Black Lives Matter protest in Dam Square, Amsterdam on June 01, 2020. Photo by Mascha Tielemans available at The Black Archives.
Manifesting the Manifesto
In the exhibition Black Manifesto: Manifesting Change, artists Chimira Obiefule, Rossel Chaslie, and the duo Jonathan Hoost and Youandi gave expression to the manifesto in their own creative ways. Writers Akú Anan, Bart Krieger, Jillian Emanuels, Mungayende Helene Christelle, Phaedra Haringsma, Princess Attia & Sherilyn Deen wrote about Black communities in the Netherlands from a range of perspectives. And the exhibition design was courtesy of Setareh Noorani and Jelmer Teunissen.
The exhibition issued from the open call Manifesting Systemic Change Through Creative Waves, jointly organized by the Nederland Wordt Beter foundation, the New Urban Collective/The Black Archives and Black Queer & Trans Resistance NL in collaboration with BAK, basis voor actuele kunst (platform for contemporary art), Utrecht. Black Manifesto: Manifesting Change ran at OSCAM in Amsterdam Zuidoost from 27 October, 2021, to 16 January, 2022. You can read all of the associated essays at www.zwartmanifest.nl.
Personal reflections, messages (boskopus1) and other thoughts worth sharing, in response to the lack of diversity and inclusion in the Dutch visual arts and cultural heritage sector and my guest curatorship of the Surinamese School exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
This Alakondre-style2 essay (composed of wisdoms and elements from every country in the world) is pluralistic, artistic, and experimental in form. My choice of form is a deliberate attempt to liberate myself from the western linear form of the essay, with its standard bibliography of publications by (mostly) white men. I am breaking with this tradition to make room for my Afro-Surinamese traditions, my queerness, for my jeje3 (soul), and to pass on the oral traditions of my ancestors.
The Surinamese School exists!
Right from the outset of our preparations, I threw a spanner in the works by proposing the School of Suriname as a working title.4 The idea was that this bold title would help to steer the working group for the exhibition on Surinamese painting towards a qualitative (re)appreciation of Surinamese art in the Netherlands.5 As I saw it, we were throwing down the gauntlet to everyone in the Dutch visual arts scene and to the general public. But the number of art critics to take up the challenge could be counted on the fingers of one hand (and none of them were Black!). Perhaps it is starting to sink in after all that the old belief in “first the West and then the rest” no longer passes muster.6 It should likewise be understood that the School of Suriname, or the Caribbean School of which it is a part of, deserves its own place in the canon of Western art history.7
Reading guide to this Alakondre-style essay
In this essay, I share over 30 years of my experience in the arts and culture sector—including experience as a dancer, performer, art critic, curator and policy advisor—and highlight a number of aspects involved in creating this exhibition. The Stedelijk Museum is still working on its post-exhibition evaluation; however, I’ve already noted significant differences between the way the press saw the exhibition, the way the White public saw it and the way the Black public saw it. For instance, White audiences largely seemed to see it from a rational perspective, while Surinamese visitors were more likely to connect with it emotionally.8
There’s plenty of room for oral traditions in essay writing
Each paragraph of this essay (each with its own title) can be seen as a link in a typical Afro-Surinamese Alakondre necklace.9 Alakondre is a concept from Winti philosophy, and literally means composed of elements from “every country in the world.” In this essay, the necklace’s “links, symbols and beads” are represented, on the one hand, by fragments of literary research and practical experiences, and on the other hand by less concrete assertions such as personal opinions and boskopus10 that I’d like to share from the “emotional archive of connectedness,” as named by Gloria Wekker.11 This dichotomy reflects my own “multi-racial” approach to writing, in which I draw on “Western” and non-Western literary traditions, but also welcome non-Western (oral) traditions. The Alakondre style also manifests itself in the multiplicity of titles and heterogeneous bibliography.12 In short, this art historical essay breaks with Western conventions from beginning to end. As my Afro-Surinamese father did when cooking, I disregard the “classic” cookery books and trust my own intuition and tastebuds.
The Liberation of Sranan Tongo and Surinamese art
The Alakondre-style essay is anything but Eurocentric. As far as I can tell, the defining elements of the form are pluriformity, flexibility, seeing where inspiration takes you, playfulness, “keeping it real” and “swagger”. These elements and the modular nature of the form, which are perfectly suited to the random browsing habits of the TikTok generation, are also the basis of the Sranan Tongo language. The language was developed by enslaved people from a mix of several white colonial languages, and African languages and boasts a distinctive grammar all of its own.13 According to the Winti concept of Alakondre, the trick isn’t simply to be open to outside influences, but to actively embrace and celebrate them.14 As faiths, spirituality and philosophical beliefs go, this is a markedly unique attitude.15 And all of this applies just as much to Surinamese visual art. I learned this in part from Monique Nouh-Chaia (managing director of the Readytex Art Gallery) and artistic director Alida Neslo, who employed this profound approach in formulating an Art Manifesto for Surinamese visual art.16
Winti priestess Marian Markelo (aka Nana Efua) and Bart Krieger creating the Keti Koti tour within the School of Suriname.
