“The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar” in Yogyakarta

The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar, a photo exhibition curated by Akiq AW and MES56, opened on 9 November 2012 at the Langgeng Art Foundation (LAF) in Yogyakarta, Central Java.

This is part of a four-country project initiated by Noorderlicht Photofestival in the Netherlands.

As quoted from the festival website:

“Noorderlicht has been responsible for collecting the artistic ingredients of the project, the realisation of the new photography assignments and the archive research…

The global objective of this project is reviewing the historical and contemporary aspects in which the process of globalization is examined from the story about sugar, seen through the perspective of four different countries: Brazil, Suriname, Indonesia and the Netherlands.

By comparing the historical/colonial photographs about the sugar industry in the (former) Dutch sugar empire with the new ones on the same subject and geographical locations, we endeavor to unravel the continuities and discontinuities of globalization and its impact upon the respective societies over time as well as how these may be mediated, interpreted and critically commented through and within photography.”

(See http://www.noorderlicht.com/nl/projecten/the-sweet-and-sour-story-of-sugar-in-jogjakarta/. See also http://langgengfoundation.org/?p=369.)

Indonesian curator/researcher Alex Supartono is the main link between Noorderlicht and the participating collectives in Indonesia, including the aforementioned MES56. The latter has always positioned itself as the main driving force behind the “emergence” of contemporary photography in Indonesia.


On 23 November 2012, Irma Chantily published a review of the Yogyakarta show on Jakarta Post.

Irma is a young writer/curator from Jakarta with a keen interest on Indonesian photography. I am happy to republish her review here.


Local Perspectives on Sugar’s Story

By Irma Chantily 

Neo-colonialism is probably the key word for Akiq AW, the exhibition curator appointed by the Langgeng Art Foundation (LAF), to read and present a complete framework for the photography project “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar”.

The show itself was initiated by Noorderlicht, known to consistently hold photography exhibitions in the Netherlands. As the exhibition’s title implies, the project is a photographic investigation into globalization through the first commodity ever traded across continents: sugar.

The exhibition at LAF’s two main galleries in Yogyakarta that opened on Nov. 9 and runs to Jan. 20, 2013, comprises the works of six photographers commissioned by Noorderlicht to record the current condition of the sugar industry along with hundreds of colonial-era photographs compiled from various archives in Europe.

As the initiator, Noorderlicht provided artistic material for the exhibition and collaborated with local partners in Suriname, Indonesia and Brazil to exhibit the project in their respective countries.

What is interesting is that Noorderlicht treats the project as open source. That is, all local partners and curators are free to use all materials to create an exhibition, even to give the photographs new contexts and paradigms considered to be the most appropriate to the local situation.

For the exhibition in Yogyakarta, Akiq collaborated with colleagues Angki Purbandono and Wimo Ambala Bayang, both members of an artist’s collective that promotes contemporary photography known as MES56.

Keen observation and wide experience in organizing exhibitions are evident in their decision to divide the whole project into two big sections: the new photography assignments and the old, colonial photography. The division is considered a way to focus the audience and allow them to compare photographs and the ways they were taken. It also serves as a way to present the point that Western photographers nowadays have the tendency to perceive locals as mere objects, and in this sense, are no different than their colonial predecessors — which then becomes merely the neo-colonial gaze.

They frame the exhibition into an act of seeing and being seen, and how there will always be an unbalanced presentation between the two. It is about how in the colonial photographs, audiences can see a very distinct social structure between the colonizers and the colonized, or the West and the East.

“And a similar presentation was still felt in the photographs taken by these six photographers,” said Akiq. And so, he argued, “This is not just about photography, but also how Westerners perceive us.”

This idea does not come from thin air. Besides observing and studying the materials provided by Noorderlicht, they voiced their objections about the lack of local photographers commissioned to partake in the project to document the condition of the sugar industry from a local perspective. “There was a lack of proximity between the photographers and the issues they explored,” said Akiq.

