Languages of Resistance and Protest in Dutch-Surinamese Painting
by Oneika Russell
by Oneika Russell
Until mid-July 2021 the Stedelijk Museum is home to an exhibition, Surinamese School, a title which frames a group of artists who have both studied and produced in the Netherlands but also call the former Dutch colony of Suriname home. Suriname falls on the southern rim of the Caribbean Sea and is on the same landmass as the Amazon Rainforest. With this Geographic location Suriname pulls influences from both the interior richness of the South American landscape and Europe through colonization and the Afro-diasporic populations that were introduced in this process. The Surinamese School exhibition sets out to establish these artists as a legitimate extension of the documented and recognized branches of Dutch Art History. Many of the artists in the exhibition are working in Painting and migrated from Suriname to the Netherlands to pursue education and greater career prospects as artists. This is not dissimilar to the connection any European nation has experienced with its colonies.
The exhibition boasts 100 works by 35 artists borrowed from various collectors. It is interesting to note that the show really originated out of intentions to hold a retrospective of Nola Hatterman’s work. Hatterman (1899-1984) was a Dutch-Caucasian woman known for her paintings of black subjects. As the museum began to think about decolonization and highlighting women artists within the collection, it became timely for a Hatterman retrospective to be proposed. Researcher Ellen de Vries made this initial proposal to the museum. Further consideration allowed the curatorial team to think about this project of decolonization in a broader way. To address inclusion in public collections only by exhibiting Hatterman as the main painter of people of color would be problematic as such an exhibition would still not have tackled decolonization of the museum. It was with this intention that the proposed Nola Hatterman exhibition was extended to become a larger presentation of Dutch artists who were linked to Suriname.
The institutional response to the upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement which became international in 2020 is one that many still watch to evaluate how change happens and whether there is real authenticity behind these gestures. Surinamese School is mounted amidst the recent flurry of museums in Europe scrambling to give artefacts back to the colonized countries they originated from. This exhibition however directs the flow of culture in the other direction. Instead of the hurry to release and attempt to dissolve itself of wrongdoing and harm to already decimated cultures, this exhibition seeks to somehow attempt cultural intake and inclusion. Thus, we arrive at an exhibition that organizes and identifies a wider pool of artists who were equally a part of Dutch cultural history as it also extends that history overseas to its former colonies. The question is, how will these artists and their work be received into the canon and broaden what may be classified as Dutch Art production?
While writing this essay, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first woman, woman of color, and first generation migrant as the Vice President of the United States of America. The circumstances that created this dramatic shift and opening up in the world have also rippled through the cultural sector. Indeed, it could be said that the effects began to be felt within cultural institutions globally first. This was bound to happen as creatives and cultural workers are always holding their ears to the ground to hear the first rumbles of change to begin reflection on, activism on, satire on, etc. As this happened, they began to pick up on the cultural moment happening in the streets around them and loudened their questioning of the institutional systems they are a part of, which they help support and hold as beacons. The activism of Afro- Dutch people and committed organizations has surely ignited this within the Netherlands as well.
The work presented in the exhibition no doubt shows equal mastery of technical ability as European painters of the time. The work on exhibition spans the period of 1839 to 1990. Many of the Surinamese artists who worked in the Netherlands at the time would have studied art there as well and been exposed to similar training. The accomplishment of the images is very much in keeping with art of its time. Much of the paintings in the exhibition also assert something else which finds its way back to present-day politics & representation of the other as the key subject. Alongside the mastery of technique and their display of the consciousness of styles there is also this representation as subtext. Nola Hatterman’s paintings for example (fig.1) would not look amiss beside a Degas or Manet painting except for the choice of subject, a well dressed, elegantly composed Black man. When looking at the paintings in the exhibition, I found this particularly striking as many of the portraits of this period that are well known within Art History often give space to sitters of European descent and lineage accentuating the European features. Degas’ paintings make much of pale, rosy-cheeked and Renoir’s scenes show the gait of society and styles of dress, fashion and standards of beauty. This is the point where it is evident that Hatterman sought to expand the narratives within Painting of the day. Painted in 1939, Hatterman’s ‘On the Terrace’ presents a portrait of Louis Drenthe as a man in society able to achieve and project equal signifiers of gentility in the European sense.
