TimoteusAnggawan Kusno: the Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies (2013 - ) and the RampogMacan Javanese rituals #Dr. Caroline Ha Thuc
March 17, 2021
Research-based art practice

TimoteusAnggawan Kusno: the Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies (2013 - ) and the RampogMacan Javanese rituals

The Untold Stories ofArchipelago,2017

View of the exhibitionPower and Other Things: Indonesia & Art (1835-now) curated byCharles Esche and Riksa Afiaty. Centre for Fine Arts Brussels (Bozar), Belgium.2017.

Courtesy of Centre forTanah Runcuk Studies and the artist.

In 2013, Indonesianartist Timoteus Anggawan Kusno (b.1989) created the Centre for Tanah RuncukStudies (CTRS), an imaginary research institution that focuses on Tanah Runcuk,a fictional territory located in the “East Indies,” an explicit reference tothe Dutch colonization of Indonesia. The CTRS gathers artistic - but alsoactual - archival material from the colonial period (drawings, paintings,photographs, artefacts etc.) as well as documents and texts written by real andfictional scholars.[1]

Memoir of TanahRuncuk: A Note From The “Lost” Land (2014), the first exhibitionorganized under the umbrella of the CTRS, was presented like an ethnographicmuseum show with all the artworks displayed in showcases, labelled anddescribed with scientific and Latin terms.[2] Drawings from Tanah Runcuk’sfauna and flora were for instance juxtaposed with sketches featuring the localpeople’s customs, weapons and deity. As the artist’s research findings expand,the Centre simultaneously grows and most of Kusno’s artworks developconsistency within this framework. Still diverting the language of ethnography,The Untold Stories of Archipelago (2017), exhibited in Brussels,Belgium, was curated as if all the works belonged to a 17th centuryWestern cabinet of curiosity.[3] In parallel, Kusno also createdperformances from more specific topics pertaining to the colonial past. TheDeath of a Tiger (2017), notably, originates in the artist’s investigationon traditional and colonial Javanese rituals, whose ideology still imbuestoday’s Indonesian society.

Kusno presents himselfas an artist drawn by his academic background who works with ethnographicmethods and institutional approaches. He graduated in social and politicalscience at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and his research practiceembraces the fields of history, ethnography and museology. His engagement inresearch responds to the specific post-colonial and post-dictatorship contextof Indonesia: by questioning historical truth and historiography through there-activation and falsification of archives, it aims at shedding light onhidden or neglected facts of history that still haunt today’s society. As such,the artist’s practice challenges today’s legacy of the European model ofknowledge production and distribution, and opens the path toward a critical andplural perception of Indonesian history.[4]

Contextualframework and artist’s drive

Against a centralizedmeta-narrative of the national history

After the Portuguesetraders, the Dutch reached the archipelago in the 16th century andfounded the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602. When the company wentbankrupt in 1800, the colony became nationalized.[5] The colonial regime revolvedmainly around trade, aiming above all at making as much profit as possible,[6] yet it involvedrepression and violence. The process has been summarized by a repetitivepattern: “peaceful contact, growing mistrust and finally violent conflict.”[7] Jan Pieterszoon Coen(1587-1629), an officer of the VOC who founded Batavia as the capital of theDutch East Indies, could embody such colonial violence for its bloody conquestof the Banda Islands and the exploitation of its local resources. During thecolonial times, many resistance movements opposed the Dutch authority and somewell-known national heroes and charismatic leaders stood out, especially duringthe Java War (1825-1830).[8]

Golden Bust (inspiredby Jan Pieterszoon Coen’s portrait)2017

Courtesy of Centre forTanah Runcuk Studies and the artist.

Most of the reportsand archival material of that period of history originate in Dutch or Britishofficers’ testimonies and were produced in order to serve colonial interests.However, unlike in Myanmar,[9] there have been an increasingnumber of historical studies written from an Indonesian perspective. Manyleaders of resistance movements such as Dipanagara, Surapati and Sultan Agung,depicted as villains in Dutch history books, were turned into national heroes,[10] although often in order to servenational identity building. Great local historians such a Sartono Kartodirdjo(1921-2007) or Ong Hok Ham (1933-2007) have studied the colonial power. Infact, “since the fall of Suharto, re-writing and re-imagining Indonesianhistory has topped the agenda for many historians of Indonesia.”[11]

Despite this vastendeavor, Farah Wardani, the former executive director of Indonesian Visual ArtArchive (IVAA),[12] underlines the lack of localinfrastructure dedicated to archives and recalls that the primary archives havebeen collected by the colonial powers, and are therefore located in Europe.[13] Most of them are written inDutch language and, for Indonesian people, these archives are thus stilldifficult to access. Furthermore, according to the artist, a large part of theexisting archival material remains “untouched” by scholars and stored or hiddenin depots rather than being publicly accessible. For him, “these archives arein ‘locked down’ and ‘sleep mode’. They need to be awakened, resurrected,reread, and put back into today’s context and debates.”[14] His concern for archivescoincides with an increased interest in archives and the awareness of theirparamount importance in the country and especially in Yogyakarta, where theartist works and lives, since the 2000s. IVAA was created there in 2006 and anactive community of artists is delving into archival material and nationalhistoriography.[15]

