Black Figures, Black Voices

24 July 2017

On 4 and 6 July, ASCA programmed two documentaries in the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. These events were about black people who have been a significant part of Dutch history, but who have been (or have become) erased and/or forgotten. A report by By Anke Bosma 10-7-2017

The documentary shown on Tuesday, Zwart Belicht; Painted Black (2008) by Tessa Boerman, was about black figures in paintings by (mostly) 17th-century Dutch masters, including Rembrandt. On the second night, the documentary Edgar Cairo: ‘Ik ga dood om jullie hoofd’ (2011) by Cindy Kerseborn, about the Dutch-Surinamese writer Edgar Cairo (1948-2000), was shown. In addition, both nights included poetry readings, lectures and discussion.

Zwart Belicht; Painted Black showed that black figures in paintings seem for a long time to have literally not been seen, as in descriptions of the paintings, on museum signs and in catalogues, every white person tends to be meticulously described, while the black people shown are either only briefly mentioned or not described at all. The documentary ‘reveals’ these figures: symbolic characters and real people, Africans and people of African descent, free, enslaved or freed. What the documentary made clear was that while painters of the time painted a variety of black subjects, it was the emerging discourse formed in academia and museums that has hidden these people in plain sight. A lecture in the form of a pop quiz, created by researcher Valika Smeulders, linked the painted subjects to historic people who lived in the Dutch empire (both in the then ‘motherland’ and the colonies) from at least the 17th-century onwards. Some of these people were powerful, such as Elisabeth Samson (1715-1771), a businesswoman and the first to sue the Dutch state for unequal treatment, and Abram George Ellis (1846-1916), who was minister of the navy, and many of them probably have descendants living in the Netherlands who would identify as white. The different stories discussed on this evening tell us something about the history of racism as well as about the history of black people in Dutch society, reevaluating positive images of black people. It is vitally important that black people are acknowledged as part of Dutch history and that their stories are told, rather than remaining hidden.

Black Figures 2

Naomi Veldwijk

On the evening of 6 July, Edgar Cairo was the central figure. While now unfortunately a relatively unknown author in the Netherlands, he was a literary genius who greatly contributed to both Dutch and Surinamese literature. As the documentary Edgar Cairo: ‘Ik ga dood om jullie hoofd’ showed, he used three languages (Sranantongo, Surinam-Dutch and Dutch), mobilizing each one to strengthen his expression in the others. His writing was also intellectually and culturally important, as he spoke about overcoming the coloniality of consciousness in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, taking pride in his blackness and his culture, which were (and are) often seen as inferior in the Dutch context. His work also reflected a deep desire to want to be heard, a struggle that continues to this day, as is apparent from the fact that Cairo’s work is relatively unknown among Dutch readers. In the discussion that followed, Charl Landvreugd, who performed Cairo’s poem Dat Boelgedicht and, in a close reading, drew out its political dimensions, talked, among other things, about making Cairo more well-known, especially amongst young black Dutch audiences. As with the many stories that were discussed on the previous evening, the stated goal was to reveal Cairo’s influence and importance by making his work more well-known, a task that has become a mission for Cairo’s brother Arthur, who memorably closed the evening by performing one of his poems in Sranantongo and Dutch.

The frustration about how all these stories have been submerged and require repeated revealing (Boerman’s documentary, for example, is from 2008 and Kerseborn’s documentary is from 2011) came to the fore in Naomi Veldwijk’s brilliant closing poem on 4 July. Her poem was partly inspired by her earlier two readings of poems from Robin Coste Lewis’ collection Voyage of the Sable Venus (2017). In her own poem she expressed her anger at the fact that colonial discourse still persists, as proven by the fact that, as a politically aware young black woman, she did not know about the lives and stories of black people that took center stage that night. She intellectually and emotionally reflected on this fact and on the difficulty of being on stage as a black person, directly addressing how being looked at by a largely white audience meant experiencing the gaze that has so forcefully hidden black people in the past.

By Anke Bosma 10-7-2017

Published by  ASCA