Museums as Sites of Struggle

The exhibition 'Goede Hoop: South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600,' in Amsterdam, is like making your way through a hall of mirrors.

Image: Greer Valley.

The exhibition “Goede Hoop: South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600“, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (February 17 to  May 21) may be over but is sure to carry long-lasting effects. The curatorial statement described this exhibition as intending to explore “what took place between 1652, when Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape, and (Nelson) Mandela’s visit to Amsterdam in 1990.” Framed by the museum as a critical showing of the “relationship” between South Africa and the Netherlands, the museum’s promo video made it seem that the curatorial team had set out to expose the colonial dirty laundry of the Netherlands and the crimes of their “distant cousins,” the Boers or Afrikaners, some of who are descendants of Dutch colonial settlers.

My interest in this exhibition is two-fold. First, the Western Cape province, where my family is from, was once a Dutch colony named Kaap De Goede Hoop (Cape of Good Hope). The colony, founded in 1652, existed until 1806 when the British took control. The colony’s economic base was built on slavery. In the surnames that form part of my family tree and the language spoken by my parents, Afrikaans, there are traces of this history. I am currently working on a Ph.D. proposal focused on how European museums and curators approach colonialism, decolonization and coloniality. As a black South African woman, it is important to me that I also come to terms with the fact that part of this bloody, violent collective history is entangled with my personal history and parts of my identity.

Walking through the exhibition was like making my way through a hall of mirrors: what’s reflected feels familiar but the image has been distorted and obscured. At the entrance to the exhibition is a panel titled “Thanks and Acknowledgements.” Under “Curators” I expected to see some collaboration with South African curators, artists, scholars, or researchers, but there are none.  Surely an exhibition looking at contemporary South Africa would involve at least one South African curator. Who is telling the story is as important as what story is being told and the omission of South African voices at the onset is deeply problematic. From this point onwards I become conscious that in this exhibition my voice doesn’t matter and that perhaps this exhibition is not for me at all.

The first room is supposed to speak of the indigenous people of the region of what is now the Western Cape. No mention is made of the hunter-gatherer San societies that were exterminated by the impact of the arrival of the Dutch East India Company founded in 1602 to coordinate the Dutch trade and colonial expeditions to the East Indies. Similarly, there is no mention of the Dutch pastoralists’ murderous land-grabbing and ecologically damaging farming practices.

Another area of focus is the “Genesis of the Afrikaaner or Afrikander,” which doesn’t explain the historic complexity of the terms Afrikander or Afrikaaner (original spelling), but reinforces narrow understandings of who this group of people is and their history. What complicates the idea of the Afrikaner as “white” and “European” and troubles notions of racial purity which led to the Apartheid system is that the first people who identified as Afrikanders, were African or of both African and European descent. Klaas Afrikaner and his son Jager Afrikaner were members of the Orlang community that formed part of the broader Khoi Khoi society. In the mid-19th century, emancipated slaves, and slaves born in the Cape Colony were known as Afrikaners (how it is spelled now), whereas the settlers of Dutch descent referred to themselves as “Boere,” “Christene” and “Nederlanders.”

The narrative jumps between periods and centuries and as a result, I feel like I must have missed something. Who were the enslaved? How did they get to the Cape? Why are they portrayed as subjects without agency: voiceless, silent and other? This is another missed opportunity to explore how slavery and slave history shaped present-day South Africa and how the psyche of the Western Cape in particular is still deeply rooted in the relations between master and slave.

The “Influence of Islam” display reads as an unimpressive footnote, especially since it had such a massive impact on Cape society and connects Cape Town to the Indonesian Archipelago (another Dutch colony) as well as to Madagascar and southeast Africa (present-day Mozambique). The earliest Afrikaans text was a Qur’an written in Arabic Afrikaans script, and research into the work of the historian Achmat Davids and his archive would have provided a great deal of material for the exhibition. (For more on this, see an article I co-wrote with my brother, Dylan Valley, in 2009.)

A few days before I left Amsterdam, the Dutch activist Marjan Boelsma (she had been involved in the Dutch anti-Apartheid movement) wrote an open letter to the Chair of the Rijksmuseum (posted on Facebook) which critiqued the exhibition as a “missed chance.” The letter was signed by numerous activists, scholars, artists and curators. They charged that the exhibition plays down the Netherlands’ role in colonialism in South Africa, excluded black South African curators, and relied on Eurocentric archival documents, among others.

It didn’t help that a few weeks after the exhibition opened, Helen Zille, who is white and a leader of the second-largest political party in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance, tweeted her appreciation for colonialism’s supposed positive legacy. Zille is the premier of the Western Cape, which has a violent history of slavery and colonialism. Random, often fatal, violence against black South Africans, especially in small farming towns and communities outside of major urban centers, also proves that relatively little has shifted regarding the colonial power relationships between the white and black populations of the country.

Others critical of this exhibition have already commented on its problematic use of language, both in the Dutch text and its translation into English. What I found particularly bizarre was the use of the word “hotchpotch” (possibly as a stand-in for the less desirable miscegenation?) which trivializes experiences of violence, erasure and centuries of oppression. Terms like “savage warrior” are also not problematized and unpacked critically.

In another room, there is a large display of what can only be described as ethnographic caricatures of South African people by Dutch “explorer,” Robert Jacob Gordon. This display is arranged from the perspective of the colonial gaze – colonialists living in Cape Town in the 18th and 19th centuries. The label accompanying these caricatures suggests that the Dutch treated slaves badly, but we see no visual evidence of this. And did I miss the significance of Jan Van Riebeeck as a symbolic figure used by the nationalist, Apartheid government? Surely this is important to show because it was fundamental in historicizing Afrikaner nationalism and its claim to a European identity.

The next display, “1806: British Empire Annexes the Cape” fast-forwards to the British Invasion of the Cape. Subsequently, we arrive at the Anglo Boer war. A label describes the Dutch calls to support their “distant cousins”, the Boers. The exhibition then briefly mentions Afrikaner support for Nazi’s during the Second World War and that some Dutch Nazis moved to South Africa after the war. At this point, I notice the landscape paintings on display by the white South African artist Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, who was heavily influenced by Afrikaner nationalism and its desire to carve out a unique identity following the Anglo-Boer War. Pierneef’s work has been widely critiqued for depicting empty landscapes void of indigenous South African homesteads or life outside of that of the Afrikaner.

The visitor is then catapulted into the anti-Apartheid movement and struggle, highlighting Dutch support for the end to Apartheid. In this room, Nelson Mandela is deified as the representative of both struggle and freedom and, most importantly, reconciliation. What’s unsaid, is how Apartheid rule (1948-1994) allowed the Netherlands a pass to ignore its colonial past. The exhibition flirts with the attempt to acknowledge that some of the deep-seated socio-economic political issues we are dealing with in South Africa in the present have something to do with the lingering effects of Dutch colonization. But the argument made is rather muddy and instead, the Rijksmuseum presents a simplistic and palatable exhibition for Dutch (and other western audiences).

Although these national European exhibitions on colonialism can be read as an attempt at symbolic reparations to educate these former empires’ public on colonialism, the exhibitions themselves often fail to do this by resorting to tropes of indigenous peoples. They reinforce skewed power relations through curatorial practices that erase or omit local voices. For example, no young black artists are included in the “contemporary art” display supposed to represent the future generation of South Africans. Instead, here we see the works of white South African photographer Pieter Hugo and South African-born Dutch painter Marlene Dumas.

This exhibition proves once again that as Africans, we need to take charge of how our history is represented and set the historical record straight.

This is a site of struggle in itself.

Further Reading