Longread — 23 Nov 2018 — Jeanette Bisschops
This year’s Municipal Art Acquisitions engages with urgent debates about colonial history and ongoing social exclusion in the Netherlands
Today, like many other European countries, the Netherlands is experiencing the rise of neo-nationalist and populist politics. Proponents of these movements often justify limiting or denying the freedoms of others by arguing that the Netherlands’ open and tolerant culture needs to be protected from foreign forces. In recent years, the voices that have emerged in national debates on racism, intolerance, and discrimination have stood in stark contrast to the country’s perceived liberalism. As a resident of Amsterdam and a native of the southern province of Limburg, I consider myself implicated in these debates—particularly as we discover that certain ideas about freedom are far less universal in Dutch society than once imagined.
Gradually, the Dutch are also being forced to reconsider the legacy of the colonial period on contemporary life
Gradually, the Dutch are also being forced to reconsider the legacy of the colonial period on contemporary life. The seventeenth century may have been a period of “greatness” for global trade, science, and the arts, but it also saw violent militarism and the trading of humans as well as goods. By characterizing the latter as merely a minor detail of an otherwise prosperous era, Dutch schools have for generations failed to present a comprehensive picture. Consequently, many people in the Netherlands still lack a solid framework through which to understand the tensions and frictions that arise in a “multicultural” society, an integral part of which is made up of immigrants from former Dutch colonies.
In the last few years, however, discussion around the blackface caricature of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), part of the Sinterklaas children’s tradition, has begun to open up these kinds of debates. Critical voices—belonging to both white people and those of color—are being given platforms, and many Dutch people are, for the first time, encountering discussions about identity and sociopolitical critique. Similar conversations are also taking place within the art world. While these dialogues can become heated at times, they also indicate the inevitability of change.
The exhibition Freedom of Movement highlights artists who are willing and able to tackle these subjects. Through their work, they offer important perspectives on how the conventional concept of freedom of movement is being challenged today.
They often depict his opponents as unassimilated immigrants who take advantage of Dutch hospitality while criticizing Dutch traditions. This debate can be read through the lens of what Paul Gilroy calls “postcolonial melancholia”—the idea that the loss of the colonial empire and its accompanying prestige and stature has not yet been faced, much less mourned.5
Discourse on Identity
Questions of identity politics are not always addressed explicitly within this exhibition, yet they are an important thread throughout the show, and are intimately connected to issues of postcolonialism. Both discourses are relatively new to the Netherlands, and are equally charged. Emerging out of the 1960s civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and lesbian and gay liberation movements, discourses on identity stem from the belief that some social groups have been historically oppressed on the grounds of race, class, gender and ability. These conversations first began in the Netherlands at the beginning of this century and are often seen as having been imported from the United States. Regardless, they have opened up political avenues in the Netherlands for many people who feel underrepresented in politics and society.
In recent years, new political parties such as DENK and Bij1 have emerged to fight racism and discrimination in Dutch society. DENK, Dutch for “think” and Turkish for “equality,” was founded in 2015 by Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, Turkish-Dutch former members of the Labour Party (PvdA). Their political manifesto advocates for migrants and initiatives that promote a "tolerant and solidary society." Contending that racism in the Netherlands is structural and institutional in nature, they also call for the establishment of a "racism registry" that would document instances of race-based offenses. While relatively new, the party has not been without controversy, as its leaders have been heavily criticized for refusing to distance themselves from the ongoing political purges in Turkey.
After six months as a member of DENK, in 2016 Sylvana Simons left to start Artikel1, a party that advocates for LGBTQI rights and fights discrimination, racism, and social exclusion. (It has since changed its name to Bij1.) Since entering politics, Simons has been subject to severe criticism and violent threats, including receiving a video in which her face was superimposed on the victim of a Ku Klux Klan lynching. These threats, paradoxically, often come from people who believe that she is wrongly accusing Dutch society of being racist. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, in which the conservative VVD party emerged as most popular, DENK secured only three seats, and Bij1 did not manage to win any.
Although the efforts of the aforementioned activists and politicians have failed to achieve large-scale political change, some important consequences of these debates can be seen in Dutch society. This is perhaps most evident in the use of language. In 2013, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam launched an effort to erase “hurtful ethnic indications” such as indiaan (Indian), eskimo and other outdated terminology that is nowadays considered offensive from their documentation registries. At the beginning of 2018 the Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) announced they were going to start using the word wit (white) instead of blank—a term that can mean “white,” but also has connotations of being neutral, pure and untainted. This was followed by the publication of the booklet Words Matter by the National Museum of World Cultures, which offers political and social insight into certain words used in museums, and suggests alternatives to terms that might be considered offensive. As museum director Stijn Schoonderwoerd writes: “Our objects are timeless, but the way we talk and write about our objects is not. The way we choose our words is a reflection of the time in which the words are used.”6 The authors say that their list is a work in progress, and indeed, there are notable omissions. While the list, for example, suggests using the word “gay” instead of the medical and legal prefix “homo” when referring to queer identities, it does not mention anything about gender neutral pronouns. In English, people who do not identify with a particular gender often choose to be referred to by the singular “they,” a term that emerged in the fourteenth century. In the Netherlands, we are still struggling to find an appropriate solution. While these linguistic shifts might seem insignificant, they could be essential steps towards a more inclusive society.