The construction of asingle historical narrative is not an exclusive colonial prerogative. While theindependence from the Netherlands was self-proclaimed in 1945 and officiallygained in 1949, the writing of history seems to have remained an instrument forlegitimating the power of the successive rulers in their post-colonialprocesses of nation-building. Quoting Indonesia scholar Ariel Heryanto, Gerkeand Evers note, in particular, that “in Indonesia, since independence, thesocial sciences have almost totally been in the service of whatever governmentwas in power.”[16] The education system and schooltext books usually served as well the State political agenda, especially duringSuharto’s New Order authoritarian regime (1966-1998) when there was one singleofficial national history.[17]

However, according tothe Indonesian historian Agus Suwignyo, the New Order regime is not the onlyone to blame for the writing of a complacent and centralized meta-narrative ofthe national history: while Suharto reduced and probably falsified some partsof history in order to legitimize its power, this self-centered conception ofIndonesian history originates in early years of nationalism. For him, this“Indonesia-centric-historiography” emerged from the nationalist movements thatrose against a “so-called Neerlando-centric-historiography” and aimed atcorrecting the way history was hitherto written, namely from the colonizers’sole perspective. This political and nationalist tool, however, reproduced thestate-centered approach of the Dutch” and a top-down perspective.[18]

In this context, andbeyond any form of dichotomy that merely opposes a colonial from a nationalistperspective, Kusno’s own approach of history aims at bringing forth a pluralityof voices and points of view. By mixing real and artistic archives, he wishesto expand our vision of history from a more critical angle.

Against historicalignorance

Dea Victoria Et Terra,DrawingStudies - Societas Tanaruncia Circa 1603. (Collection of Centre forTanah Runcuk Studies).

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies

Today, with Internet,most Indonesian people can access national history and confront their findingswith Google and Wikipedia. Indonesian institutions and the education system arealso adapting themselves to the recent processes of modernization anddemocratization. However, according to the artist, the access to education and,thus, to historical knowledge, remains unequal.[19]

Besides, since the1990s, there is a trend that tends to simplify history, nurturing a form ofnostalgia and of fascination towards colonial times. Against today’s backdropof insecurity, poverty and instability, this period begins to appear as abetter time for some Indonesian and as “an escape from present-day hardship.”[20] The trend is present in both thepublic and private spheres, favoring tourism and design, inspiring movies andstyles. It is known as tempo doeloe (a longing for the “Good Old Days”of the Dutch East Indies) and mooi indie (the beautiful Indies). YetKusno wonders for whom these days could be remembered as good, and which colonialpast could be desired today? For him, there is irony in imagining the past byignoring what has been left unseen. “What if we were imagining andromanticizing the wrong side of history?”[21] These over-simplifications ofthe past call thus for a more in-depth, pluralistic and more nuanced approachof history.

Even though Kusno’sapproach of history is artistic, his sources and references are always clearlymentioned so that the public can go further in learning about the colonialevents he is referring to.

Colonial and feudalSpecters

Map of RampokanSiluman Macan in Tanah Runcuk painted by unknown artist (collection of Centre forTanah Runcuk Studies)

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies

In fact, beyond thecolonial past, what is really at stake in Kusno’s practice is the legacy ofthis past and how it is still molding today’s Indonesia. From thecentralization of the power in Java to the law and legal system, scholars havepointed to the institutional continuity that links the colony to theindependent state.[22] The sense of national unityarose as well from the identification of a common oppressor, namely thecolonial rulers, contributing to the building of a national identity and ofnational discourses.[23] For Kusno, two decades after thefall of the New Order regime, these specters still haunt every level ofsociety: “we may find them hiding behind what we take for granted in our dailylives, in things that are institutionalized and that construct us, in themystification of the single version of history, in how a memorial makes usremember this and not that, in how "us" and "them" aredefined, in what we can and cannot talk about.”[24] In particular, colonialism hasbeen built upon and entwined with former forms of feudalism that were revivedduring the New Order regime and that continue to permeate the society.

While the CTRSaddresses all these entangled issues and heritage, The Death of a Tigerand the recent artist’s research focus on a specific type of Javanese ritualswhich could embody a systematic legitimation of violence at work during thecolonial times and until today.  

The Rampok Macanrituals (macan means tigers in Javanese language) took place mostly inJava as early as 1605 and lasted until 1906.[25] During these state-sponsoredceremonies, a tiger was killed publicly in a large square near the king’spalace, surrounded by three or four rows of spearmen. Usually there were twoconsecutive fights: a tiger-buffalo followed by a tiger-sticking where thetiger that survives the first fight had to fight again. The tigers wereexhibited in cages in the royal courtyard as a demonstration of power, againstrivals but also against nature at large.

Oude Stad Roentjoek, Postcard Reproduction,2018.

Print on archivalpaper, aluminumdibond, 330x500mm

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies.

Dutch historian PeterBoomgaard notes that the rituals multiplied between 1830 and 1870, contributingto the extinction of the local tigers. This period coincides with the Dutchimposition of the Cultivation System that implied an intensification of theexploitation of resources and labor, leading to famine and poverty among theIndonesian people.[26] In that context, the Dutch re-appropriatedthe rituals to boost their own authority. The ceremonies were introduced in newplaces, where the colonials ‘invented’ these traditions, and “degenerated intoentertainment for European visitors.”[27]

These ritualsdisappeared at the beginning of the 20th century, but what remainsis a form of institutionalized legitimation of violence when it comes to servethe power of the state. The artist never directly refers to the 1965 killingswhen many Indonesian associated with the Indonesian Communist Party wereassassinated by ordinary citizens and military people,[28] but hints at how violence tendsto be justified by the state in the name of peace and harmony. Today, the armyand militia-style organizations are still playing an important role inIndonesian society with violence returning to Indonesian politics.[29]该仪式于20世纪初消


History of Java (2018)

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies.

