Longread — 2 Sep 2020 — Gwen Parry
The exhibition In the Presence of Absence – Proposals for the Museum Collection is curated by Fadwa Naamna (freelance curator) and Britte Sloothaak (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam). In this Curatorial Conversation they discuss different aspects of the exhibition and how it came about, interviewed by Gwen Parry (Editor, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam).
Gwen Parry: As the curatorial duo who drafted the open call for the 2020 Municipal Art Acquisitions exhibition, you sought out critical art and design projects that tell or represent stories often silenced by society and its institutions. What, in your respective backgrounds and research, made you arrive at this shared interest?
Britte Sloothaak: The museum asked us to critically reflect on their collection, which was especially challenging given the time constraint—a familiar foe that led us to develop a personal call. We incorporated our long-held interest in bringing criticality to the museum through hybridity and versatility, naming this edition: In the Presence of Absence. Its interdisciplinary approach diverges from past editions, each of which concentrated on a specific discipline: visual art (Beyond Imagination, 2012), photography and graphic design (On the Move, 2014–2015), design (Dream Out Loud, 2016–2017), and time-based media (Freedom of Movement, 2018). In the Presence of Absence spans multiple media—painting, mural, sculpture, textile, print, video, photography, typography, installation, sound, and performance—to expand the potential for criticality.
However, the amplified discourse of Black Lives Matter quickly made it apparent that form of expression isn’t the key issue at stake now, but its content. I did have some artists in mind who would fit the concept, but once it was published, we had no control over who decides to apply. The jury-led decision-making process also meant Fadwa and I had to let go of some darlings we really hoped would be in the show. The jury challenged us to include works that question themes with which we were unfamiliar. We were honored to see so many great artists and designers come forward, including some unknown to us. I am impressed with the wide range of talented artists and designers working and living in the Netherlands.
[FN] The language was very open to artistic interpretation, yet we reckoned that in order for the call to be truly open, to circulate within a wide, diverse pool of creators, we needed to think beyond the usual art media publicity. Besides the typical (static) invitation ads, we decided to Actively-Reach-Out for potential proposals and makers that otherwise might not be on the museum radar; we did a mapping of art and design academies, residencies, broedplaatsen (artist studios), workshops, smaller art and cultural institutions, and galleries throughout the Netherlands. Then we contacted those platforms one by one asking them to spread the word. We received more than 1,400 applications, whereas the highest record previously was 980 (Sublieme Vormen, 1996). That gave us an inspiring space to sharpen the exhibition concept.
[GP] Could you talk us through some of these perspectives in the exhibition?
[FN + BS] To grapple with the outcome of the open call and jury-led selection, we sorted groups of works into thematic clusters. They are not indicated, as we intended to create a route for visitors to experience the rhizomatic and conversational relations between the works without our overriding narrative. Whether plainly or obliquely, the works push off from the personal, the subjective, moving towards larger collective repercussions. The installations Spreading Elegance (2019) and Quoted Elegance No. 1-5 (2019), for instance, by Evelyn Taocheng Wang, presents letters from friends on elegance, which changes among cultures and tastes but is also collective. The film Without hope I have no dreams (2020) by Rowena Buur, documents the rekindling of the brittle relation between the artist and their father in the latter’s caravan home while they review family photographs, videos, and memories—a portrait of two people dealing with the passing of time and what it has done to their relationship.