My acts of “resistance” within the discourse on art history
According to an article that appeared in Museum Vision magazine, titling the exhibition “Surinamese School” is misleading. Apparently, there’s no such thing as the Surinamese School as the artists and works under its umbrella are not defined by a single unambiguous style. This, to me, is Eurocentrism in its purest form. If the Surinamese School does not fit within the western art historical idea of schools and styles, then it is time to change those ideas. The concept of Alakondre may be of use here and could very well offer a response to postmodernism. After all, the operation of an intercultural society has had many hundreds of years longer to mature in Suriname than it has in the Netherlands.
Please feel free to skip any paragraph you wish. This essay can be read in any number of ways, as it does not progress in linear fashion. In fact, you can even read the paragraphs in reverse order, if you so wish. Each part of the essay contains a message of its own, which collectively constitute the knowledge I hope to pass on regarding inclusion and diversity, specifically with respect to interculturally staffing and programming. Consider this my take on the state of the Dutch art scene.
50 Gems of Surinamese Art; my golden ticket
Never before had I felt as seen and appreciated as I did during the preparations for the Surinamese School exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum. On 8 May, 2019, which fell in a period when the museum was without a director, and over a year before the Black Lives Matter protests, I was invited by Claire van Els (curator at the Stedelijk Museum) to an introductory meeting at the museum. A copy of my book 50 Surinaamse Kunstschatten (50 Gems of Surinamese Art) lay on the table, and it soon became apparent that this publication was my golden ticket for a place on the curatorial team. The book is a collection of articles on Surinamese arts that I’d published in the opinion monthly Parbode between 2010 and 2014. I had written them on the basis of a fixed set of self-defined objectives: 1. introduce Surinamese art to the general public, 2. encourage “Surinamese people” to look at art and take pride in it, and 3. teach “Dutch people” how to emotionally connect with art. The intercultural nature of the book had apparently struck a chord with Van Els, as had my habit of making free associations to pop culture and Western and non-Western art history in my writing.
Surinamese School curatorial team. Left to right: Jessica de Abreu, Mitchell Esajas, Ellen de Vries, Inez Blanca van der Scheer, Bart Krieger, Carlien Lammers en Claire van Els.
Building on the foundations of art history
The “Surinamese School” working group produced an exhibition concept that had the backing of each member. The springboard for the concept’s development had been the exhibition and publication 20 Years of Visual Art in Suriname, 1975-95, compiled by Chandra van Binnendijk and Paul Faber. Our ambitions for this exhibition, however, went beyond simply presenting of a range of artworks and artists, which is why we chose to interrupt the chronology at key junctures with themed rooms that addressed or illustrated issues such as the decolonization of Christianity, the Black holocaust, Marronage (i.e., the process of resistance and extricating oneself from enslavement), the Black is Beautiful movement and activism in both the Asian and African diasporas. This would allow us to build upon the research findings and works of the Surinamese artists, art collectors, art historians and fans of Surinamese visual art to whom we were indebted.17 The trust we had in one another as members of a team with a common cause allowed us to transcend our limitations as a group.
The Amanda Gorman Era
The Black Lives Matter movement has shaken the world out of its complacency and drawn renewed attention to the systematic disadvantages faced by non-white people in general and by Black people in particular. That U.S. President Joe Biden was aware of this was evident from, among other things, his invitation to spoken word artist, poet and activist Amanda Gorman to speak at his inauguration. History was made with the ensuing performance, immediately placing Gorman in a position to have her pick of assignments until she lays down her pen. All this from the simple act of Joe Biden presenting himself as an ally of the BLM movement. This is what happens when you grant “the other” a little bit of space. Because “the other” has always hosted talent and ability. All that was ever needed was the physical and virtual room to demonstrate it, a seat at the table. Incidentally, this doesn’t necessarily mean that white people have to give up their seat at the table; all we have to do is extend the table and pull up more seats.