In Hatterman’s painting, Jazz musician Louis Drenthe sits casually at a table, pensive in thought or perhaps looking out on city life. He in turn presents himself to be looked at in this leisurely social environment. He looks dapper and every bit the part of a modern European gent. It is equally important to state that he seems cool and collected and asserts civility and modishness. Hatterman’s painting extends knowledge about who we believe to have been a part of the existing crowd in the city and who moved in society in Europe. It provides a statement that leads me to ask why we are not more familiar in Art History books with paintings of these immigrants from various diasporas and colonies, who were surely present in the Netherlands at the time. As if to answer this question, the curators have presented an arrangement of portraits in another space which shows Surinamese painters engaged in portraiture of East Asian immigrants and Caribbean immigrants alike. Hatterman, herself European, speaks about being attracted to the non-European and feeling ‘Black inside’ which speaks to a kind of fascination with the Black subject and figure in her work. For her it seems an act of self-identification and subversion of the dominant European culture she had difficulty with to be able to paint the Black figure. Therefore, creating a painting in the mode of the day – New Objectivity- with a different kind of subject is a kind of mark of resistance to cultural norms in Europe at the time.
The Baag Family Portrait by Armand Baag is another formidable painting within the exhibition (fig.2). This family portrait is quite different from genteel classic family group portraits in the annals of Art History in Europe before the modern period. Expectedly, the Baag Family Portrait painted in 1989 is of a whole other mindset and ideological space from the Louis Drenthe portrait by Hatterman. By 1989 modernity had certainly begun to give way to postmodernity and stock markets worldwide had crashed. Many of the Caribbean nations had been independent societies for more than a decade. The Soviet Union was crumbling and Tiananmen Square had its affecting student protests against the government. It is against this moment that Baag created the work. The painting is for me both uncomfortable to look at and equally engaging in its skilfully handled composition and color usage. In Baag’s day, there was likely less compliance with the idea that people of color had to assimilate within European spaces. It was time to paint realties as we know them to be or even perhaps would like, the European viewer, to view them. It was a time where the act of painting the Black figure would certainly come to be a political act. In Jamaica at this exact moment, artists like Omari Ra, Petrona Morrison and Stanford Watson (fig.3) were asserting then radical ideas about the post-colonial situation such as black as a color, sharp criticism of the state and reclaiming African aesthetics and languages.
African and Afro-diasporic cultures are known for their matriarchy cloaked in the appearance of patriarchy and arguably vice versa. However it is, the matriarch of the family that sharply defends the home territory and the patriarch himself, even in his enabled status, knows that this is a power struggle which is a delicate affair and which hangs upon the whims of the women at the head of the household. In this portrait the identified matriarch of this family stands directing her gaze unabashedly at us while also allowing the mirror she holds in her hand to reflect back the artist’s face – who is also a member of this family. The younger woman beside the main figure echoes this direct gaze but has a softer, more neutral stance. Perhaps she has not yet had to defend a family and years under her belt to make the soft edges sharp. Coming up behind the group to the left in an expression that shows his knowledge and compliance in that supporting role is the identified patriarch of the group.
Baag’s portrait in many ways asserts not just technical adeptness, but something thoroughly progressive. In this period when we have witnessed and been greatly affected by the changes the #metoo and Time’s Up movements have brought, it is easy to believe that Art has always asserted women in dominant roles – particularly in relation to men. Amongst an arrangement of sitters and side profiles in the exhibition space, Baag’s painting shows women standing and facing the artist as directly as could be expected with a gaze that is unfaltering. It is a picture of directness, truth, and daresay confrontation. The women as figures hold our attention and our aged patriarch smiles on knowingly. The artist does not give the viewer the option of viewing passively and feeling a sense of easy relaxation before moving on to look at other charming portraits mounted in the same space.
