Who profits from the production of blackface? Africa is A Country, October 2014 by Chandra Frank

That time of the year is coming up again and the contested Dutch blackface figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is still with us. Some tried to turn blackface into brownface (only in the Netherlands) while others are still trying to convince us that Black Pete sets a fine example for black people. In any case, anti-blackface protestors have not been silent.

Recently, anti-blackface campaigners have again drawn attention to the economic dimension of blackface. It is quite apparent that the Dutch state and its economy are profiting generously from their annual blackface partay. The Dutch spend more on the Sinterklaas celebration than on any other public holiday – think presents, but also lots of Sinterklaas related stuff from toys, candy, and chocolates to wrapping paper. It comes to no surprise then that campaigners are critically examining who exactly is profiting from the production of blackface.

The idea that blackface is not only produced, but also very much consumed goes back a long while. Blackface has a long trajectory of entertainment. The consumerist notion of blackface has led to a situation in which the use of blackface has become normalized. In the same vein, using caricatures and stereotypes of black people in the design of, for instance, children’s toys is also common practice. The act of consuming blackface has now become a disposable act, unrelated to any political issue and completely emptied out of its historical context. This also, partly, explains the huge outrage (and all the tears) that anti-blackface campaigners are faced with; they are disturbing the natural order of things (blackface). As many have argued before me, the dehumanization of black people has become ingrained in the fabric of our societies.

Read more here: http://africasacountry.com/2014/10/who-profits-from-the-production-of-blackface/


Mixed race kids a new phenomenon in the Netherlands? We think not. Written with Mieke Weisman, Africa is A Country, June 2014 by Chandra Frank

This week cultural centre de Balie in Amsterdam will be hosting an event titled ‘LovingDay.nl: (In)visibly Mixed’ on “mixed race” families and relationships (BTW, the Netherlands uncritically accepts this terminology, along with the assumption that certain people are “pure” and others are “mixed”, thereby reifying 19th century race theories).Loving Day takes the end of anti-miscegenation laws in America in 1967 as its starting point to celebrate the growing number of mixed couples and children in the Netherlands. Mixed children are a growing phenomenon in the Netherlands (up from 30% to 37% from 2007 in Amsterdam) but oddly, the program claims, this growth is not visible in Dutch policy or imaging of the Dutch identity.

Being designated as “mixed race” ourselves, we don’t deny that there’s a lot to talk about, but we were mildly surprised to see that this program completely ignores the historical and socio-economical context of mixed race identities within Dutch colonial history. We say mildly, because it wouldn’t be the first time the Dutch conveniently forgot about their colonial adventures. There were clear strategies to instill and secure Dutch “purity” and a cultural sense of belonging in both South Africa and Indonesia. But of course, there were those “Others” that produced in both former colonies. Indos (people of mixed Indonesian European descent) have existed within the former Dutch-East Indies (and thus the Netherlands) for over 300 years, and the same can be said about the Coloured community in South Africa. Let’s not forget that there were and has been strong Dutch policy surrounding and creating these “mixed” identities beginning with the colonial period and existing well into the present.

Read more here: http://africasacountry.com/2014/06/mixed-race-kids-a-new-phenomenon-in-the-netherlands-we-think-not/


Hiding in plain view: Dealing with the legacies of Dutch slavery, Africa is A Country, August 2013 by Chandra Frank

One of the efforts to mark the occasion is ‘The Next Step,” a master class for upcoming films talents and a program for high school kids by Africa in the Picture, an African Film Festival based in the Netherlands. The central question of the ‘The Next Step’ program is: ‘What does slavery mean to you, anything or nothing?’

Young filmmakers and high school students are challenged to make a 150 second film related to this question.While the legacy of slavery should mean something to everyone in the Netherlands, due to the lack of education on slavery, the politics around the commemoration of the abolishment of slavery and the silence of families that became wealthy through the slave trade means that many believe that slavery was really just a ‘black page in history.’ This phrase is frequently used by the Dutch to discuss the legacy of slavery. This is not only a false representation of history but also insulting given that the legacies of slavery are so present today – hiding in plain view.