The BLM “boskopu”18 hasn’t quite sunk in yet in the Netherlands. This was more than evident from the controversy surrounding Amanda Gorman’s Dutch publisher’s announcement of its choice of translator for the young American’s poem The Hill We Climb. Meulenhoff, the publisher, had picked Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who was neither a spoken word artist nor a translator, and, more significantly, is white. The announcement drew immediate opprobrium from Black people across the country, with activist Janice Deul leading the criticisms with a piece in de Volkskrant on 25 February, in which she stated: “Nothing against Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, but that writer is not the best person to translate the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Black spoken-word artists matter, as do our home-grown ones.”19 Deul’s concluding words speak volumes: “Agents, publishers, editors, translators, reviewers in the Netherlands, broaden your horizons and step into the 2020s. Be the light, not the hill. Embrace those marginally represented in the literary system, open your eyes to genres that have traditionally been excluded from the canon, and don’t let your ego prevail over art. Talented people of color also deserve to be seen, heard and nurtured. Publish their work too, hire them too, and compensate them fairly. Black spoken word artists matter. As do homegrown ones.”20 This is precisely the gist of this Alakondre-style essay, for, as I see it, Deul’s appeal applies just as much to the entire landscape of the visual arts industry, the museum curation and exhibition sector, and the cultural heritage sector,21 where there’s a pressing need for white people to shift a bit to the side to make room for Black talent and professionals of all ages.22 Because as a matter of fact, there’s an abundance of such talent! It also hasn’t escaped my notice that a lot of white researchers have taken interest in Caribbean and African heritage. To them I say, “Don’t steal your Black colleagues’ thunder. Take off your pith helmet.”23 You see, as an art historian specializing in Surinamese/Caribbean art, I can only hope for another edition of Surinamese School or similar, to provide opportunities for work, or pray that people mention my name when someone offers Felix de Rooy, Razia Barsatie or Quinsy Gario a solo exhibition. After all, no one is likely to approach me for an exhibition about a white European artist.24
Bart Krieger (5 years of age) at his home in 1975.
My intersectional reality
That the world does not revolve around people like me was made clear at several key moments in my life. The first demonstration of this reality occurred on the first day of class. I was six years old at the time and was playing in the schoolyard when a fellow student, a blond boy, approached me. Apropos of nothing, he called me a “brown chicken.” An incredibly childish thing to say, obviously, but at the time his words pierced the very depths of my being. Upset as I’d never been before, I went home and recounted the incident to my white Dutch mother. I was hurt and angry and couldn’t hold back my tears, but her response failed to provide the comfort I was looking for. Her words were like something from the Old Testament: “If he calls you that again, then just call him a ‘white chicken’ right back.” She was probably just trying to help me develop the resilience I would need to get through “life,” but I have rarely felt so misunderstood and “different.” That was my first traumatic experience involving my mixed race, and I know it was traumatic because even today, decades later, I still remember the name of that “white chicken.” So, Phillip, thank you for awakening the warrior in me! Incidentally, for those who claim not to see my “Blackness” or who do not welcome it: as you can see, even toddlers see it!
BLM & Black iconoclasm
Darnella Frazier’s video recording went viral, globally. The fact of police brutality is common knowledge, but never before had the world witnessed an “execution” such as this, in this case of George Floyd on 25 May, 2020, at such close range. Both Floyd and Frazier were Black. The officers predominantly white.25 And then there was the (Black) iconoclasm. In the United States and later in other countries, on every continent, statues were toppled from their pedestals. This fate did not befall statues at random. No, they were selected with surgical precision on the basis of their “resume.” Most of the imagined heroes immortalized by these statues (read: well-to-do white men) have blood on their hands. Take a closer look at these “heroes” and you discover their connection to the slave trade, genocide and countless crimes against humanity. In short, everything that cannot be reconciled with how we choose to live today, in which individual freedom, emancipation, anti-racism and intersectional realities are defining factors.
As an art historian, art lover and bridge-builder, I could never see myself pulling a statue from its pedestal, but when it happened, I thought: Yes, this was long overdue! It’s time for a revolution and “Black enlightenment” in the art world, a sector which has always been behind the times. Now, which governments and exhibition spaces or museums will seize this opportunity to guide us toward a new shared reality represented by new heroes? Darnella Frazier, for instance, would be a deserving candidate for the honor of a statue, which could be a modern version of the Bartje statue in Drenthe. As was the case with Bartje, Frazier’s action had struck a nerve. And who was ready to step forward to facilitate the necessary dialogue regarding Black Art Matters? The Stedelijk Museum, the Van Abbemuseum, OSCAM, The Black Archives, or perhaps a combination of such organizations?
Are museums finally ready to see color?
The majority of executive boards, supervisory boards and management boards of Dutch museums, institutions of cultural heritage and other such organizations are stuck in the postcolonial age. They claim to be “color blind,” to want to treat everyone equally and choose people to work with on their merits as artists, curators, etc. However, if you treat everyone equally in a society built on institutional racism, all you do is maintain existing racial inequalities, because the playing field is structurally tilted against people of color.26 The art industry keeps treating diversity and inclusion as an ad hoc activity, to be accommodated on a project-by-project basis, while failing to address structural change. This is a major problem, and it demands radical action! The gravity of this understanding is why my soul soared when I was invited by Aspha Bijnaar to participate in Musea Bekennen Kleur (Museums See Color), the initiative she launched to anchor diversity and inclusion in the museum and cultural heritage sector in a sustainable manner.27 I accepted immediately, becoming a member of the expert group, which functioned as a “thorn in the flesh” of, and interlocutor for, the usually white management and staff of the relevant organizations.28 I was immediately struck by the fact that these organizations, despite their apprehension, no longer needed convincing as to the necessity of our aims. As a result, we got off to a fairly quick start on the questions that follow “why?” i.e., how, with whom, and for whom?29 Incidentally, these museums have recently made a public declaration of their commitment to fighting institutional racism and all other forms of discrimination.30
Don’t forget the ecosystem!