Within the context of portrait painting, I compare this image as much to paintings of the present period which seek to challenge the placidity of the portrait and particularly the feminine portrait. The Baag Family Portrait painted in 1989 allows me to think of Zanele Muholi’s recent paintings (fig.4) where there is a direct gaze that is piercing and often defiant. Muholi’s work, though feeling quite contemporary in its figures’ powerful and direct stare as well as the emphasis on addressing questions about race, ethnicity and gender also (fig. 5) find its counterpart in the central figure in the Baag painting. The notion being the protest against the very idea of a portrait being a placid soothing image for the viewer. Both Muholi and Baag understand the portrait as a particular form of image-making within which the often unseen and under-represented minority must snatch back every bit of power and create a posture of supreme presence.
Vluchteling (Refugee,1983), a painting by Frank Creton (fig.6), is presented in the exhibition as part of a group of three paintings of Black male figures in the landscape of a country that appears to be tropical in climate. Possibly we are seeing the figures being shown in a setting of their Caribbean colonial home. This arrangement of paintings shows us another side of the way the Black figure can be understood within the context of European painting. On the one hand, the paintings concede to the narrative that is often accepted of the wild, defiant Black figure, bound by the call of mysticism and the overgrown interiors of the land. In the arrangement (fig.7) we see a group of men enter the bushes in one painting to the far left (Gevluchte Slaven (Escaped) Rinaldo Klas, 1978-1979) and by the second painting (Abaysa e go na maysa; Baag, 1972), the transition to ‘nativeness’ has begun. In the second painting in the arrangement we see another gathering of Black men who are invoking the spirits, ancestors or mystical beings for guidance, praise or perhaps organization to take an action. In Vluchteling, the painting of focus to the far right of the curated arrangement of paintings, we see the figure emerging from the bushes with machete in hand. The image presented in this particular arrangement and the inferred narrative of the Black figure that suddenly becomes a threat echoes the terror that could be experienced in a painting like Portrait of Nat Turner with his Master’s Head (fig.8) by Kerry James Marshall.
In Marshall’s painting the act of beheading the oppressive enslaver has just been committed and the stark, pale terror of the slave owner’s head lays as a striking object on the cool white sheets of the bed. The figure of Nat Turner looks bitterly and unabashedly at the viewer. I imagine within this painting that I am seeing a man who through the atrocities of slavery has been forced to reclaim his personhood by desperate means. Marshall uses this portrait as an instance to record a figure like Nat Turner in the way that subjects were recorded with their valor and winnings often seen in royal portraiture in Western Art History. By the time we get to Vluchteling on the far right of the arrangement, we have followed a path to how this curated narrative of the imagined terror of Black men gets created. The arrangement shows men who have had the chance to gather in natural settings, talk, gather mystical strength and arm themselves – the ultimate terror for the colonial mind. Creton’s painting is the point at which the Black man is activated and becomes the threat he is instinctively feared to be.
Joshua Paul, a young Jamaican filmmaker, revisits this narrative in his 2020 short film Snakebite, shot during COVID lockdowns and in the wake of the killing of George Floyd (fig.9). The Black male figure in this story, set in 1715, is a maroon teenager living in the hills of Jamaica. As a maroon he would have been from one of the communities formed by enslaved people who had run away from the plantations to the more mountainous regions of the island. He is free enough of mind and body to find empathy for the wounded Redcoat that he encounters on his journey through the bush the kind of empathy that escaped Kerry James Marshall’s Nat Turner. Paul creates an argument for remaining in hyper-vigilance as we see that not even the nearly dead British soldier can let go of the perceived threat of the negro. After the soldier’s appeal for help, the boy sucked the venom of a snake from his wounds. In a quick turn of events, the recovering Redcoat stabs the young Maroon. Paul, a young Caribbean man of Afro-descent himself, creates a film which is all about mistrust, fear and the power dynamic at play while experiencing vulnerability. Even though our Redcoat has received assistance thus saving his chances at life, distrust and fear still remain within him. This fear facilitates his perception of the Black boy as a menace who must be extinguished once his usefulness has expired. It is the old colonial story of a relationship which exists by force but which is also navigated warily by both parties and contains many imbalances of justice. The maroon boy has not yet learned the lesson of self-preservation and in turn learns in the hardest of ways.
