Period: 2019-02-15 – 2019-06-30
Location: Centraal Museum, Utrecht
The exhibition MOED: What is Left Unseen was on show in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht in the spring of 2019. The exhibition, curated by MOED’s research team in collaboration with the Centraal Museum, aimed to reveal how processes of inclusion and exclusion influence the practices of exhibiting and collecting of art in museum collections. By placing a selection of artworks of the permanent collection of the Centraal Museum collection in dialogue with a number of loans, the exhibition created a new perspective on the traditional and dominant narratives around slavery and Christianity. This new presentation of the museum’s collection showed how the collection can be opened up to a plurality of perspectives, backgrounds and voices. By doing so, MOED: What is Left Unseen created a different genealogy on how the Dutch colonial past works through in the perception of the present and future. The exhibition stimulated visitors to critically engage with implicit power structures and singular perspectives by asking questions as: do you feel implicated in the stories being told? What is told, by whom and why? And, what perspectives are, as a consequence, (un)intentionally rendered invisible?
Museums have, whether intentionally or unintentionally, contributed to the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. MOED: What is Left Unseen aimed to expose these mechanisms by problematizing the often taken for granted art historical canon by questioning the traditions of collecting and asking questions about how and why the collection has been built up the way it is. Divided over two rooms and a reading room, MOED: What is Left Unseen demonstrated how history is often presented from a singular perspective, namely the perspective of the white male saviour: the benevolent man who wants the best for the world and who represents the law. He is the person who determines what is important and best to whom. By continuously repeating this perspective, other experiences, desires and insights are automatically obfuscated, left out or erased.
From left to right: Nicolaas Beets’ desk, his bust by Frans Stracké jr. (1884), and his portrait by Thérèse Schwartze (1881), followed by Patricia Kearsenhout’s ‘Proud Rebels (Philomena Essed)’ and ‘Proud Rebels (Gloria Wekker)’, 2015. In the middle of the room: the novel ‘Camera Obscura’ written by Beets/Hildebrand. © Centraal Museum, Utrecht / Ernst Moritz.
The Centraal Museum owns a number of artefacts referring to the history of Nicolaas Beets (1814-1903), a white Utrecht-based writer (known as Hildebrand), professor, theologist and abolitionist. In the exhibition his story, that fits easily in the narrative of the white male saviour, was placed in a transnational context of Black resistance. This formed the starting point of a visualization of a genealogy starting with the abolition movement and linking it to the struggle of anti-racism and Black knowledge development in the Netherlands. Thérèse Schwartze’s portrait of Beets, his bust and his desk were placed in dialogue with Iris Kensmil’s portrait (2019) of Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883). Truth was a former enslaved woman, an outspoken abolitionist and an advocate for women’s rights. Both Beets and Truth were connected to the National Freedman’s Relief Association. Truth is considered to be the foremother of intersectionality and has inspired Dutch Black feminist academics such as Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed to continue her work around the entanglements of race and gender in the past and present. Like Beets, both Wekker and Essed are affiliated as professors to Utrecht University. Wekker and Essed are featured in Patricia Kaersenhout’s series Proud Rebels (2015), works that concluded this part of the exhibition. The presence of contemporary Black female academics in the exhibition highlights and archives the importance of the continuation of the work of Truth and Beets. Thus, instead of telling the story of Nicolaas Beets from the perspective of the white male saviour who, as an autonomous acting individual, saves the world, the exhibition emphasized the entanglement of his work with three prominent Black women freedom fighters and situates them all in a shared history of female, male, white and Black intellectuals and activists.
Left: Faisal Abdu’Allah, ‘The Last Supper 1&2’, 2003. Centre: Jan van Bijlert, ‘Johannes de Evangelist’, 1625-1630. Right: Rotimi Fani-Kayode, ‘Every Moment Counts’ (Ecstatic Antibodie, 1989. © Centraal Museum, Utrecht / Ernst Moritz.
In the second room, MOED elaborated on the narrative of the white male saviour by asking the question of what it means to imagine a Christianity that is not exclusively characterized by whiteness. Nola Hatterman’s Pieta (1949), part of the museum’s permanent collection, formed the starting point of the room. The painting depicts the body of a Black Jesus, surrounded by believers lamenting his death. The painting unsettled Eurocentric ways of seeing premised on a racial identification with Christianity as white. This problematization was continued by including Samuel Aranda’s winning World Press Photo from 2011, dubbed Muslim Pieta by the media. The works of the two contemporary Black British Artists, Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989) and Faisal Abdu’Allah (1969-), delinked Christianity even more from whiteness. Through the combination of these works, the room visualized the entanglements of race, religion, empathy and compassion, and the set up showed how tightly the visual repertoire of Christianity is linked to whiteness and what this means for mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion.
Left: Rotimi Fani- Kayode, ‘Adebiyi’, 1989. Right: the exhibition ‘Act II, 12 Portraits’ by Joyce Vlaming. © Centraal Museum, Utrecht / Ernst Moritz.
Curation and research: Rosemarie Buikema, Layal Ftouni, Nancy Jouwe, Rolando Vázquez, Rosa Wevers and Centraal Museum
Interns: Elena Ascione, Astrid Kerchman and Núria Roca
Artists: Faisal Abdu’Allah, Samuel Aranda, Jan van Bijlert, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Nola Hatterman, Patricia Kaersenhout, Iris Kensmil, Steve McQueen, Ary Scheffer, Thérèse Schwartze and Frans Stracké Jr.