As with Black artists, the Black ecosystem as a whole has been ignored for decades and continues to be sidelined. This ecosystem consists of Black researchers, reviewers, curators, publicists, podcast makers, vloggers, programmers, and so on.
Moreover, curatorships typically go to white people on a full-time basis, while Black professionals are usually just “flown in.” In my opinion, this practice paints the museum or exhibiting organization as promiscuous. If you’re serious about equality, democratize the curating function and, perhaps, appoint Black and white curators alternately, possibly in collaboration with a cluster of museums. That way you ensure a certain degree of continuity in the careers of Black talent as well, rather than maintain the current practice of “one-night stands” to raise the “level” of diversity at white museums.31
Left: Bart standing in Remy Jungerman: Behind the Forest exhibition at Stedelijk Musuem Amsterdam. Right: Bart Krieger promoting the opening of the School of Suriname in the television program Mondo hosted by Nadia Moussaid with art critic Hans Den Hartog Jager.
Creating the Surinamese School collection
I was thrilled at the news of the Stedelijk Museum’s acquisition of works by a number of artists in the Surinamese School exhibition. These masterpieces by Soeki Irodikromo, Cliff San a Jong, Quintus Jan Telting, Rihana Jamaludin and René Tosari, among others, are sure to shine in the museum’s collection.32 For anyone interested, my unsolicited advice to the museum was to ensure the works were not left to gather dust in storage. I suggested that the Soeki Irodikromo painting, for instance, with its extraordinary post-CoBrA-like look and feel, would be an amazing addition to the CoBrA works in the museum’s permanent display. Because, make no mistake, by establishing a Surinamese School collection, the museum henceforth commits itself to conducting research and exhibiting art of the Surinamese Asian and African diaspora as part of its research policy and programming.
Othering the Surinamese School by withholding critical appraisal
I was far from impressed by the mainstream media’s reception of the Surinamese School exhibition. Despite the widespread coverage, the compliments showered on the Stedelijk Museum for finally “catching up” with the mounting of this exhibition, and everyone gushing about how wonderful it was that the exhibition was happening at this point in time, something continued to gnaw at me.
Attentive readers of the newspapers and magazines in which this praise appeared will not have failed to notice a glaring omission: not a single article offered a critical appraisal of our work, which was precisely what I’d been looking forward to reading: an informed appraisal of the art history research that underpinned the exhibition, courtesy of Claire van Els (curator at the Stedelijk Museum) and yours truly. The icing on the cake would have been if the critics who penned these articles had also commented on the unique and thoughtful manner in which this research complemented the contributions by other members of the working group from other disciplines, including museology, political science and anthropology, and how much synergy had been achieved in the process. But no, nothing on this but a deafening silence, despite Hans den Hartog Jager declaring the exhibition a “benchmark” in the NRC.33
The press has also been guilty of intellectual appropriation. For instance, many a journalist made off with the research and iconographic findings I spoke about at the exhibition’s press preview. Reading the subsequent coverage, you could be forgiven for assuming the critics had been immersed in the world of Surinamese art for years, and that they all shared a deep affinity with African-American culture. Save for a lone exception, my name was nowhere to be found in these articles. This has really got to change.
How Black talent is kept invisible
I see parallels between the current practice of ignoring the Black ecosystem and the way most Black artists were ignored by the gallery and museum circuit in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond. By pigeonholing the Surinamese School exhibition as a response to the problem of diversity, the press neglected its duty to provide a critical assessment of the show. As a result, the working group of curators behind the exhibition were largely overlooked. Be this intentional or otherwise, failing to acknowledge Black talent or ignoring it deliberately is a well-known mechanism of systematic racism, and has been explored in detail in publications like White Innocence by Gloria Wekker, Uitsluitingsmechanismen, Blaka tara en afrofobie by Barryl Biekman and Hello White People by Anousha Nzume.
There are a couple of possible explanations for this: newspaper and magazine art critics and editors are insufficiently familiar with art by Caribbean and other non-white artists in the Netherlands, or they are deliberately choosing to nip Black talent in the bud by ignoring it altogether. “Color blindness,” of which these explanations are an expression, is quite tenacious and goes to the heart of white privilege.35 A perfect illustration of the phenomenon was given by Jimmy Fallon on an episode of The Tonight Show that aired on 27 March, 2021. He’d invited a dancer to perform several viral TikTok dances for his millions-strong audience. However, the dancer was white, while nearly all of the original creators of these dances were Black. A viral internet backlash quickly followed, resulting in apologies by Fallon and an invitation to the Black creators to perform on the show and be interviewed. The incident demonstrated how easily such mistakes are made, but just as significantly, it demonstrated how easily said mistakes can be fixed! Give credit where credit is due. Consign your hollow claims of tolerance to history and welcome the “other.”
