Jac Hoogerbrugge: From Lake Toba to Lake Sentani
From Lake Toba to Lake Sentani
Jac Hoogerbrugge (1923-2014) was a soft spoken, witty, erudite man and an astute collector-cum-connoisseur of tribal art. Serving as a transport agent and, subsequently, as a UNESCO official in Indonesia and New Guinea allowed him to probe deeply into the ritual art of the Batak (north Sumatra), Lake Sentani, the Humboldt Bay, the Asmat (New Guinea), and the Dayak (Borneo). Later in life, having returned to the Netherlands, he continued to hunt out items of ethnographic interest - in flea markets, at auctions, but also by means of his excellent connections in missionary circles and with former colonials. At the same time, he explored colonial and missionary archives to contextualize and document the objects he found.
In Jakarta c. 1950
Among the Batak
When Jac arrived in Tenggara Balai on the east coast of Sumatra in 1954 he had already developed a keen interest in antiquities and tribal art, as an officer in the Dutch forces in Indonesia between 1946 and 1949, and subsequently, from 1951 on, as an agent of the Royal Dutch Shipping Company in Jakarta. When stationed on the coast of northeast Sumatra, he journeyed inland entering the Batak Lands around Lake Toba whenever possible.
Hoogerbrugge: “The Batak villages were isolated, protected, quite inaccessible socially, and the atmosphere was often pretty sullen but also, because of that, intriguing. They were not especially friendly, and why should they be - we were more or less intruders, my wife and I, with our old Ford and our cameras.”
He started to find objects, but also bought from dealers, who worked with “trackers” (tukang cari), younger family members who were sent out to remote locations, including Nias, in order to search for ethnographica and antiques. It was from one of these dealers Hoogerbrugge purchased his first Batak objects: small pots for a magical substance (pukpuk), staffs of Batak priests, ornamentation of houses, and bone amulets with ritual inscriptions.
“But soon I myself had better access. The Bataks are fanatical chess players. I am too, so I played them regularly in the villages. Also, I often sat in the villages drawing - another passion of mine. Both activities led to good contacts, enabling me to obtain information on the meaning of all these strange things. After a while I could buy directly from the Batak themselves, without dealers coming between us. For example, at one point I was able to purchase a truly exceptional, very early, elaborately carved staff, a tunggal panaluan, from a Batak religious practioner (datu) on Samosir, the island in Toba Lake. I had to promise him I would offer an egg to it every day.”
Fieldwork around Lake Sentani
In 1956, Hoogerbrugge was transferred to Hollandia, present-day Jayapura, and the capital of the Netherlands New Guinea. He immediately felt senang - at ease, a word Jac used frequently. Here he quickly found his way to the native villages surrounding Lake Sentani and the Humboldt Bay, a world secluded from the colonial milieu he worked in at Hollandia. Here once again, his passion for drawing and painting was of great help, as was the fact that several young men from the Lake Sentani worked in his office, including the son of an ondofolo, a traditional village chief. He interviewed villagers around the lake on the mythical significance of the spiral and wave motifs he sketched.
Time and again he asked about the meaning of the creation myths which were recited in a special sacred language, about the significance of songs, dances, feasts and tattoos, of all kinds of ritual objects, and of recurring motifs in carvings. “Those patterns point directly to the cosmic order and the coming into existence of all things at the beginning of time. By decorating the art with this pattern it was slotted into the cosmological order, and thus began to participate in that order in a productive manner, which is necessary for life and fertility.” This fieldwork laid the basis for several much later publications. During these years spent in the Netherlands New Guinea, Jac also developed a lifelong interest in the ancestor figures (korwars) of the Geelvink Bay, a third style area on the north coast of New Guinea.
Hoogerbrugge: “In fact it was a miracle I could still lay hands on anything old in the way of objects and stories. Two generations of Protestant missionaries had already been active in the region, proselytizing and, occasionally, burning indigenous art. Next, WWII with the Japanese presence and, after that, a large Allied Forces base right next to Lake Sentani. It was only in hindsight, long after I had returned to Holland, that it became clear to me how exceptional the unbelievable, really old cultural stuff was that I had still been able to put together - korwars and neckrests from the Geelvink Bay, bark cloths from Lake Sentani, amulets and canoe prows from the Humboldt Bay …. I was hunting for the really early pieces, was crazy about them - and just in time! I also bought from planters, missionaries, and other people in isolated locations along the coast. Although it could be really difficult to find old things, such contacts regularly bore fruit. Being a transport official helped a lot.”