An additional educational program on slavery is much needed and one hopes many young filmmakers and high schools will start thinking about the legacies of slavery and the role of the Dutch in this history. I say this especially because I have very little faith in the actual Dutch educational system to teach children about slavery. Being schooled in the Netherlands myself, I did not learn about slavery in school until my parents told me about it.

Melissa Weiner, an American sociologist, has done some outstanding and much needed research in this regard. She has studied depictions of slavery and multiculturalism in Dutch primary school history textbooks and norms and practices privileging whiteness in a diverse Dutch primary school classroom. Weiner’s findings, which will be published soon, are quite telling of the Dutch attitude towards the legacy of slavery. This attitude is a mix of denial, ignorance, (supposed) innocence, and misplaced entitlement. Resistance to the dominant Dutch historic narrative is often met with aggression, marginalization and disdain. People that do question the dominant narrative — from activists to scholars — are often subjected to some fine Dutch repression, not only in everyday life but also institutionally. Try get funding as a scholar to research racism in the Netherlands or set up black, postcolonial, “critical race” or any critical studies departments in this country – it will never happen.

Read more here: http://africasacountry.com/2013/08/hiding-in-plain-view-dealing-with-the-legacies-of-dutch-slavery/

The trouble with the official Dutch commemoration of the abolition of slavery, Africa is A Country, March 2013 by Chandra Frank

On the first of July this year the Netherlands are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery in their former colonies Suriname and their dependencies: the Dutch Antilles. The mayor of Amsterdam considered it a good time for a celebration. So he decided to think big and invited the US First Lady Michelle Obama, writers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and former black panther activist Angela Davis. However, looking at the politics around slavery and its commemoration, one may wonder whether we should cheer for this step taken or if we should question why exactly these African American speakers are invited. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to see these admirable women in Amsterdam, but where are the prominent speakers from our communities?

The Dutch politics around slavery and its commemoration are rather sketchy. For one, the country’s only research institute based in Amsterdam, the Nederlands Instituut voor Slavernijverleden (Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy — also known as the NiNsee), has experienced heavy budget cuts last year and was not able to carry out its main activities any longer. Luckily the local government came to the rescue and ensured funding until the end of this year. The timing is — and I am putting it mildly — unfortunate as, again, 2013 marks the 150-year commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. Dr. Artwell Cain, former director of the NiNsee, explained to me that the institute has been silenced through this move. Dr. Cain identifies a strong political trend in the Netherlands that seeks to regulate what is being said about slavery and by whom and sees the heavy cuts as a testament to this claim.

The Dutch government formally abolished slavery in the Dutch colonies, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles, on the 1st of July 1863. This day is widely known as Keti Koti, which means “breaking the chains” in the Surinamese language. Every year the NiNsee co-organises the so-called Keti Koti festival.

But through inviting prominent guests such as Michelle Obama to speak on slavery, the Dutch continue to distance themselves from their own history in which slavery played an important role. The ‘Golden Age’ and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) are glorified in the dominant historical narratives, TV shows and museums, hardly ever mentioning one word about slavery.

The legacies of slavery and the commemoration processes in the US cannot be compared to those of the Netherlands; yet through inviting these speakers it seems that a connection is being made.

Until recently slavery was not even included in the national historical canon and you would be lucky to learn anything about it in school. The NiNsee in collaboration with other schools contributed two chapters to the official historical canon, which they hope will be incorporated in the curriculum soon. It should be noted here too that slavery and its history are often only connected to Suriname and the Dutch Antilles but — as I mentioned in a previous post on the history of African Art in the Netherlands — people seem to forget that the Dutch were also rather active in Ghana and South Africa back in the day. The Cape Settlement in which the VOC played a major role is still often perceived as a mere pit stop.