For Kusno, researchand practice work simultaneously in a continuous back-and-forth movement,complementing his process of thinking and creating. He works with archives andliterature but engages also in fieldwork in order to feel lived experiences, toshare intensive discussions and grab reality as a counterpoint to his scholarlyresearch. Participation and collaboration drive also his practice andmethodology of work.

The artist asarchivist

The CTRS is based onKusno’s on-going collection of archive materials dealing with the Dutchcolonial period in Indonesia, and in particular with the Javanese rituals,gathered during the artist’s various research trips and research on Internet.Although mixed with artistic artefacts, these archives constitute an importantpart of his exhibited work and a critical source for his inspiration.

In fact, at thebeginning of the project, all of the archives from the CTRS were fictional, butas the Centre developed, Kusno introduced actual archives that he combined andtransformed with fictional representations. In particular, he discovered theRampog Macan rituals on an old colonial postcard found in an antique shop in2015. It featured a tiger in a pit during a ritual in the late 19th century.That image fascinated him and pushed him to engage into further research on theritual and its context, leading ultimately to The Death of a Tiger. Atfirst, he accessed the online archives from the Royal Netherlands Institute ofSoutheast Asian and Caribbean Studies,[30] but later delved into thearchives from the Leiden University Library. At that time, he was searching allkinds of documents and representations, photographs, notes, maps and visualmaterials pertaining to tigers, related beliefs and rituals as well as recordsfrom the colonial period, but he confesses having been “distracted andfascinated” by the number of archives he found there.[31] During a residency atRijksakademie in Amsterdam, he also accessed the archives and collection of theTropenmuseum and Rijksmuseum.

The Rampok Party inKediri (Rampokpartij te Kediri), Blitar Palace Square, Approx. 1900.

Photographer: HermanSalzwedel, published by Masman & Stroink, Semarang.

These archives areeither displayed by the artist in the framework of his exhibition, ortransformed and combined with his artistic artefacts. The whole collection isavailable on the website of the CTRS, and each piece comes with a title, itssource and a date. Archivist, Sue Breakell underlines the necessarily objectivedimension of archives, arguing that the archivist should “describe materialneutrally, document what they do to the archive, and intervene as little aspossible if an original order is discernible in the papers.”[32] Curating the archives - let alonetransforming them, is a way to intervene and to introduce discourse in what issupposed to remain neutral. As such, Kusno does not work as an archivist butrather borrows the tools and methods of the archivists in order to challengetheir authority and their status as instruments of power. The juxtapositions ofreal and fake archives allow the artist to decontextualize his researchmaterial and to contextualize his fictional narratives simultaneously.


Archive, Siloeman Matjan[1] 2018.

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies.

Academically, Kusnowas trained as an ethnographer, and he feels familiar with this approach, bothepistemically and practically. Fieldwork, for him, is a way to expand, deepenand question the archives, which are thus confronted to the reality of memoryand of people. How history is remembered, commemorated, performed or even howit has been forgotten… By meeting people, engaging discussions about historyand about individual perceptions of the past and the present, the artist wishesto open the official narratives to periphery voices from the daily life.

In the field, Kusnohas no specific methodology of work, but his approach is inevitably informed byhis training as an ethnographer. He collects and exchanges stories with peopleby watching, talking, listening, and spending time with them, focusing inparticular on stories about indigenous beliefs, shamanistic healing andrituals, such as the ones practiced by fishermen from the Northern Coast ofJava (Pantura), before and after sailing. He also delved into the cosmologicalbeliefs of different communities, like the people inhabiting the slopes of theMerapi Mountain, who have developed spiritual relations with the volcano, orthe villagers living in the special province of Gunung Kidul.  Theseresearch findings are not visible in his artwork, nor in the CTRS and, as such,the artist is not working as an ethnographer who would describe systematicallya specific community or a group of people. However, these findings constantlynourish the artist’s practice: they accumulate, transform, and inform hiscreative process in the long term.

Scholarly research andliterature

Reading literature andscholarly texts have played a key role in the artist’s research process andpractice, and discourses, under the form of notes, essays or variouspublications, are pervasive in the CTRS and accompany the visual artworks.

Javanese writerPramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet,[33] and Multatulis’s Max Havelaar classicalanti-colonial 1860 novel have been very inspiring for the artist. They shedlight on the complex layers of Indonesian past, and on how the marriage ofcolonialism and feudalism had deeply shaped Indonesian society. During hisundergraduate years, in the framework of an informal reading club,[34] he discovered the Magic Realismmovement, a literature style that mixes magic with reality in order to extendreality, and that is often associated with post-colonial literature.[35]  For the artist, this stylehas the potentiality and power to “talk about something without talking aboutit,”[36] and played a key role in hisartistic choices. In fact, the whole project of Tanah Runcunk, with itsdevelopment of plural narratives, is imbued by Magic Realism and could beunderstood as a proposal to consider reality, including historical events, froman expanded perspective that would include imagination and wonders. Inparticular, the way he combines very realistic and scientific details,including Latin names, with imaginary figures resembles Argentinian writerJorge Luis Borges’s scrupulous descriptions of absurd parts of reality.

