“The threat, especially as modern cities were emerging in the Indies, was in fluidity. In semen and blood untamed, as Bath Veth described it, in water— polluted, dripping, leaking, or flowing unregulated. We have seen what water could do to the modern roads in the Indies. To rule the colony, to become modern there, to stay, meant to confine the flow.”
—Rudolf Mrázek, 2002
Hendrik Freerk Tillema (1870–1952) was a Dutch pharmacist, entrepreneur, self-taught ethnographer and photographer, lobbyist and advocate for hygienic standards in the colonies, who lived in the Dutch Indies for twenty years of his life up until WWI. The photographs and films that Tillema produced or collected during his time in colonial Indonesia are located in the archives of the Museum voor Volkenkunde, the Tropenmuseum and the Eye filmmuseum. With the several cholera epidemics in the background, in Semarang, he built the first purified and bottled water factory in the Dutch East Indies. This enterprise made him rich; it opened for him the doors to exclusive industrialists’ clubs and local and national politics. Importantly, it directly supported his expeditions, observations and publications. However, his entrepreneurial and propaganda activities are rarely taken into account when talking about his ethnographic photography and film work.
Resequencing the Logic of the Tillema Collections. Engaging Otherwise with the Colonial Archive is an artistic and archival research project in collaboration with Paolo Patelli.
After the 1910 cholera epidemic in Semarang, Tillema began what was to become his lifelong crusade: to make the Dutch government aware of the dangers of the unhygienic conditions in the kampongs. Tillema wrote numerous publications on hygiene and urbanism in the colony, among others the six-volume publication Kromoblanda (1915-23). Throughout his work Tillema deployed montage techniques – both visually and conceptually – to produce meaning and affect by the contrastful juxtaposition of observations and intentions, of primitive and modern. Significant stylistic differences emerge in communication materials of different kinds: from advertisements for his company’s bottled water and sodas, to reports destined to colonial authorities and the central government in The Hague.
His ideas fit the broader modern scientific and medical discourse on hygiene and urbanism, amplifying spatial and racial segregation through fear for contamination, through environmental and bodily pollution.
With the Tillema Collection as a case study, the project intends to develop new narratives through the artistic and rigorous mobilisation of archival materials, while tracing the origins of fragmented knowledge and reflecting on systems and values with regard to the preservation of heritage. The aim is to contribute meaningfully to the debate on the decolonisation of archives, and to promote their public accessibility and outreach. By developing and deploying innovative methods and tools at the intersection of information design, critical documentary and the humanities, the project will mobilise knowledges and concerns through an open, generative process that will unfold through internal workshops, public participatory sessions, performance lectures and a video essay.