Two beautiful young people, glamorously dressed, against a backdrop of sun, sea and beach. They are portrayed in the intense and nostalgic colours of the 50s. The movie-star setting of the slides from artist and filmmaker Monique Verhoeckx’s (1963, Delft) family archive appear to illustrate carefree life: idyllic beaches, dance competitions and open air film screenings. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Behind the pretty pictures is a history of trauma, diaspora, impending war and a secret love affair. The slides are part of a multimedia installation the artist is creating for the exhibition BIAK Stories. They depict her parents in the place where they fell in love: the island of Biak in former Dutch New Guinea. Using private and archival film, the installation shares this love story as well as the story of Dutch New Guinea’s decolonisation.
A layered dance of Birds of Paradise
The BIAK Stories are set in the late 1950s. Indonesia had only just gained independence from the Netherlands and immediately started fighting its former coloniser over Dutch New Guinea. Verhoeckx's parents, both from the Dutch East Indies, came to Holland as traumatised teenagers after Indonesia's struggle for independence in the late 1940s. In 1957, her father left for New Guinea as an aeroplane mechanic for the Naval Air Service. Her mother, still married to her first husband, who fulfilled his military service in New Guinea, also travelled there. Her father and (still married) mother fall deeply in love. They secretly begin a relationship. Verhoeckx: 'What I find touching is that these are very young people, traumatised and destitute after the war in Indonesia. Despite the tensions in New Guinea, they have hopes for the future. Desire triumphs over memories of war. A note says: "We are the happiest and richest people in love on earth". I find that mix of innocence and gravity disarming'. While the Netherlands and Indonesia fight over New Guinea, the three main characters of the love triangle dance like birds of paradise: Verhoeckx's father, mother, and her mother’s first husband. Indonesia eventually annexes part of New Guinea. Verhoeckx's father wins her mother’s heart.
Bamboo and tree bark
Verhoeckx projects the video work on three white-painted tree bark canvases in the multimedia installation, the centrepiece of the exhibition. She attaches the canvases to bamboo poles anchored in oil drums. The materials exude the Eastern and Western atmospheres of former Dutch New Guinea. Bamboo is a commonly used (building) material there and Papuans use tree bark cloth for clothing and painting canvases. The oil drums refer to Western oil for the Royal Netherlands Navy seaplanes. They also function as seats in the open-air cinemas of the time. The three tree bark canvases can be seen as a triptych on which scenes of the love story and the decolonisation struggle reveal themselves to the visitor.
Verhoeckx selected more than 150 colour slides for the installation. These were made by her father, an enthusiastic amateur photographer. They show images of everyday island life and black-and-white photographs of the Papuan population. She combines this with historical film material and visualisations of Papuan art. Among other things, the sound design is based on the love letters her parents wrote to each other. For Verhoeckx, creating the installation is a way of exploring her Indonesian origins. ‘By finding an artistic form, I’ve created distance between myself and this personal history. My parents suffered greatly from PTSD. I felt this and it affected me a great deal, but we never spoke about it. By combining personal material with archival film, reading letters and speaking to veterans, for example, the pieces of the puzzle from the past fall into place'.
Other objects and connection to Breda
Besides the multimedia installation, objects from New Guinea and the East are included in the BIAK Stories. The artist shows personal objects such as a large shell, airline tickets from Amsterdam to Biak, clothing and her father's camera. Inhabitants of Breda also contributed. Breda residents that lived or fought in Dutch New Guinea present objects and accompanying stories from their time there. For example, attributes with historical value such as a private photo album, a bilum (bag with handle worn on the head) or traditional Papuan pears. From the Royal Military Academy in Breda’s educational collection on New Guinea, tobacco and chalk holders made of bamboo can be seen at the exhibition. Both the engraved holders themselves and prints of engravings with Papuan motifs are exhibited.
An attractive side programme will run concurrently with the exhibition. In addition to this programme in the museum around this subject entitled Indische Verhalen (Indonesian Stories) will take place. Throughout the summer, Chassé Theatre and Cinema, Nieuwe Veste, Stadsarchief Breda, Podium Bloos and Stichting Arjati will be presenting performances, films, lectures and stories.