Speech at Opening of Rosa Verhoeve’s Kopi Susu in Erasmushuis Jakarta, Aug. 1, 2019

Photo Rosa Verhoeve, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2012-02-01

“Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends of Rosa Verhoeve,

The Dutch East-Indies colonial history has been playing a prominent role in the Dutch public debate and in Dutch cultural life, certainly since the 19thCentury; and the ghosts of its heritage still roam among us today in great numbers. Let us leave aside the political controversies about compensation for Indonesian victims of the War of Independence in the years 1945-49 and turn to other fields.

We find the aftermath of the colonial period still very present in today’s literature (e.g. in recent books of Alfred Birney and Reggie Baay); in academic research, for example by Remco Raben and by Hilde Janssen, who will give a lecture about the historical context, here in the Erasmushuis on August 8; even in therapeutic counseling, with family role-play therapies specifically for people with an Indies background; in music and theater (e.g. Wouter Muller, Ernst Jansz, Diederik van Vleuten); and in the visual arts, such as in the work of Rosa Verhoeve whose exhibition opening we are celebrating today.

It seems to me that in the cultural processing of this heritage, there are roughly two angles, two focal points. The first one tends to be on identity: a quest into the impact of the East Indies history on one’s personality and emotional life, by definition subjective; here, the bigger social context functions as a stage, a backdrop. The other one is on society; concentrating on history, sociology and politics, with individual stories or images being exemplary depictions of a bigger societal phaenomenon, and in search of objectivity or at least a broad validity.

Obviously, the latter is typical for the academic world; but it also characterizes certain artistic works, such as my own projects Traces of War, and Comfort Women, which have both been exhibited in the Eramushuis in the past. They are firmly grounded in the second, society oriented trend, even if they have their origin in my family history. Rosa’s Kopi Susu, on the other hand, is an excellent example of the first category, focusing on identity. 

When Rosa and I met for the first time, in the year 2000, we had an immediate connection, vividly coloured by our common background. We were both members of the “second generation,” people born in the Netherlands from parents with a Dutch East Indies or Indonesian history. Rosa was born in 1959, three years after her parents left the young Indonesian republic. We were both very conscious of these family roots and this common theme was prominent in our conversations. Soon, we became very close friends. That friendship is, in fact, an important reason why, with Rosa no longer among us, the Erasmushuis has invited me to give this opening speech. Though I wish she could have done this herself, I am honoured to do this on her behalf.

I already mentioned the distinctions in the character of our work. But there were more differences between her and me. My parents, though born and raised on Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi, were totoks, white Europeans. Rosa, on the other hand – never mind her greeneyes and henna reddish hair – was an Indo, someone of mixed Indonesian-Dutch ethnicity. That fact is actually at the root of the title of her book and exhibition. Rosa described an experience while she was in a bus to Solo (and I quote): “Opposite me is an old Javanese woman. Two prying brown eyes scan me from head to toe. Suddenly she bends towards me and her index finger gently touches my nose. “Kopi Susu?” she asks. “Are you coffee with milk?” (unquote).

A bigger distinction between us was that, contrary to my parents, Rosa’s father and mother were taciturnabout their East Indies and Indonesian past: they hardly ever talked about it. This is something we see a lot in families with such a background. They tread through life with dark shadows stretching all the way into the present: the traumatic war-time experiences; the loss of a happy home country with – especially for many totoks– privileges that seemed all too natural; and the shock of having to leave their tropical land and move to the Netherlands, a country that many had not or hardly ever seen before and that they often considered cold and inhospitable.

Having migrated or repatriated to Holland– as they generally called the Netherlands at the time – the first generation focused on rebuilding that country and their material lives after WW2, and neglected or suppressed their own past – with that past sometimes hideously creeping up from behind with unsuspected force: a sizable number showed psychological problems later in life. And by the time they may have been willing to share some with their children, they didn’t know how to bridge the generation gap.

Because of this silence, many of their children have little knowledge of nor empathy for their parents’ past. The combination of suppressed war memories, the resulting emotional vulnerability and the lack of communication between the generations tend to have a strong impact on family life.

Since Kopi Susu is about identity, it seems to make sense to shed some light on Rosa’s personal background. Let’s delve a bit deeper into Rosa’s family situation, notably her mixed heritage, with both Dutch and Indonesian elements.

