Silence as Apolitical? Colonial Atrocities and Postcolonial Memory Work

Silence as Apolitical? Colonial Atrocities and Postcolonial Memory Work

Ana Dragojlovic delves into the profound impact of silence, inspired by Adrienne Rich's poetic wisdom. She explores how silence resonates as a complex presence, particularly in the context of colonial history and shared cultural heritage, using an eye-opening visit to an exhibition in Amsterdam as a starting point. Why do some choose silence when faced with the brutality of the past?

Silence can be a plan

Rigorously executed

the blueprint to a life

It is a presence

It has a history a form

Do not confuse it

With any kind of absence.

—Adrienne Rich, 1978 Cartographies of Silence in the Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977. New York: Norton.

In March 2006, accompanied by four of my Balinese interlocutors, I visited an exhibition entitled Indonesia: The Discovery of the Past, which was held in De Nieuwe Kerk (the New Church) in Amsterdam from December 2005 to April 2006. The exhibition was the result of a co-operative endeavour between the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (RMV) and the National Museum in Jakarta (MNI) as part of a broader project entitled Shared Cultural Heritage. Most of the material displayed had initially been in the possession of the Batavian Society Museum (located in present-day Jakarta), but was divided in the early twentieth century – one part stayed in Indonesia while the other was sent to the Leiden Museum of Ethnology. The 2005-2006 exhibition was the first time that the collection, featuring predominantly Hindu-Buddhist objects, had been brought together since the colonial period. The organisers of the exhibition insisted on the importance of ‘shared cultural heritage’ as an identity that needed to be safeguarded. Unlike most of the previous exhibitions about Indonesia in the Netherlands (most of which had focused primarily on the artistic or ethnographic value of the objects collected during colonial times), this exhibition offered a detailed explanation of the predominately violent context in which the objects had been collected, using the term ‘colonial wars’ (Ter Keurs and Hardiati 2006: 35).

For three of the interlocutors with whom I visited the exhibition, this was their second viewing, despite the fact that getting to Amsterdam required several hours of intercity travel. The rich display of golden crowns, sacred daggers with precious stones, beautifully decorated temple doors and royal garments urged visitors to admire not only the richness of Indonesian cultural traditions but also the affluence and power of the colonial empire. The section in the exhibition featuring objects from Bali offered an explicit representation of puputan. In 1906 and 1908 respectively, the Dutch colonial army conquered the last two remaining Balinese kingdoms of Badung and Klungkung by assassinating their entire royal families and their retainers. In Balinese, these violent events, which marked Balinese people’s final subjugation to Dutch colonial rule, are known as puputan, meaning ‘finishing’ or ‘the end’. The royal regalia and other objects looted after these events that came to be represented at the exhibition were accompanied by a text written immediately after the puputan by a correspondent for the Dutch newspaper De Locomotief describing the sad state of events following the puputan. While a description of the violence of these events was included in the correspondent’s text, the exhibition’s reliance on Dutch sources – which stress the mercenary role of those who ‘saved’ the precious royal regalia and emphasised that the Balinese prince himself stole the sacred objects – serves to give context to these events in a manner that justifies the looting of the objects and larger colonial projects (see also Wiener 1995).

While my interlocutors and I admired the beauty of the royal regalia, my comments about the people who had regretfully found their death during the puputan and Balinese subjugation to the Dutch colonial rule did not engage my interlocutors. They kept stressing that what had happened was history and that similar violent events have occurred all over the world and were by no means unique to Bali. In the weeks that followed our visit to the Nieuwe Kerk, I discussed the exhibition with many of my other interlocutors. Only a few questioned the Dutch presence in the Indonesian archipelago in the first place, but not one of them was willing to engage in a critical discussion about the violent subjugation of Bali to the Dutch colonial rule. Rather, they kept stressing that such events belonged to the past and that violent conflicts are a constant rather than unusual occurrence. My interlocutors interpreted my references to various forms of public commemorations of violence in the Dutch East Indies by Moluccans and Indisch (Indo-Dutch) individuals and groups in the Netherlands as something belonging to the people of these ethnicities that had nothing to do with the Balinese (Dragojlovic, 2016).

Why was it that my Balinese interlocutors so firmly and decidedly wished to remain silent about the colonial violence? Silence is commonly understood as an absence of political agency, as passivity and indifference. I contend that we cannot approach silence through the binary logic of absence versus speech as presence. Stepping away from perceiving silence as homogeneous, linear and passive will open new possibilities of thinking about silence in other ways. One of the ways to go about it, as I have argued elsewhere (Dragojlovic, 2015), is to consider silences as affective, situated presences, that is historically and politically located, reverberating across times and geographical locations as affective presences of historical inequalities (Dragojlovic, 2015, forthcoming).

This blogpost was originally posted on 30 May 2017 on

Silence as Apolitical Blog


Dragojlovic, A. (2016). Beyond Bali: Subaltern Citizens and Post-Colonial Intimacy. Amsterdam University Press.

Dragojlovic, A. (2015). ‘Affective Geographies: Intergenerational Hauntings, Bodily Affectivity and Multiracial Subjectivities’, Subjectivity 8: 315-334.

Dragojlovic, A. (forthcoming). ‘Knowing the Past Affectively: Screen Media and the Evocation of Intergenerational Hauntings’, Special Issue, Broken Narratives and the Lived Body, Arts & Humanities in Higher Education.

Keurs, ter P. and E.S. Hardiati (2006). Indonesia: Discovery of the Past. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers.

Wiener, M. (1995). Visible and Invisible Realms: Power, Magic, and Colonial Conquest in Bali. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.