In 2020 the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (NMVW, National Museum of World Cultures) purchased a work by the Indonesian artist Zico Albaiquni. It depicts his vision of the famous Kebun Raya botanical garden in Bogor in fluorescent colours.
Kebun Raya was established in 1817 to cultivate plants, trees and crops, some from other countries, and to investigate whether they could be grown and economically exploited on Java. The garden was thus at the basis of the ecological devastation caused by the large-scale construction of plantations, not only on Java but also Sumatra and Kalimantan.
In this world story you’ll see how this contemporary Indonesian artist shows the continually changing role of this botanical garden in his painting. From colonial experimental garden to guardian of biodiversity.
Zico Albaiquni (1987) painted Ruwatan Tanah Air Beta, Reciting Rites in its Sites for the On the nature of Botanical Gardens exhibition. The work reflects on the history of the Kebun Raya Bogor, West Java, the oldest botanical garden in Southeast Asia and the colonial past. The painting, which we have purchased, can be seen in the Our Colonial Inheritance exhibition that opened in June 2022 here in the Tropenmuseum. Photographs and a painting in our collection were Zico’s source of inspiration. He looked at the practices and stories from the past about the garden and linked them to the present day, giving his interpretation of the garden’s constantly changing role.
Back in time
In 1817 Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt founded the Bogor Botanical Garden. The garden is situated in today’s huge city of Bogor in Java and is the oldest botanical garden in Southeast Asia. The dominant mountain climate made it extremely suitable for growing all kinds of species of plants and trees. The garden’s objective was partly to grow plants, but also to do research on how crops like coffee, rubber and cinchona grow best and produce the best possible yield. So the experimental garden was important for the colonial project.
The directors had contact with botanists, scientists and administrators worldwide who sent new plants. The Hortus Botanicus in Leiden was closely involved in this. Some of these crops were successful, others were not. In 1848, for example, oil palm cuttings were sent from Bourbon and Mauritius, which was the start of oil palm cultivation on Java.
Zico has incorporated a photograph of the oil palms on the right of his painting. Planting was limited during colonial times; nowadays huge parts of the jungle in North Sumatra and Kalimantan have been replaced by oil palm plantations with a devastating effect on nature and the environment of flora, fauna and human beings. Tobacco was tried out not long after in the garden, which was the beginning of the tobacco plantations in North Sumatra.
The garden’s location is no coincidence. According to Javanese tradition a ruler of West Java planted a forest here as long ago as the fifteenth century, which later was no longer maintained. This Indo-Javanese group of statues is a reference to that distant past and spirituality. Photographs from our collection show how the group of statues was arranged in the nineteenth century. An inscription on a large stone mentions a pond in the vicinity.
The botanical garden borders on the garden (28 hectares) of the presidential palace where the Dutch governor generals resided during the colonial period. Not far from there is a cemetery with Dutch graves from the nineteenth century in a bamboo forest. The rustling of the bamboo was said to keep the spirits of the deceased peaceful and happy. The famous Indonesian artist Raden Saleh painted the cemetery and can be seen in the right of Zico’s work.
‘For learning and pleasure’
That the garden, where today’s inhabitants of Bogor and Jakarta enjoy a moment of relaxation in the fresh air, was already a place to learn and to play in the mid-twentieth century, can be seen in the photograph below of a group of school children in the 1930s. In Zico’s work they can also be seen dancing.
Six years after Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesian independence, the Indonesian professor Kusnoto Setyodiwirjo became the new director of the garden in 1951. He changed the name to Kebun Raya Bogor.
The figure of Sukarno, depicted by Zicco in the middle in a pavilion, represents that change. Subsequent directors of the garden collected even more plants and crops and built research laboratories and glasshouses.
Guardian of biodiversity
Since the nineteenth century botanical gardens have mainly concentrated on building collections, classifying species and exchanging seeds and cuttings but also on maintaining the abundance of species and on research and experiment. To this day Kebun Raya Bogor is an important international institute for research and maintaining biodiversity. Botanical gardens also plant seeds and cuttings of endangered species in their original habitat.
Becoming aware worldwide
In the twenty-first century conservation, research and education have become even more crucial and more urgent. Owing to climate change, overexploitation and destruction of the ground and its materials, environmental pollution, urbanization and industrialization, a third of all species are threatened with extinction. Educational programmes can help to make people more aware of how they can harm our planet and threaten biodiversity and the existence of flora and fauna. Botanical gardens are working in a worldwide network to achieve this.