Who tells the story was crucial to the selection and curating process, bringing us artists who use free association, speculation, and fiction. In This Surely Must Be Paradise (2020), photographer Gilleam Trapenberg questions how the Caribbean is portrayed in advertisements of foreign tourism while creating his own image of the landscape that he considers “a second” home. The fictional journey of Saint Maurice from North Africa to Europe, paraphrased by Quinsy Gario and Mina Ouaouirst, is a story sung and woven into a tapestry by a group of artisans from Southern Morocco (Zahra ait Lehs, Fadma ait Oukhechif, Mina ait sidi Hamou, Habiba el Khatiri, Aicha ait Said, and Mina Lamkhalli). Incorporating Arabic and Tifinagh (a script used to write the Tamazight languages), points to transient knowledge transfer through non-dominant alphabets and connects to a work located right before the exhibition entrance in the monumental hall: the Alifuru-inspired mural by DOMINIQUE, who delves into his Malukan-roots by adapting and appropriating letters and symbols from the indigenous Alifuru people of the Maritime Southeast Asia. Fiction emerges again in Leonardiansyah Allenda’s site-specific scenographic environment that describes the surroundings of Marni: a girl from East Java living in Surabaya, who gets enchanted by the spirit of the forest enabling her to communicate with simultaneous and contradicting realities.
Storytelling is also addressed in contemporary adaptations of iconography and heraldry in traditional narrative painting: in the mural 9 Sisters (2020) in combination with a series of panels titled Legend: Vair Triptych (2020), Kasper Bosmans combines mythologies with oral history and folk art references within collective memory; and in WEDDING PORTRAIT of Johan de Witt and Wendela Bicker (2020), Natasja Kensmil annotates, blurs, and crops the classic archetypal image of a prominent marriage in seventeenth-century Amsterdam into a critical portrait about power relations and wealth.
Similar to folktales and mythologies, stories with hidden, uncertain, or non-empirical evidence are often disseminated through unconventional channels; in WE HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN THE WIND’S DIRECTION (2020), Inas Halabi holds a semi-spontaneous quasi-scientific conversation with a nuclear physicist while probing stories of illegal burials of nuclear waste and radioactive contamination in the Southern areas of the West Bank. The impossibility of capturing radiation with a camera lens invites viewers to question invisible types of violence in the landscape and the power structures that generate them.
[GP] There is a global reckoning happening in the limited and limiting perspectives perpetuated by institutions, with due attention being paid to the colonial dimensions of omissions. This makes In the Presence of Absence timely, and firmly rooted in local discussions and those abroad. The title reveals more a poetic than an activist viewpoint. Could you elaborate on this choice and what it signifies?
[FN] The title is inspired by poet Mahmoud Darwish’s last published book. His imminent death in 2008 dictated the content of this self-elegy. Through lyrical meditations on longing, love, and family, Darwish recounts Palestinian histories that have fallen into oblivion. He sees the dualism of life and death as metaphors for presence and absence within history writing and collective memory. Despite its poetic, metaphorical, and philosophical style, the book has critical and activist orientations. These orientations intersectionally address social, political, and cultural issues that manifest not only in narratives on Palestine and displacement—largely silenced by the ongoing occupation—but also in symbols and descriptions. His approach corresponds with wider topics such as cultural identity, territory, and migration. I believe poetry and activism can co-exist in the same spheres and that aestheticization can enhance political action.
Even if they deal with controversial sociopolitical topics, the works aren’t activist per se. They rather apply critical perspectives by bringing to the fore decentralized and (counter-)narratives relatively absent from public debates and mainstream perceptions. From power structures and colonial trading to transitions and cultural exchange, the exhibition underscores how migrations change the national societal fabric, rendering it hybrid and more sophisticated. In collages with printed fabric, Farida Sedoc addresses an overlooked narrative of empowerment among African women who played major roles in the Transatlantic trade between the Dutch and Indonesia and West Africa. Jennifer Tee’s tampan tulip collages, an altar-like sculptural piece by Remy Jungerman, and the familial displacement diaries of Sadik Alfraji all deal with migration, transition, and cross-cultural influence in memory and identity formation.
In the context of this exhibition, “the presence of absence” questions the echoes of these narratives and histories within society and its institutions.