More is more!
“Less is more” is a common slogan within the international (read: Western-oriented) art scene, and serves as a means to ensure the continued dominance of the aesthetic of straight lines and empty space in art, architecture and design. It also serves as a mechanism for excluding art from non-Western countries. I call it the “apartheid” in art history, and consider it equivalent to the Dutch saying “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg” (which translates as “act like a ‘normal’ person, as that’s already strange enough,” in other words: conform to our standards). The imposition of this aesthetic is diametrically opposed to any form of artistic expression by any cultural group in Suriname, who are known for their horror vacui and practice of covering every surface in boskopus, symbols and expressions. Given these facts, the slogan of the Suriname School exhibition simply had to be More is More, which ties in neatly with the concept of Alakondre. From this emerged the exhibition design brief, in response to which Serana Angelista conceived the brilliantly rich color scheme that unified the galleries hosting the show. The slogan also informed the display strategy.36
The Surinamese School’s relation to Winti philosophy and the slave trade
Among my personal highlights of the Surinamese School exhibition was the Keti Koti tour that I initiated with Winti priestess Marian Markelo, a.k.a. Nana Efua. I’ll never forget walking with her through the exhibition while discussing various aspects of Winti philosophy and the transatlantic slave trade. We scrutinized the works together, discussed the various ways in which the artists had addressed these issues, and analyzed the way they’d incorporated concepts like “Mama Aisa” (Mother Earth), Winti forest deities, “ogri ai” (the evil eye) and “yorka” (the spiritual aspect of human beings that remains after death) in their oeuvres.37 None of this may sound particularly significant to you, but in the context of the art history of Suriname, it was the equivalent of cracking the Da Vinci Code.
Are you a boy or a girl?38
I also consider Winti a personal source of inspiration and strength. Let me explain. My awakening to my intersectional reality wasn’t the result of a single incident with one person, but rather multiple incidents with several people. These individuals were the friends of my parents and extended family members who came by each year to see the “the twins” on their birthday, the twins being my fabulous sister Susan and yours truly. Some of them weren’t that close, but the one thing everyone knew was that we were a set of boy/girl twins. However, between the ages of four and eleven, my sister was invariably mistaken for the boy and I for the girl. Of course, it didn’t help matters that I had a fondness for nail polish and that my sister wore her hair short and loved playing soccer.
I located something satisfyingly analogous in Winti. Your kra, or soul, consists of both a male and a female element.39 The female part of my kra is simply dominant. And because I’ve never tried to hide or tone down that part of my being—in other words, my queerness—it continues to be a source of great strength. My intersectionality prevents me from being in the thick of the action, but it does allow me to observe, analyze and comment on everything that happens from the margins, including on the subject of this essay.
The pilot episode of Kunst Toko
The news of the death of Soeki Irodikromo on 18 August, 2020, was absolutely earth-shattering. The art world in Suriname, the Netherlands and well beyond went into mourning. Less than half a year before, Claire van Els (curator of the Stedelijk Museum) and I had sat with this Surinamese master on a veranda in Paramaribo. It is such a pity that he did not live long enough to see his work hanging at the Stedelijk, a fate shared by most of the Surinamese artists who’ve ever lived.40 My recognition of this common fate spurred me into making the decision to start shooting video profiles of Caribbean artists, in which they would talk about their experiences and artistic practices.41 Working in collaboration with Wessel Haaxman, with whom I usually produce features for the local gay television station that operates within SALTO Amsterdam, I used what little resources we had to produce a series pilot featuring the painter Frank Creton. I hope to use this series to lay the foundation for further study while introducing a wider audience to Caribbean visual art. The pilot episode of De Kunst Toko (named after my art store Kunst Toko Bam!) will be screened at the exhibition Manifesting the Manifesto.
Left: Afro-Surinamese artist Frank Creton (left) and Bart Krieger (right) at the artist’s workshop in Heesterveld (Amstetdam Southeast). Right: Bart Krieger holding an artwork by unknown artist.
Stop hitting the snooze button!
The BLM movement is not a wake-up call. The alarm has been going off since the start of the transatlantic slave trade, but white people, empires, kingdoms, governments and institutions of all kinds keep hitting the snooze button. It’s time to wake up!
Is the Netherlands ready to get back on its feet and win the race like Olympian Sifan Hassan?
