A photo exhibition at Erasmus Huis
IO – On the 1st of August 2019 Kopi Susu a photograph exhibition by Dutch photographer Rosa Verhoeve was opened by Yolande Melsert, the director of the Dutch cultural centre, Erasmus Huis. “Rosa Verhoeven,” said Mrs Melsert, “is a Dutch photographer and second-generation Dutch woman with roots in Indonesia. Her parents were first generation Dutch with Indonesian roots and now there are even more third generation Dutch with Indonesian roots. Many search for their cultural identity and that helps create new cultural products like this exhibition.”
Rosa Verhoeve’s Kopi Susu exhibition is not an easy exhibition to savour and understand for the photographs are mostly of everyday things: a pool in the forest, a sandcastle, the remains of a house standing at the beach. None bears any caption. An ordinary person not a photography aficionado or art addict may be puzzled at how one is meant to look at the photographs, how to anchor them to some context. Perhaps a closer look at Rosa’s life would help.
Rosa Verhoeve was a graduate of Gerrit Ritveld Art Academy. Her work is a mix of fiction and reality as she tried to tell stories with her old Rolleiflex camera travelling through Europe, Africa and Asia. Later she received the Zilveren Camera Award for her work.
Kopi Susu is her last project; a very personal project that took her nearly 10 years to finish. Rosa Verhoeve died before her exhibition opened in Indonesia. Before she passed away Rosa said that she wanted the exhibition to portray, “a construction of family stories and personal memories and reflections combined with the reality I encountered in Indonesia and the Netherlands.”
Three of Rosa’s friends spoke about her to the Independent Observer: Jan Banning, Hilda Janssen and Sandra van Elewout. Jan is himself a photographic artist who was originally a historian. He first met Rosa at a photo exhibition where she was very taken with one of his photos. She immediately understood his work despite the fact that her photography is more identity oriented whereas his are more concerned with political and social context.
As they spoke, he said to her, “You are an Indo, no?” These words when spoken amongst Indos or Eurasians in Holland usually create an immediate sympathy and understanding through a shared cultural feeling as it did in their case. They became friends.
Later when Jan was working on his book Traces of War – Survivors of the Burma and Sumatra Railways he stayed at Hilde Janssen’s house in Jakarta. Hilde was at that time a journalist for the Algemeen Dagblad. Jan asked her if Rosa who was also in Indonesia working on the photos that would later become her Kopi Susu exhibition could stay with Hilde too, and they also became friends.
Both Jan and Hilde describe Rosa as an extremely nice person who was good at making friends, warm, charming, interested in others, an adorable person. “She was able to be in a place and blend. She described herself as a cuckoo which is able to make its home in another bird’s nest.”
Rosa Verhoeve’s mother, Magdaleena Geertruida Maria Mullenders was an Indo born in Sukabumi in 1927. Her father was a totok (pure) Dutchman called Johannes Mullenders who arrived in Padang in 1899 at first as KNIL but later he became a policeman. He married a Javanese woman called Rosalina Magdalena Soemadiredjo about whom not much is known other than that she was born in Pasuruan. Together they had 6 children the youngest of whom was Rosa mother who was born in Sukabumi in 1927. All survived Japanese internment camp except her grandfather.
Rosa’s father, Hendricus Maria Verhoeve arrived as a soldier in Indonesia in 1945. In 1946 he married Rosa’s mother’s older sister who died a year later together with her baby in childbirth. In 1949 he married Rosa’s mother and continued to stay in Indonesia after independence working for KLM. It was only in 1957 at the peak of the Irian conflict that they moved to the Netherlands. So, they were part of the spijtoptanten or those who did not go to Holland after Indonesian independence but only later regretted not going to Holland after they realized that they had no future in Indonesia. Special arrangements were made for them till 1968. Altogether 300,000 people arrived in the Netherlands from Indonesia. “Together with their descendants they make up now at least about 500,000 people in a population of 17 million,” says Jan.
One could say that Kopi Susu is in fact a cuckoo’s attempt to find identity. Rosa’s problem was that like many Indo parents who had moved to the Netherlands after Indonesian independence they refused to talk to their children about the Netherlands Indies or their time there. Jan Banning whose parents also lived in the Indies and returned after the War were totok or pure Dutch and so did not have this problem at home. “My parents were very open about their time there but not Rosa’s parents. When her father spoke about Indonesia her mother would always stop him,” Jan confided. “My parents were optimists; they had not suffered war trauma and being totoks things were less complicated for them.”
Those coming from Indonesia after the War received short shrift from the Dutch who had troubles of their own and were not interested in what had happened in the Indies. They would tell the new comers how during the war they starved, how first they had to eat the neighbour’s cat and then the tulip bulbs. Many coming to Holland had suffered trauma and it is difficult to speak about that. Also, they did not want to burden their children with their painful past. For Rosa it left a gap in her identity which consumed a great part of her life. Finally, she began work on the Kopi Susu exhibition as a way of expressing that unknown part of her identity.