One of over a thousand drawings in the Hoogerbrugge Archives: A Tobati war canoe prow he acquired from inhabitants of a village east of Humboldt Bay, probably by the name of Oinaki, in 1958. It had washed ashore there long ago after an altercation with people from the village of Tobati (Humboldt Bay) and was kept in the village as a trophy—as indicated in one of Hoogerbrugge’s notes.
Indonesian travels, 1964-1966
When the Netherlands New Guinea became part of Indonesia in 1962 the Hoogerbrugge family moved to the Netherlands. Two years later Jac was sent to Indonesia again, now to travel around checking out harbors in search of business opportunities for his employer, the Royal Dutch Shipping Company.
Jac: “With a thick wad of checks, I went adventuring. Those were crazy years, which I enjoyed profoundly. The country was unsettled: rebellious soldiers and provinces were challenging the state’s authority. But with money, patience, and a glib tongue I slipped between them and could go everywhere, from Sumatra through the Lesser Sunda Islands to the heart of the Moluccas. I found incredible stuff. For example, in small towns along the coasts of Borneo, I was able to buy fine, elaborately decorated machetes (mandau) and various types of woodcarvings from the Dayak who came down the river to trade whenever a ship was expected from Singapore or Hong Kong.”
in Agats c. 1970
The UNESCO Asmat Art Project, 1969-1972
During the 1950s, while stationed on the north coast, Hoogerbrugge had already travelled occasionally among the Asmat on the south coast of New Guinea, acquiring objects in the process. In those days he also obtained Asmat art from Father van Kessel MSC, a Catholic missionary on the Casuarina Coast (south New Guinea) to whom he sent building materials in return for Asmat woodcarvings. In 1969 Hoogerbrugge, with his practical experience and interest in art, was considered the perfect candidate for the position of manager of a UNESCO initiative to revive the art of woodcarving among the Asmat, a task which he accepted immediately.
“When I arrived there in 1969 Asmat art was completely dead! The ceremonial houses were empty. A few good carvings could be found, but only in isolated villages. Directly after the take-over of western New Guinea the Indonesians had strictly forbidden anything linked to traditional feasts and rituals. All of the woodcarvings were systematically destroyed. In their eyes, they were too closely connected to aggression and headhunting. The majority of priests in the region, in those days at least, were not exactly in favor of a revival of traditional culture either, with one or two exceptions.”
During the five years in which the project ran under Jac’s direction and austere quality control this situation changed for the better. Several thousand objects were produced, in particular ancestor figures, war shields and ancestor poles (mbisj), all of which he carefully catalogued and often made drawings of or photographed. These woodcarvings found their way to museums, dealers and collectors throughout the world. At the same time Jac acquired - in order to either keep or trade - beautiful old, used shields and woodcarvings which had played a role in rituals among the Asmat and various neighboring peoples. These items were brought to him on the coast or obtained during his frequent trips deep inland, often in the company of missionary friends.
Back in Holland
In the course of the second half of his life, from the mid-1970s on, Jac continued to enhance his acquisitions in the Netherlands, “at flea markets, auctions, that sort of things. Really early pieces from Indonesia are not easily found anywhere, but more readily available here in Holland than in the region of origin, because of the colonial connection. At a street market in Rotterdam, for instance, I found a beautiful multicolored bead apron from the Geelvink Bay, and a richly decorated loincloth made from beaten bark from the MacCluer Gulf, located more to the west – both wonderful pieces and both extremely rare. Two things helped a lot: my contacts dating from my 'colonial days', and the contacts I had established with museums, dealers and collectors through the Asmat project.” For many years, Hoogerbrugge kept channeling woodcarvings produced by the UNESCO project to destinations worldwide. A favorite story was how he had clandestinely travelled on a freight train from the port of Rotterdam to his depot in Rotterdam transporting a 6 meter long Asmat ancestor pole (mbisj) which had arrived by boat.
Jac the scholar
However, he quickly discovered another means of access to his beloved indigenous ritual art. In the field this possibility had not been evident with his limited access to books and archives: “As soon as I got home I was travelling again, although now it was in books, missionary periodicals, old newspapers and various archives here in Holland. I read Paul Wirz on Lake Sentani, De Clercq and Schmeltz on the Geelvink Bay area, and the catalogue of the 1959 Sentani exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. All of this for me comprised breathtaking literature, for I knew from personal experience each and every village they were talking about.”
