today. But at the same time not so good one, for the exclusion of local photographers from the project.

The issue of foreigner’s vs. local’s perspectives is arguable here, but I am just saying that the inclusion of local photographers might have been a good addition to the exhibition and a good opportunity for the local photographers. This issue, however, is then articulated by the Yogyakarta exhibition curator, Akiq A.W. When Noorderlicht contacted him to curate the exhibition, as recommended by Langgeng Art Foundation, he proposed to do a similar project in smaller scale. He imagined to assign a number of local photographers in Yogyakarta to document sugar industry-related issues in the city, and to exhibit the resulting work side-by-side with the Noorderlicht assignment work. Akiq told me Noorderlicht eventually turned his proposal down because they didn’t have enough budget.

Akiq A.W. (C, holding on table) and MES 56 boys during the curating process of The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar exhibition in Yogyakarta, 11 Sept 2012. Photo: Budi N.D. Dharmawan

Akiq A.W. (C, holding on table) and MES 56 boys during the curating process of The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar exhibition in Yogyakarta, 11 Sept 2012. Photo: Budi N.D. Dharmawan

The appointment of Akiq A.W. (and MES 56) as curator for the Sugar exhibition in Yogyakarta was also interesting to me. I wondered how this group of photography-based artists would curate a photojournalism-themed work. At some points, I happened to be there when Akiq was in the process of curating at MES 56. I listened how they (senior members of MES 56) argued on how to look at the work, how they selected images for exhibition, how they designed the exhibition, and finally how they presented the work. Sometimes they asked for my opinion, since I am more familiar with photojournalism work—and with the work of the six photographers—then they are.

However, I was glad that we were on the same page in looking at those images. The process of curating the work led to some more interesting discussion with Akiq and Wimo Ambala Bayang, other MES 56 member, later on (particularly on issues raised by friends on Facebook, regarding the curation or comparing with the similar exhibition in Jakarta curated by Ruang Rupa). I especially discussed more about the exhibition with Akiq, since he was also proposed by Aisyah Hilal to be a guide for the planned exhibition tour. Once, we met together to discuss about the technicalities of the tour, when and how, also what to talk about with the audience during the tour. At that time, we thought we might need another guide to better explain the historical aspects, so we included Antariksa into the team.

In all, we held four guided tours throughout the exhibition: 28 November and 21 December 2012 also 11 and 18 January 2013. The 11 January tour was a bit special, because we had a group of school children as our audience, while the other times were attended by general public. In each tours we guided the audience to first visit the archival photographs exhibition in the gallery downstairs to give context in understanding the sugar industry during the colonial era. Only then, we could talk more about what remains of it in this modern time: how Indonesia still uses the same machinery seen in the colonial photographs, while in Holland sugar factories use modern, computer-controlled machines, and how the sugar industry in Suriname has virtually died, while Brazil has become the world’s largest sugar producer.

Me during a guided tour with a group of primary school children at The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar exhibition in Langgeng Art Foundation, Yogyakarta, 11 January 2013. Photo: Yong Yen Nie

Me during a guided tour with a group of primary school children at The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar exhibition in Langgeng Art Foundation, Yogyakarta, 11 January 2013. Photo: Yong Yen Nie

It is from those experiences and discussions that I was able to write the essay I posted on Cephas Photo Forum website. I did not write much about the photographs exhibited, both the archival and the newly assigned ones, as I think the photographs are quite strong and self explanatory in telling what sugar industry looked like in the past and how it does now. I wrote more on the historical context to give the bigger picture and to reveal more layers from the exhibition, about sugar industry and photography practices during colonial period, also about colonialism itself. I hope you find it as interesting as I do. ∎

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