“She worked on the photos for her Kopi Susu exhibition for 10 years. Repeatedly returning to Indonesia where she always tried to stay in the homes of Indonesians because it helped her to immerse herself in the Indonesian way of life which she needed for her photography. There is probably only one photograph with a face: an Indonesian girl’s face and it is as if Rosa were saying, ‘In different circumstances this could have been me.’ The closer she got to people and everyday life the closer she got to the hypothetical Rosa as an Indonesian. Bringing the exhibition here was also important because she had built very meaningful friendships here and she wanted those friends to be able to see what she had been doing,” explained Jan.
One of Rosa’s Indonesian friends was Ng Swan Ti who is one of Indonesia’s leading photographers. Swan Ti said that at some point in her life she went to China to also trace her roots but through her father’s side of the family. So, she and Rosa had many points of contact. They both wanted to bring harmony and equality between the two aspects of their identity.
“What Rosa was trying to do,” declared Jan, “is to build an imaginary world out of elements of the real world. The photos have no captions because a caption would be an anchor for an image that should fly. Her images are meant to stimulate the viewer to dream and to imagine. The starting point to this exhibition is about identity, searching for identity, mixed identity etc. That alone is the clue the viewer gets. So, for the rest: imagine!”
Kopi Susu is not about which is the best photograph. It is meant to be looked at as a whole composition or symphony. Jan advises the viewer not just to look at individual photos but also at reappearing shapes, reflections and colours in the photographs as a whole. Like the paintings of the German Romantic school, Rosa’s photographs also express inner feelings through landscape. Here, the photographs are not windows that lead people to the real world but that have a far more transcendent quality which shows elements of the real world but refers to something behind it.
The photograph that resonates most clearly with both Jan and Hilde because it combines so wonderfully two worlds, is a photograph of a window with a Dutch building in the background, wayangs and red flowers hanging on a chain like Christmas tree lights. “It’s a beautiful image of the search for identity because it has so many images and layers to it. The background building is so Dutch whereas the wayang figures are so very Indonesian. The flower chains remind me of Christmas tree lights in the tropics,” says Hilde.
Then Jan adds, “It’s also the light. There are shadows which seem to make it into a sort of shadow play and the Dutch building is the background… and indeed Erasmus Huis chose this photograph for the cover of the brochure for the exhibition.”
Identity can be so enriching but also very complex. Kopi Susu is a journey in search of identity and the viewer is given complete freedom to interpret and dream and imagine as he or she looks at the photographs.
After Rosa was diagnosed with cancer, she, Jan and Victor Levy worked on trying to get the exhibition to Indonesia and after Rosa passed away Hilde was also involved. “The exhibition which was held first in Holland meant the world to Rosa because she was unable to discover the Indonesian part of her identity through her parents but only through the Indonesian paraphernalia in her house – rather than through stories told by her parents. However, with the creation of this exhibition she finally managed to turn the Indonesian part of her into a part of her identity,” commented Jan.
“Rosa’s work also had a spiritual dimension for Rosa would define herself in terms of the universe and as part of it. She identified her work with some higher power. When she had cancer this aspect of her became stronger as she coped with the phenomenon of death and tried to make sense of it.” explained Jan.
Sandra van Elewout first met Rosa at a spiritual workshop. Both women were artists interested in spirituality and they became very close friends. Sandra says that it was as if their souls knew each other from another life. It was not long afterwards that Rosa was diagnosed with cancer and that Sandra made the decision to look after her. She had been told that she did not have more than two and a half years to live. “Rosa tried to view the cancer as a friend that was trying to tell her something,” explained Sandra. “She asked herself what she could learn from it. What she realized was that she was not living her full potential and she became aware of her patterns and anxieties.”
Rosa had always been an intensely private person but in coping with death she learnt to be more loving to herself. In becoming softer and kinder and more loving to herself she also became less afraid to be more open to those around her. She began to talk and write about her experiences in dying on face book and to friends. The love made it possible to let go of her fear to show herself in her artistic work as well. As time began to run out the cancer helped her to focus on making her book and her exhibition become a reality. And as she opened herself up she discovered she was very much loved by so many people “And that was very healing for her soul,” said Sandra. “Rosa found that death is about surrendering to the unknown. The greatest surrendering of all and the only way to face it is with love and in connecting with nature, with the universe, with people, with the great spirit. Ultimately, death is what gives meaning to life.”
Through her photographs Rosa Verhoeven succeeded in giving a face to her Dutch East Indies heritage and in integrating it with her Dutch heritage. However, Kopi Susu is not only a story about identity. It is also about friendship and love and the purpose of identity which is to find meaning in life. With her death her struggle for identity came to an end as Rosa Verhoeve found the deepest meaning of life. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
The Kopi Susu exhibition will run until the 24th of August 2019 at Erasmus Huis in Kuningan, Jakarta.
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