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Night Letters: Art and Ambiguity in the Early Years of Soeharto’s New Order (1968-1976)

Colloquium with Jeffrey Hadler, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Thursday, October 11, 2012
2:00 PM - 3:30 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
UCLA Campus
Los Angeles, CA 90095

This paper is a contextualized, critical reading of a key text in modern Indonesian cultural and political history, the Night Letters (Surat-Surat Malam) by the artist Nashar (1928-1994). The Letters suggest a revisionist intellectual and cultural history of Indonesia between 1968 and 1974, a period that followed the state-sponsored mass murder of as many as one million communist party members and the imprisonment of many more, including leading artists and intellectuals. Scholars have seen these years as counter-revolutionary and lacking romance, the prelude to thirty years of repressive right-wing military dictatorship under Soeharto and a time of collaborationist intellectuals and apolitical artists.

But this was not (entirely) the case. It was an ambiguous period when it was in no way clear what direction state and society would take. There was hope for a moralistic “New Order” in Indonesia, excitement at the reengagement with the West after a period of isolationist politics, and suppressed horror at the killings and arrests. Nashar was an abstract artist, a founder of the Jakarta Art Institute, and a signatory of the 1963 “Cultural Manifesto” that advocated artistic freedom in the face of dominant state-sponsored “revolutionary” art. With the destruction of the communist party Nashar was not triumphal. Through the Night Letters he engaged publicly with the horror of 1965 and 1966 and discussed the political responsibilities of avowedly apolitical artists. In the context of cold war artistic politics and Indonesian national history Nashar represents the possibility of a new intellectual and cultural history of the early Soeharto years.

Jeffrey Hadler first lived with a Minangkabau family as a high school exchange student in 1985. He studied about literature and Southeast Asia as an undergraduate at Yale and then Southeast Asian History as a graduate student at Cornell. He taught at the State Islamic University in Jakarta in 2000 before joining the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at U.C. Berkeley, where he is currently an Associate Professor and Chair of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies. His book Muslims and Matriarchs: Cultural Resilience in Indonesia through Jihad and Colonialism won the 2011 Benda Prize from the Association for Asian Studies.

Cost : Free and open to the public.


Sponsor(s): Center for Southeast Asian Studies

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