Besides literature,the CTRS and Kusno keep referring to various scholarly works, both inIndonesian and English language, that the artist shares willingly. The scope ofthe bibliography is large, from post-colonial texts to more specific studies onIndonesia, literature references and anthropological books including forexample Clifford Geertz, Benedict Anderson and James Siegel’s articles andreference books, Laure Donaldson’s postcolonial and feminist critique, PeterBoomgaard and Robert Wessing’s essential studies on tigers. There are alsoessays by Professor of comparative literature Fairy Wendy and texts byIndonesian author Seno Gumira Ajidarma, known for his combination of realityand fiction used to address sensitive political issues.

The Unfinished Questof Tanah Runcuk,2018

Watercolor on agedpaper, 750x690mm.

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies

A collaborative work

For the CTRS, Kusnocollaborates with real scholars who contribute to the publications publishedonline on the Centre’s website, under their real names or under pseudonyms. Theartist invited them to respond freely to the fictional construction of TanahRuncuk, using any form they would like. As such, Tanah Runcuk becomes an openplatform working as an “empty signifier,” where these scholars can developtheir thoughts, share their knowledge or questions. Kusno writes many essays aswell, either under his name or under a pseudonym, but proposing a participatoryspace for dialogues and collaborations is an essential part of his methodologyof work.[37]

An ethic of work

How should the viewerread and perceive the artist and his collaborators’ research findings? How tonavigate between the real and the fiction? This confusion is at the core of theartist’s strategy. Nevertheless, Kusno does not aim at deceiving anyone andinsists on a form of ethics when presenting his work. The origin or source ofthe ‘real’ collection is always written down and the artist puts a disclaimerin the epilogue of every publication as well as in the website of the CTRS. Acontextual background appears, presenting Tanah Runcuk as a “in-between space; betweenpresence and absence, between fiction and reality, between fantasy andhistory.”[38] Then, there is another“Disclaimer” where the real names of Kusno’s collaborators are noted, togetherwith a renewed emphasis on the fictional dimension of the territory and of theCentre. The style and layouts suggest a kind of danger in misreading the textsor in misinterpreting the images, and one can read this satirical warning:“Again, please read, reread, and distrust the text carefully.”

Artistictransformations of the research findings

A fictional “lost”land

Map Arcana Imperii(2017)

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies.

Tanah Runcuk is afictional lost territory that serves as an open and liminal space where Kusno’sartworks can develop. In order to move away from the centralization of power inJava, Kusno chose a name with a Melayu consonance, yet the exact location ofthis former colonized land remains a mystery. Within this framework, the artistinvents a dense and complex network of narratives that connect, drive andgenerate multiple artworks responding to Indonesia’s colonial past and legacy.The Centre of Tanah Runcuk Studies collect and gather all this production,which ranges from photographs, drawings, paintings, essays, films andartefacts. The artist also produces antique-like furniture for the display ofhis artworks, usually made from old djati wood, which is the traditionalmaterial used for high quality furniture and houses in Java, including thepalace during the colonial times. The hinges, locks, padlocks, handles areantiques from the northern coast of Java.

“Magic realismis informed by non-Western concepts of reality with a tolerance of magic muchhigher than Western understandings of reality.”[39] Imagining fictional realitiesallows the artist to embrace a larger perception of reality that includes theinvisible, imagination and beliefs, usually disregarded when it comes to writehistory. This unseen part of reality can actually be empirically reached bycertain communities or shamans, and appears to be visible in Tanah Runcuk.Weretigers, for example, are very common there, and can be seen either standingor crawling. The local people have often no head or a skeleton head. They aresaid to be intrepid and are represented taming or riding horses whose headshave the form of a megaphone. The style of the drawings and paintings is naïve,and often carries a certain amount of humor bore by the absurdity of thescenes.

Memento Mori paintedby unknown artist (portrait of JP Coen). Collection of Centre for Tanah RuncukStudies.

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies

“My approach twiststhe fluidity of fantasy and history.”[40]The artist’s imagination iscanalized, though, since the chosen styles and mediums need to match the style,color, and material from the archives and to follow the artist’s narratives sothat the whole universe and identity of Tanah Runcuk remains consistent.However, once in the creative process, Kusno also improvises and let go hisintuition. Some images are recurrent and become recognizable elements fromTanah Runcuk, such as the portrait of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, representedhalf-alive, half-dead, who appears in many drawings but also under the form ofa sculptural bust. Weretigers are also pervasive, in photographs, artefacts ordrawings.