In my opinion, we don’t have to wait for the western art canon to welcome the Caribbean or Surinamese School.42 The Black Caribbean Dutch community is already forging ahead with institutions and initiatives like Black Achievement Month, Keti Koti month, the OCaN foundation (Organization for and by Caribbean Dutch people), Vereniging Ons Suriname, Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren, Vereniging Antilliaans Netwerk, Imagine IC, NiNcee, the Johan Ferrier Fund, OSCAM (Open Space Contemporary Art Museum), The Black Archives, Omroep Zwart and X, Galerie 23, Afro Magazine, Parbode magazine, the Hiphop School, Pata, Daily Paper and the planned Slavery Museum, Suriname Museum and NIRASԐ Winti Institute.43 Most of us witnessed Sifan Hassan’s performance at the Olympics; while running, she tripped over another runner and fell, got right back up and still won the race. My advice to government officials would be to welcome, support and nurture the above-mentioned initiatives and others like them if they want the country to move, like Sifan Hassan, from a trailing position to the head of the group of nations seeking to take the issue of Black emancipation seriously.44 For the Netherlands is ideally positioned to walk away with another gold, if it can muster the necessary will,45 what with its unique cluster of Black excellence in the form of independent talent, Black knowledge institutes, and organizations and exhibition venues devoted to Black culture, religion, history, philosophy and visual arts, all of whom are brimming with potential. I think the closing lines of Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb sums up the conclusion of this essay beautifully:
When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.46
Published sources, transgenerational boskopus and other references
- My Creole father Eddy Willem Krieger. He was a storyteller avant la lettre and was known for his ability to captivate audiences at family gatherings and parties with gut-wrenching stories and anecdotes about slavery and colorism.
- Winti priestess Marian Markelo,k.a. Nana Efua.
- My cousin Frank Consen, who was among the first group of talented artists to be mentored by Nola Hatterman in Suriname in the 1950s.
- The Surinamese School working group.
- Personal experiences with my family in the Caribbean, the United States, South Africa and the Netherlands.
- Surinamese artists and fellow researchers.
Audiovisual material concerning the Surinamese School
- 2016, Wit is ook een kleur (White is also a color), VPRO Documentary by Sunny Bergman
- 2020, Surinamese School exhibition opening, 11 December, 2020
- 2020, Online tour of the Surinamese School exhibition by the curatorial team,
- 2020/2021, The Art History No One Ever Told You About, Surinamese School podcast series developed by Vinny Tailor and Shay Kreuger. Over three episodes, presenter Shay Kreuger and several art curators, artists and other industry professionals discuss the history of the Surinamese art scene. Listen on Spotify or on the Stedelijk Museum website.
- 2021, the Keti Koti tour of the Surinamese School with Winti priestess Marian Markelo,
- 2021, the Surinamese School tour with Frank Creton, among others
- 2021, Surinamese School, The Talk Show.
- 2016, White Innocence, Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, Duke University Press, Gloria Wekker.
- 2017, Hallo witte mensen (Hello White People), Amsterdam University Press, Anousha Nzume.
- 2018, Uitsluitingsmechanismen, Blaka Tara en Afrofobie – het belang van politieke wil en rechtvaardig bestuur (Exclusionary Mechanisms, Black Tar and Afrophobia – The Importance of Political Will and Equitable Governance), LM Publishers, Barryl Biekman.
- 2021, The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman, Meulenhof; Dutch translation by Zaire Krieger
- 25 February, 2021, De Volkskrant, “Een witte vertaler voor poëzie van Amanda Gorman: onbegrijpelijk,” Janice Deul.
01 Boskopu means “message” in Sranan Tongo, a Surinamese language.
02 Alakondre means “(of) every land” in Sranan Tongo.
03 Jeje means “soul” in Sranan Tongo.
04 The Surinamese School exhibition (11 December, 2020 – 31 May, 2021) was a celebration of Surinamese painting in all its diversity and depth, and was held at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Presenting over 100 artworks by 35 artists, the exhibition explored the key themes and narratives at the heart of Surinamese painting from 1910 to the mid-1980s. Depictions of Surinamese history, spirituality and everyday life, alongside forays into abstraction and social change, gave shape to artistic developments. The Museum translated it as “Surinamese School,” which I do not think is correct, and which makes the exhibition hard to find online when searching for art from Suriname.
05 The curatorial team consisted of three people from the Stedelijk Museum: Claire van Els (curator), Carlien Lammers (Diversity & Inclusion), Inez Blanca van der Scheer (Studio i), and four external curators: Ellen de Vries (publicist and Nola Hatterman’s biographer), Jessica de Abreu & Mitchell Esajas (founders of The Black Archives), and yours truly, Bart Krieger (publicist, independent researcher of art history and founder of BAM! De Kunst Toko.
06 I borrowed this memorable phrase from Wayne Modest, Director of Content of the National Museum of World Culture and the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, and Head of the Research Center for Material Culture, who coined it in an interview for the documentary short Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism, which accompanied the exhibition of the same name at the Stedelijk Museum.
