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Part of the
exhibition

In the Presence of Absence proposals for the museum collection

5 Sep 2020 until 31 Jan 2021

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. 

The open call looked to uncover unseen and ignored stories that deserve to be told more often. Artists and designers were encouraged to send proposals disseminating intangible, embodied, and personal forms of knowledge transfer—those which challenge knowledge power structures from education curricula to public archives to museum collections, the selective inclusion of “valid” or “reliable” information to the exclusion of other forms.

Fadwa Naamna: My curatorial practice embraces storytelling and archiving, both of which are common within contemporary art practices in Palestine where cultural practitioners such as Ismail Shammout, Jumana Manna, Khadijeh Habashneh, Mohanad Yaqubi, and Bisan Abu-Eisheh among many others, engage with and try to compensate, alongside historians, for the obliteration and lack of public archives and historical records.1 While the ambient sociopolitical atmosphere in the Netherlands is very different, the dynamics between the prevalent mainstream knowledge transfer and counter-narratives remains relevant to the Dutch cultural scene.

DOMINIQUE, “Laut Banda,” 2020. Courtesy the artist.
DOMINIQUE, “Laut Banda,” 2020. Courtesy the artist.
Leonardiansyah Allenda, “Chapter 6: Marni,” 2020. Courtesy the artist.
Leonardiansyah Allenda, “Chapter 6: Marni,” 2020. Courtesy the artist.
Sadik Alfraji, “The River That Was in the South,” 2019, still image of animation film, 5:05 min., black and white, sound. Courtesy the artist.
Sadik Alfraji, “The River That Was in the South,” 2019, still image of animation film, 5:05 min., black and white, sound. Courtesy the artist.

[BS] Our backgrounds are very different, but we found similar interests in histories and narratives outside official documentation processes or Western-documented perspectives. We share a strong, personally driven fascination for how dominant, mainstream knowledge structures affect—with incomplete or, worse, incorrect, information—people’s understanding of the world. 

The Palestinian context is a microcosmic example that demonstrates Western dominance over knowledge transfer. While 138 members of the United Nations recognize Palestine as an independent state, the US, with much of its Western allies, does not. As an example of how Western, dominant power structures control a lot of the information that determines our world view: Palestine is not labelled on Google Maps, demonstrating a structural crossing off of a collective narrative. Of course, the Palestinian context differs enormously from the Dutch.

On power structure and knowledge transfer I relate from my Indonesian European (Indo) background; Dutch and Indonesian history has notoriously been documented from a one-dimensional colonial perspective in the Netherlands. Together with the Indo community’s tendency to remain silent about their complex narratives in the past, this colonial perspective has been left in circulation up until today. According to Statistics Netherlands, due to “socio-economic and socio-cultural position” Indonesia is considered a Western country, mainly concerning persons born in the former Dutch East Indies. The outdated definition is used repeatedly by the Dutch Government and prominent newspapers, misrepresenting the many nuances of the Indonesian diaspora to say the least.  

I believe artistic research can reconnect with distant histories and delve into current questions on cultural identity and obliterated memories. 

[FN] From our first curatorial conversations concentrated on the collection, we started looking into the artists’ regional background listings (created by Michiel Nijhoff, Head Stedelijk Archive and Library). With Rosa Marie Mulder, Janneke Sif Rutten, and Esmee Schoutens we discussed research into the artists with transnational backgrounds and their flows of migration. In addition, we looked at the history of this open call, which began in 1995, and how collected works have been documented and archived in the collection management system, Adlib. 

Specific artworks from the collection inspired us, including Mount of Forgetfulness (2010) by filmmaker Hala Elkoussy (acquired in 2010 in the frame of the Municipal Art Acquisitions exhibition, curated by Jelle Bouwhuis), which focuses on the Egyptian tradition of storytelling through musical accompaniment. We discussed related materials on storytelling, collecting, archiving, and collective memory; watched The Dangers of a Single Story lecture from 2009 by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; and read current discourse on decolonizing and de-centralizing museums and culture in general. We reviewed texts on archives, history writing, and memory by Ariella Azoulay, Edward Said, Walter Benjamin, and Hal Foster among others. And let’s not forget our conversations over lunch in the museum canteen or on bike rides, sharing personal experiences related to selection, collection, and representation. Consequently, despite the short period given for research, we soon arrived at a focus on alternative modes of knowledge transfer and narratives less present within current public debates and the structures that shape them. 