Constructing archivalmaterial

The Terror of CoconutIsland

Unknown artist(Collection of the Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies)

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies

The Terror ofCoconut Island, a painting dated 1602 and originating in the SocietasTanaruncia, is for instance an archival production of the artist. It wasinspired by the tragic story of the Banda Islands whose inhabitants weremassacred by the Dutch East India Company under the command of Jan PieterszoonCoen, who established there the trade monopoly of nutmegs. In this image, Kusnodiverts the colonial aesthetic of mooi Indie usually representing atropical paradise: beyond the blue sky and behind the coconut trees, the islandis in fact burning and the volcano is erupting. The artist invites the viewerto contemplate from afar this tragic spectacle, as if nothing could be done oras if no one felt the need to intervene. Put back in today’s context, one couldwonder to which passivity the artist is referring to: the colonial absence ofresponsibility and/or the inability of the Indonesian state to reform itsinstitutional models? In the exhibition The Untold Story of Archipelago(2017), the painting was displayed in a wooden spices box which contains ofthousands of nutmegs from the Banda Islands, together with flintlock colonialpistols. For Kusno, the spices had “the strong smell of gold and blood.”[41]

Villagers posing inthe front of a dead tiger. May 1941 at Malingping, Banten (H.Bartels/Tropenmuseum).

unknown artist. Centrefor Tanah Runcuk Studies, Societas Tanaruncia.

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies

Many photographspertaining to the ritual and to the Javanese tigers have been modified by theartist so that they look more ancient. The 1941 archival photograph Villagersposing in the front of a dead tiger from Tropenmuseum collection was forinstance printed on archival paper, scanned and modified by the artist usingPhotoshop, pulling up the grain so that it turns more visible. He also addedsome typical elements from Tanah Runcuk, such as the megaphone on the bottomright. It stands as a symbol of modernity, in contrast with Javanesetraditional way of life. After reprinting the photograph, Kusno dipped it inthe rust for some time, and after obtaining the relevant tone, soaked it againin coffee in order to get sandy little grains on the surface. Finally, hecoated it with glue by using brush and cut its edges.

Artefacts (Mask) ofRampokan Siluman Macan(collection of Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies)

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies.

The embodiment andevidence for the existence of weretigers had also to be produced by the artist.[42] Kusno invented a weretiger mask,artefacts, and produced archival photographs that feature them, as if taken bysurprise in the wild at night. The outlines of the images are often blurry, thequality very poor and their origins absolutely mysterious.

The Death of a Tigerand Other Empty Seatsin How Little You Know About Me exhibition, curated by Joowon Park,2018.

National Museum ofModern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Korea.

Courtesy of MMCA,Korea and the artist. Photo by Moon June Hee.

There is a strongcontrast between the museum-like exhibition The Untold Stories ofArchipelago (2017) and The Death of a Tiger (2017) or its morerecent version The Death of a Tiger and Other Empty Seats (2018): on theone hand the display of documents and archives, which could be seen as a bitdry, and on the other hand a warm and dynamic performance staging ametaphorical interpretation of a Rampog Macan ritual. From the same research findings,Kusno is actually exploring different artistic languages to produce andtransmit knowledge.

In a dark room, onlylightened by storm lanterns, a group of singers face the wall, each one separatedfrom the others in a circle. In the middle, a bunch of spears hung from theceiling seems to point to and accuse one of them: instead of a head, theyfinish by a hand with a raised finger. The choir sings an original compositioninspired by Mozart’s Requiem Lacrimosa movement, transformed as a tigerrequiem: the artist chose to focus on this very moment of tension when thetiger dies, killed by the crowd. The juxtaposition of a classical Europeanmusic with a Javanese ritual collides almost ironically as the lyrics say “Fullof tears will be that day When from the ashes shall arise The guilty man to bejudged.” Again, we wonder how to interpret this contemporary version of thecolonial and feudal ritual: a collective, religious, juridical judgement? Thestaging brings back the ambiguous role of the people when it comes to justiceand informal laws. This time, it seems that the artist invites the public to bepart of the crowd and to feel the possible effects of such a gathering,intuiting what it must have been to belong to the crowd that condemned andkilled the tiger. Obviously, and beyond the Indonesian context, these kinds ofmassive gathering have often a dangerous impact on the mind.[43]

Drawing sketch of theinstallation.

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno, Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies

Demonising others andthe legitimation of violence

Kusno constantlyrevives the archival material to question the legacy and imprint of the past.In particular, he investigates how the colonial heritage merged with localtraditions in a way that might inform specific contemporary patterns orbeliefs. The documentary film entitled Others or ‘Rust en orde’ (2017)produced by the CTRS, is presented as a remake from a former film narrating thetradition of Rampog Siluman Macan that was supposedly censored and lost for itsmost part.[44] The team is said to havereinterpreted what was left, using tape-recorded interviews. From the start,there is thus a large part of mystery about this documentary and no detail isgiven about the authorities that censored the original nor about the identityof the interviewees, whose names are said to be confidential. This introductionimmediately contextualizes the film in the present times, with the censorshipimplicitly referring to the New Order regime. At that time, artistic productionused to be strictly controlled by the state and most of the documentaries werefunded by the government and created in order to satisfy state ideologies.[45] For Kusno, this is a way toanchor the film in the collective memory and in the post-dictatorial regime,when the euphoria was pervading the country, with the hope for deep reforms.

Others or 'Rust enOrde,' 2017.Still image. Four channels video installation.

Courtesy of the artistand CTRS.