07 This view isn’t shared by the movement that seeks to tear Surinamese art away from Eurocentrism altogether and contextualize it according to its geographical origin. This, in my opinion, is a double-edged sword, by which I mean that any progress on this matter demands two kinds of activism: that which frees Surinamese art from the grip of Eurocentrism and that which recognizes areas of agreement.
08 In ongoing research by the Stedelijk Museum, the general public’s verdict on the Surinamese School exhibition appears to be leaning toward “above average.”
09 Winti is a traditional Afro-Surinamese religion and philosophy. It is a syncretization of the various African religious beliefs and practices of the West Africans who were captured, enslaved and brought to work on plantations in Suriname. Winti does not recognize a central authority.
10 Examples include intergenerationally transmitted boskopus, winti rituals and customs, Anansi tales, songs and poems.
11 Dutch readers were introduced to this concept by Gloria Wekker through her book White Innocence.
12 The notation for the bibliography begins with the year to underscore the particular point in time and topicality of this piece. My thanks to Quinsy Gario for this knowledge.
13 Sranan Tongo is a secret language that was developed by enslaved Africans and Creole people working on plantations in Suriname. The combination of languages that make up Sranan Tongo made it difficult for white plantation owners and overseers to follow the conversations of those working on the pantations. Developing the language was a form of resistance, and speaking it was forbidden by plantation owners.
14 A perfect example of this is the inclusion of Ingi (a Native American spirit) and Bakra (a Dutch spirit) in Winti’s pantheon of lower gods.
15 The many conversations I’ve had with Winti priestess Marian Markelo over the years have yielded further evidence supporting this. As with Sranan Tongo, practising Winti was officially banned in Suriname, and the ban wasn’t lifted until 1971!
16 In the fall of 2019, the three of us would get together to curate the exhibition Alakondre, wi tru fesi at the Readytex Art Gallery in Paramaribo (the largest art gallery in the Caribbean), featuring artists from all over the world. Unfortunately, the pandemic threw a spanner in the works, and I was unable to go to Suriname. However, the concept of Alakondre and the connection I spotted between this and a genre of self-portraiture generated so much synergy and inspiration between the artists that I was more than happy to let the project continue without me. I look forward to future opportunities to make a lasting contribution to the artistic development of visual art in Suriname.
17 I’m referring here to people like Gloria Leurs, Ben Mitrasingh, Carla Tuinfort, Emile Meijer, Monique Nouh-Chaia, Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld, Alida Neslo, Marieke Visser, Laddy van Putten, G.G.T Rustwijk, Hans Lie, Frank Zichem, William Man A Hing, Myra Winter, Michiel van Kempen, Esther Schreuder, Alette Fleischer, Priscilla Tosari, Fons Geerlings, Carl Haarnack, Marie-Claire Fakkel, Lucia Nankoe, Jennifer Smit, Felix de Rooy, Barbara Martijn, Adi Martis, Michael Tedja,Sasha Dees, Ellen de Vries, Rob Perree, Remy Jungerman, Rinaldo Klas, Paul Woei, Marcel Pinas, Nola Hatterman and Jules Chin A Foeng. This list is by no means complete, and I apologize to anyone I’ve failed to mention.
18 Boskopu means “message” in Sranan Tongo.
19 Volkskrant, 25 February, 2021, “Publisher picks white writer for the translation of Amanda Gorman’s poem: incomprehensible”
20 Following scathing criticism from all sides, Meulenhoff recommissioned the translation, opting this time for the talented Dutch Surinamese spoken word artist Zaïre Krieger, who I am proud to say is related to yours truly.
21 A few exceptions aside.
22 I specify age because age discrimination is rife in the industry.
23 All of us, Black and white, are walking around with a pith helmet, figuratively speaking. We’ve all grown up in a society infused with institutional racism and other inequalities. We need to recognize this and address it collectively.
24 Oddly enough, curators from Africa and North and South America are often invited to curate shows in the Netherlands. This is because white Dutch people generally prefer a distant friend to a good neighbor.
25 This injustice was met with shock all over the world, and peaceful protests were staged in countless cities to express outrage and demand action against the underlying layer of institutional racism and violations. Similar protests took place in the Netherlands, organized by The Black Archives, among others, in collaboration with other grassroots organizations and independent bodies. The mainstream media was quick to report on the destruction to property and looting that accompanied some of these protests. But as far as I could tell, these actions were not the work of protesters, but of thugs who’d spotted an opportunity to do as they pleased without the risk of getting caught amid the chaos.
26 2017, VPRO documentary Wit is ook een kleur (White is also a color), Sunny Bergman.
27 MBK aims to embed diversity and inclusion in the DNA of organizations in the museum and heritage sector in a sustainable manner, by focusing on the four P’s (Programming, Public, Personnel, Partners) and facilitating reflection, self-reflection and the exchange of ideas. The participating organizations hope that by working together, they will be better able to sustain the effort required to bring about a truly inclusive world.