On the second floor gallery, visitors were presented with newly commissioned works by James Whitlow Delano (Japan/US), Alejandro Chaskielberg (Argentina), Ed Kashi (US), Francesco Zizola (Italy), Carl de Keyzer (Belgium) and Tomasz Tomaszewski (Poland).

The photographers recorded social realities and various elements of the sugar industry in the present, including the current state of factories, the life of immigrants and workers with the market changing so much, and also the story of how the sugar industry has become a part of the cultural heritage in the form of consumption and rituals.

These photographs are then given four main contexts by the exhibition curators. One hundred and eighty of 300 photos are represented in the form of an index accompanied by text, allowing each photograph to tell a different and specific story.

The first context shows the legacy of the sugar industry in the colonial era. It consist of photographs by Chaskielberg showing the remaining sugar factories in Suriname, places that once thrived and generated a lot of income and are now overgrown with weeds. The living situation of the descendants of sugar factory workers was documented by Delano. His pictures show descendants from Java, India, Africa and China: the four major population groups in Suriname.

The second is about how sugar is handled. On one side, Tomaszewski shows how sugar materialized in rituals carried out by the Javanese before the production season. The annual festival has a parade and the sacrificing of bulls and cows for a good harvest.

From de Keyzer’s work, viewers can see that on the other side of the world, sugar is a mere commodity, discussed in numbers at EU parliament meetings.

Comparisons of sugar processing technology are the third context, with technological development affecting workers and depicted in photographs. For instance, the technology used in Indonesian factories is no different from 100 years ago and is almost similar to the conditions in southern Brazil.

The last issue addressed is the exploration of sugar usage and consumption in the form of various products such as candy, cakes and fast food.

The colonial photography section is in the basement gallery. After being carefully constructed, the section offers hundreds of photographs divided into countries of origin, but the section lacks the criticism first offered to the audience through the four main issues related to the modern photographs. The old photos are displayed merely according to subject matter or based on the similarities of visual character.

Despite all that, “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar” at LAF is captivating. Most of the audience engagement comes from the visual pleasure of looking at great artistic material and the way the exhibition curators frame the works. Also, for the first time exhibited in Indonesia, the colonial-era photographs offer fresh perspectives on our history. The contrast they offer and the story behind the images can inspire a viewer to think more deeply about the sugar industry and how it has stirred our social history.

The open source formula is one of the most interesting elements of the project. With that being said, it will be very exciting to also see how the same project will be seen and presented by Ruangrupa, an artist’s collective in Jakarta.

Will they consider the colonial gaze as well? Or will they be captivated by the nostalgia some of the photographs evoke? Or will they experience something else entirely?


IMG_2653Second floor of LAF features the works of the assigned photographers. Photograph courtesy of Irma Chantily.

IMG_2647Colonial-era photographs at the basement of LAF. Photograph courtesy of Irma Chantily.


After Irma Chantily posted the link of this article on her Facebook wall on 23 November 2012, I made some comments about the exhibition, which attracted responses from Irma, Indonesian photographer Rony Zakaria and Sjors Swierstra (project coordinator at Noorderlicht). I started by noting that Rony Zakaria and senior Indonesian photojournalist Eddy Hasby have documented the sugar industry in Java on an individual basis.

Here is the Facebook exchange, edited for length:

Zhuang Wubin: I wonder why the works of Indonesian photographers Rony Zakaria and Eddy Hasby are not even considered by the curators to underline the differences between so-called “western” portrayal of the sugar industry in Java vis-a-vis that of “local” perspectives. Irma Chantily, do you think the criticism of colonial photography can be amplified if the old photographs are shown beside those of Carl de Kezyer?

Irma Chantily: As far as I know, the curator said that they proposed to assign local visual artists to create works around this issue. But the proposal was declined, I don’t know why. Probably because it’s going to be too similar to what Alex were doing at the same time in Yogyakarta. But since it’s an open source project, I don’t know why they didn’t just go all the way to create the kind of exhibition they want.

And no, I don’t think juxtaposing de Keyzer’s and old photographs would emphasize the criticism of colonial photography. They are totally different.