Others or ‘Rust enorde’is organized in three parts that follows three distinct interviews andnarratives. Wedo not see the interviewees who are embodied by a recording machine, staged invarious landscapes as if it was the last remnant of a lost past, delivering alast message. Contemporary images of the countryside and of daily life invillages alternate with the archival images – old black and white postcards anddocuments from the colonial times or the artist’s drawings, animation andphotographs. The atmosphere of mystery is strengthened by a stressful musicthat rhythms the interviewees’ voices which are also hesitant, reflecting afear from the witnesses. The three stories, although very different, emphasizethe positive role of the Rampog Siluman Macan ritual, and the killing ofspecific persons, as an efficient way to bring back order and harmony in thesociety. These victims, represented as weretigers, shamans or marginalindividuals, are said to be the ones who are breaking the rules of the society,and who need to be sacrificed. However, the first interviewee seems to doubtabout what really occurred when his grandfather’s uncle disappeared and was putin a cage as he suddenly happened to be a “tiger stealth” who had to be killed.

Literary, ‘rust enorde’ means tranquility and order. The Dutch colonizers were using this idea todiscipline and repress any threat that would weaken the legitimation of theirauthority.  In the name of harmony, they had the ability to exile and killanyone considered as “enemy” or “rebel” without any trial. According to PeterBoomgaard, the rituals originated in two non-exclusive factors: the need tokill more tigers, who represented an increased threat at that time, and thedesire to demonstrate state power.[46] Implicitly, we are tempted tolink the cruel ritual of Rampok Macan with more recent events, and inparticular with the 1965 massacres and their legacy: the threat, at that time,was embodied by the Indonesian Communist Party. Historian Robert Cribb notes inparticular that the Suharto regime used the memory of the killing “to reinforceits power, as an example of both what it would do to its enemies and whatIndonesians would do to each other if they were not restrained by firmgovernment.”[47] For the artist, this form ofrepressive power, its ideology and the state legitimization of violence persisttoday, despite the end of the authoritarian regime of Suharto. In the film, thesecond interviewee in a part entitled Burn the Witch praises theorganization of raids that allow the collectivity to get rid of anyone whocould be perceived as a threat, reflecting how such ideologies might have beencollectively appropriated by the people. The work could be perceived as acatharsis: in the narratives, the fear of others and the search for scapegoatsare so clearly articulated that they become frightening. In the end, one cannothelp but wonder who are the contemporary weretigers and how one face, deny oraccept their difference. However, the film is never moralizing and thetestimonies, like the witnesses’ voices, are wrapped with magic and doubt:after all, this is a fictional documentary, featuring imaginary interviews.

Burn the Witch, still image from the4-channel video Others or 'Rust en Orde,' 2017.

Courtesy of the artistand CTRS.

A constructiveconfusion

Archive TombakToeding 2018.

Courtesy of the artistand CTRS.

Kusno’s work is alwaysambiguous and none of the symbols he uses are straightforward. Tigers, for instance,represent evil and chaos, but also holy men, and there are many stories ofshamans transforming into tigers after their death. In the Indonesian culture,their symbolic meaning is complex: the animal could be inhabited by ancestorsand could even represent the king himself: Boomgaard mentions trials by tigers,and in that case the tiger was praised for its moral judgment.[48] During the fights, the buffalosrepresented the Javanese people while the tigers represented the Europeans andlocal people were disappointed if a tiger would win. From this perspective, itseems ironical that the Dutch used it to legitimize their authority since theireffigy was systematically killed at the end of the fight. Similarly, the spearsare not necessarily the weapons used to kill the victims of such ritualswithout any trial and, above all, in a very unfair manner (the whole crowdagainst an exhausted tiger that already fought against another animal). In thepast, spears were the symbol of resistance and during the Java War (1825-1830),Dipanagara and his men used bamboo spears with sharpened tip as weapons, whichare said to have “scared the Dutch away.”[49]

These ambiguities,together with the constant uncertainties created by the entanglement of realand fake archival material might lead to a certain confusion, strengthened bythe dense contextual background of the work. From the start, the location andname of Tanah Runcuk are presented as being problematic, and the tone is set:“up to now Tanah Runcuk itself is in grey area in the context of scientificdebate.”[50] The artist keeps introducingdoubts in the mind of the reader, creating a feeling of discomfort. Althoughthe writing style is very scientific, the artist’s collaborators share alsoconstantly their own doubts about the identification of their sources: “CTRSsuspects that,” “from all the archives we tend to assume that,” “sources aredifficult to interpret” etc. to the point that the whole process becomescomical. In addition to fictional elements, the artist creates narrative gapsand only proposes a fragmented and non-linear approach of history, breaking thegiven chain of causality, temporally, and spatially. His vision of history isthus left purposely open for the audience to create his or her own narrative. Besides,for him, confusion is an inevitable consequence of dealing with institutionsand complex issues. “I have to admit that’s the part of the holisticexperience.”[51]

L'Histoire deRundjuque2018.

Courtesy of the artistand CTRS.

Working in-betweenfiction and reality stimulates critical thinking and, as told by thedisclaimer, invites viewers to remain active when facing any piece of work andarchives. As such, this confusion engages positively the viewer, constantlyconfronted with a dilemma, which could be similar to the reading of a fantasticnovel from the Magic Realism movement: shall we read the work from a realistperspective, and reduce its artistic and magic dimension to a rationalinterpretation, or shall we approach it from a purely artistic point of view,with the risk to miss its relevance in its ability to question our contemporarysocieties?[52] In fact, there is no solution tothis dilemma for the artist purposely avoids any form of dualism. Similarly,while most of the artists engaged today with archive invent “counter-archivesand thus counter-narratives,”[53] Kusno does not contest anyspecific narrative nor oppose one mode of narrative to another, because fictionbrings forth a third element that breaks this duality and brings back complexityagainst any form of binary simplification: the colonial legacy does not opposea traditional heritage, for instance, since it was built upon it. Thiscomplexity, inevitably, conveys its part of confusion that reflects nothing butthe complexity of reality.