On the one hand there’s her father, Henk, coming from the rougher parts of the city of The Hague, whose family background includes some petty criminals. He joined the military, arrived in Indonesia in 1945 and fought in the Indonesian War of Independence, where he witnessed violence and, most likely, cruelties.After the war Henk became a mechanic at the Dutch airline company KLM in Jakarta. He married an Indo girl, Emilie, who all too soon died in childbirth in 1947. This drama hit him hard and came on top of his wartime trauma. After he had remarried, he lost another daughter at the age of 5 which further added to his rather gloomy look on life.
Henk, who is still alive at 95, is a man with a strong tendency for conflict, impatient and with a typically Dutch bluntness in conversation. He was dominant, a quite dictatorial husband and father, and very protective of his beautiful Indo daughters who during their years of adolescence were granted only severely limited freedom.

Henk’s second wife, Rosa’s mother Lenneke Mullenders, was the younger sister of Henk’s first spouse Emilie: their father, Rosa’s grandfather, was a belanda, a Dutchman who came to Indonesia by the end of the 19thC and who became an instructor in Sukabumi’s police academy; their mother, Rosa’s maternal grandmother Rosalina Soemadirebjo, 20 years younger than her husband, was Javanese; the story goes that she was a princess from Solo. While in that city, Rosa unsuccessfully tried to find out more about her. The fact that so little information was available suggests, in my opinion, that she may originally well have been a njai(concubine). Time and time again we come across this phenomenon, where female Indonesian ancestors are posthumously promoted to royal ranks.

Anyway – let’s return to Rosa’s mother: Lenneke was a sweet and caring but also very apprehensive woman, dominated by her surly husband. His perpetual conflicts in the outside world were a source of embarrassment and anxiety for her. She desperately tried to temper her husband and neutralize or muffle his clashes with others. And she retreated as much as possible into the refuge of her house, trying to lock out the hostile outside world.

Like many Indos from her generation, she disavowed her Indonesian roots and emphasized her Dutch side: after all, in the colonies, the whiter one was perceived, the better. So ironically, if there was ever any talk about their Indonesian years at all, it was Rosa’s father who brought it up; her mother would then try to cut him off with comments about “old stories that are better laid to rest.”

Just like Rosa’s father, her mother was marked by wartime experiences; like my own mother, she had spent the later part of WW2 in the horrific Japanese internment camp of Tjideng, here in Jakarta. When the war had ended, she found out that her father had perished in June 1945 in the Japanese camp of Ambarawa. About his death, we again have only rumours: according to what Rosa heard, he had been decapitated by the Japanese. In her introduction, Rosa writes about her mother, that “she was never able to sleep peacefully afterwards.”

What were the consequences of such backgrounds and of the cultural differences between parents within a family? In the case of Rosa, her elder sister during adolescence rebelled against her father, left home at age 16 and later totally broke off all links with the family.
Rosa, who was ten years younger, was the only child at home for the most part of her youth. With her softer, less confrontational soul, she became a peace broker in the regular confrontations between her parents. She adored her mother and tried to protect her as well as put up with the peculiarities of her father. Her attempts to pluck shreds of the family history from them were mostly in vain: on the one hand they were very hesitant to share any of it with her, possibly in part because they wanted to shield her from their troubled history; and on the other hand, she had a tendency to spare them and not to insist or pressure them.

In her text, Rosa describes the family home in the rather mundane Dutch city of Amstelveen: “The atmosphere in our house oozed the former Dutch East Indies colony: Javanese statues of women with bare breasts on the teak dresser, my mother’s flamboyant batik skirts in the linen closet and the traditional tjebok bottle in the toilet.” But on the other hand, her father had severed all connections to both parents’ families around the time of their return to the Netherlands in 1957; thus Rosa’s alternative sources of information were cut off. Silence hung heavily over her parents’ history.

So for Rosa, the tropical country of her parents, and above all of her mother, became accessible almost exclusively through the domestic paraphernalia and through photo albums, and hardly through stories; and even if there were stories, were they true? Her mother’s country of origin came to her through images, not through words.

Some 50 years after her parents boarded a ship in Tanjung Priok and said farewell to what in the meantime had become Indonesia, Rosa returned there, to start her photo project Kopi Susu. As she put it, she wanted to try to “recreate my existence as a child of two worlds.”

So what lies at the root of Rosa’s Kopi Susu is an endeavor to balance in a visual language the world of her mother, which for Rosa had remained exotic and mysterious; and that of her dominant, all too familiar fatherland. 
In her own words: “I wanted to free myself from the weight of my parents’ sadness: their unprocessed loss of loved ones, homeland and identity. The only baggage I brought with me was my sense of not belonging, not feeling at home anywhere.”

