conny_280At the end of the 1940s Malukan soldiers from the Royal Dutch East-Indian Army (Knil) were enlisted to combat ‘insurgents’ fighting for independence for Indonesia, then a Dutch colony that included the Maluku Islands. When independence was achieved following international pressure, the Netherlands did not live up to its promise to secure an independent republic for the Malukan. Some 4,000 Malukan soldiers and their families were thus unable to remain in their own country and were forced to come to the Netherlands, exactly 60 years ago this year. What was supposed to be a temporary solution has in fact continued to this day.

Among these immigrants was the Luhulima family. Their daughter Conny married the photographer Geert van Kesteren in 1994, and they became fascinated by the Malukan story. Over the past few years both photographers made several trips to the Maluku Islands; to the village of Ihamahu on the island of Saparua, the Luhulima’s home of origin, and to the island of Ceram, home to the Alifuru, an indigenous, mystical culture with its own language and story of the creation: Nunusaku.

Conny Luhulima photographed the living rooms of her family relatives – those living in exile in the Netherlands and those who still live in their native villages on the Maluku Islands. In the exhibition at Nederlands Fotomuseum, the silent living rooms are folded around a 4-screen video installation made by Geert van Kesteren in which four Alifuru elders reveil the story of Nunusaku.

According to Nunusaku, Ceram is the cradle of the world, from which humanity has migrated around the globe. The Alifuru – literally ‘first human’ – remained behind to guard the sacred grounds on the Malukan archipelago. They believe everything on earth is connected and each component in the universe has its own place and function within the greater whole. The Nunusaku includes the principle of the adat: the unwritten rules of life that still play a crucial role both on the Maluku Islands and among the Malukan community in the Netherlands. The allegoric stories and ancient secrets are crosscut with shots of Alifuru youth crossing the island on their motorcycles.

A large hand printed photobook is displayed next to the video installation. It documents the journey from the coast of Ceram to the mythical grounds of Nunusaku. Outsiders are not welcome in Ceram’s inaccessible interior, but van Kesteren was granted special permission by Alifuru elders to travel there. He discovered a hidden world full of mysteries, where everyday reality has as intimate a relationship with the supernatural as it does with modernity.

Nunusaku is on at the Nederlands Fotomuseum until 26 June.