Luckily we now also have an alternative and historical Black Heritage Tour in Amsterdam that teaches us about the contributions of the African Diaspora to Dutch society, dating back from the 16th century to the present. Historian Sandew Hira has heavily criticized the knowledge production around slavery in the Netherlands because of its ‘Eurocentric perspective’. In the Netherlands, we never seem to focus solely on the history of Dutch slavery. Popular culture, debates, plays and manifestations continuously connect Dutch slavery history to modern slavery and by doing so the actual history — which we know so little about — is being dismissed. For instance, Hira criticized a Dutch TV series called ‘De Slavernij’ (The Slavery) because by linking Dutch slavery to modern slavery in general it made two mistakes. First, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was sanctioned by states and not by private entities. And second, modern slavery today is not the foundation of rising world economies.

The question of a formal apology and reparations for slavery remain contested issues here. Many wonder whether the government does not offer an official apology because of the possibility of subsequent legal implications — but this is not the case.

Some also perceive it as problematic that the Surinamese government is not welcome to the commemoration. The Dutch government does not approve of Suriname’s democratically elected president Desi Bouterse, who is a former military ruler and has been accused of killing 15 top opponents of his military government in the 1980s. And on top of that he has been sentenced in absentia to 11 years for being complicit in smuggling cocaine to the Netherlands. Although Europol has issued an international warrant, being head of State, Bouterse enjoys immunity and has not been arrested.

It is clear that slavery, its legacy and its commemoration are not high on the public agenda. Dutch-Caribbean cultural critic Egbert Alejandro Martina shared his views with me as he is not impressed by the commemoration events, or the lack thereof, organized by the Dutch government. “There are very few events taking place, and most of them, likethe one in Rotterdam, seem haphazard and ill advised. What is more, this year also marks the 200-year anniversary of the Dutch Kingdom — and the events planned to celebrate this occasion have already eclipsed the commemoration events in honor of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch West Indies (Suriname and the Caribbean islands were part of this). Perhaps I am being overly cynical, but I think that there’s so little being done because there’s nothing to gain, nothing to feel good about, for the dominant culture.”

The main problem seems to be that we are not sure what exactly we are remembering or forgetting on the 1st of July. There is a strong focus on the abolition but we seem to know very little about what actually happened before, during and after that. Martina reminds us of the history lessons we never got when he questions why slavery was abolished in the Dutch West Indies 3,5 years later than in the Dutch East Indies (what is now Indonesia). “Slavery in the Dutch West Indian colonies was abolished simply because it was not profitable to continue it.” Since the abolition had nothing to do with nations and slave owners ‘feeling guilty’, Martina stresses the importance of commemorating ancestors. “Abolition did not restore our, nor grant us, humanity. Our ancestors had to work for another 10 years — for free — under some bogus apprenticeship. We had to fight for our humanity.”

The politics of selling African art, Africa is A Country, February 2013 by Chandra Frank

The proposed sale of the Africa Collection at The World Museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands has sparked some interesting debates in Dutch media lately. Unfortunately some important questions and issues around this sale are not being discussed. Since the Dutch government is cutting the arts and the culture budget heavily, the museum has planned to sell the Africa collection to private collectors and to focus solely on Asia and Oceania in the future. Through the sale the museum hopes to generate a small sum of 60 million euro and be independent from government subsidies. The Netherlands seems to be the only country in the world that has capitalised heritage through proposing such a sale.

African museums, Dutch ethnology museums and the Dutch Cultural Council have been strongly opposed to the proposed sale. The Dutch newspaper NRC reported that director Stanley Bremner is tired of all the (international) critique: “The Netherlands is obviously not ready yet for this modern form of museum management.” Contradicting messages on the proposed sale reached the Dutch media. At first it seemed like the municipality would agree with the sale but only a few days later the municipality, who owns the collection, decided to postpone its final decision. The municipality will discuss how to handle the advise from the Dutch Cultural Council, who has advised that a Dutch core collection should be established. It is not clear if the Africa collection would fall under this new core collection but if it would, the collection would be protected.