[FN + BS] For instance, there are works in the show that examine the museum’s own position within these histories, including that of public property. For the 2020 presentation of his work Bakunin’s Barricade (2015–2020) Ahmet Öğüt proposes the Stedelijk adopts responsibility for constructing a barricade, made of works from its collection, against militant attacks in Amsterdam during times of sociopolitical upheaval. Re-envisioning the history of city-spaces and territory-proclamation is the subject of Visit (1883–2020) by Timo Demollin, a critical look at the 1883 Dutch colonial expo in Amsterdam’s Museumplein, 12 years before the Stedelijk was inaugurated there.
Archival fever, core to the exhibition, is what the visitor immediately encounters on entering: a graphic design and photo installation by Werker Collective on the gestural histories of young laborers, a design project by Our Polite Society with the forgotten story of FACIT office products and design line, and tapestries by Kristina Benjocki that reframe misinterpretations of events in the former Yugoslavia.
[BS] Besides analyzing collection data, Caroline critically reflected on the ethical obligations that accompany abstracting personal histories into data points—namely, how the inflexible systems of classification (for example, relying on gender binary) in combination with errata and elided information hinders institutional discourse and structural change. She repeatedly asserted that “counting” artists based on birthplace or nationality resulted in tentative and unclear metrics of representation that did not address race, ethnicity, migration, diaspora, or redrawn borders. Furthermore, it was not clear whether information was self-reported. It would be more accurate and transparent to ask artists directly how they identify themselves and their heritage if demographic research on the collection is pursued. These numbers do not tell us anything about the museum’s financial investments, number of acquired artworks, or research labor per artist. Essentially: buying one artwork from an artist doesn’t fix an imbalance. It requires a continuous, long-term investment. Being able to acquire works for the collection makes working on the Municipal Art Acquisitions a great opportunity, but one that comes with responsibility.
[FN] In this exhibition, we tried to bring in artists at different stages in their careers, including those whose works were previously acquired by the Stedelijk, so that the museum would not only purchase work from “new acquaintances” but also follow up on some of its “old friends.”
Besides our individual roles as art practitioners in sustaining an efficient critique, a greater part of the responsibility falls to art institutions to take up these debates internally and mobilize them externally. In order for contemporary art and its relations to avoid being swallowed up after ephemeral celebrations, museums need to constantly engage within these (re)presented critical perspectives on a structural level: that is, within their framework, policy, and conduct. Then and only then, might art be able to penetrate through the white cube and become an active part of societal discourse.
Fadwa Naamna (b. 1985) is a curator and researcher based in Amsterdam. She has a background in arts and geography. Her practice is concerned with the intersection between art, politics and sociey. She is an alumna of de Appel Curatorial Program (2016–2017) and worked as a Curatorial Research Fellow at de Appel (2017–2018). Previously, she was an Assistant Curator at Beit Hagefen | Arab-Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa (2014–2016). Naamna is a current resident at Sommerakademie Paul Klee (2019/2020) hosted by the Bern University of the Arts.
Britte Sloothaak (b. 1984) is an art historian and curator at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. She studied cultural sociology and art philosophy at Erasmus University Rotterdam, contemporary art at VU University Amsterdam from which she received an MA in museum curating. Besides curating contemporary art exhibitions, she develops an autonomous discursive program for the Stedelijk Museum Public Program. Previously, she worked in Rotterdam for the Netherlands Architecture Institute and the International Architecture Biennale.
Gwen Parry (b. 1986) is editor at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. She studied political science and art history in Amsterdam and Cracow, and received her master’s degree in arts- and cultural policy from Utrecht University. Before joining the Stedelijk, she was editor at the Rijksmuseum and research- and publications coordinator at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst and the project FORMER WEST.
1. These artists and filmmakers from Palestine have practices related to archives, memory, and history writing. I tried to compile a group of examples/people at different phases of their careers. It’s not important where they are based or which nationalities they hold in this specific regard, since half of the Palestinian people are segregated internally and the other half are displaced, exiled, or refugees outside of Palestine—a fact that often influences their artistic practices.