[BS] The artworks touch on topical subjects that aren’t “new” or exclusive to a “new generation” of artists—rather they have been lived through and tackled by multiple generations. 

[GP] Assembling an exhibition through an open call introduces chance and the unknown. A long-held Municipal Art Acquisition tradition for a reason, it can open up the unavoidably limited curatorial selection process to projects that might not otherwise appear on your radar. When you wrote the call all those months ago, you might have had a notion of what the exhibition would become. What, if anything, has surprised you or have you been newly introduced to?

[BS] This open call had a record number of applications—possibly facilitated by the newly interdisciplinary approach. In the beginning we received criticism on our tone and language, mainly for the call’s deference to sensitivity, gut feeling, and a topic that was very abstract for some: public, collective knowledge and knowledge transfer. We weren’t sure we would reach the artists and the designers we hoped, and we discussed whether the misunderstandings resulted from the specific language or content. 

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.

Natasja Kensmil, “WEDDING PORTRAIT of Johan de Witt and Wendela Bicker,” 2020, detail, 2 x 250x140cm, 9 x 100x100cm, oil on canvas. Courtesy andriesse-eyck gallery. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.
Natasja Kensmil, “WEDDING PORTRAIT of Johan de Witt and Wendela Bicker,” 2020, detail, 2 x 250x140cm, 9 x 100x100cm, oil on canvas. Courtesy andriesse-eyck gallery. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.
  • Evelyn Taocheng Wang, “Spreading Elegance,” 2019. A FRAC Champagne-Ardenne production. Photo: Martin Argyroglo. Courtesy the artists, Antenna Space, Shanghai; Carlos|Ishikawa, London and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam.
    Evelyn Taocheng Wang, “Spreading Elegance,” 2019. A FRAC Champagne-Ardenne production. Photo: Martin Argyroglo. Courtesy the artists, Antenna Space, Shanghai; Carlos|Ishikawa, London and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam.
  • Rowena Buur, “Without hope I have no dreams,” 2019. Courtesy the artist.
    Rowena Buur, “Without hope I have no dreams,” 2019. Courtesy the artist.
  • Gilleam Trapenberg, Installation view “Big Papi,” 2017 at KABK Graduation Show 2017. Photo: Gilleam Trapenberg.
    Gilleam Trapenberg, Installation view “Big Papi,” 2017 at KABK Graduation Show 2017. Photo: Gilleam Trapenberg.

[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.

Quinsy Gario in collaboration with Mina Ouaouirst, ⵏⴼⴽⴰⵢⴰⵙ ⵉ ⵎⴰⵓⵔⵉⵙ ⵉⵇⵇⴰⵢⵏ ⴷⵜⵎⵎⵓⵔⵖⵉ ⴷⵡⴰⵎⴰⵏ (we offered Maurice dates, grasshoppers and water), 2020. Courtsey the artists.
Quinsy Gario in collaboration with Mina Ouaouirst, ⵏⴼⴽⴰⵢⴰⵙ ⵉ ⵎⴰⵓⵔⵉⵙ ⵉⵇⵇⴰⵢⵏ ⴷⵜⵎⵎⵓⵔⵖⵉ ⴷⵡⴰⵎⴰⵏ (we offered Maurice dates, grasshoppers and water), 2020. Courtsey the artists.
Kasper Bosmans, ‘Legend Vair (Hercule + St Ontcommer)’, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Kasper Bosmans, ‘Legend Vair (Hercule + St Ontcommer)’, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

Inas Halabi, “WE HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN THE WIND’S DIRECTION,” 2019-2020, video still. Courtesy the artist.
Inas Halabi, “WE HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN THE WIND’S DIRECTION,” 2019-2020, video still. Courtesy the artist.

[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. 

Pieter Paul Pothoven, “Map 1814, negative no. 20.” (RARA-suspect on Trial, Amsterdam, 1988. Photo: Bert Verhoeff)
Pieter Paul Pothoven, “Map 1814, negative no. 20.” (RARA-suspect on Trial, Amsterdam, 1988. Photo: Bert Verhoeff)
Remy Jungerman, “PROMISE IV,” 2018–2019, detail from installation. Photo: Aatjan Renders.
Remy Jungerman, “PROMISE IV,” 2018–2019, detail from installation. Photo: Aatjan Renders.

