Tano Toba Saga – “Power And Other Things: Indonesia And Art (1835-Now)” Europalia Art Festival Indonesia

The Design of Installation about the historical narrations complexity and contradiction of a small fragment within Toba Land long history during the colonial era that has been told or documented

The Tano Toba Saga installation or exhibition design was made for the Lifepatch exhibition as part of the “Power And Other Things: Indonesia & Art (1835 – Now)” under the framework of Europalia Art Festival Indonesia in Palais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR) – Brussels at 18 October 2017 until 21 January 2018, curated by Riksa Afiaty and Charles Esche. It’s a series of installations depicting the stories of two key figures and their relations within a small fragment of the North Sumatera long histories during the colonial era, which are the Swiss-Dutch soldier Hans Christoffel and the last king of Toba people called Sisingamangaraja XII.

The Tano Toba Saga project begins with an opportunity for Lifepatch to make brief research through various well-preserved Indonesian historical artefacts at the Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) Antwerp. It possesses thousands of collections from the Nederlands Indisch colonization era stretching out from weapons, jewelry, heirlooms, flags, documents, and old photos that many of them were grants from Hans Christoffel’s private collection. since too many to show, some of them curated to present the narrations about Sisingamangaraja XII and Toba people’s resistance towards the Dutch colonization in North Sumatra, along with the narration about Hans Christoffel who successfully ended the resistance during his services as the Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL) officer. At the same time, we also got an opportunity to learn about both of the two key figures from the artefacts collection at Bronbeek Museum at Arnhem, which is the Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL) main archive to keep their histories during the East Indies colonization era.

Witnessing thousands of artefacts including irreplaceable historical heirlooms that are directly related to the Sisingamangaraja XII and Toba People’s resistance being stored and valued to construct or verified historical narrations far from its origins, brought Lifepatch to conduct further research in various places at North Sumatra, such as Medan, Balige, Bakkara, Parlilitan, Pangururan, and many more places. During the exploration, we found that even though they didn’t possess their rightful historical heirlooms and being oppressed culturally and politically by the colonial government, the Toba people still believe and preserve their histories through generations. Slightly different from the structure of Western knowledge in that history tends to be conveyed in a linear fashion and facts are generally collected based on written sources and the existence of historical objects as physical proof, The history and knowledge in Indonesia is produced and delivered orally and culturally through storytelling, theatre, song or even dance. Sifting through those scattered materials in North Sumatra, we begin to gather fragments of stories based on the Toba people’s side of view about Sisingamangaraja XII, the people’s resistance against the Dutch, Hans Christoffel, the connection between colonialism and evangelism, and the myths that accompanied the Batak war stories.

Working with those artefacts, materials, and narrations, there are tendencies that the histories depicted and often articulated into several versions motivated by the perspective of ideology, politics, and even personal identity. It appears that the “truth” is slightly different between the conflict “winners” version and the Toba people version. However, instead of intending to summarize the long history of colonialism in North Sumatra and comparing each version to find the most proper version, Lifepatch presents the scattered historical fragments and their contrasting attributes to bring up the complexity of history. Furthermore, driven by their pride as a collective-based community with collaboration and interdisciplinary between its members as their works’ core, The Tano Toba Saga is presented by incorporating historical artwork installations and archival material, together with a major narration linking all the exhibits. As part of Lifepatch, I was given the challenge of designing an exhibition layout as a physical element to emphasize the Tano Toba Saga major narration. Besides that, I was also presenting the Hans Christoffel ghostly memories through an Installation called “The Lucid Memories“.

