A few years ago, I initiated a project that focused on tracing the personal history of my Indonesian grandfather and his imprisonment by the Japanese during the Second World War and his role in Dutch colonial history during the infamous police actions (Dutch: Politionele Acties). I did extensive archival research, interviewed survivors and their relatives and traveled in the footsteps of my grandfather to Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Meanwhile, I have made several works, including various sculptures, a video, a film and a Wajang Kulit performance. In my solo exhibition Jejak Sang Kakek, Too many shadows, in Sismógrafo (Porto, 2015), I included a first series of colored batiks. These are based on photographs I took of the places central to my grandfather’s war past and that I visited 70 years later. I translated the photos into batik, since batik is a traditional Indonesian technique. The photos show places of suffering: places in camps, on railways, at a pier in ports where PoW were shipped. A second series of batiks on silk and paper followed. This time in black and white and showing the situation in Indonesia after WW II. They are depictions of crimes and events in which it is unclear what happens or has happened and that took place during the infamous police actions. The images were chosen from original photographs, which I found in national archives and in private collections. I opted for this turbulent time, because the role of my grandfather during these actions as ‘secret’ agent of the Dutch Navy (VDMB) remained largely unclear. I could only rely on anecdotes resulting in a vague and ambivalent image of his activities. I illustrated that ambiguity by highlighting the crimes on both sides, but in my choice (a selection of 18 photos from hundreds) it is not always clear exactly which direction we are looking at or what is actually taking place. The images consist of pixels, as in old newspaper photographs, and the papers are sizeable (each piece is 1.50 x 2,50 m). The large format forces you to distance yourself in order to see the image distinctly. It reflects the idea, researched in earlier work, that the general historical lines are clear, but as we zoom in and try to focus on details the (historical) image fades. In order to get the desired effect, I developed a batik technique that prints with wax. This allows to do batik in a photographic way, as it were, by taking the photo pixels as a starting point. A nice detail is that the word batik probably comes from the Javanese word titik that means dot. I transferred the wax technique that was originally executed on silk, to paper on which the wax was printed like a grid of dots of different sizes, making up the light parts of the photograph. The wax is then absorbed by the paper. Next, Indian ink is applied, that gets absorbed by the parts without wax and fills up the dark parts of the photograph.
In old photographs, we cannot determine the visible details of the image when we zoom in on it. Taking distance to become aware of something is necessary, but paradoxically enough, the details get blurry. It is the eternal problem of historical time. Here, the grid of historical fragments can only be supported (literally) by the distance the medium enforces to form a recognizable image.