[BS] The book’s converging of presence and absence, prose and poetry, is in tune with our own interest in co-existence and discursivity. Hybrid storytelling within the method and practice of the works allies with our curatorial method or practice, heeding Darwish’s reflective narrator who looks to the past, present, and echoes in the afterlife. The exhibition is not geared toward displaying fixed positions—it is a discursive space in which thoughts can wander (contemplatively or ragingly). We worked with studio Müller van Tol on an exhibition design in line with the idea of the exhibition as a place for (knowledge- and thought-) exchange. They came up with an entrance gallery and exit hallway as “portals” where the audience step in and out of the exhibition. The four galleries are partly carpeted to offer landing points to step back, reflect, converse, and reposition thoughts and opinions. When protests, statements, and communities call for action and acknowledgment of wrongful and painful pasts, the search Darwish has engaged in offers new insight on how to move between narratives and how to look forward and contemplate their echoes in society. 

[FN] Similarly, the works aesthetically reflect on social, political, and cultural topics, corresponding with the broader discourse on history writing and memory. Nonetheless, I would like to distinguish activist from critical standpoints. Activist art strives to change a given reality and to mobilize determinate political actions by artistic means and modes of aestheticization, while critical art doesn’t partake in definite extreme positions. Writing on criticality in “Looking Away: Participations in Visual Culture” (2005), Irit Rogoff notes that contemporary art opposes determinacy by questioning “the underlying assumptions that might allow something to appear as a convincing logic.” Furthermore, the context within which a project is presented plays a major role in defining this difference; in contradiction with activist exertions, I would argue for the ability of critical art within institutions to penetrate through the white cube, at least in the short run. In this regard I would like to mention Ali Baba Express: Episode 2 (2020), in which Ghita Skali shows informally transported piles of verbena leaves together with their packages and invites people to take tea leaves for free. Playing with the notion of “smuggling” simulates a model of knowledge, material, and movement transfer fundamental to cultural production. It evokes questions on the exchange dynamics between art, institutional regulations, and society, and the status of the artwork and what it activates within a museum display.  

Ghita Skali, “Ali Baba Express: Episode 1,” 2019. 60kg of verbena tea, rumors, plastic bags and kettles, Clermont-Ferrand. Photo: Michael Colle. ©Ghita Skali.
Ghita Skali, “Ali Baba Express: Episode 1,” 2019. 60kg of verbena tea, rumors, plastic bags and kettles, Clermont-Ferrand. Photo: Michael Colle. ©Ghita Skali.

This exhibition presents some artworks that deal with activism-related topics: Pieter Paul Pothoven’s installation comprising the sound work observatie contra observatie (2020) and sculptural façade suspended (2018) on Dutch revolutionary group RARA—dubbed violent despite its activist bit-part in the struggle against capitalism and apartheid politics in South Africa; Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s Prologue: Squat/Anti-Squat (2016), which gives the stage to activist squatting actions, revealing the rapidly changing conceptions of housing, property, and belonging in Dutch society; and the film Before the fall there was no fall. Episode 01 (2019), for which Anna Dasović appealed to the Dutch Ministry of Defense to open up their archive to reveal video related to the ministry’s questionable involvement during the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, challenging the authority of archive-gatekeepers in managing publicly related knowledges. Other projects manifest decolonial narratives, the attempt at which Azoulay calls endeavors of “potential history” that build upon “refusing the original imperial violence.”

  • Anna Dasović, “Before the Fall there was no Fall. Episode one: Raw material,” 2019, still. Courtesy the artist.
    Anna Dasović, “Before the Fall there was no Fall. Episode one: Raw material,” 2019, still. Courtesy the artist.
  • Wendelien van Oldenborgh, “Prologue: Squat/Anti-Squat,” 2016. Installation view Dutch Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennial 2017. Photo: Daria Scagliola. Courtesy the artist.
    Wendelien van Oldenborgh, “Prologue: Squat/Anti-Squat,” 2016. Installation view Dutch Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennial 2017. Photo: Daria Scagliola. Courtesy the artist.
  •  Jennifer Tee, “Tampan Natural System of Souls,” 2019, tulip petal collage print on 316 grams museum etching paper, 186 x 165 cm. Courtesy Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam.
    Jennifer Tee, “Tampan Natural System of Souls,” 2019, tulip petal collage print on 316 grams museum etching paper, 186 x 165 cm. Courtesy Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam.

