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
In 1992, representatives of twelve countries assembled to sign the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union and enshrined within it the promise of free movement. Citizens of Europe were suddenly at liberty to move to different countries inside the EU, and in many cases to work there as well. This led to an uptick in migration within Europe, but even so, many EU citizens still took freedom of movement for granted.
This situation shifted radically in 2015, when a rising number of people started traveling across the Mediterranean to Europe to escape violence and war. Abruptly, a global appeal for freedom of movement landed on Europe’s doorsteps.
Although various European countries had engaged in military interventions around the world, arguably contributing to the geopolitical cleavages that caused contemporary mass migration, many Europeans felt it was not their responsibility to accommodate those seeking a better life.In response, border barriers were built in parts of the Schengen zone to keep migrants out. Then, in 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU via the “Brexit” referendum. These developments showcase the paradoxes that underlie European unity. While information and capital now circulate more freely than ever, EU states seem to depend more and more on regulating physical movement to ensure symbolic sovereignty and the rights of residents within their borders. They’ve extended freedom of movement to their inhabitants, yet are not willing to share it more widely.
In the Netherlands, freedom of movement, or lack thereof, is not a topic the majority of Dutch citizens are ready to re-evaluate and discuss. For centuries, the Netherlands has been seen, and has seen itself, as a country synonymous with the concept of ware vryheit (true freedom). Many are now struggling with the legitimacy of this belief, which is arguably at the core of Dutch identity. The idea of true freedom emerged during the Dutch Golden Age in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Netherlands dominated world trade and held colonial territories in Indonesia, Suriname, and the Antilles.1 Developed by politician Johan De Witt, ware vryheit was built on an anti-monarchical sentiment which materialized in practical freedoms for citizens of the Dutch Republic, such as being able to earn a living without restrictions from guilds and city authorities, to hold property and wealth without fear of it being appropriated, and to be protected from discrimination on the grounds of class or religion.2 During the prosperous seventeenth century the notion of true freedom was primarily based on economic considerations, yet it laid the groundwork for the “open,” “tolerant,” and “democratic” state that the Netherlands would later come to be known as. A few contemporary examples of the country’s famously relaxed social attitude include the decision to legalize sex work and gay marriage in 2000 and 2001, respectively, and its liberal polices around drug use.
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.
Municipal Art Acquisitions
To better understand how this year’s theme fits within the Stedelijk’s Municipal Art Acquisitions tradition, it’s necessary to go back almost a century. Initiated by the municipality of Amsterdam in the 1923 under the name Amsterdam koopt kunst (Amsterdam buys art) with the aim of boosting and supporting art production in Amsterdam, the series has evolved into a biannual exhibition that explores contemporary themes through a specific medium. By presenting, collecting, and preserving works by Netherlands-based artists over the last 95 years, the Municipal Art Acquisitions series has reflected the changing perspectives of the Dutch art world.
With the 2018 theme of “freedom of movement”—commonly used to describe the ability of citizens to travel freely within and beyond national borders—this year’s exhibition has urgent political implications. It presents perspectives, sometimes very personal ones, on issues including the restriction of movement, surveillance and the varied power of national passports. Not all of the exhibition’s visitors may immediately recognize the urgency of these perspectives, nor their relevance to the Dutch context. This show aims to demonstrate the ways in which migration, the legacy of colonialism, and identity politics are not simply global issues, but are central to public debate in the Netherlands.
Several of the works in the exhibition deal with the reverberations of the Dutch colonial past and its ongoing influence on the economy and society. Many people in the Netherlands are not aware of their country’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. In school and in storybooks, the history of the Dutch East India Company is told largely through heroic accounts of Dutch sailors who bravely participated in the “discovery” of far-away countries and brought prosperity to the Netherlands. Yet as author Ewald Vanvugt describes in his book Roofstaat, the economic success of the Netherlands from the seventeenth century on was largely due to the violent colonial system. Its collapse started after 1949, five years after Indonesia declared its sovereignty and 26 years before Suriname became independent.3 Since these atrocities were happening overseas, they were for many years never discussed within the Netherlands.
Over the past few years, the Dutch finally started talking about this history. In 2009, public debate was ignited in part by the art project Read the Masks. Tradition is not Given (2008-09) by Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss, which critiqued the ongoing tradition of Black Pete. Prior to the project’s debut, this had rarely been a subject of public discussion.4 Black Pete is a beloved folkloric figure who helps Sinterklaas, a character based on Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Pete is typically played by a white woman or man with their face painted black and their lips painted bright red, dressed in colorful clothes, golden earrings and an Afro wig. Pete is meant to be silly, playful, and to speak with bad grammar and a supposed Surinamese accent. His origins have been hotly contested, yet since 1850 Pete has been depicted as a black person who wears clothes typically associated with the Moors. To many, the character comes off as highly racist. In a letter to the Dutch government in 2014, the UN Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent, led by Verene Sheperd, wrote that “Zwarte Piet supports a stereotypical image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, feeds underlying ideas about inferiority within Dutch society and gives rise to racial feelings and racism.”
Within the Netherlands, artists and activists such as Jerry Afriyie and Quinsy Gario initated now-yearly demonstrations against the tradition. These efforts have furthered debate but also exposed the enormous support that Black Pete still has within Dutch society.
Many Dutch people strongly resist the idea that the character is racist, attributing Pete’s blackness to the soot left on his skin after he slides through the chimney to deliver gifts to children.
Advocates of the tradition characterize the controversy as an instance of misplaced victimhood, claiming that just a “small minority” of people mistakenly associate Pete with racist stereotypes.
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.”