Curatorial text for The Untold Stories of Archipelago

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Timoteus Anggawan Kusno works in the space between art, ethnography and museology to unravel the hidden narratives that support the colonial matrix of power. By creating speculative scenarios using established institutional forms, he is able to reveal and interfere in the process of knowledge production. In this new installation for Power and Other Things, he turns to the traditions of a lost ceremony created in the late period of Javanese feudalism, when it was already under the control of colonial forces. The Rampok Macan (Tiger Raid) is thought to have begun in 1791 in Yogyakarta, and began to spread to other small kingdoms in the early 19th century. It was a violent, collective ritual organized by the king and usually performed on the day of Eid, that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. In the middle of the palace square, under the hot sun, a Javanese tiger (or sometimes a panther) would be pitted against a buffalo, a bull or even a criminal in a fight to death. The bloody spectacle was always enthusiastically received by the people filling the square, who wanted to show their loyalty to and support for the king. To demonstrate his power, the king would usually also invite the colonial officials to sit beside him to enjoy the fight and watch the justified death of the thiger. the boundary between the public masses and the battlefield was marked by a tight ring of spears, pointing inwards, so that the tiger had no escape—even if it succeeded in killing the thief or buffalo it would be impaled on the spears as it tried to escape by attacking the crowd.

What is the symbolism behind this ceremony and how does it relate to the way colonialism operated? How does it relate to questions of power and authority today? Some Western writers, such as Pigeaud, Niewenhuys, and Jaquet, say that the tradition is closely related to authority and the confirmation of the power and hierarchy. In Pigeaud’s view this practice can be interpreted as ‘the extermination of a crime organized by order of the ruler’. The tiger is destroyed by the community as a collective, so that the tiger’s restless soul is unable to take revenge on any one individual. This cleansing and absolution has been granted by the ruler. Indeed, as the masses see it the tiger is not killed at all but brings about its own death by trying to escape or losing to a better opponent. The tiger died for refusing to uphold the given order of things and its death is necessary to restore stability and maintain the traditions of society. The colonial powers are witnesses to this agreement between ruler and ruled so they need not concern themselves further.

This reading relates in part to changes that the colonial order was bringing about. The expansion of their exploration of plantation shrank Java’s forest further and forced tigers to descend from the mountains and prey of livestocks and sometimes villagers. The Javanese were probably well aware o this but powerless to change it, therefore their repressed helplessness found expression in the ceremony, together with joy at the feeling of power and ideology. Now, the tradition of Rampok Macan has been lost and Javanese tigers are considered extinct. Yet the reasoning in which bloodbath can be held under the blessing of power returns in Javanese and Indonesian history. We only need to recall the more recent massacre of people ‘believed’ to be communist who destroy ‘harmony’ or order; the burning and the looting of stores of place of worship, the violence to ethnic Chinese in 1998 riots, or the death of chicken thieves beaten by the masses.

In this strange sense of continuity, Timoteus Anggawan Kusno’s work unravels the question of how colonialism ended and the extent to which its ideologies and ways of thinking survive into the present. Such a long history of repression and exploitation leaves its mark and it is the struggle of decolonial thinking to try to limit its power.

Charles Esche & Riksa Afiaty

(curators for “Power and Other Things” Exhibition, Europalia Arts Festival Indonesia, Belgium, 2017)