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.

  • Ahmet Öğüt, “Bakunin’s Barricade,” 2015/2017. Installation view Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017. Photo: Vignola Gregorio.
    Ahmet Öğüt, “Bakunin’s Barricade,” 2015/2017. Installation view Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017. Photo: Vignola Gregorio.
  • Farida Sedoc, “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be,” 2019, collage on paper, 400 cm x 300 cm, screen prints on cotton (each 100 cm x 150 cm, “Gentleman’s Agreement, Welcome To Society, The Sun Rises In The East”). Photo: Tom Janssen.
    Farida Sedoc, “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be,” 2019, collage on paper, 400 cm x 300 cm, screen prints on cotton (each 100 cm x 150 cm, “Gentleman’s Agreement, Welcome To Society, The Sun Rises In The East”). Photo: Tom Janssen.
  • Werker Collective, “Werker 2 — A Gestural History of the Young Worker.” 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Yekaterinburg, 2019. Courtesy Werker Collective.
    Werker Collective, “Werker 2 — A Gestural History of the Young Worker.” 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Yekaterinburg, 2019. Courtesy Werker Collective.
  • Kristina Benjocki, “Study of Focus,” 2014, ten woven tapestries, 165 x 247.5 cm each, wool and metal. Photo: Kristina Benjocki.
    Kristina Benjocki, “Study of Focus,” 2014, ten woven tapestries, 165 x 247.5 cm each, wool and metal. Photo: Kristina Benjocki.

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. 

Timo Demollin, “Visit (1883–2020),” 2020, detail, sixteen souvenir prints and a map of the International Colonial and Export Trade Exhibition from the set “Herinnering aan Amsterdam in 1883” (library collection Stedelijk Museum).
Timo Demollin, “Visit (1883–2020),” 2020, detail, sixteen souvenir prints and a map of the International Colonial and Export Trade Exhibition from the set “Herinnering aan Amsterdam in 1883” (library collection Stedelijk Museum).
Our Polite Society, “FACIT Data, product catalog,” 1971. FACIT AB archive, reproduced with the kind permission of Brukskultur Åtvidaberg.
Our Polite Society, “FACIT Data, product catalog,” 1971. FACIT AB archive, reproduced with the kind permission of Brukskultur Åtvidaberg.
Sarah van Lamsweerde, “Sightless Seeing (inside A&A),” 2018, performance, FLAM Encounters / Arti et Amicitiae. Photo: Thomas Lenden.
Sarah van Lamsweerde, “Sightless Seeing (inside A&A),” 2018, performance, FLAM Encounters / Arti et Amicitiae. Photo: Thomas Lenden.

Last but not least, the performance Sightless Seeing #4: Acquisitions (2020), by Sarah van Lamsweerde in collaboration with Alicia Hoost and Leroy de Böck, is based on and aimed at a sensory navigation through exhibition artworks. Ritualistic choreography and self-designed exercises stimulate the subjective imagination as an alternative to more common forms of mediating art and visual materials. Collectively, these works constitute a temporal archive of critical reflections on society within the Netherlands and abroad. 

[GP] Critical or activist exhibitions are often challenged for their lack of durable institutional reform: a diverse and talented team is engaged, meaningful works and the knowledges they convey are attracted, and criticality is celebrated, only to be dismantled together with the physical exhibition a few months later. How do you consider the sustainability of this exhibition, and how can the silences it flags achieve the more long-term vocality needed to have an impact both within and beyond the museum walls?

[FN] We came across the issue of sustainability in our early curatorial discussions as we looked into the collection management system. There was a lack of representation related to gender, birthplace, and nationality, and sometimes incomplete documentation made it difficult to access works, narrowing their chance of exposure. In order for these observations to facilitate real change, we needed empirical research and appointed Caroline Gutierrez as a research intern to conduct data visualization. She investigated how incomplete record-keeping and disparities in acquisitions related to the data’s centering of birthplace and nationality, and later looked at gender. Caroline focused on the number of acquired works per artist and how this came into discussions about investment and representation at the museum.

[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.