Brian Russell Roberts is a Humanities Center Faculty Fellow and a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Universitas Sebelas Maret in Central Java, Indonesia. With Keith Foulcher (Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney), he has written Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright, Modern Indonesia, and the Bandung Conference, forthcoming from Duke University Press, Spring 2016.
6 April 2015
In April 1955, in the city of Bandung, Indonesia’s government hosted the Asian-African Conference, also called the Bandung Conference, a landmark meeting of twenty-nine postcolonial and decolonizing Asian and African countries. At the conference’s conclusion, the participating countries issued a declaration emphasizing respect for “fundamental human rights” and for “the equality of all races and of the equality of all nations large and small.” Since it was convened, the Bandung Conference has been regarded as a watershed event in postcolonial history and a foundational moment in the development of Third World/Global South solidarity against neocolonialism and racism.
Six decades later, in April 2015, the government of Indonesia is convening a 60th anniversary commemoration of the Bandung Conference, now inviting leaders from 109 nation-states. Alongside the Indonesian government’s commemoration, several international universities are convening meetings that recognize the Bandung Conference’s sixtieth anniversary while tracing its present legacies and imagining its impact on humanity’s future. The University of Minnesota held one such meeting in February, titled “60th Anniversary of the Bandung Conference: From the Non-Aligned Movement to Global South Solidarity?” And Indonesia’s prestigious Gadjah Mada University will be hosting an early April meeting titled “Bandung Conference and Beyond: Rethinking International Order, Identity, Security, and Justice in a Post-Western World.” In May, with my co-writer Keith Foulcher, I will be joining a roundtable seminar at the University of Sydney, titled “Sixty Years On: The Bandung Asia-Africa Conference and Its Afterlives.” But perhaps most relevant to our Humanities Center’s ongoing commitment to “the human conversation” is the commemoration titled “The Arts of Bandung Humanism Conference,” to be held this April at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, with co-sponsorship by UCLA’s Seminar in Global Critical Humanities and Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature.
In contemplating the project of tracing structures of feeling and cultural currents that have culminated in “Bandung humanism,” I am reminded of the famous African American writer Richard Wright’s attendance at the Bandung Conference as an observer and freelance reporter for the magazine Encounter. As Wright recorded in his Indonesian travelogue, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956), he prepared a set of questions for potential interviewees before, during, and after the meeting. Among Wright’s questions: “Do you feel that man needs a universal humanism that can bind men together in a common unity?” Wright asked this question several times and received varied answers. But few in Indonesia took Wright’s questions as seriously as the group of prominent Indonesian writers and cultural figures with whom he closely associated during his three weeks in Indonesia in 1955. This loose group of writers, often identified in Indonesian studies as espousing an aesthetic stance called “universal humanism,” escorted Wright to the conference, hosted Wright in their homes, organized lecture events for him, and helped him gain access to Indonesia’s political leaders. Yale University’s Beinecke Library provides online access to the photographs taken on Wright’s camera during his attendance at the Bandung Conference. In the photographs, we see scenes from the conference itself but also scenes revealing Wright’s association with Indonesia’s universal humanists. As Wright traveled to Indonesia in search of the meaning of humanism in the age of Bandung, and as he fell in among Indonesian hosts who were also engaging the question of humanism, what were the results? Wright and his Indonesian interlocutors found points of commonality but, just as often, points of conflict over political and racial questions, as portrayed in the Dutch-Indonesian writer Beb Vuyk’s 1960 essay “A Weekend with Richard Wright.” Vuyk’s writings, together with a number of other essays by modern Indonesia’s universal humanists, tell stories that complement and compete with the narratives recorded by Wright in The Color Curtain.
The Indian historian and journalist Vijay Prashad has framed Wright’s The Color Curtain as “inaugurat[ing] our tradition of AfroAsian studies.” If for Prashad The Color Curtain stands at the very beginning of the project of tracing South-South relations among Asian and African constituencies, then certainly Wright’s questions regarding humanism at Bandung, examined in conjunction with the rich archive of Indonesian universal humanist responses to Wright’s Indonesian travels, should be taken as an inaugural moment in the history of Bandung humanism.