Zhuang Wubin: on your last point, not really. if you can find the common visual tricks that run through both de kezyer’s photographs and the colonial images, then we may say that little has changed.

there’s no need to assign local visual artists to create new works. just simply incorporating the already completed works of rony and eddy would have lent an edge to the comparison.

Irma Chantily: Really? You think so? I better check his works again, then.

Anyway, do you really think Eddy’s works could better provide Indonesian perspective on sugar stories? I haven’t seen his works so I couldn’t really comment on this one, but a friend of mine said that Eddy’s works were also gazing, colonial way. Just to share a thought.

Zhuang Wubin: at the start of a curatorial/research project, you cannot predetermine the outcome. if eddy’s work is “colonial” (or if rony’s work is “colonial”), then it is still worthwhile to compare with the original colonial photographs. but the first question to ask is, what really is the gaze? is the gaze something that we talk about only with hindsight? and without hindsight, there isn’t really a difference betw colonial and local photography? i dunno the answers to these questions. but a show that incorporates colonial photography should, at the very minimum, poses some of these questions through a clever juxtaposition of images.

Irma Chantily: I agree that a clever juxtaposition of images would be a good way to present the criticism about neo/colonial gaze the curators were talking about. I just don’t think juxtaposing it by photographers would do. Instead, they should try juxtaposing it by issues or subject matters. Factory to factory, festivity/cultural activity to festivity/cultural activity, portraits to portraits, machinery to machinery.

Sjors Swierstra: Interesting conversation.

Working for Noorderlicht and being close to the curatorial process (and decision about who to assign) I can maybe add to this. Noorderlicht discussed this topic extensively. In the end we decided to choose photographers with a own signature who we knew we could trust in bringing a strong story in a short amount of time. We didn’t look at race, gender, nationality etc, but go for best visual storytellers we could afford.

With the open source structure and the workshop we’d try to organise counterweight to our own perception on this story.

Note: I love the work of the photographers mentioned and appreciate other views on the choices we’ve made.

Zhuang Wubin: It is very easy to say that the West visualized the East in specific ways. But the arguments, thus far, are not compelling. A lot of things have been said with hindsight, provided by our readings of written histories.

The curators at Jogja claimed that the colonial photographers envisioned the Other in a specific way. And yet, based on how the colonial images are relegated to the basement of the space at Langgeng, they have given up the excellent opportunity of juxtaposing old photographs with those taken by the six globetrotting photographers (commissioned by Noorderlicht) to justify what they said. In this sense, what they claimed seems hollow, something that local photojournalists like to say vis-a-vis foreign photographers covering “their” terrain.

If they have even included the photographs of Rony Zakaria or Eddy Hasby into the conversation (it doesn’t even have to be on the walls, strictly speaking), the comparisons would have been immediately more fruitful. Again, I do not know if their inclusions will argue for or against the Jogja curators’ perspectives. But I don’t think you need to embark upon a curatorial project by first, casting in stone what you intend to drive across. Given its open-source preamble, this curatorial collaboration should be seen as an evolving process, with the intent of making some insightful comments eventually.

The other disappointment is for Noorderlicht not to commission photographers who come from these specific communities to document the sugar industries. Instead, six highly respected photographers who are already flown around for various assignments are picked to participate in this project. By doing so, the project loses its critical edge.

Sjors Swierstra: I don’t think the ‘critical edge’ of the project can be judged by the nationality of the assigned photographers. It’s not like they represent the ‘West’ in everything that may or may not stand for. Critical edge is the core of what their work stands for.

Zhuang Wubin: Yes, I agree. It has nothing to do with the nationality. Furthermore, as I have reiterated, it is too easy to say that the West is this or the East is that. However, I think it is entirely fair to say that their works are commonly seen in exhibitions and magazines from USA and Western Europe. Therefore, I am curious about the “critical edge” that resides in the “core” of their works. Please enlighten me. There’s no need to talk about all of them. Just pick one. Maybe Ed Kashi? Or Carl de Keyzer?