Rosa worked on Kopi Susu for about 10 years. It was a difficult project which was interrupted by phases of doubt and despair. 
She herself described Kopi Susu as a mixture of reality and fiction.” I would say that she used objective reality to create a world of subjective fiction.She díd allow herself to deviate from reality in that she made some use of staging. However, she did not rely on image manipulation but tried to build her fantasy land with elements she encountered in the perceptible world. A very challenging enterprise indeed!

I am in the fortunate situation that I can give you some examples. The early phases of Kopi Susu coincided with those of Hilde Janssen’s and my project about the Indonesian Comfort Women. In 2007, Rosa and I spent time together in Indonesia and I saw at close quarters how she worked in that phase.
She first searched for places that had played a meaningful role in her family history. There, she hoped to find situations and visual elements that she could use to create her own story.

Together, we went to Sukabumi’s Police Academy where her grandfather had been teaching. We found a house in Jalan Vogelthat might have been the one where her mother grew up; with Rosa’s tremendous charm, of course she was allowed to enter and photograph. She assigned me to press the shutter for long-time exposure photos of her treading through the corridors. Also, I accompanied her to her grandfather’s grave at Pandu War cemeteryin Bandung, where she asked me, dressed in colonial white including a white hat, to stride among the graves while she photographed me. In both cases, the images contained a vague ghost-like figure, which could be considered a metaphor for her grandmother or grandfather.

The results from these early attempts have ended up on photography’s junk yard: they turned out to be mere finger exercises. The first photos that she considered meaningful enough were the results from a joint visit to Tjidengwhere both our mothers were interned during the Japanese occupation: it resulted in the image of the fence with two sleeveless undershirts. We also visited Jakarta’s very atmospheric graveyard-cum-museum Tanah Abang, where her father’s first wife and their stillborn baby lie buried. That led to several photos, all of them unstaged, which made it into the final presentation, e.g. that of ten white crosses, a bureaucratic desk and, very subtly, a chair with a heart-shaped pillow: one of those lucky moments a photographer earns through persistence, patience and an eager eye.

Photos Rosa Verhoeve, Jakarta.

On Jakarta’s jalan Kemang RayaI saw her going back a good many times to a line of kitschy plastic palm trees: the unreal nature of these artificial versions of tropical symbols strongly appealed to her. Ironically, these desperate attempts were in vain but she did find what she was looking for much later: when exiting the bicycle parking in Amsterdam she found a naïve painting of two palm trees on the wall opposite the gate.

When, a decade later, she finally got to making a book and an exhibition, Rosa used photos from Indonesia, images from the Netherlands and – in the book – photos from her family albums. She has always been fascinated by combining images, above all into diptychs, and was well equipped to merge the diverse elements into a single body of work. About the result, she said: “I have interwoven a long lost world, the present time and my constructed version.”

The final work is a complex series of individual photos, strongly rooted in reality, which through the sheer force of their combination and sequence takes us into a world of imagination.

In 2016, Rosa was diagnosed with colon cancer with metastases. It was now or never for Kopi Susu. Spurred on by friends, in spite of being undermined by her disease and the chemo treatments, she managed to put together the final version of Kopi Susu, with the help of designer Victor Levie and others. In November 2017, the book was published by Ipso Facto and the exhibition was inaugurated in Museum Bronbeek in Arnhem, the Netherlands. To her and everyone’s delight, she was able to attend it and I think I can say that this was possibly her life’s finest moment.
At that point in time, the chemo treatments seemed promising; but by early 2018, it became clear that doctors had nothing more to offer; on June 27, 2018, Rosa passed away peacefully.

The fact that the Erasmushuis now shows the work was of monumental importance to her. It was a source of great happiness and pride in the final phase of her life to know that Kopi Susu would be shown in the land of her mother, a land which she herself has come to love so much and where she made so many friends, who can see the work here in Jakarta.

I would now like to express my gratitude, also on behalf of Rosa, to several people: firstly, the Erasmushuis’ present director Yolande Melsert and her predecessors Michael Rauner and Joyce Nijssen, as well as Bob Wardhana.
I certainly want to thank Rosa’s former partner Jan Jaspars; and a big Thank You also goes to Henri Ismael and of course to designer Victor Levie,who designed the Kopi Susu book and exhibition. Furthermore, I am very grateful to Rosa’s many other friends who have supported her in her work here in Indonesia.

Let me conclude with a quote from Rosa: “Kopi Susu does not refer to an unchanging past, but instead has become a timeless, imaginary space.” I propose that after this ceremony, we all enter into Rosa’s space together.

Thank you all.”

Jan Banning