Kusno’s engagement inresearch derives from his desire to re-activate, question and deconstruct theexisting archival material in order to shed light on neglected or hiddenhistorical facts from the past and on their legacy in today’s Indonesiansociety. His artistic and sometimes satirical interpretation of history and ofthe language of social sciences reflects his aspirations to explore new andindependent modes of knowledge production that would acknowledge ideas andconcepts hitherto alien to the West.His fieldwork and collaborativeworks nurture his investigations and connect his research findings from thepast to the present, creating links between the colonial system, traditionalIndonesian rituals and beliefs, the power structure of the local elite andtoday’s specific patterns of the Indonesian society.

The artist’s researchfindings are entangled with his own creation and, in the end, true and fakearchives make one to constitute his artistic production. Among the diverse narratives,the viewers can nevertheless navigate and grab some historical facts, providedthat they read carefully and critically all the available sources. Above all,his constellation of artworks triggers a desire to delve into Indonesian pastand to question the construction of history and of the ideologies that shape acountry’s identity and society. Through the artist’s various artistic languagesand experimentations, one can physically lose one’s benchmark and referencepoints, and feel the necessity to enlarge one’s vision of reality. The mergingof realism with fantasy, rationality with beliefs, and science with magic is aninvitation to go beyond any form of dualism and a call to embrace a pluralityof voices and perspectives.

Kusno’s research-basedpractice reflects a wider trend in Southeast Asia, with artists increasinglyworking in the fields of ethnography and history, notably in order to bettergrasp today’s complex reality and to question the construction of nationalhistorical narratives.

I Hope that The Memoryof Our Friendship Will be Everlasting

Drawing, 2017

Courtesy TimoteusAnggawan Kusno

[1] A large part of thecollection and publications, fictional and real, are available on the CTRS websitecreated by the artist: https://www.tanahruncuk.org

[2] The exhibition tookplace in Nov. 2014 at Kedai Kebun Forum in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

[3] The exhibition,entitled Power and Other Things: Indonesia & Art (1835-now) wascurated by Charles Esche and Riksa Afiaty. It took place at the Centre for FineArts Brussels (Bozar), Belgium in 2017.

[4] This article is basedon the author’s conversations with the artists taking place between Sept. 2019and July 2020.

[5] More on the colonialtimes, see for instance the reference book Ricklefs, Merle Calvin. A historyof modern Indonesia since c. 1300 (2 ed.). Basingstoke; Stanford, CA:Palgrave; Stanford University Press, 1991.

[6] Oostindie Gert,“Dutch Attitudes towards Colonial Empires, Indigenous Cultures and Slaves,” Forum:Urban Culture in the Eighteen Century Dutch Republic, 1998: 351

[7] Wood, Michael.Official History in Modern Indonesia: New Order Perceptions and Counterviews,BRILL, 2005:69.

[8] See in particular thelife and struggle of Prince Dipanagara in Carey Peter. The Power of Prophecy.Brill, 2008.

[9] See the case studyWah Nu & Aung The Name. 请参考案例研究——瓦努和敦运昂名字系列作品.

[10] Wood, Michael. Official Historyin Modern Indonesia: New Order Perceptions and Counterviews, BRILL, 2005:41.

[11] Suwignyo Agus, “IndonesianNational History Textbooks after the New Order: What's New under the Sun?”Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Vol. 170, No. 1 (2014):114.

[12] The Indonesian Visual ArtArchive (IVAA) was formerly the Cemeti Art Foundation founded in 2006 inYogyakarta.

[13] Wardani Farah, “Finding a placefor art archives” Wacana Vol.20 No2(2019): 209-232.

[14] E-mail conversation with theartist, June 2020. All quotes from the artist come from a series of e-mailconversations with the author that took place between Sept. 2019 and July 2020.

[15] Antariksa, for instance, hasbeen doing research on the Japanese occupation of Indonesia for years;Lifepatch, a collective of artists founded in 2012, have also conductedresearch in historical museums in the Netherlands, looking for colonialarchives, in particular for their project The Tale of Tiger and Lion.

[16] Gerke Solvay and EversHans-Dieter, “Globalizing Local Knowledge: Social Science Research on Southeast-Asia,1970-2000,” SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia Vol.21,No1 (2006): 2.

[17] On the New Order and the past,see in particular Wood Michael. Official History in Modern Indonesia: New OrderPerceptions and Counterviews, BRILL, 2005.

[18] Suwignyo Agus, “IndonesianNational History Textbooks after the New Order: What's New under the Sun?”Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Vol. 170, No. 1 (2014):114-115.

[19] E-mail conversation with theartist, June 2020.

[20] Dragojlovic Ana, BloembergenMarieke and Schulte Nordholt Henk, “Colonial Re-Collections: Memories, Objects,and Performances”, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Vol.170, No. 4 (2014): 438-39.

[21] E-mail conversation with theartist, June 2020.

[22] See in particular AndersonBenedict, “Old State, New Society: Indonesia’s New Order in ComparativeHistorical Perspective,” The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 42, No. 3(May, 1983):477-496.