Sjors Swierstra: I prefer not to discuss particular assignments or photographers. But feel free to do so.

Zhuang Wubin: Alas, it is our loss again, because we are told there is “critical edge” in their works but not given the opportunity to learn/know about it.

Rony Zakaria: Quite an interesting discussion on the sugar project. I must say that I thought at first the decision of selecting the assigned photographers was related in creating a similar colonial photography back in those days when europeans came down and photograph the indigenous and native people in the colonies.

But again when Sjors mentioned that the selection based on the reputation of the photographers who can deliver up to noorderlicht standards, it was still a logical choice from my opinion.

It was when I heard that the Jogja and Jakarta shows were curated by MES56 and Ruang Rupa, both are groups and collective whose expertise are in contemporary art, that I started to be intrigued more about noorderlich decision on this.

Because when noorderlicht assigned the photographers, of course it was less risky to assign the top reputable photographers, which I would also do if I was the picture editor of a magazine and for instance I had to get an important reportage done in central africa. But I am quite surprised on why Noorderlicht then took the risk on the presentation and curational process to have the shows curated by a group/collective whose method of work is miles apart from the documentary approach (which how the assigned photographs were taken). Very interesting and I am very curious to know.

I didn’t have the chance to look at the Jogja show, but today I was able to look at the show in jakarta which was curated by ruangrupa. It was quite surprising actually (in a good way:) ). Very clever to show both the colonial photographs with and the contemporary ones together. In one shelf as postcards, some as framed photographs, hanged t-shirts. I almost couldn’t find the difference between the now and then photographs. Though being myself as a documentarian there were some approach (like the self-made videos and the cd covers) that I found just ‘trying too much’. Overall It was quite okay actually from my point of view.

The only thing I could find a bit strange was the invitation and posters that I got, where there were no mentions of the photographers instead every name of the curator, local visual artist and workshop participants were well mentioned.

Irma Chantily: Rony Zakaria, I went there today. I must say I enjoyed the exhibition. It is very “ruru” but I like it. The exhibition looked well thought, well composed, involving many visual artist and all of it become a big story of sugar history. Some are playful, some other are serious. I like the way they present all photographs (the artistic material provided by Noorderlicht)–takes us back and forth on the journey of old-new.

Rony Zakaria: It is also interesting to notice that none of James Whitlow Delano’s photograph were featured in ruru’s exhibition and only a few of Carl de Keyzer’s (from my observation) but correct me if I’m wrong.

Zhuang Wubin: Rony Zakaria, I find it interesting that in your response, you willingly imply that your work on the sugar industry in Java is of less quality and of less depth than the work of the commissioned photographer by Noorderlicht. As Shahidul has pointed out, in the past, the logic of the European editors for ignoring the Bangladeshi photographers is that “they don’t have the eye”. Now, it seems like you have internalized that and imply that you “don’t have the eye”. 

Furthermore, I think if Noorderlicht has a specific point to drive, I doubt it will turn this project into an open source initiative and allow local partners to do as they fit.

Rony Zakaria: I think you got me wrong. I was making an example by positioning myself in their shoes (Noorderlicht) that if I had to choose whether to commission top names in photojournalism to do this than to gamble by searching rather underexposed photographers in Indonesia and Suriname, I would probably do the first choice. It seems logical in terms of time and I would say an easier choice, though perhaps not an ideal one.

I never ever undermine my work. Photographers have ego and so do I  About less quality and less depth is not for me to judge, I just document because I was there. But again my documents were not created for the purpose of this sugar project while the assigned photographers were.


During the exhibition, LAF also hosted a workshop organized by Alex Supartono. According to the Noorderlicht website, the workshop “invites both local and international contemporary artists to process colonial photographs as their inspiration and to discuss possibilities of employing colonial photographs for further artistic explorations”.

Photographer Budi Dharmawan, who has also shown an interest in writing and curating photography, participated in the workshop and recorded his thoughts in two blog postings.

They can be read here:

Part 1

Part 2