Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Special Edition by this year’s Craft Archive Fellowship cohort, organized in collaboration with the Center for Craft in support of new work by emerging and established researchers in the field, with a focus on underrepresented and non-dominant histories. Hyperallergic Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian will moderate a free, online presentation and roundtable discussion with the fellows at 1pm EDT on July 20. Register for the Craft Archive Virtual Program.
In a garage somewhere northeast of San Diego is a clutch of Rubbermaid boxes full of costumes: dark corduroy vests fringed with gold tassels and painted, several times over, with a silver sunburst emblem; long bolts of cloth in brown and pink packed with printed butterflies; silk scarves in rich black spangled with tiny metallic flowers; and golden crowns, cut from cardboard, stapled together, and dripping with glitter and craft paint. The crowns are small, made to fit an adolescent or teenage girl. The names of the girls who performed in these crowns between 1960 and 1975 are inscribed on the inside lip of each headpiece — an archive recording traces of Indo history, Indo craft, and Indo care.
In 1959, hundreds of Indo families began to arrive in the United States from the Netherlands. It was the latest stop in a long journey. Clutching guitars and suitcases, Indos, or Dutch Indonesians — a mixed-race community whose members are of Indische Nederlander heritage in the colonial Dutch East Indies — had been adrift for almost a decade. Displaced by the violence of World War II and the subsequent Indonesian revolution, many thousands of mixed families had initially fled from the islands of Southeast Asia to the Netherlands.
There, in a country pulling itself together after years of Nazi occupation and intense aerial bombardment, Indos encountered intense ethnic discrimination, a lack of quality housing, and an anemic labor market. While the majority of Indos stayed in the Netherlands, a fraction of this community, my own family included, decided to gamble on migrating a second time, to the United States and Canada.
Upon arriving in California, Indos began to form mutual support organizations in communities with substantial population clusters, such as Los Angeles and San Diego counties. These organizations provided Indos a chance to socialize, play music, and preserve their uniquely hybrid culture in the United States. During the fall of 2022, I lived with Andrea Matthies, an Indo photographer, musician, and community organizer in San Diego County. Andrea showed me photo albums from the Dutch Refugee Fellowship, or DURF, an Indo community organization founded by a handful of migrants in the early 1960s. Andrea’s family were active members of DURF during its heyday and her mother, Brenda, danced at fundraisers and community parties throughout her teenage years. I also had the opportunity to interview several California Indo elders at meet-ups, buffets, and a kumpulan community party.
I learned that in 1960s San Diego’s living rooms and garages, adults like Renee de Long instructed teenage girls in Javanese court dance for performance at DURF events. Community members also cut, sewed, and decorated elaborate dance costumes for these performances, executing designs from patterns generated by Fred Attinger and other collaborators.
Many of the cultural practices at DURF resembled contemporaneous activities in Europe. In my dissertation fieldwork in the Netherlands, I interviewed several artists who had come up through the Indo arts community in the 1960s and 1970s before the normalization of political relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia. Within that context, Indo practitioners of classical Indonesian dance forms were relatively isolated from dance networks in Indonesia — for example, the teaching and arts patronage centered around the royal courts of central Java — as well as the material networks that support dance practice in the archipelago: the legions of craftspeople who build and fashion costumes, props, wigs, and makeup for specific dance traditions.
One of my interlocutors described how his master teacher in Tilburg would rely on his experience training in the Indies before the migration to the Netherlands to choreograph classical Javanese dance, looking to still images of dancers from souvenir postcards and his own inventions when his memory failed.
This same dynamic — making do in the face of material scarcity and cultural disconnection — is evidenced by the San Diego dance costumes. DURF community members could not commission a gilded leather dance crown from a craftsman in central Java. Instead, they had to craft their costumes with materials and expertise on hand. While some may be tempted to read the plastic tassels and stapled construction of the San Diego crowns as improvised imitations of proper dance ornaments, I see in them the archival evidence of a people deeply engaged with their cultural and political context, using what materials they can access to try to preserve their cultural practices.
These practices came about in a specific moment when Indos in the United States were grappling with how to present themselves. Unlike our cousins in the Netherlands, California Indos had the luxury of being ethnically unintelligible to their neighbors. Being Dutch, White, and Indonesian were not mutually exclusive in San Diego. Still, ambivalence abounded. Eventually this would change — by the mid-1980s, many of the Indo community organizations that had flourished across Southern California had closed and with them went these dance and crafting practices. This was at almost the precise moment when some Indo performers, such as Alex and Eddie Van Halen or Mark-Paul Gosselaar, began achieving wide success in American media — as tan Californians, not as Brown or Asian Others.
But traces of Californian Indo dance remain — in the photos community members scrapbooked, in the bodies and memories of the girls who danced serimpi at the South Claremont community center across a 15-year span, and in the costumes that community members handcrafted for these performances. Though Indo dance performances were ephemeral, the crafted materials they generated hint at what they may have meant; they evoke the act of conjuring a pattern for a crown from memory — memories drawn from the other side of the world and a decade of life away. These 60-year-old cardboard crowns record the blended, communal responses to the limitations of diasporic life. They evince the tenacity of Indo migrants in preserving and transmitting their culture. And they bear witness to the changing strategies Indos have deployed to thrive in the United States.
Picking my way through the boxes of costumes in Andrea’s garage, I wondered about the future of all these materials and, by extension, our culture here in California. American Indos have often sought invisibility; I interpret this as a defensive crouch against the forces of discrimination and harassment that pushed us across three continents before arriving here, at the crumbling edge of the West. But this invisibility has come with a great cost. We have forfeited many of the cultural practices that made us distinct.
In backyards, buffets, and barbecues across California, Indo artists and organizers like Andrea are attempting to record, preserve, and further California Indo culture as best they can. This project has incredible urgency; our elders are passing away at an alarming pace, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. The fires that have threatened Indo homes in Southern California have grown in intensity and show little indication of abating. California Indos need resources to record and preserve our histories, and there is little time to waste.
Holding a crown in my hand, I run my fingers over a dark stain left by a sweating forehead, a strip of tape strategically placed to protect the dancer’s scalp from the sharp edge of a staple. So much care and love is packed into these ornaments, echoing the care and love that my tantes pass to me, and that I pass onto my niece. Pressing my fingertips gently into the cardboard, I imagine that I can feel the heat radiating from the dancer who wore it and the caring touch of the person who crafted it. The dances may be finished, but the tenacity, artistry, and care of the dancers and their community persevere.