[23] See for example Meuleman Johan,“Between Unity and Diversity: the construction of the Indonesian nation,”European Journal of East Asian Studies, 2006, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006: 45-69.

[24] Artist’s statement “The Death ofa Tiger and Other Empty Seats,” courtesy of the artist.

[25] More on the ritual, see inparticular “Tiger and Leopard Rituals at the Javanese Courts 1605-1906,” inBoomgaard Peter. Frontiersof Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950. Yale UniversityPress, 2001, 145-166.

[26] Kusno, “Out of Darkness ComesLight,” online essay from the CTRS website.

[27] Boomgaard Peter, 2001. Ibid.157.

[28] According to the differentsources, between 100,000 to two million people were killed but that numberremains opaque. James T. Siegel emphasized the “normalization of the massacre”which suggests a form oflegitimation of the violence.Siegel T. James. “Indonesia: A Partial Appraisal” Ithaca 100 (Oct 2015):31.

[29] Cribb Robert, “UnresolvedProblems in the Indonesian Killings of 1965–1966,” Asian Survey, Vol.42, No. 4 (July/August 2002): 551. See also Siegel about the 1983-1984 massacrein Siegel T. James. A New Criminal Type in Jakarta.  Durham &London: Duke University Press 1998.

[30] This is probably the largestexisting collection of documentation from the Dutch East Indies. Most of thearchives are photographs that the Royal Netherlands Institute of SoutheastAsian and Caribbean Studies began to collect from 1890 for documenting the lifeof the Dutch East and West Indies. They are now accessible online at https://digitalcollections.universiteitleiden.nl/imagecollection-kitlv.

[31] E-mail conversation with theartist, June 2020.

[32] BREAKELL Sue Perspectives:Negotiating the Archive, Tate Papers 9, 2008. Available at:www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tatepapers/09/perspectives-negotiating-the-archive(accessed 3 May 2018)

[33] Pramoedya Ananta Toer(1925-2006) is a famous post-independence Indonesian author, known for hispolitical engagement. The Buru Quartet, written in jail and censored for manyyears, comprises The Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, andHouse of Glass.

[34] The club was called LingkarBatu (The Circle of Stone) and was composed of artists, musicians oractivists. They collectively published a monthly photocopied zine called Repertoar.

[35] More on the movement, see forexample Kluwick, Ursula. Exploring Magic Realism in Salman Rushdie's Fiction.Taylor & Francis Group, 2011.

[36] E-mail conversation with theartist, June 2020.

[37] The Malalongke Journal, aseries of essays published in 2017 was the first results of the artist’scollaboration with ethnographers and historians. In particular, Kusno workedwith Pandu Yushina Adaba (researcher, Indonesian Institute of Science),Franciscus Apriwan (anthropologist, Brawijaya University), Heri Kusuma(historian, Realino Institute of Studies), Albertus Harimurti (researcher,Realino Institute of Studies), Irham N. Anshari (lecturer, Gadjah MadaUniversity), Windu W. Jusuf (writer, journalist) and was inspired by hisdiscussions with Dr. G. Budi Subanar (historian), Dr. Baskara TH. Wardaya(historian), Dr. ST. Sunardi (philosopher), Dr. Tri Subagya (ethnographer).

[38] Centre of Tanah Runcuk Studieswebsite. Available on: https://www.tanahruncuk.org/about/#disclaimer

[39] Kluwick, Ursula. ExploringMagic Realism in Salman Rushdie's Fiction. Taylor & Francis Group,2011, 10.

[40] Artist’s statement “The Death ofa Tiger and Other Empty Seats,” courtesy of the artist.

[41] E-mail conversation with theartist, June 2020.

[42] Boomgaard notes that a Chinesesource mentions a weretiger in Malacca in the early 15th century andthat the belief was documented from the early nineteenth century onward, butthere are – obviously? - no photographs representing these creatures. See Boomgaard Peter. Frontiersof Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950. Yale UniversityPress, 2001, 163.

[43] French Gustave Le Bon famouslystudied the behavior of individuals immersed in crowd and notes the possiblehypnotic state that it might triggers, and the absence of judgment. See Le BonGustave, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. New York: DoverPublications 2002.

[44]Siluman Macan refers toweretigers or man-tigers, tiger stealth.

[45] Hanan David, “ObservationalDocumentary Comes to Indonesia: Aryo Danusiri’s Lukass’ Moment, in SoutheastAsian Independent Cinema, ed. Tilman Baumgärtel (Hong Kong: Hong KongUniversity Press, 2012), 107.

[46] Boomgaard Peter. Frontiers ofFear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950. Yale UniversityPress, 2001, 154.

[47] Cribb Robert, “UnresolvedProblems in the Indonesian Killings of 1965–1966,” Asian Survey, Vol.42, No. 4 (July/August 2002): 559.

[48] Boomgaard Peter. Frontiers ofFear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950. Yale UniversityPress, 2001, 163.

[49] Kusno, “Out of Darkness ComesLight,” online essay from the CTRS website.

[50] From the CTRS website.

[51] E-mail conversation with theartist, Sept. 2019.

[52] I borrow here Tzvetan Todorov’sinterpretation of the fantastic in Magic Realist novel. See Kluwick, Ursula. ExploringMagic Realism in Salman Rushdie's Fiction. Taylor & Francis Group,2011, 14.

[53] Enwezor Okwui ArchiveFever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art Gottingen, Germany Steidle2008, 22.

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