The issue of interest is how a freely moving figure able to chart their own course and protect its safety in the environment as is the right of every man comes to be perceived as both wild and threatening. This threat becomes heightened when religion and spiritual beliefs unfamiliar to the European looker are evoked and also when that body is in control of weapons that can shift the power dynamic quickly. Like the Maroon protagonist in Snakebite, Vluchteling’s figure emerges from bushes, weapon in hand. Is this the face of unbridled wildness intent on causing harm to its oppressors or an equally valid interpretation: the face of a being experiencing terror and fear? If we extend the rhetoric of Snakebite to this arrangement of paintings we can surmise that there is dread on each side of the fence. The Black man in the bushes is fearful of what may be done to him in pursuit of his own freedoms and the viewer suffering from the colonial gaze is induced to feel fear in thinking about what encountering such an individual in the native environment could lead to.
This expression of tension on the figure in Vluchteling’s face is echoed in Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of his Master. I translate both artists’ intentions for their figures similarly. Both figures in the paintings seem to say ‘I want to tell you how far I am willing to go to fight for my personhood and to protect it.’
Meredith Andrews, a Bahamian photographer, has been working through 2020 on documenting the ‘Black Lives Matters’ protests in Nassau. In her photographic images she shows the bodies of protesters both observed from afar in action and also close-up in stillness while looking directly down the camera lens (fig. 10). It is that same familiar look. It is seen on Kerry James Marshall’s Nat Turner and Armando Baag’s central figure in the Baag Family Portrait and Creton’s man in the bushes. In the depiction of the body in stillness; depiction of the body as it turns to confront the viewer; and as it comes to rest after committing an act of violence, there is a look of contempt and directness. One would really describe this expression as a glare which further says ‘As you look at me so I look back even more because this is where my power lies’.
Louis Drenthe in Hatterman’s painting, though fully capable of this type of direct look, was painted to show a man participating in society and assimilating into life in the colonial motherland. Louis Drenthe sitting at a cafe reading newspapers is painted as being quite the opposite of a threat. He is blending in, not meeting our direct gaze and he can therefore be perceived more placidly than figures in the Baag Family Portrait and Vluchteling. Drenthe’s painter possibly determined that this was not the time and place for this type of direct protest and that presenting oneself to be gazed at rather than directly looking back would create more receptivity to this picture of this Black body in this space. Perhaps the fact that Baag and Creton, unlike Hatterman, had firsthand experience of being a Black man in a colonial space could cause contempt to rise more easily in what they seek to achieve in their paintings. Nevertheless in this moment we no longer have the luxury of seeing a picture of a man in a cafe as just figure, setting, color and composition.
Hatterman’s painting of Drenthe automatically connects me to the incidence of two Black men who were arrested for sitting and waiting in a Starbucks cafe in the Spring of 2018. Much of the Black Lives Matters protests and discussions have centered around what it is to not just be Black in the West but to be a Black male. The Black male experience signifies a distinct and particularly visible and brutal othering experience. The Black woman experiences another level of othering in relation to violence and fear, but also invisibility. Amongst the paintings, women of color are seen as clusters of figures which form part of cultural practice or as small portraits. For this reason the Baag Family Portrait stands out also as a statement about the resistance and role of women in this act of protest through images and in social realities.
When I think of all the works discussed, George Floyd’s heartbreaking case of course comes up again and again but even closer to home I think of that of young Mario Dean in Jamaica who also died in Police custody and Steven Lawrence in the UK. The Baag Family Portrait’s matriarch stands in defiance and sharp protection of that which is hers and is in kinship to her the way Black women have done in the Black Lives Matters protests. Vluchteling’s figure echoes the terror seen on the face of Floyd in images shared across social media and news channels. But on another layer, Nola Hatterman’s depiction of Louis Drenthe shares a reality of many people of color and Afro-diasporic origins. We are doing our best to live full lives and function within our societies while experiencing and having full knowledge of these other narratives of fear and terror projected unto us.
Astrid Kerchman, ‘Politics of Representation: The Cases of Nola Hatterman and Jan Sluyters: In Conversation with Astrid Kerchman‘, February 8, 2019, MOEDonline.org.
Charlotte Jansen, ‘The Gaze of White Women Artists on Black Subjects‘ March 12, 2020, elephant.art