28 My unsolicited advice to the organization would be to get executive and supervisory board members of institutions in these sectors involved the process.
29 This is in marked contrast to the intercultural projects that were in operation twenty years ago. My years-long involvement in these could be summarized as a frustrating and exhausting struggle to get people to understand the basic reason for their necessity. Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond that now. My project leader at the time, Dineke Stam, had a mantra that still echoes in my mind even after two decades: “It’s a long process.” Little did I know that “long” meant a whole generation later.
30 From MBK’s press release: “We, the various institutions of Dutch cultural heritage, collectively declare our commitment to combating institutional racism and all other forms of discrimination. To illustrate this commitment, we have joined the Musea Bekennen Kleur network and are issuing this joint press release. Though several institutions of cultural heritage have already taken concrete steps to increase the diversity of their audience, staff, artists, subjects and perspectives, we have to admit that substantial inclusive change is yet to materialize. It is 2021 and our collections, exhibitions and organizations still fail to reflect society in its true diversity, as a result of which many do not recognize themselves or feel at home in our institutions.”
31 A museum, exhibition space or institution of cultural heritage can be compared to the human body. If your attempts at addressing your lack of diversity and inclusion are limited to your personnel (“P”), the fruits of your efforts are likely to be limited to the organization’s fingers and toes, which would be your security staff, janitors, cleaners and so on. These days, employing a diversity and inclusion officer has become the standard way to indicate an organization’s woke credentials. I consider these officers the system’s pituitary gland, sending signals to the brain (read: management) which receives the messages and implements them in policy. But it’s time for the next step, in which diversity and inclusion are given a permanent spot in both head and heart, which is where policy and content direction are respectively determined.
32 Claire van Els (curator at the Stedelijk) and I put a lot of thought into drawing up a longlist quite early on in the process. Others at the Stedelijk then began whittling this down to the final shortlist, which was followed by negotiations with relevant lenders and a final decision by an internal acquisitions committee.
33 11.12.2020, NRC, Hans den Hartog Jager.
34 Fufuru means “theft” in Sranan Tongo.
35 I liken white privilege to a 100-meter dash. Whoever’s in the lead cannot possibly analyze or comment on the race, as they can’t see the other sprinters, either literally or figuratively. The only candidate with the authority to do so is whoever’s in last place, that person being the only one with a complete picture of the race for its duration. Whoever’s winning must accept this individual’s analysis, and, above all, listen carefully to what they say.
36 A display strategy is a plan of how the works in an exhibition are to be arranged for viewing.
37 Mother Earth is one of the most important gods within the Winti pantheon. Ogri ai is the “evil eye.” A yorka is the “soul” of a deceased person who has yet to make the transition to the realm of the ancestors.
38 On 26 July, 2021, a 14-year-old girl named Frédérique, from Amstelveen, was asked the same question by a boy hanging out on the street. When she replied, “What does it matter?” she was beaten up. News of the incident sparked national outrage.
39 I have always found the terms masculine and feminine to be deeply inadequate and harmful. We might perhaps be better off replacing them with something like hard and soft. Because my character may be soft, but I feel like a Cis man.
40 At the opening of the Surinamese School exhibition, Winti priestess Marian Markelo mentioned in passing that my research was actually a form of ancestor worship, as most of the artists represented were already dead. Her remark made a deep impression on me.
41 I shamelessly borrowed this idea from Cindy Kerseborn, who, out of similar necessity, rescued Caribbean writers such as Edgar Cairo and Astrid Roemer from oblivion.
42 (read: Dutch visual art world, museums and exhibition spaces)
43 On July 22, 2021, ᴐkomfo (Winti priestess) nana Efua Markelo and baba Kenneth Vers Babel (Afro theologian/spiritual counselor) signed the notarial deed of incorporation of the NIRASԐ National Winti Institute. NIRASԐ’s primary objective is to rehabilitate and repair the religion’s damaged reputation, which was deliberately ruined by the Christian Church and the Dutch colonial government. As the institute’s founders write in their press release, many Afro-Surinamese people remain unaware of the authenticity, healing power, depth and beauty of the spiritual insights of their African gran bigisma (ancestors).
44 That the Netherlands lags behind on this matter is of no surprise. Compared to other European nations and the United States, the Netherlands was also very late in abolishing the transatlantic slave trade, and one of the last European countries to abolish slavery altogether. The continued visceral reactions to any opposition to Black Pete and the exclusion of refugees (Black or otherwise) are symptoms of the same resistance to equality and of the hollow claims of “tolerance” that in practice often means indifference.
45 This is a reference to Suriname’s historical subjection to colonialism and enslavement, in which the search for the golden city of El Dorado (The Gilded) played a key role. The legendary city proved to be nothing but a myth.
46 These are the last lines of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, as translated by Zaire Krieger.