Drowning into the stream of history, I’ve been struggling to understand its complexity which seems always spinning and confusing similar to a maze or a labyrinth. Isn’t just motivated by its contradiction because of the “perspective of view”, the North Sumatra conflict is also a result of connectivity or causality between two or more linear progression lines that each line has its own causality sequence, which is “this happened, and then that happened; that happened because this happened first”. Within this case, both Hans Christoffel and Sisingamangaraja XII as the two key figures have their own history line with totally different attributes, such as cultural background, political interest, and so on. Sisingamangaraja XII is the King and religious leader of the Toba People who lived in North Sumatra. On the opposite, Hans Christoffel is a soldier who serves under the Koninklijk Nederlandsch-Indische Leger (Netherlands Royal Army) or KNIL. It was a military force that was formed to protect the Dutch interests when expanding their colony’s territories and maintaining their colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies. However, driven by the Dutch Kingdom policies around the early 19th century to bring a conducive atmosphere for economic interest in the East Indische archipelago as their colonization region through unification and pacification, Hans Christoffel as part of the KNIL has to collide with Toba people’s resistance lead by Sisingamangaraja XII at a long-term war so-called the Tapanoeli War. It’s a conflict that occurred for up to 29 years and ended after the death of Sisingamangaraja during his guerrilla resistance.

Talking about the key figures and their connections, there seems a tendency that Causality as an orderly sequence of the “cause and effect” within a linear progression line plays a vital role in the Toba Saga exhibition layout design. Spatially, each key figure’s narration is described as like a water stream that flows in opposite directions from a different entry point. The first stream focused on the narrations of the Toba people before the Dutch arrival and afterward. The opposites stream presents the Hans Christoffel narrations as the Dutch and their policies of colonization representation. Flows through the exhibition room edges, both of the narration streams collide and create swirling flows at the center that are similar to the phenomenon of whirlpools as the conflict analogy. The whirlpool that continuously flows in circular direction flows seems to bring an effect that both of the cause and effect became overlapping each other and blur the details of its individual narratives differences, making it easy to interpret or defined differently from various perspectives.

Looking back on the entire research, it revealed that the Tapanoeli war and its complex attributes have a bigger contribution to work as an ambient background and affect the whole process. Its complexity becomes the main reason for questioning the truth and brought us to learn every past narration before the conflict happens and what things that might be causing it. At the same time, it also drove our thought when trying to understand how the conflict plays its part either spiritually or physically forming the North Sumatra people’s way of life in the present. Through this, it reveals the idea that the Tapanoeli war has deeper values rather than only being placed as physical historical archives to present stories about the great historical conflict in North Sumatra during the colonial era. It has an ability or functions as a ghostly imagining that is able to transcend time and space when describing the North Sumatra people’s identity and their way to talk about the past, present, and even the future.

Interested to represent the conflict unseen values as the ghostly imagining, I wanted to use the main vortex spatial design to carry the symbolism. The circular wall as the whirlpool accentuation engineered with a glass wall on the part that is directly facing the entrance, in order to bring the conflict vortex could be visually accessible from the entry door. The idea is to introduce the viewer to one of many conflicts during the colonial era in North Sumatra as the exhibition’s main issues and ignite their curiosity about it since they entered the exhibition room. Since it can’t be physically accessed directly, the viewer is forced to walk into the flow of the narration stream and learn the historical narration from a particular perspective before finally reaching the inner vortex. Furthermore, when walking out from the vortex through the opposite stream, the viewer will get a chance to learn the other perspective as a comparison to the former knowledge they already earn or memorized.

Produced as part of “Power And Other Things: Indonesia & Art (1835 – Now)” Europalia Art Festival Indonesia.
Exhibited at the Palais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR) of Brussels, Belgium.

Reference Site:
* Details of “Power And Other Things: Indonesia & Art (1835 – Now)” Europalia Art Festival Indonesia on Europalia Art Festival official website
* Details of Tano Toba Saga Exhibition on Metropolism Magazine Online Feature official website.
* Details of Tano Toba Saga Exhibition on Lifepatch official website.

Related Articles On Lifepatch Official Website:
* Detail of the first residency program of Lifepacth within the Europalia Art Festival 2017
* Detail of notes of Lifepatch research about Si Singamangaraja XII and other main figures that related to the Tapanoeli war 1907
* Detail of the second residency program of Lifepacth within the Europalia Art Festival 2017
* Detail of Lifepatch participation on the Europalia Art Festival 2017 Exhibition