Dutch ethnological museums such as the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and The National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden do not appreciate Mr. Bremner’s modern form of museum management because the collection would disappear in the hands of private collectors. Instead the museums find that the collection should be protected as Dutch cultural heritage. Other reasons why critics believe the collection should not be sold relate to history of the Dutch in Africa. Experts state that the objects bear witness to the history of the so-called ‘expansion of Dutch activities’ in Africa. Most of this ‘Dutch activity’ in Africa was concentrated in three regions: Ghana, South Africa and Congo. These ‘activities’ undertaken by the Dutch inform, alongside with some Christian converting practices, the meaning and history of the Africa collection. For instance, the relationship between Ghana and the Netherlands goes back for around 400 years: during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Dutch had captured Elmina from the Portuguese on the Gold Coast in Ghana, which became the Dutch headquarters for slave trade until the British seized it.

The World Museum’s collection consists of around 10,000 objects from, amongst others, West-Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Congo. They were given to the museum at the end of the nineteenth century. The museum started to collect its own art objects afterwards. The proposed sale of the Africa collection is to be understood within the historic context of ethnological European museums. This history is grounded in the practices and disciplines of colonial ethnology and anthropology. Colonial ethnology produced certain racial images around Africa that are still visible in the mainstream western imaginary of Africa today. The representation of Africa within the ethnological museum was highly influenced by these imaginaries and stereotypes of the ‘African’.

Due to an increasingly multicultural society in the Netherlands, ethnology museums were forced to change the way they represent ‘other’ cultures. The previous (historical) ‘other’ that has been on display in the museum space is now attracted to come visit the museum. This impelled ethnological museums to think about the concept of heritage. For instance, the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden has initiated a project that dealt with the changing role of the ethnological museum in a changing society. This project was relatively successful because it critically engaged with questions of ‘culture’, ‘ethnicity’ and representation in the museum space but there’s no way of denying that the National Museum of Ethnology still largely adheres to the practice of displaying neo-traditional aspects of material culture. The idea of heritage has always been existent before but the raison d’êtrefor museums changed. The heritage discourse in the Netherlands is to a great extent governed by policies, rules and regulations. However, heritage is also strongly related to remembering, commemorating and forgetting sites and events in history, which can be viewed as cultural process. The Africa collection is not only cultural heritage because of its material aspects but also because of the history around the collection. The role of the Netherlands in the time of slavery and colonialism and the legacies thereof form and shape the importance of the Africa collection.

The Netherlands seems to suffer from collective historical amnesia with regard to its role during slavery and colonialism in Africa. Or perhaps we should call it aphasia for describing metaphorically the cultural “inability to recognize things in the world and assign proper names to them,” a concept that American historian Ann Laura Stoler has introduced with regard to colonial histories in Western societies. In the debates around the proposed sale the colonial history of the Dutch is hardly mentioned. Experts are interested in what the art objects could tell about the relations between the Dutch tradesmen and Africans but not in placing this within a colonial historic framework that would actually make a contribution to Dutch history.

This history, the intangible nature of the collection, is what African museums are concerned about. Dutch ethnological museums do not refer to this history but to the obligation to protect Dutch cultural heritage. Rudo Sithole, director of — yes — “AFRICOM,” the International Council of African Museums, has indicated that African museums must have a role in the sale especially because it is not clear which objects have been stolen or rightfully bought or donated. Last year, Mr. Bremner stated that African museums would never be able to buy the collection and that the climate in Africa would not be appropriate for African art objects. The World Museum has not consulted the African museums.

The Africa collection is seen and treated by the Wereld Museum as a commodity that is detached from its historical context. In a country where Sinterklaas is seen as an important cultural event that deserves to be protected as cultural heritage (the problematic figure of Black Pete magically disappeared in the request put forward to UNESCO), where the research and commemoration of slavery in the Netherlands has experienced an ultimate low through the closing down of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (more about this in a future post), and in the light of the commemoration of 150 years of the Dutch slavery abolition this year, one would expect museums like the World Museum to start dealing with their historic legacies instead of selling them off.