• ArtistAgan Harahap
  • TitleMardijker Photo Studio
  • Year of Origin2015
  • GenrePhotography
  • Technique and DimensionDigital C prints on paper, with frame, each 25 × 16 cm (15 Prints), 40 × 26 cm (10 Prints) or 60 × 40 cm (6 Prints)
  • Erwerbungsjahr2019

Agan Harahap, Mardijker Photo Studio, 2015 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Thomas Bruns

Agan Harahap’s Mardijker Photo Studio presents quasi-historical narratives as a fictive collection of portraits depicting a community called the Mardijkers. The Mardijkers comprised of indigenous people from conquered Portuguese territories, as well as people of Portuguese ancestry. They were descendants of free slaves during the Portuguese colonial time, who settled down in major cities in the East Indies (present-day Indonesia), such as the port-city of Batavia (present-day Jakarta).

The word ‘Mardijker’ has a long story in Indonesian history. Originating from the Sanskrit word ‘Mahardika’ which means freedom, ‘Mardijker’ became popularized when the Dutch introduced the passenstelsel (identity cards) policy. With the enforcement of this policy, the Mardijkers were required to raise their hands and shout “Mardijkers!” as a status indicator. This policy later caused a divide between the Mardijkers and the pribumi (natives), resulting in a separation from the native identity, which grew to worsen during the Indonesian revolution. Hence, as people who were “liberated”, this made the Mardijkers’ existence and identity to become vague. They occupied an in-between status: despite adopting European religion and culture, they were classed with the natives by the colonial government.

Mardijker Photo Studio fabricates its own version of history by collaging and manipulating archival photographs from the Tropenmuseum’s archives, to portray European faces on ‘native’ bodies, and vice versa. The interchanging of native and European subjects destabilizes their identities, as well as their racial and social hierarchies.

This captured fluidity and instability of identities is a situation that the artists views as analogous to contemporary Indonesia’s negotiation with ‘global’ culture. In this series of arresting and enigmatic portraits, some subjects appear to adopt foreign dress and ways of life confidently, while others reveal their uncertainty or hesitation.

In today’s world where the use of modern technology can accelerate the spread of external cultures, it can also backfire onto local cultures. By adopting acculturation, the rapid flow of information can actually obscure the identity of the local culture. This is what then happens in modern society, especially in many Southeast Asian countries. As one of the biggest countries in the region, Indonesia looks onerously to maintain its own local cultural identity. Penetration of rapid culture and weak cultural filtration makes Indonesia become a market for other cultures. It also leads to the loss of their identity as a nation.

The images in Mardijker Photo Studio also comment on colonial photography, which often exoticized its subjects, as well as our expectations of the photographic image as ‘truth’ and ‘document’. The artist seeks to show how this historical bias could easily repeat itself in modern times. As we continue to develop as part of a global community, it will be increasingly difficult to determine the nations’ identity in the future. And it makes us no different than the Mardijkers who lost their real identity.