Moving in discomfort
In the hopes of expanding the discourse, several Dutch art institutions have recently engaged with these issues through critical programs and exhibitions. In 2017 the Rijksmuseum presented the exhibition Good Hope. South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600, which detailed the effects of Dutch colonialism in South Africa. That same year, the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Arts (WdW) opened its doors to Cinema Olanda: Platform, a six-week exhibition and live events program examining transformations in the Dutch cultural and political landscape that originally debuted at the 57th Venice Biennale.
The exhibitions received a strong response from activists who thought they were not critical enough. In an open letter, the Rijksmuseum was accused of misleading visitors by offering unilateral “facts” about Dutch colonial history from the perspective of the colonizer, thereby missing the opportunity to reflect on this dark side of Dutch history or include diverse perspectives.
Martine Gosselink, head of the museum’s history department, struggled to respond to the accusations in an interview with the NRC newspaper. Speaking in a manner that some read as defensive, she countered that since Dutch society had been extremely violent and poor in the seventeenth century, it hadn’t exactly thrived from money drawn from the colonies.7 Perhaps as a result of the controversy caused by the open letter, the museum hired Prof. Dr. Wayne Modest, a Professor of Material Culture and Critical Heritage Studies and head of the Research Center of Material Culture, to assist with an upcoming exhibition on Dutch involvement in worldwide slave trade not long after.
Separately, in an open letter to WdW, the writers recognized the institution’s willingness to take a critical stance, yet also noted that it had failed to acknowledge its own entanglement with colonial violence in the form of its name, which honored a Dutch colonial-era naval officer. Not long after, WdW’s board of trustees announced plans to change the institute’s name. (This has not yet happened, but the institution is supposedly addressing the issue by presenting the program Zonder titel (Untitled)),
The Stedelijk has also been struggling to adapt to social and political shifts within Dutch society. As exemplified by this show and recent exhibitions on migration, the museum is making a concerted effort to include a broader range of voices and perspectives in its programming. At the same time, it has also faced its own controversies relating to race and inclusivity. In July 2017, South African photographer Zanele Muholi was in Amsterdam for the debut of her solo exhibition at the Stedelijk when a member of her crew, filmmaker and writer Sibahle Nkumbi, was hospitalized after being violently pushed down a flight of stairs by the group’s Airbnb host. Nkumbi is black, and she and the Muholi alleged that the attack was racially motivated.
This incident was made all the more bitter by the fact that Muholi’s work often deals with how racism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexuality are experienced by members of the LGBTQI community in South Africa. In a press release, the Stedelijk condemned the incident, but also used the occasion to publicize museum programming. Critics claimed this as an example of how the museum, whose leadership is predominantly white and heteronormative, is more interested in profiting from “non-performative” critical narratives than in using them as a means towards inclusivity.
These examples illustrate the complexities and responsibilities that art institutions must now negotiate. These are significant challenges, yet they might help create the frictions needed to influence and change Dutch discourse and heighten awareness of our collective history.
With Freedom of Movement the Stedelijk presents a group of artists who each engage with this zeitgeist in their own way. While not all of these artists were born and raised in the Netherlands, all the works in this exhibition deal with issues that affect Dutch society, including the conversations around colonialism and identity that have been materializing over the last few years. To many people in the Netherlands and around the world, addressing these questions has been uncomfortable and sometimes painful, especially as far-right movements have sought to maintain and restore old systems of power. Through this exhibition, the Stedelijk seeks to examine these frictions within Dutch society, and to work broaden perspectives around what it means to move freely in the world.
Jeanette Bisschops is Curatorial Assistant / Time-based Media at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
1. The Netherlands Antilles was an autonomous Caribbean country within the kingdom of the Netherlands. It was dissolved on October 10, 2010.
2. Jones, J.R., The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century (New York: Routledge, 2013).
3. Vanvugt, E., Roofstaat (Amsterdam: Nijgh & van Ditmar, 2015)
4. Bauer, P., Krauss, A., Read the Masks. Tradition Is Not Given, video, 2009.
5. Wekker, G., Witte onschuld (Amsterdam: Aup, 2017)
6. Tropenmuseum (2018, July 20). Words Matter. Retrieved July 20, 2018
7. NRC (September 22, 2017). Schaamte is mijn kompas, daar vaar ik op. Retrieved October 11, 2018
8. Ahmed, S., “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism,” Borderlands e-journal, Volume 3 NUMBER 2 (2004). Modifying Judith Butler’s phrase, Ahmed defines the “non-performative,” as “the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse does not produce the effects that it names.”