context: performance during ‘The NON ISSUE; activism in fabric’
location: Amsterdam, Netherlands
credits: image by Ari Versluis
Skype preview with Shantrelle P. Lewis of Movt nr. 5: The Eye | published in HYCIDE MAGAZINE: The Art Issue
Words by Shantrelle Lewis | Images by Nardo Brudet, Iris Kensmill, Remy Jungerman, Tirzo Martha, Patricia Kaersenhout, Brett Russell, Charl Landvreugd, Marcel Pinas and Faranu
Thanks to tourism, and also large communities of Caribbeans living in the United States, many U.S. citizens know a great deal about the French, Spanish, English and Portuguese-speaking Diasporas. However, even in African Diaspora Studies, we learn little or nothing about the Dutch Caribbean or its children.
Ninety percent of the people I know can’t even point to Suriname on a map (let me help you out, it‘s right next to Guyana and above Brazil). The Dutch Caribbean, which is also part of South America, includes Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and a cluster of smaller islands, such as St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius.
To date, much of the Dutch Caribbean Diaspora is now settled in Europe, in the Netherlands to be exact. Unbeknownst to many, the Netherlands (the country popularly known as “Holland”) is home to several hundreds of thousands of Black people, a large percentage from the Dutch Caribbean, who came here – or whose families came here – immediately before, during and after the independence movements of the 1950s and 70s.
These immigrants, many with African roots, settled in the Netherlands, started families and integrated into Dutch society. This migration and settlement in a new place, as is the case with many migrant populations, can create identity conflicts between one’s Caribbean self, one’s Dutch self and one’s Black self.
Despite holding a Dutch passport, when living in a country where immigrants are legally classified as “Allochtoon” which literally translates as “from another country,” the question “where do I really belong?” often comes into play for Dutch citizens originally from the Caribbean. For individuals of African descent, how does one identify, with whom, and to what extent does one assimilate or resist dominant culture in the Netherlands? This question is the crux of my research as an Andy Warhol Curatorial Fellow for a future exhibition about the Dutch Caribbean Diaspora.
I learned very quickly that unlike the U.S., in the Dutch Caribbean Diaspora, everything is not a matter of Black and White. The Black population in the Netherlands only arrived en masse 30 to 40 years ago. Even now, Dutch citizens of African descent (including continental African communities) are still less than 10 percent of the total population in the Netherlands. Besides that, there are many interracial relationships that have led to mixed families, and the Dutch Caribbean itself is also home to many different cultures: Hindus, Javanese, Chinese, Jews and indigenous people, who, in addition to the descendants of enslaved Africans, were brought there during and after the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Another fact that complicates matters is the manner in which Blackness has, or rather has not, been discussed in popular culture. In the Netherlands, there is no Black History Month. There were no mainstream Black 20th century resistance movements. There is no extensive documented history of Black art by Black artists, like there is in the States or even other places in the Caribbean. Today, Dutch Caribbean artists are striving to articulate their own language and to a certain degree, establish a documented canon.
Although the Netherlands paints itself as a multicultural society devoid of racism, I’ve come face to face with more overt racism during my short stint here than ever before in my life. I’ve heard offhand jokes from strangers, such as “Why are you drinking coffee, aren’t you black enough?” Then of course, there is the centuries-old tradition of Zwarte Piet, Santa’s slave-like “helper,” who is portrayed in blackface. Most recently in Dutch pop culture, the release of the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen, has caused some commotion and is perhaps the most scandalous and demoralizing depiction of Black women that I’ve ever seen. The premise of the film is a White guy going to the hood in search of the perfect Black girl with a big ass.
Don’t get me wrong. Despite all the nuances and racism, the reason that I fell in love with the Netherlands was because I connected with and was intrigued by a brilliant community of Dutch Caribbean artists and intellectuals who are producing work and creating their own narratives. Some artists, such as Surinamese born Marcel Pinas and Remy Jungerman, pull from their native Maroon culture and their people’s form of spirituality, known as Winti, which is similar to Santeria, Akan and Vodou.
Others, such as Charl Landvreugd, are focused on examining new ways to define an Afro-European Black identity that’s not based on a Black American narrative. Then there are artists such as Iris Kensmil, who creates parallels between the Black American perspective and sociopolitical ideologies drawn from W.E.B. du Bois, the Black Power movement and historical Surinamese activists.
Patricia Kaersenhout, also confronts race but within the context of the gendered, radicalized bodies of Black women. Tirzo Martha on the other hand, who lives and works on the island of Curacao, provides an engaging and sometimes alternative critique of the social-political conflicts at play within the color/cultural/racial line in society there.
Judith Leysner’s video installations and performances are very critical of the political affairs in Dutch society as well, but she also addresses those micro-personal affairs that take place within the home. Photographer Nardo Brudet’s work is also confrontational. For instance, in his “Slaves of Holland” series, he re-imagines a world of slavery in which the African man is the master enslaver and the white Dutch man is the enslaved.
Emerging self-taught Antillian photographer, Brett Russell, provides social-political commentary on race, class and popular culture within Dutch society but also explores the contemporary intricacies of racial and phenotypical identity on Curacao. Additionally, there is a cadre of emerging artists like Silvia Martes, who are recently graduated from, or currently enrolled in, the Netherlands’ renowned Rietveld Academy who are articulating their own narratives as young Dutch artists of African descent.
They, too, are navigating their way through the Dutch contemporary art landscape. Lastly, the multi-layered work of several artists, particularly Faranú, Avantia Damberg and Kurt Nahar, doesn’t centralize race as a subject, at all.
Through my research, I am forced to confront my own narrative as a Black American and examine it from a global context. I’ve heard the frustrations of many Afro-Europeans who appreciate the examples of cultural and racial pride in the U.S., but are more interested in telling their own stories and exploring their own identities without the “hegemony” of a U.S. centric narrative.
Thus, it is the spirits of a Berlin Audre Lorde and Parisian James Baldwin that I allow to guide me through this process. It is with that commitment to truth and understanding that I learn, observe and share my voice as an outsider, in solidarity with what’s happening in the arts, politics and day-to-day life of Black people in Dutch society.
The more that we know about the larger Black World, the more we can find common causes and ties that bind us as a people. I hope that my research will create greater understanding of a nuanced society that can provide us with a deeper knowledge of ourselves – Black People of many faces, colors, languages and names.
Author’s Note…An Afterword of Sorts:
I originally wrote this piece in November of 2012, while I was living in Amsterdam for a few months. During that time, I was still grappling with the complexity that is the Dutch Caribbean Diaspora and trying to make sense of my own experiences as a Black American woman in a Dutch context. Since then, there have been many situations that have added layers of understanding of the subject matter in which I’m currently engaged. Primarily, I had the opportunity to travel to a few countries situated in the Dutch Caribbean and experience their multiple cultures first-hand. Both my experiences and observations in Aruba, Curacao and Suriname were as varied and different as they were colorful, enriching and engaging. There are many more artists – Kurt Nahar, Glenda Heyliger, Mo Mohammad to name only a few – some who were formally educated in the Netherlands, that I met who are all doing powerful work. Through their aesthetic, mediums and content, they all seem committed to using their work to establish new considerations in contemporary art. As this research project continues, I’m no longer convinced that there is a specific destination that I’m moving towards. What I will say, however, is that I am definitely enjoying the ride.