The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is one of the most important museums in Europe. Visitors from all over the world come to see The night watch by Rembrandt or The milkmaid by Vermeer. But for some time now the center and its works have also been the focus of attention for another reason. “We have many paintings of very important white gentlemen and ladies, flanked by some black kids. Before we ignored those young Africans. Now we study them,” says Valika Smeulders, director of the history department of the Dutch institution. She and she one of the curators of the high-impact exhibition they dedicated in 2021 to slavery. The expert spoke about all this last week at Pública 24, a meeting between cultural professionals organized in Madrid by the cultural company La Fábrica. And also about perhaps the most talked about topic in the art world at the moment: decolonization.
Smeulders herself acknowledges that she currently dedicates “a large part” of her work to these issues. She was born on the island of Curacao, in the Caribbean, but lives and works in Amsterdam. She has researched Caribbean heritage in her academic studies and has just collaborated in the return of a few pieces from the heart of Europe to Sri Lanka. That is to say, her own life and career move between the two nerve centers of the debate: former colony and former motherland, which allows her to have a more personal vision, but surely also complex and enriched.
“The colonial period began in the 17th century and the heart of our museum comes from there. In my homeland, or in Ghana, you see that it was not a time of calm and peace. We consider the Indian companies commercial operators, but their representatives carried weapons, it was not a consensual business. In the Netherlands you don’t see it until you start to know it, and then you detect the traces. When we looked at our collections from that angle, we saw that it was everywhere: the government, the economy…,” he points out. A thesis similar to that defended by the British professor Catherine Hall, who Smeulders cites as one of the most pioneering and influential voices in this field.
There are plenty of reasons why the director of the Rijksmuseum, Taco Dibbits, decided in 2017 to focus an exhibition on all of this. The issue is so extensive that it took four years to organize the exhibition, the creation of a think thank you and additions of new voices on the fly, like Smeulders herself. The expert highlights above all the very long previous conversation: after announcing the project, the museum received ideas, suggestions, and concerns from citizens. And, at the same time, she explained the paradigm shift to groups of her most traditional. Historians and sensitivities from both backgrounds came together. “We had to have deep academic knowledge. And the museum came into contact with new parts of the Netherlands that had not seen their history represented in our halls,” summarizes the scholar.
Once the framework was agreed upon, developing the content was just as complicated. Or more. The most incendiary opponents associate decolonization with the restitution of artistic treasures from the exploiting country to the exploited. This is, however, only one of the possibilities. The most striking, but also the least common and, in any case, the last.
It all starts, as Smeulders emphasizes, with information: “It has a lot to do with the narrative. That is why we tell the story of slavery through 10 characters, including enslavers, enslaved people and people who rose up against it. We wanted everyone to feel included and attendees to ask themselves: what would I have done if I had been born in one place, or another?” To do this, it made no sense to go only to Western documents, the history narrated by the victors. And, at the same time, Dutch law considered slaves “as objects,” without the right to read or write, according to Smeulders. Finally, they pursued their protagonists through the labyrinth of oral sources, such as songs passed from one generation to another, or even DNA searches.
The exhibition may have been a milestone in the artistic history of the Netherlands. Then, in December 2022, came the official apology from the then Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, for “the Netherlands’ slave past” in Suriname (South America) and the former Netherlands Antilles (in the Caribbean Sea), in a televised speech. where for the first time he officially defined these events as a “crime against humanity” and recognized that “it affects people here and now.” But the process, according to Smeulders, was forged long before. The scholar relates that since the beginning of the 21st century, activists “with roots in the old colonies” have put the debate on the table. Historians, researchers, artists, institutions joined. And, finally, even the Government. “Before we talked only about the glory of the nation, and it is only a small part of the story. You have to integrate the others. We have been detecting several aspects. Now we can draw a line between the points,” says the expert.
The process also includes another story, different, but similar: the artistic plundering of the Jews during the Second World War, which has already led to the first returns by the Netherlands to the legitimate owners. The Rijksmuseum has also been working in this direction for some time. And, since 2001, the Dutch State has had the advice of an independent committee for the restitution of works obtained during or as a result of the conflict that do not legitimately belong to it. In 2022, in addition, an identical body emerged for cases related to the colonial era.
Given several allusions to the heated debate that decolonization generates in Spain – the Minister of Culture, Ernest Urtasun, has expressed his support and some museums have already carried out actions in this regard, while the opposition and other experts consider that there is discrediting the national brand and that the debate even starts from a false premise, because they believe that Spain never had colonies—Smeulders avoids giving an opinion. And he prefers to recount what is happening in his country: “The owner of the Rijksmuseum collection is the State. But we take care of it, and we investigate it. We need to know more, and we couldn’t do it alone. We contacted the countries that could claim some objects and their experts. It is the beginning of something that is getting bigger and bigger. The display case where the pieces that we have returned to Sri Lanka were still tells our common story, but with other works.”
For Smeulders, in short, a deep, inclusive and difficult conversation is needed. “It is not resolved overnight. In Dutch they say ‘there is no shine without friction,’ he smiles. And he points out the importance of questioning the perspective that she has always dominated: “The role of the commissioner is changing, it now includes more searching. When we make an exhibition, we want to investigate from scratch and achieve the maximum possible knowledge. Pay more attention to what the artists also did; in rural areas, instead of just looking at big cities… Museums should tell the story of everyone, not just 10 people.” Among other things, because they are always the same.
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