He fervently set himself to the task of obtaining documentation concerning the Netherlands New Guinea: brochures, photographs, postcards, documents, and articles from old newspapers and periodicals. During the 1980s and 1990s he was probably the most frequent guest of the rich archives of the Protestant missions in Oegstgeest (the Netherlands), which he knew as intimately as the librarians.
In Capelle 2010
Now the combination of his field experience and archival research paid off in another way. In 1967, he had already published a lengthy article on the mythical backgrounds of Sentani art in Volume 9 of Kultuurpatronen, the periodical of the Ethnographic Museum Delft. This article still constitutes one of the most authoritative sources as to Sentani art. During the 1970s the Asmat Art Project led to two publications packed with well-documented photographs, and an exhibition on the project held at the Volkenkundig Museum Justinus van Nassau in Breda (the Netherlands). In 1992 Hoogerbrugge contributed to the Festschrift for Leiden ethnologist-cum-curator Simon Kooijman and to the edited volume Art of North-west New Guinea: From Geelvink Bay, Humboldt Bay, and Lake Sentani (Greub 1993).
His major publication was also to be his last. In 2011, in a 333-page tome entitled Asmat: Arts, crafts and people - A photographic diary, 1969-1974 he documented his work on the UNESCO project by means of 730 b/w and colour photographs, each commented upon in detail. This book not only includes numerous woodcarvings created during these years which are now in collections in various parts of the world, but also a large number of examples of Asmat art which formerly played a role in the rituals of the tropical lowlands of southwest New Guinea. Jac held the view that this publication should be bilingual, English-Indonesian and thus accessible to the Asmat themselves. As soon it was available, he immediately sent a consignment to New Guinea to be distributed among them.
Hoogerbrugge's contacts with museum and his publications based on first-hand knowledge have brought this modest, discreet connoisseur-cum-scholar a certain degree of renown in and beyond professional circles worldwide. The list of publications on the arts and history of Indonesia and New Guinea in which he is one of the first to be thanked for his assistance as well as his loans to exhibitions stretch over several decades. It even includes a monograph on the 1920s trade in bird-of-paradise feathers.
It was Jac Hoogerbrugge’s emphatical wish that the remarkable, often meticulously documented objects he had assembled during his lifetime would not “disappear into some dusty museum depot” but circulate among and be appreciated by all those who are as passionate about the arts of Indonesia and New Guinea as he was.
One of Hoogerbrugge’s many watercolor paintings: a woman from Lake Sentani
J. Hoogerbrugge 1967. Sentani Meer: Mythe en ornament / Lake Sentani: Myth and ornament. Kultuurpatronen: Bulletin Etnografisch Museum Delft 9, pp. 3-90.
J. Hoogerbrugge 1974. Asmat artists present: A collection of fascinating Asmat art and crafts. Jayapura and Geneva: Department of Small Scale Industries and Handicrafts (Indonesia) with the UN International Labour Office.
J. Hoogerbrugge 1977. 70 Jaar Asmat houtsnijkunst / 70 Tahun seni pahat As-mat / 70 Years of Asmat woodcarving - Volkenkundig Museum Justinus van Nassau, Breda, December 1976 - May 1978. Breda/Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde.
J. Hoogerbrugge 1992a. Notes on the art of barkcloth painting in the Jayapura area, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. In: D. Smidt, P. ter Keurs and A. Trouwborst (Eds.), Pacific material culture : essays in honour of Dr. Simon Kooijman on the occas-ion of his 80th birthday. Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, pp. 167-179.
J. Hoogerbrugge & S. Kooijman 1992b. Maro paintings of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay. In: S. Greub (Ed.), Art of Northwest New Guinea: From Geelvink Bay, Humboldt Bay, and Lake Sentani. New York: Rizzoli.
J. Hoogerbrugge 2011. Asmat: Arts, crafts and people. A photographic diary, 1968-1974 / Seni, kerajinan dan manusia: Sebuah buku harian fotografik, 1969-1974. Leiden: C. Zwartenkot Art Books (www.ethnographicartbooks.com).
R. Corbey 2000. Collector in the Tropics: Jac Hoogerbrugge. In idem, Tribal art traffic: A chronicle of taste, trade and desire in colonial and post-colonial times. Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute / KIT Publishers, pp. 141-154.
R. Corbey & N. Stanley 2011, The Asmat art project / Proyek kesenian Asmat, in Hoogerbrugge 2011, pp. 6-21.
The cover of the 2011 book on Asmat art
Text by Raymond Corbey, based on the abovementioned interview (Corbey 2000) and numerous conversations with Jac Hoogerbrugge during his final years.