Mystery of Batavia
*Jakarta Globe, Mar 2011
Deep in the heart of Jakarta, hidden beneath the faded facade of the capital’s Kota Tua, a secret chamber holding an enigmatic relic has been uncovered. Concealed under a thick layer of dust, deep within the bowels of Jakarta’s History Museum, also called Fatahillah Museum, is a mural by master painter S. Harijadi that tells the sinister story of the city during its colonial past.
The mural is spread across three walls. In the center wall, a Dutchman holds court at a grand party, looking dapper in a white suit and tie. Javanese servants, clad in traditional lurik cloth and caps, are occupied with trays of food. Soldiers in gallant uniforms gather together while Dutch ladies in genteel kebaya sip tea and pick at hor d’oeuvres.
But the mural’s story is in fact far grander in scope, covering a vast stretch of the archipelago’s tumultuous past. Although the mural is only partially painted, Harijadi sketched the whole story. It begins at the edge of the first wall, when the archipelago was still free, save for the local thugs running amok and extorting money. Next up are illustrations depicting the assimilation of Chinese and Arabs. Then come the Dutch, taking center stage. Finally, automobiles, modern architecture and fancy garb enter the picture, alongside violent scenes of hangings and beatings.
Past the banquet, the narrative depicts a carnival of menacing characters, filled with wily pickpockets and sad buskers, before ending with a depiction of a family being evicted from their home by soldiers.
This ambitious work of art was left fragmented and forgotten for more than 30 years until a group of young artists stumbled across it in 2010.
“We found the hidden room with the mural when we were doing a video mapping project at the museum,” said Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo, a program manager at the British Council, which produced the video mapping projection shown at Fatahillah Museum in March 2010.
The video mapping project utilized an innovative combination of music and images projected directly onto the iconic frontage of the museum as part of an ongoing effort to attract more people to Kota Tua’s cultural center. The discovery of the mural has now become the basis of a whole new project meant to reinvigorate people’s interest in the city’s rich and intriguing history.
As part of its program “New Work, New Audience,” the British Council partnered with Lopian Intermedia, a local game developer, to create the Mystery of Batavia, an interactive representation of events, based on Harijadi’s epic mural.
The project features the talents of a team of historians, game designers, comic artists, theater actors and writers.
Combining the best of Indonesian and British talents, the team includes such notable names as British comic book artist Ed “Ilya” Hillyer, local comic artist Goklas Sujiwo, Teater Koma director Nano Riantiarno and game designer Bullitt Sesariza.
“Last year, when we did the video mapping, the idea was to change how we thought about our relationship with space, to see the building as a screen that you can do all sorts of things with,” Yudhi said. “Now, we want to create a new experience of how you interact with an artifact. By combining technology, creativity and history, we can make this painting come alive.”
The project is divided into several phases. The first encompasses an internet portal, Mysteryofbatavia.com, meant to introduce the public to the team’s concept. On the Web site, you can read about the discovery of the mural, the scope of the project and background information about Batavia’s history.
The second phase of the project is a special interactive performance at Fatahillah Museum, which brings the characters of the mural to life through theater and animation. The 15-minute performance, in the same room where Harijadi’s mural is located, will take place every Saturday and Sunday until May 15.
After the conclusion of the performances, the team plans to keep the public hooked on their story with a 13-episode digital comic book that follows four characters on a quest to solve the mystery of the missing sword of Jayakarta, as well as a stream of teasers, quizzes and games to flesh out the story.
Then in June, the project will culminate in a live treasure hunt in Kota Tua, allowing players to finally solve the Mystery of Batavia.
During last year’s video mapping project, which attracted 45,000 people to Fatahillah Square, the organizers noticed a new kind of audience.
“If we had done a similar video mapping show in a gallery, we would have gotten the usual art crowd. But it’s non-threatening to have it in a public space [like Fatahillah Square],” Yudhi said.
For Mystery of Batavia, the organizers are also aiming to attract younger people who are more familiar with comic books and video games than galleries and fine art, but still have an interest in culture.
The team took great efforts to maintain the authenticity of the story. Soedarmadji Damais, an independent scholar and former head of the Indonesian History Museum, was enlisted to ensure that the language used in the story’s dialogue was true to the way people actually spoke in 19th century Batavia. The language used at the time was known as Bahasa Melayu Pasar (Bazaar Malay), which was a pidgin-dialect of Malay spoken in Jakarta and its surroundings, used primarily to trade.
For Soedarmadji, working on the project was a reunion. He had actually assisted Harijadi with the painting back in 1973, when the artist was commissioned to paint the mural by Fatahillah Museum prior to its opening the following year.
“When the museum was created, a need was felt to create a painting that could be an expression of the past, of old Jakarta. We wanted a big painting to encompass the walls of an entire room, a mural that could reflect what Batavia was really like 100 years ago,” he said.
According to Soedarmadji, the mural was left unfinished due to a lack of funding.
Though Harijadi passed away in 1997, his memory still lives on through the mural. “What is amazing about the mural is that it’s a story waiting to be told, screaming at me, ‘I want to speak,’ ” Yudhi said. Indeed, the painter is considered to be a central member of the team.
“We’re telling his story — the relationships, the multicultural aspects, the good, the bad and the ugly,” comic book artist Ilya said. “He’s dead now, but we’re working with him too. We’re bringing his story to life.”
Everyone involved in the project concurred that there was more to the mural than meets the eye, and that it would take more than 15 minutes to fully understand the numerous narrative threads running between the characters depicted on the walls.
“Spend more than five minutes with the mural and you feel the weight of it,” Ilya said. “There are scenes of murder, oppression, the colonial rich strutting around. There are darker aspects, not just happy crowd scenes. I counted 10 kissing couples. There’s a lot of kissing. People can see the things they like. Anyone can go in there and envision a story about one of the characters.”
Interactivity plays an essential role in this project. The organizers are striving to keep the audience actively involved in the story and the project.
“With this project, it’s contextual. Indonesians are not just spectators. They are collaborators and that’s what cultural relationships are about,” said Yudhi, adding that he hopes the project will lead to the revitalization of Batavia and other old towns across the country.
“The past is important,” Ilya said. “History is not boring. It is a turbulent series of events full of exciting and terrible things. The entire genetic code of modern-day Java is expressed in its past and expressed in this mural. Without the past, we have no future.”